Category: Local Heros


How do you see yourself at 96 years of age? On Monday, my sister and I visited an old family friend who is truly aged, has many medical issues, and needs full-time caregiving support. She now lives with her daughter and son-in-law in their expansive Markham home which accommodates her walker, has a stair-lift climbing the staircase to the second floor bedrooms and, on the main floor, a kitchen table looking out to a backyard busy with birds at the feeder, bushy black squirrels and even the occasional fox.

When we arrive, Ethel is in the family room watching the Olympics on the television. She rises to greet us. Her freshly made up face lit up with a radiant smile, her white hair immaculately coiffed, and wearing a stylish black checked jacket, she looks twenty years younger than her age. Before long, she opened up a plastic bag and gave us each a soft, hand-crafted woollen toque, navy blue with a white pompom, which she had made for us. We were thrilled.

Ethel has been making toques for about ten years. She saw a woman at Eglinton Square in Scarborough working on a round plastic frame called The Quickie Loom. Intrigued, she bought one right away and took it home to show her husband, Vic. Before long, they had two frames, one for toques and one for scarves, which both made for family and friends. One year they made forty toques and gave them to a church which distributed them to street people. So far this year, Ethel has made more than a dozen, two for us and the others which also have been collected and given to people in need.

When we asked, she was eager to show us how she makes the toques. The trick is using an inexpensive frame called The Quickie Loom which can be bought at a craft shop such as Michaels or even Walmart. She uses Bernat Roving acrylic and wool (hat weight), which she also buys at Walmart.

Several videos on YouTube provide simple instructions for what is called loom knitting. Ethel begins with a slip knot placed on an anchor peg on the plastic frame. She wraps the strand of wool around each peg on the frame to make one row of loops, and then continues the same thing to create a second row. Once she has laid down two rows, she uses a pick to hook the bottom strand over the one above. She repeats the process of hooping and hooking, two rows at a time, until she has completed sixty rows for a large size toque and forty rows for a medium. As she loops and hooks the wool on the frame, the toque forms itself.

It’s easy. She can make one in an evening while she is watching television. And she didn’t have to be a knitter.

Looms come in many sizes with increasing numbers of pegs to make toques and scarves for dolls, babies, toddlers, and adults. There are YouTube instructions for making different types of hats; unisex slouchy beanies, pussy-hats, a rib-stitch hat, and also scarves. There are instructions for changing colours, making pompoms, and adding a flower to the hat. For the toques she made for Kath and I, Ethel added white pompoms. Making those pompoms for the first time required the ingenuity of all three adults in the household, but now she has the hang of it.

Loom knitting hats is easy for children. Ethel told me that when her pastor’s young daughter was diagnosed with cancer, Ethel gave a Quickie Loom and some wool to both her and her sister, to make hats for themselves. She told them that when they showed her the hats they’d made, she would give each of them $5.00. Two days later, on Sunday morning, they met her at church with big grins on their faces, and their finished hats on their heads. Ethel was delighted to depart with the $10.00. The girls went on to make dozens of hats for their friends and for the church.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. 

***** Photos with thanks to Keith Carbert *****



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Toronto Sings for Gord Downie

On October 24th, I joined the masses gathered on Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, to honour Gord Downie by singing his songs. Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman (aka “DaBu”), the founders in 2011 of the weekly drop-in singing group, Choir! Choir! Choir! in Toronto, organized and led what was a communal hootenanny. Most everyone knew the music and lyrics by heart; the rest of us sang along using words we’d downloaded from the internet. It was a very stirring event.

I went because I knew so little about the man and the band which has become a national phenomenon. I needed to fill the gap. The Tragically Hip is a familiar name. When they played the Dawson City Music Festival years ago, I knew that my sister had hosted the band in her home at the after party. Gord Downie’s actions, since his diagnosis with a brain tumour in December 2015, quite properly made him a national hero. I admired the Secret Path graphic book and also the album designed to tell the story of Chanie Wenjack’s tragic escape from an Indian Residential School, and promoted on the Hip’s last national tour. All proceeds from the Gord Downie/Chanie Wenjack Foundation go to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.

For all that, I knew very little about Downie’s music over time; neither the tunes which made him and the band popular nor the lyrics which often read like poetry. I’m not alone. I’ve since learned that many of my cohort are equally oblivious to the impact he had on younger people, especially on those now in their late thirties or forties. People like the Prime Minister.

