Sunday, August 23, 2015

My Log 484 August 22 2015: A tune playing in my head this week recalls my very first months in Canada, 60 years ago, and some very strange experiences

Indian Tepee, Kenora, Ontario.
Indian Tepee, Kenora, Ontario. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Quay of Kenora, Ontario.
Quay of Kenora, Ontario. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Main street in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, Canada
Main street in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Map of Ontario, Canada, showing city of Kenora.
Map of Ontario, Canada, showing city of Kenora. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Unchained Melody
Unchained Melody (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The other day I noticed I was unconsciously humming in my head a dreadful tune called Unchained Melody.  That really took me back, with a wrench, to my first days in Canada.
I arrived in September 1954, just over four years after my wife and I left our native country, New Zealand, with the objective of taking a little look at the world, and maybe doing something to improve it.  We had lived and worked briefly in Australia, India, England and Scotland before deciding to make our way home through Canada. Of all the countries we had lived in, in any of which, as Commonwealth citizens, we could have stayed for the rest of our lives, Canada was the first to require any immigration procedure.
We had no trouble being accepted since we conformed with what were the basic requirements in those days: we were white, of good health, employable and had $50 between us.
After a couple of weeks in Toronto looking for a job as a journalist (“no, you have no Canadian experience”) I was finally offered a job by the execrable Thomson Newspapers  in their execrable  Northern Daily News, in Kirkland Lake, just across the border from Rouyn in Quebec. It says something about what you could buy with a Canadian dollar in those days that after paying for a month’s rent on a small apartment, we had $11 left, and the prospect of earning $45 a week in future. The fact was, Thomsons would give a job to anybody who was willing to take the money. Everything was run from the Toronto offie, and for the first time I found myself working for an organization whose hatred of unions was so intense that they had invented a mechanical system of putting the news on to teletype machines so that they wouldn't have to hire actual printers. Our team of journalists who had ended up there was varied and interesting. Under two people who were loyal long-term employees of the company (one of them a recovering drunk), we had an Englishman who was a descendant of William Wordsworth and a typical upper-crust British character, educated in the best private schools,  a Jamaican who kept his house at 85 degrees all winter long, a South African refugee from apartheid who was married to a New Zealand girl, and the photographer was a Latvian who later became famous in Canada for his many books about the life of the Inuit, Fred Breummer. Fred, incidentally, was one of the two people on that makeshift, peripatetic journalistic staff who was eventually awarded the Order of Canada.
It was not a particularly rewarding job for any journalist, and after three months I had put together enough money to enable us to travel across to the other side of Ontario, to Kenora, where my wife had obtained a teaching job with the nearby Rabbit Lake school district, who were ready to pay her $1,500 for a year’s work. Meantime I sat down to write the great New Zealand novel as we confronted our first Canadian winter. This provided us with some very surprising experiences. For example, as I sat looking out from the house I rented on the edge of the Lake of The Woods (a lake unimaginably huge by New Zealand standards, with 14,522 islands dotted around in it), I began to see huge trucks running over the lake, borne by what must have been immensely thick ice, an event that I would never in my previous life have even thought was remotely possible. People kept coming in from across the lake on those whirlygig machines (the name of which I have forgotten, but they are now referred to as flat-bottomed airboats), propelled by a noisy  propeller, which could carry the vehicle over snow, ice or water.
Another experience we had never had before occurred every Saturday morning after we had bought two large paper bags full of groceries which we had to carry home around the lakeshore, at the end of which we always had icicles growing out of our noses.
It was in Kenora that I first made the acquaintance of the most popular hit of the moment, a dreadful song called Unchained Melody, which the local Kradio station kept playing repeatedly, to the point that it seemed to be playing every time I turned on the radio. I remember the name of the disc jockey, Jim Kidd, and I had several fruitless  conversations with him each time I phoned to complain about their obsession with this one song. I had never before struck this North American phenomenon, the hit parade, and had no conception that the most popular radio stations of the day were more than ready to keep repeating the same half dozen tunes throughout the day.
I have never forgotten Kenora, however, and especially I have never forgotten the little Swedish man from whom I rented the house by the lake. I was standing at a bus stop on my return from looking at possible houses to rent when this little man came up and started talking to me. When I said I was looking for a place to live, he said, “Maybe you would like my house,” and he took me to look at it immediately, offered it to me for a very reasonable price, and then he went back up the lake, where he lived and worked as a trader with the local Indians. He was an amazing little man. According to his daughter (a rather severe, religiously-inclined woman), who lived in the next door house, he would “give the shirt off his back to any Indian,” and that might well have been true. What I did discover of him that was astonishing, however, was that he would take a bottle of Scotch up the lake with him, and bring it back when he next came to town three months later. However, while in town, he would go on a bender of such wholesome intensity that after a few days his wife and family would have to put out a search party for him. They always found him, usually in the street, drunk as a lord, and took him home to clean him up for his return uplake. Years later, when I returned to Kenora and was in contact with the local Ojibways, I discovered that quite a few of the local status Indians bore his name.
I quit Kenora after six months, abandoned my novel-writing career, and took a job offered to me in the Winnipeg Free Press.
But one thing I would never have expected from my experiences in Kenora was that  more than half a century later the accursed Unchained Melody would be considered a sort of undying popular music classic. Shows how much I know!

