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Who Is Your BC Hero?

Let us make a list of our history’s giants.

Rafe Mair 9 Jul 2007TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. Mair's website is www.rafeonline.com. His latest book, Over the Mountains, should be at your bookstore.

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Colleen McCrory fought to protect nature.

Canadians have few heroes and no myths.

Unlike our neighbours to the south we have not come up with a George Washington throwing the as yet not minted silver dollar over the Potomac; no Paul Revere; no Abe Lincoln freeing slaves he wouldn’t have freed had he otherwise been able to keep the South from seceding.

In British Columbia we seem to feel that because Europeans came here long after they had colonized Eastern Canada, we should modestly assume that we had no heroes equal to those chosen by Ontario textbooks to be the real Canadian pioneers.

I suggest that Premier Campbell would leave a lasting and important legacy if he were to establish a Ministry of History and Traditions with a mandate to remember those West Coast pioneers who made us what we are.

I refer to all pioneers including Natives and those who came from far away to build our railways and roads and, as importantly, those who laid the cultural base for the vibrant multi-racial society we now enjoy.

A sampling to start

The new Ministry could appoint a broadly representative committee to advise based upon guidelines to be determined.

Here’s where we could make a non-controversial start.

Francis Rattenbury was the architect who designed many of our early buildings: the Parliament Buildings, the Empress Hotel, what is now the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Hotel Vancouver, its predecessor, the old Hotel Vancouver, plus courthouses around the province. He was a brilliant architect. And he was an eccentric -- of which we should, God be praised, have more. No one has had a more lasting impact on British Columbia than this Englishman who, for a time, was a devoted British Columbian.

Rattenbury came to a sticky end, killed by his chauffer who was having an affair with Mrs. Rattenbury. Well known English playwright Terence Rattigan based his last play, “Cause Celebre,” on this murder and I was privileged to see it some years ago starring Glenys Johns. If nothing else, it demonstrated that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. I also knew Rattenbury’s son, John, by his first wife, at St. Georges School during World War II. He was an “older boy” and I can only remember that if there was trouble afoot, “Rats” was likely at the bottom of it. John had an outstanding career as an architect practicing in Los Angeles.

Parliamentary leaders should be honoured on the legislature lawns, which now contain one for Queen Victoria and none other.

John Foster McCreight, our first premier, ought to have a statue, as should Amor De Cosmos (William Smith) who was our second and who founded the Victoria Colonist (now the Times-Colonist). McCreight is noted for little else than he happened to be premier when British Columbia joined Canada (or was it the other way around?) but being first should count for something, don’t you think? De Cosmos was truly a character to be remembered if only because he was such a solid and compelling advocate of union with Canada. What about Sir Richard McBride, John Oliver, T. D. Pattullo and W.A.C. Bennett? I would suggest statues to the Winches, Ernie and Harold, who fought so hard and often successfully for the ordinary people of the province. With a little more time, Dave Barrett, the first socialist premier of the province, and his nemesis Bill Bennett who brought us Expo 86 should be so honoured.

Why it matters

This is not petty stuff I’m talking about here. What we don’t acknowledge as our history, becomes a non event. Perhaps worse, it becomes subject to later distortions by those who would revise history to suit the politics of the day and be able to do so because we as a community forget or don’t care.

I remember sitting in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London one day next to the plaque that indicated where Winston Churchill’s catafalque lay during his funeral. An American man and his teenage son looked at this memorial to the great man and the lad asked, “Who was Winston Churchill, Dad?” The father replied “oh just an English politician”. Jesus wept! Perhaps I’m arguing against myself in the sense that no amount of acknowledgement of the past will penetrate the skulls of people who elect the likes of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush to lead their country and by extension, the western world.