I now appreciate why his work has been so appealing. “I am a stranger… on a secret path,” the lead poem/song on his Secret Path album, released in tandem with the graphic book, is haunting and emotional. “Bobcaygeon,” where he “saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time,” resonates among those who know the north. “Ahead by a Century” speaks to who he was and what he stood for. “New Orleans is Sinking” and “Wheat Kings” speak of that which is familiar in ordinary life: “Bourbon blues on the street,” “hands in the river,” “Sundown in the Paris of the prairies,” “wheat kings and pretty things wait and see what tomorrow brings. “Late breaking story on the CBC.” “You can’t be fond of living in the past, Cause if you are then there’s no way that you’re gonna last.” “Courage” sings of the human condition: “No simple… explanation for anything important… . Any of us do and yeah the human… Tragedy consists in… the necessity Of living with… The consequences Under pressure. Courage… it didn’t come… it couldn’t come at a worse time.”

Mike Downie spoke to the crowd about the Downie Chanie Fund. In Gord’s honour, Don Kerr adapted “Fiddler’s Green for Gord.” The lyrics can be downloaded online. Beautiful.

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A Super Fun Sports Gala

Another gala? It’s been a long time since my husband and I have attended a fund-raising gala of any sort, let alone a sports gala. I had a ball. Two organizations jointly sponsored the event: the Rotary Club of Coquitlam in aid of their local and international projects, and the Canucks Autism Network (CAN) to support their sports leagues for children and youth not normally involved in organized sports. Apart from the congenial company, the excellent meal, the interesting silent auction and the plenitude of games designed to extract $20 bills from everyone in sight, there were for me three highlights of the evening.

The first was that I met, and had my picture taken with, Lui Passaglia, a legend in the Canadian Football League and denizen of the national and provincial Sports and Football Halls of Fame. During his 25-year career as a placekicker/punter for the B.C. Lions, he scored more points than any other football player in the history of the league. He also kicked the last-minute field goal which enabled the Lions to win the 1994 Grey Cup against the Baltimore Stallions by a score of 26:23. He and I both admired the Hall of Fame display which included the No 38 jersey worn by By Bailey, my very favourite Lions football player in the 1950s. Then I was a passionate football fan. Listening to all the Lions games on the radio, I used to track the plays with a pencil in a paper scribbler so that, at the end of each game, I had a visual record of everything that had happened. Meeting Lui Passaglia was a bit of a sentimental journey to my youth.

The second was that we all met Robert Gagno, 28 years of age, from Burnaby B.C.  Did you know that he is the world’s best pinball player?  I certainly didn’t. He placed first at the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) World Championships held in Pittsburgh in April 2016. Chris Koentges has written a wonderful story entitled “The Charmer,” published November 13, 2016 in ESPN The Magazine, about how Robert, a child whom some doctors said might never talk, read or write, discovered pinball. He did it at five years of age and became “a pinball savant.” Apparently, as the machines have become more advanced each year, pinball has grown and now has 45,000 ranked competitors. A video tracing Robert’s progress in the sport, from his first victory in the 2009 California Extreme to his recent world championship, was an absolute inspiration for all of us to see. For fun, Robert challenged hockey player Kirk McLean to a pinball game. I know nothing about the sport nor how it is scored, so have no idea who won, but Robert clearly got as much of a kick  from the competition as we did watching them go at it.

And the third highlight? Because of my shrewd spending at the silent auction table, I actually won a raffle. And the prize? Two tickets to a hockey game at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena next Thursday night, between the Vancouver Canucks and the Dallas Stars. My husband and I have never been to a NHL Hockey Game before, and certainly not to the Rogers arena in Vancouver. We are not hockey fans, except when a Canadian team is in the Stanley Cup, or Canadians are playing Americans or Russians in international competitions, but this will be fun. As I said before, this was quite the gala.

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The Legacy Of Honest Ed’s on the TTC

Toronto’s most famous emporium, Honest Ed’s, closed its doors on December 31st, 2016. Merchants and restaurateurs in nearby Mirvish Village are decamping for new locations. It’s the end of an era.

To honour Mirvish Village merchants, three local residents’ associations planned a New Orleans-style “second line” parade with a brass band which would follow hot chocolate, hot cider and cornbread at Southern Accent restaurant on Markham Street. Unfortunately, the freak snow storm which blanketed the city beginning late afternoon, December 15th, meant that the brass band could not play, so the parade was cancelled. The party went ahead, nevertheless, with locals decked out in festive lights, great refreshments, and typical Southern Accent hospitality.