Monday, August 3, 2015

My Log 483 August 3 2015: Article in today’s Guardian of London highlights continuing theft of indigenous British Columbia lands through crooked government deals

In 1906, Joe Capilano traveled with Cowichan C...
In 1906, Joe Capilano traveled with Cowichan Chief Charley Isipaymilt and Secwepemc Chief Basil David to London to seek an audience with King Edward VII. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sun Peaks, British Columbia
Sun Peaks, British Columbia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I see today that the grievances of the Secwepemc people of British Columbia, known to non-natives as the Shushwap, have been brought to the notice of an international audience by means of an article published in The Guardian newspaper and online web site Guardian Unlimited.
The article is written by someone with the unlikely sounding name of Julian Brave Noise Cat. But though his name may sound bizarre, the burden of his article is deadly serious, and reveals details of the behaviour of Canadian governments that should be, but I fear is not, known to every Canadian.
The article says that “there are 64 First Nations in the midst of a treaty process aimed at extinguishing all present and future Native claims to land. I’m a member of the Tsq’escenemc, or People of Broken Rock, one of 17 bands of the 10,000-strong Secwepemc Nation, and one of four Northern Secwepemc bands currently negotiating our own treaty with the federal government.”
The negotiation the writer speaks of covers a relatively small area of land, 170,000 acres that is part of the vast Secwepemc territory of 180,000 square kilos in the interior of British Columbia, almost a fifth of the province, against which no treaties have ever been recorded.
Julian Brave Noise Cat says they have been offered $37.5 million US in exchange for an end to all claims covering nearly 14 million acres of their traditional territories. “To put this into perspective,’ he writes, “ the treaty returns just a hair over 1% of our land and pays $2.74 per acres for the rest. This is a deal sadly reminiscent of the 47 cents an acre offered to California Indians in 1963.”
But it is being offered at a time when British Columbia farmland costs $448,510 an acre, down to about $777 an acre for bare land in the north of the province. “There is no corner of British Columbia where land sells for $2.74 an acre,” he writes.
These are not new facts, of course. A few years ago I followed with intense interest the effort of a band in this area to oppose the expansion of a Japanese-owned tourist and ski resort called Sun Peaks.  Members of this band repeatedly put themselves on the line, were repeatedly arrested, their hastily-built shacks by which they tried to impose their presence destroyed by police, and were jailed and prosecuted for trespassing on their own land. So far, British Columbia government has stuck to its position that the land is Crown land which they are free to lease to whomsoever they may wish, a rather strange situation in which a Canadian government becomes the spokesperson and supporter of a Japanese company in an argument with indigenous Canadians who have lived in the area for 10,000 years.
A vote by the four Sepwepemc bands involved in the negotiation described in the Guardian is to be held in October. But the writer of the article has retained a kicker with which he ends his melancholy story: and that is that in the very process of negotiating this “deal” his people have undertaken  debts estimated at $16.9 million that will come out of their final settlement.
This is justice?
Well, it is the way Canadian governments have been picking off indigenous people across the country, paying them sums of money in return for control of miniscule parcels of land, against which they have to extinguish all the rights that are promised to them in the Canadian Constitution, negotiated in 1982.