The history committee would have a province wide mandate and in no way would be confined to politicians, although Kamloops would surely and rightly claim that Peter Wing, the first Chinese-Canadian in Canada to be a mayor, was deserving of a statue. He was a very good mayor and loved by all. Kamloops also spawned or corralled some of the best fly fishermen in the world who brought thousands of other devotees of the sport to fish the lakes. I think of Letcher Lambuth, Colley Peacock, Jack Shaw, Barney Rushton, Bill Nation amongst many others. There is nothing tangible marking any of their lives. I talk of Kamloops because I lived there and represented it in the legislature for five years. Each region of our vast province has its own unique traditions and just because you and I don’t know much about them doesn’t mean they don’t exist! Indeed, our ignorance proves my point that we haven’t preserved our historical and political memories.

Saviours of the Skagit River

Speaking of the outdoors, the Skagit River saga comes to mind. By reason of an agreement made in 1941 between the government of B.C. and Seattle Light and Power, the latter planned to raise the dam on the American side of the Skagit River to increase power production. This would have converted the Canadian Skagit from a beautiful fishing and canoe experience to a large lake full of uncut trees.

In 1969, a group called the Run Out Skagit Spoilers (R.O.S.S.) was formed which included, amongst others, Ken Farquison, Bryan Williams, John Fraser, Tom Perry, the late John Massey and others. Their efforts were so compelling and persistent that in 1979 the Bill Bennett government negotiated the saving of the river by transferring some of our power to Seattle to make up for what they lost by giving up their right to dam the river. I happened to be the environment minister who did the negotiations.

Along the east side of the river are car parks named after plants -- Strawberry for one example. When the NDP came to power in 1991 -- was in radio by then -- suggested that these pullouts be named after the people on the R.O.S.S. committee that had worked so tirelessly and so successfully to make salvation of the river the only possibility for any decent politician. The NDP refused and, instead, put up a sign at the entrance to the park making out that their government had something to do with saving the river, where in fact they did absolutely nothing. Incidentally, the R.O.S.S. Committee was non-political, with two of their leaders, Conservative John Fraser and Socialist Dr. Tom Perry Jr., being at opposite ends of the political scale.

What I propose would not be a costly exercise but would help bind British Columbians together and would demonstrate to newcomers just what we’re all about.

I would not confine the new Ministry to just vetting politicians or environmentalists but make their mandate broad and province-wide. We have artists, writers, performers, composers, business and labour leaders and so on who have laid the foundation upon which our wonderful province is built. We should remember them, not necessarily with statues but leave with some permanent memento to show future generations what went before them. Somehow we seem reluctant, embarrassed perhaps, to do so. Yet if we won’t recognize our history no one else will and we won’t have one.

Rest in peace, Colleen McCrory

I close with a sad note. On Canada Day, Colleen McCrory the founder of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, died of a brain tumor only discovered a week or so before. Others in the environmental movement knew Colleen better than I did but I can tell you as a former Environment Minister that Colleen was tough, an indomitable force for the outdoors she loved so well. The Valhalla Society web page says it all: after an intensive eight-year campaign, Valhalla Provincial Park was won.

The registered charity (the Valhalla Preservation Society) became involved in other provincial, national, and international environmental projects. It spearheaded protection of the Khutzeymateen Valley (Canada's first sanctuary for grizzly bears) and Goat Range Provincial Park. Eighteen years ago, the society initiated the campaign to preserve a sanctuary for the white Spirit Bears of Princess Royal Island. This work has made the Spirit Bear and its need for a sanctuary renowned all over the world. In February 2006, the B.C. government and First Nations agreed to protect a large spirit bear sanctuary. Valhalla has spearheaded campaigns that now protect over 1.25 million acres. The society also played a key role in the creation of South Moresby National Park Reserve.”

Those who fight for the preservation of the soul of British Columbia, its wilderness, its rivers, and its wildlife have suffered a huge loss. Indeed, all who love our outdoors share that loss.

May Colleen McRory have peace and may her superb life’s work inspire all who continue her battles. And may we remember.

Who would you like to see on a list of B.C. heroes? Share your views in a comment below.  [Tyee]

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