Losing Honest Ed’s and Mirvish Village feels bittersweet. Although redevelopment is inevitable, the neighbourhood and the city can only hope that what rises in its place will generate the same enthusiasm and community spirit which prevailed before. At some point, I will write about the proposed new development.

The closing of Honest Ed’s prompted the TTC to plaster its western entry at the Bathurst Street subway station (on the Bloor line) with samples of Ed Mirvish’s famous advertising posters. (See above.) I thought that was it. A fitting memorial.

But I was wrong. I had occasion to use the station last week and discovered that the TTC has now commandeered someone with Honest Ed’s punster talents to advertise its own services. I love it. Someone at the TTC has a sense of humour. We desperately need more of that.

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Toronto’s Great War Attic

Have you heard of the City of Toronto’s Great War Attic? I hadn’t until just this week. To commemorate the centenary of World War I, the City of Toronto in 2014 undertook to document how ordinary citizens experienced the First World War and how their ancestors continue their connection with it.

In what was conceived as a type of Antiques Roadshow, the City invited citizens to identify any World War One artefacts they might have in their possession and bring them with their stories to a series of twelve “pop-up museum” events. There, curators and historians photographed these keepsakes and recorded the oral history stories for permanent display in the Canadian Encyclopedia. The stories have been passed down through several generations. The artefacts were sometimes found unexpectedly in attics, chests, closets and basements. You can see the virtual museum of these personal experiences of the war on the internet

Ten short documentary films were also produced to feature some of the stories and artefacts. Among others, the films tell of a poetry book that came back home after the poet died at Ypres in 1915, a small suitcase of medical equipment used by a wartime field nurse, letters long left unopened describing the last thoughts of a young soldier who died just before his 19th birthday. The ten videos can be seen on The Great War Attic webpage

Monday night, I was privileged to see three of these videos, meet the storytellers and learn about their artefacts. Marylyn Perringer, a professional storyteller and my friend, told the story of her father’s autograph book from the Verdala Prisoner of War camp in Malta. The Salter Album:Encounters in Malta’s Prisoner of War Camps 1914-1920 is now available at the Toronto Public Library. I have described Marylyn’s odyssey to share and preserve her parent’s experience in a previous post, Reconnecting with Roots. It’s a wonderful story of how prisoners from countries in conflict experienced their common humanity in a detention centre.

John Metcalfe, formerly in the Toronto theatre scene and now a teacher of special needs children, told of how he inherited his grandfather’s World War One trench coat and what it meant to him when he wore it growing up. Funny isn’t it? Until Monday night, I had never thought of what we commonly call “a trench coat” as originating in World War One.

Kanwar Singh, whose paintings have been exhibited across North America, Europe and India, was born in the Punjab and grew up in Toronto. He described how his study of history at York University formed the basis for the development of his artistic style. He was approached by a small museum in Malta to do a painting of a Sikh soldier in World War One. Over 200,000 Sikhs fought in World War One, primarily in the British forces, and a few with Canada. Now that India is independent, the loss of thousands of Sikh lives in military campaigns on behalf of Britain and the Empire at the time is ignored. He discovered that one such Sikh who fought for Canada was Buckam Singh who is buried in Kitchener. With no photo of his subject available, he re-imagined him as a symbol of all those Sikhs whom the artist sought to honour.

The Great War Attic project is a joint venture of the City of Toronto Museums and Heritage Services department, Historica Canada (the proprietor of the Canadian Encyclopedia), the York University History Department and the Multicultural History Society of Ontario. I commend it to you. The stories are fascinating, the artefacts moving, and the venture a most worthy memorial of those who gave all they had in war that we might have peace.

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Watchful for Wanderers

“On Sunday, I rescued a woman,” my friend, Bob Dann, reported in the midst of our bi-weekly personal training session. He was standing at Yonge and Queen last Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m., waiting to cheer on relatives doing the Sporting Life 10k Run. He felt a persistent tug on his t-shirt and turned to find a little Asian woman wanting his attention.

Bob didn’t want to miss his relatives, but felt he must help. So he turned to the woman. She was well-groomed, appropriately dressed, carrying a purse, and obviously not homeless. English was not her first language but she said she was lost and cold. She had no idea where she was or where she was to go. Bob thought to look in her purse. Before he did, he had the wit to tell the Race Marshall standing nearby what the problem was and what he was doing. All the better to avoid any accusations of nefarious actions on his part.