It is not that these people are poorly educated in matters relating to their land, or unaware of the wider world.  In fact, they have been fighting against the European/Canadian invasion of their lands since the first settlers arrived among them. I went to a brilliant Web site (, entitled First Nations and Environmentalism in British Columbia, in which it is recalled that in 1906 one of their chiefs “made the arduous journey” to London to assert their land rights before King Edward; how in 1914 another chief Louis (in their own language XlExlexkEn) testified before the McKenna McBride Commission of inquiry in Ottawa, and yet another in 1916 jojned a delegation to Ottawa to protest against the punitive policies of the government. But that wasn’t all: the protests continued and gave rise to one of the most significant indigenous leaders of modern times, George Manuel, Chief of the Neskonlith band, who became president of the Union of BC Chiefs, President of the Indian Brotherhood and founder of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples.  I remember hearing George Manuel tell a group of native people from the Northwest Territories that they were a majority in their part of the country, and they should act like one, something that represented for them a new opening into a more promising future.
All I can suggest to any readers whose interest might have been caught by this article is that they go to that essential lesson In Canadian history represented in the aforementioned web site. I am sure they will find a lot of stuff that is new to most of them.
I leave you with some quotes I have copied from that web site which suggest a history of Canada that seems to be more or less unknown to your average Canadian:
From Art Manuel’s document, Sun Peaks --- Indian land for sale: "We are poor not because our land is poor but because we have been dispossessed of our land and because Canada and the provinces have assumed 100% power over making laws over our land ... All revenue generated in Canada is earned from using our natural wealth and resources. We have never benefitted from this. All we have been given is the crumbs from the table of the federal and provincial governments." 

Chief  Francoise Selphagen of the Little Shushwap band in 1912: "Our tribal territories which we have held from time immemorial, often at cost of blood, are ours no longer ... We are all beggars, and landless in our own country ... What promises made to us when the first whites came to this country have been broken. Many of us were driven off our places where we had lived and camped because these spots were desirable for agriculture, and the Government wanted them for white settlers. This was done without agreement with us, and we received no compensation." 
Chief Selpaghen called for the government of Canada "to do what is right" and "to stand up for us" when he testified in 1914 to the McKenna McBride Commission: "We all want to work our land to good advantage, and we are short as to our means and knowledge of working the land."

From the web site: “For over a century the Bonaparte people saw their lands invaded and plundered by a raft of miners, ranchers, loggers and settlers. None of the huge profits were shared with the communities of the Band which became increasingly impoverished as the people were progressively disinherited of their land and natural resources. The reserve system imposed on First Nations did not improve living conditions. Homes on the Bonaparte reserve had no heating, electricity, running water, plumbing or insulation until the late 1950s. When the 86-year-old elder Jimmy Morgan lost his house to fire in 1973 it triggered a blockade during which armed indigenous activists stopped commercial traffic on Highway 92 through the Bonaparte reserve for six weeks and demanded a $5 toll from all vehicle drivers as a compensation for the appalling housing conditions on the reserve.”

Just a little lesson in Canadian history, today exposed to international readers, through The Guardian of London.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

My Log 482 August 2 2015: Four films remind me of the superior realism and humanity of the best French films: I use Netflix for my entertainment needs

Fran├žais : Isabelle Huppert au festival de Cannes.
Isabelle Huppert au festival de Cannes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Coup de Torchon
Coup de Torchon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Marion Cotillard during the Paris pre...
Marion Cotillard during the Paris premiere of Public Enemies at the cinema (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I read the other day that the quidnuncs are expecting people to give up their cable systems in the next few decades, and one commentator put much of the blame for this on Netflix, and similar outfits. In other words, so many people are now streaming their information and entertainment directly through their computers or mobile devices, that our entrenched fascination with the television is already coming under challenge.
I am not competent to judge the validity of this argument: but I do know that with Netflix I have at my disposal thousands, even tens of thousands, of movies, any one of which is available at the flick of a switch.
This might be described as nirvana for a movie buff. My son Thom, who I consider to be an encyclopedia of knowledge about movies, says he has almost stopped going to movies in cinemas, but that doesn’t mean he has stopped watching movies: he seems to see more than ever, and he doesn’t even have a television.
Well, recently, having had my mobility reduced by an accident to my heel, I have been watching a good number of movies myself, thanks to Netflix, and what this article is about is that it deals with my respect for, my admiration of, French-language movies. I have always thought that at their best, by and large, they are far and away better than even the best American movies, and my recent watching has confirmed me in that prejudice.
Let me describe four examples. Of the four at least two are delightful portraits of everyday life, unmediated by any of the absurd calculations that go into movie-making American style. In other words, they are slices of life as it is lived, and richly suggestive to any person  who feels for the immensity of human experience.
I think of the four movies the one I liked best was called Two Days, One Night (in French Deux Jours, Une nuit), an extremely simple story about working class life in a French industrial town, made by two hyper-realistic filmmakers in their sixties, the brothers Dardenne, Jean-Pierre and Luc, Belgians, actually, who since the 1970s have been producing highly praised, gritty films that have often been compared so some of Britain’s left-leaning cineasts of the Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach school.
This particular film was elevated by a superb acting performance by Marion Cotillard, a woman who seems to elevate everything she appears in. The story here is about a rather neurotic, depressive, nervous young mother of two who returns to the factory line after a time off to deal with a depression. Her boss announces that he can afford either to give a 1000 Euro bonus to each of her sixteen co-workers, or to take her back on staff, and he has arranged a vote of the workers which, not unexpectedly, turns out solidly for accepting the bonus. Cotillard’s character, Sandra, is devastated, especially when it is reported to her by one of her fellow-workers that the foreman had stacked the vote against her by telling them that if they voted to keep her, one of them would be laid off.
She and her husband need her job, they couldn’t manage wihout it. With her sympathetic fellow-worker she persuades the boss to hold a re-run of the vote on the following Monday, which gives her the weekend to follow her husband’s suggestion that she should visit each of her co-workers at their homes to try to persuade them to support her return to work.
That is the entire story of this film, plot-wise. But of course it is about much more than that. At one level it is a superb portrait of a sensitive, sympathetic, retiring young woman to whom this series of visits is humiliating (this acting performance won Cotillard plaudits around the world). At another level it gives an understated but convincing portrait of the French working class, certainly not among the lowest in the world, that’s for sure, but like most other working classes in the Western world, full of people who are just barely able to make their way in life on what they can earn. This touches on the essential cruelty of capitalism in that it has so arranged its economy that two salaries are needed to keep every home afloat, while simultaneously demanding of the working woman that most of the proceeds of her work are spent on finding someone to look her kids.  Not everything in the film is harsh: many of her co-workers are immigrants, who seem to have had a strong sense of solidarity with her predicament. Even the boss shows a modicum of feeling in his proposed final solution, although his gesture has to make way for the greater strength of working class solidarity felt by the heroine.