In her purse, he found two wallets, one with no money in it, the other with a large amount of cash. He found a laminated card with her name, address and telephone number. When he called the number on the card, it was out of service. Further searching of her bag revealed another laminated card with several names, telephone numbers and their relationship to her. He called her son whom he learned lived in North Toronto.

Her son was very alarmed to learn about his mother’s condition. He told Bob that she lived in the east end and her routine was to go out for a walk in her area every day. He suspected that she had become disoriented by the race. He was willing to come and get her but, as a practical matter, his getting downtown and parking would take a long time. Bob suggested that, as she did have money on her, he would put her in a cab with instructions to take her home.

Bob planned to wait until there was a break in the runners to help her find a cab. When there wasn’t a break soon, he manoeuvred her across Yonge Street through the runners, walked with her east on Queen, and hailed a cab on Victoria. He put her in a cab, gave the driver her address, and said that she had money to pay the fare. Bob trusted that the cab driver would deliver her to her home correctly.

Later that day, her son texted Bob to thank him for rescuing his mother. She was 95 years old, and in transition from being very independent to a secured living situation. Pending placement, she was staying in her home and doing her daily walk. Fortunately, she was able to ask for help, someone like Bob responded, and in her purse was the information he needed to get her home. Without the laminated cards with contact information, he could not have done so.

This reminded me of a similar experience which happened to my mother and father. My mother had suffered a stroke, lost her short-term memory, and became prone to wandering. My father was her primary caregiver. Always, when she left the house, she went with him. One day, he had been gardening in the backyard, came into the house, and found Mum missing. He looked everywhere and couldn’t find her. He was panic-stricken and didn’t know what to do. Should he call the police? Should he call my brother, a busy family doctor who would be seeing patients? Maybe she just went for a walk around the block, and would soon return.

He waited, increasingly anxious as the time went by. Then the telephone rang. It was friends from the church. They reported that they were at the Lougheed Mall on the North Road when they saw Mum shopping by herself. The mall is 4.5 kilometres away from my parents’ home, a seven to ten minute drive by car. When they didn’t see Dad with her, the friends knew something was wrong, and phoned the house. They speculated that my mother had gone to the corner near her home and caught the eastbound bus which ends its route at the Lougheed Mall. Dad retrieved her, utterly relieved, and totally grateful to the friends who assisted.

There was an upside to this event. It showed that Mum still retained her capacity to get herself to the bus stop, get on a bus, pay a fare, and find her way into the mall from the bus terminus. The downside was that this was a new development. It had never occurred to my father that she would or could do what she did. New precautions were now required.

As an aside, I should add that great personal trainers, among other things, provide their clients with material for their blogs.

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Breakfast at the Bar Raval

Yesterday afternoon, the patio of our favourite local restaurant bar was taken out by a three-car accident at the corner of College Street and Palmerston Avenue in Little Italy. Fortunately, no one was killed. The patio was demolished, and the front window cracked, but the distinctive mahogany decor of what aims to be Toronto’s most iconic bar was undamaged. It had to close for the rest of the day, and the architects were brought in to assess the situation. According to co-owner Grant van Gameren, interviewed on the radio this morning, the decor is intact. That’s great news.

At 8:00 a.m. today, the bar was back open, with the full menu and the same smart, smiling staff on hand to greet the early risers. I decided to join them to see for myself that all is well. It’s the first time I have actually been there for breakfast and I would heartily recommend it.

Since it opened a year ago, Bar Raval has won rave reviews, including Nº. 5 on “Canada’s ten best new restaurants” list, last fall, as determined by Air Canada’s enRoute magazine. The problem for older folks is that the place is very small (only 1980 square feet), takes no reservations, and is designed for “standing up” — eating from small plates and leaning against the sinuous wood bars and round barrel tables. There are stools available inside and chairs on the outside patio, but if it is crowded, standing is the norm. In the past, I have gone mid-morning or mid-afternoon and always managed to get a stool. Now, I have learned that morning breakfast is okay, too.