This is a deeply satisfying, hugely involving film.
Another somewhat less heralded film, also a Belgian-French-Italian coproduction, is Paris Follies (in French  La Ritournelle), which stars the tiny, 5ft 2 in veteran of French films Isabelle Huppert, in the unexpected role of a more or less contented wife of a successful Normandy farmer,  a somewhat older man, also expertly played by Jean-Pierre Daroussin. Between them these two actors have appeared in almost 200 movies, so they give off an  air of effortless achievement.  Dasroussin’s face seemed familiar to me, although I could not recall where I had seen him before until a search of his filmography revealed that he played, beautifully, one might add,  Panisse in the recent re-make of the Marcel Pagnol trilogy about Marseilles waterfront life, Marius, Fanny and Cesar. As for Isabelle Huppert, her career began in 1971, but I didn’t pick up on her until 1981 when she played an unforgettably sexy blonde temptress in Bernard Tavernier’s West African epic, Coup de Torchon.  Since then, Ms Huppert seems to have worked with every great director in Western Europe.
This film, a slice of French life shown unexcitably by director Marc Fitoussi, has Ms Huppert as the distaff side of a happy countryside marriage, who, attracted during a party to a young Parisian who shows an interest in her, seizes an opportunity to visit Paris, with the intention, only half revealed even to herself, of running into this young man again, and seeing what might develop. Actually, she hasn’t really got the courage of her convictions, and runs away from the proposed assignation, but a visiting Danish dentist who is staying at the same hotel is more skilled in his approach, and  this is the man her husband sees when he turns up unexpectedly to check on his wife’s movements, she having been revealed to him by a neighbour as having made an appointment with a doctor who was no longer in business.  This is all worked out in what we have come to recognize as a typically civilized French approach. The movie is not exciting, but it is, because so beautifully acted, written and directed, very satisfying and enjoyable.
The Dardenne brothers also made the well-regarded film, The Kid with A Bike (French, Le Gamin au Velo). This is about a 12-year-old boy who has lost his mother and grandmother, and has been abandoned by his father, who, in the first part of this film, he continues to try to find with a blinding ferocity that excludes him from normal human contacts.  I found the kid, played by Thomas Doret to be so objectionable that it kind of destroyed the film for me, until an actress called Cecile de France appeared unexpectedly, to take an interest in the kid. Apparently the directors intended this to have the qualities of a fairy story, and she played the role of the good fairy, impetuously offering to look after the boy at the weekends, and putting up with his rudeness and compulsive behaviour no matter how off-putting he may have been his.  Apparently this actress, another with long experience in French films, was cast because the directors believed she could express her sympathy just through her looks and body language. That in fact worked out famously, and from the moment she appeared I was fascinated by this actress’s performance. True to the wishes of the directors, it was unemphatic, almost off-hand, but it managed to lend a real humanity to this unlikely story: the kid began to take her seriously, to respond to her unquenchable kindness. The film ends with the kid cycling around a corner out of sight as he makes his way back to his benefactor.
The fourth film, The Blue Room (French La Chambre Bleue) is based on a famous novel by Georges Simenon that has apparently driven previous filmmakers to distraction as they have unsuccessfully attempted to bring it to the screen. Director and star in the movie Mathieu Amalric has adopted a non-linear approach that enlivens the story, which is about an illicit love affair between two married people. When the man eventually tires of it and tries to withdraw, the woman, played by Stephanie Cleau, hangs in there, keeps enticing the man to continue through infrequent assignations, and is the main actor in murders that eventually remove their two innocent spouses. The story is told largely through a long-drawn out legal procedure of questioning by the examining magistrate which leads to the inevitable result.  The film maintains its interest from first to last and lifts a veil on a part of the French legal system that is always interesting.