So, what’s so special about Bar Raval? The restaurant was designed as a “pintxo bar, a cornerstone of social and gastronomic culture in Basque Country.” It serves coffee, wine, beer and cocktails, baked goods, tapas and pintxos (see photo of menu, below), cured meats, cheeses, hams, various exotic seafoods that come as “canned specialities” or “preserved and marinated.” Smoked Mackerel? Galician Octopus? Razor Clams? Asparagus Salad? Mushroom Tower? The regular menu is available all day, from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. For breakfast, I learned that they also offer Smoked Salmon in a croissant, Raisin and Rhubarb Scones, Polvorone (I will try that, next time) and various other baked goods. The food is served on small plates, expertly prepared, rich and totally satisfying.

And the decor is stupendous. Designed by Partisans Architects, it is “a 21st-century reinterpretation of Spanish Art Nouveau.” As the architects have noted on their website, “van Gameren charged us with an ambitious task: to create ‘an art piece’ that would become an enduring institution… the rippled — and rippling — surfaces encourage patrons to get comfortable, lean into their soft edges, and become a part of the woodwork. Raval’s molten quality fosters fluid circulation and close encounters, honouring the spirit of its Spanish pintxo counterparts.” The architects worked with fabrication partner MCM Inc. and software engineers at Masterdom “to innovate the milling process.” Using red mahogany from South Africa, the decor was designed to recall the work of Spanish-Catalan architect and designer, Antoni Gaudí. Created on a 3D computer, the creative team developed “customized toolpaths that would generate over 9km of engravings on 75 panels of wood.” Van Gameren told me last year that while the flat surfaces could be cut by machine, the curves had to be done by hand. As the owners and architects intended, “the result” is “a series of three-dimensional tattooed ‘limbs’ that enfold patrons in a warm mahogany embrace.” And, so they do. This is an iconic restaurant and bar on an iconic corner. Locals and visitors alike can thank co-owners Grant van Gameren, Mike Webster and Robin Goodfellow for creating a wonderful new destination in Toronto.

Now it will be up to Councillor Mike Layton and Toronto City Council to do something about the dangerous corner at Palmerston and College.

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“Guantanamo’s Child”

Everyone has heard of Omar Khadr. Perhaps you saw him live on television last May when he was released from jail in Edmonton to live with his defence counsel and his wife. Or maybe you saw the CBC Firsthand video “Omar Khadr: Out of the Shadows” aired on television on December 3rd, 2015. If you didn’t, it is available on the internet.

This video is a shortened version of the White Pine Pictures movie entitled “Guantanamo’s Child,” based on the book of the same name by writer Michelle Shephard. The original movie is playing this Sunday, March 13th at 8:45 p.m. at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, with Ms. Shephard available for a Q & A, afterwards. I commend the full-length movie to you. If you don’t see the movie now or at some later date, at least look up the video.

Undoubtedly, you know the outlines of his story. Like me, you probably know that he was only 15 when he was alleged to have killed an American medic in a firefight in Afghanistan. I knew that he had spent a decade at Guantanamo Bay, that he ultimately pleaded guilty to war crimes before an American military tribunal, and was sentenced to eight years prison. I knew that his efforts to return to Canada were opposed by the Canadian government (both Liberal and Conservative), and his lawyers had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada to get him returned. I knew that Canadian corrections housed him in an adult maximum security federal penitentiary and his lawyers had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada again to secure his transfer to a more humane facility. Released on bail in May 2015, pending his appeal of his US conviction, the Harper government appealed his bail. The new Liberal government last month dropped that appeal.

If you are anything like me, you know the outlines but don’t know the details. I certainly didn’t when I saw “Guantanamo’s Child” at TIFF in September. The movie was an eye-opener. The movie picks up on the interview outside his lawyer’s home last May, and fills in the context.

It’s the context that counts and which we all need to see and hear. Omar Khadr with his family in Afghanistan before and after 911. Actual pictures of the firefight and the compound where he was found. The evolution of the American soldier assigned to interrogate him for three months at the Bagram military prison outside Kabul. The transfer of the detainees to Guantanamo Bay, and the conditions which prevailed there. The fact that the Canadian government was the only western democracy which declined to repatriate its nationals from Guantanamo. The impressions Khadr made on his fellow detainees, and on the military physicians and senior officers who interacted with him. The difficulties his lawyer had in getting access to him. The nature of the military tribunal and the reasons for his guilty plea. The litany of details goes on. Most chilling is the video of the interview CSIS agents conducted over four days to garner what intelligence they could from him in our name. Never have I been more ashamed of our country.