Each of these films has its virtues: together they advance our knowledge of French attitudes, behaviour and feeling.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

My Log 481 August 1 2015: Oh, yes, I remember Hubert Ogunde, a man known to everyone in Nigeria from his Ogunde travelling theatre group

Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When you have been following social and political events as long as I have --- I date my beginning from the day I entered journalism in 1945, that is, 70 years ago --- you are always running across events that provide you with  flavourful memories.
One such came in an AlJazeera programme this week about the Nigerian film industry. As part of the show, a gentleman called Ogunde recalled that even before the beginning of Nigerian films, a travelling entertainment owned, operated and performed by his father, Hubert Ogunde, was popular all over the country, but especially in the southern parts.
It took me back to the year 1966, memorable in the history of Nigeria, for sure, when a group of young army officers from the Northern Region, headed by Major Chikwuma Nzeogwu, conducted a half-successful rebellion in which they killed the first (and much-admired) President of the country, Sir Abubaker Tafewa Balewa, as well as Chief Festus Okotie Ebo, the federal finance minister,  the head of the western region government Chief Samuel Akintola, as well as several other leading Nigerian politicians.
On the following morning, a Saturday, I was scheduled to be taken by a federal information officer to the University for an interview with the playwright Wole Soyinka, years later a Nobel Prize winner. When the information officer did not turn up I took a taxi, and at the University I discovered that the heads of the Nigerian state had, as it were, been chopped off, and all was confusion as to who was running the country. Later in the day in an effort to discover what had happened, I was directed to visit Hubert Ogunde, who, I was told would almost certainly know what had happened. I didn’t know his address, but simply asked a taxi driver to take me to him, which he did unhesitatingly.
My informants were right. This remarkable man, a richly comic and at the same time impressive character, who knew everybody in Nigeria and was known to everybody, naturally had all the details about what these army officers had done, how they invaded the President’s home and shot him down, and so on.  I felt I could not have had a more reputable informant, and, in the absence of any other information,  hurried off a dispatch to my newspaper in Montreal. Unfortunately, cable communications between Nigeria and the outside world had been suspended, so Patrick Keatley, the Guardian’s Commonwealth correspondent (and, incidentally, a Canadian), who was known to all the Nigerian politicians and officials,  and myself gathered together all the dispatches that foreign correspondents had written and flew with them to neighbouring Ghana, a country in those days already sinking into a sort of paranoid authoritarianism that was not to be trifled with.
At the Accra airport on arrival we were placed to one side and told to wait. We waited and waited, and eventually realized that the room we were in gave directly on to a taxi rank. So we slipped out, took a taxi into town to the Cable and Wireless office and phoned the Canadian high commission asking them to make our excuses for us with the airport authorities.
The Cable  and Wireless office had only a Sunday staff. Our dispatches would have to wait for the censor, they told us. Where was he? The censor was a Mr Newman, who was at the beach. We would just have to wait until he returned home and could be advised of the pile of news dispatches that he would be required to either veto or rubberstamp.  We left the pile, with our own dispatches on top, and Mr Newman, when he  appeared, was a good-looking, pleasantly spoken fellow, who hurried through the dispatches and sent them through without a word changed, no doubt taking advantage of the government’s confusion before the events in neighbouring Nigeria.  We took a plane back to Nigeria at the first opportunity.
When I had met Soyinka at the university he was rather nervous as to which side had come out on top. The western region had recently re-elected Akintola, but Soyinka, an intensely political guy in those days, had marched into a radio station and broadcast an alternative version  of the results from those issued officially.  When I went with him the following Wednesday on a tour of the ju-ju clubs, Soyinka was greeted as a hero as we entered each club, and our table quickly was crowded with contributed bottles of beer gifted by his many admirers.
It turned out that the head of the army, Major-General Johnson Ironsi, had been warned of the coup by a phone call from a subordinate who had been killed not long after making the call. He took command of the country, suspended the constitution, thus ending the federal republic, and was himself killed by dissatisfied Northern officers six months later. Until this year, 49 years later, Nigeria has been ruled in an almost unbroken line by the military.