The context raises all sorts of questions. Khadr was 15 when he was found. At the lowest, he was a found-in, under the influence of his father. At the highest, he was a child soldier. He was so badly injured, yet tortured for what information he could provide, shipped off to Guantanamo, and, apart from an interrogation, abandoned by his country. I left the theatre shaken. How is it that Canada could have been so complicit? And how is it that I, a supposedly well-informed and committed Canadian, had allowed myself to be so complacent about his fate? After all, he was a Canadian citizen, born in Toronto, obviously an extremely intelligent and active adolescent.

Like everyone else, I saw Linden MacIntyre’s CBC interview of Khadr’s mother and sister on television and was appalled by their ideological fervour. Khadr says that “his family has strong feelings” and are not “always intelligent about how they express them.” Did I fall into the fallacy of projecting the sins of the family onto the son? How is it that we could treat a “young person” in a manner so contrary to our values? Hard questions we all need to consider.

Khadr’s story is also the story of genuine legal heroes: defence counsel Dennis Edney, his wife Patricia Edney, and co-counsel Nate Whitling. But for their dedication, diligence and persistence, Omar Khadr would likely still be in Guantanamo today.

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Dispatches from Nepal

For the past several weeks, my cousin Don Fraser, who hails from Kelowna, British Columbia, has sent email dispatches from Kathmandu, Nepal. Don is a volunteer intern for three months at an orphanage and school on the northern edge of that city run by Child Haven International. This is his third stint there in the last four years.

The home where he lives and works provides care and an education to 203 children, and a home and jobs for 22 women. Social agencies refer children who are from birth to six years of age, destitute, and without family support. They live at the home through high school and for vocational training that would enable them to become self-supporting. The organization also supports other children living in the community, helping them to attend local schools, and it runs women’s programs, providing legal and medical help, occupational training, and direct employment.

Don’s is one of a network of five Child Haven homes in India, and one in each of Nepal and Bangladesh. The homes are available to both boys and girls, are run on principles of equality and simplicity, non-religious but respectful of the different cultural origins of the children.

Fred and Bonnie Cappuccino, from Glengarry, Ontario, founded Child Haven International in 1985. As a young couple in the United States midwest, they were inspired by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. There and later, after immigrating to Canada, they raised two children of their own and adopted and raised 19 others, all inter-racial and at-risk children from China, Viet Nam, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, aboriginal Canada and the West Indies. Fred Cappuccino tells their story in his recent memoir entitled Bonnie and Her 21 Children (Bonnie Books Inc. 2015). 

Don retired several years ago from his career in the B.C. forest industry, working in government relations and human resources. For Child Haven, he works as a tutor, educational assistant, child supervisor, general handyman, and helper in the kitchen. His dispatches tell of the effects of the massive earthquake last year: “moguls” in the roads, homes destroyed by landslides triggered by the earthquake, resettling families into newly constructed “earthquake protected” houses, the collapse of the top 50 feet of the largest Buddhist shrine in Nepal, damage to an ancient monastery now closed pending repairs, and a noticeable lack of westerners.

A shortage of fuel means that wood must be used for cooking. Some of the wood is salvaged from destroyed homes; sometimes loads of logs are delivered to the orphanage; all need to be cut, dried and stacked for daily use. Don scrounged wedges and saws and blades from the local market and from donors abroad as tools to chop the wood. He organized work parties of the bigger boys to help with the chopping and stacking. He finds that the wood cutting sessions and the tea break after are good times to talk with the senior students about what is going on in their lives. When that’s done, he helps peel vegetables in the kitchen. Tutoring students referred to him by the teachers, he is teaching basic mathematical concepts and helping students with résumés and job-seeking skills. For a local director of Child Haven who has constructed and endowed an area hospital for women and children, Don helped edit the English required for publicity brochures.

Don considers his experience inspirational beyond any of his expectations. He is totally taken by the unlimited energy and practical commitment of the Child Haven founders, and by the wonderful people they attract to work with them. He has fallen in love with the staff and students who, despite basic living conditions and horrific individual stories, show an uncommon camaraderie and generosity. As in the best of overseas experiences, Don has found that he has gained as much, if not more, than the children he works with. Clearly, Don has no regrets about how he is spending his retirement. On the contrary, it has been the experience of a lifetime.

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Gifts of the Season

Monday I received the greatest of gifts… six new friends.

We were one table among many, nearly 30 people from my West End YMCA aquafit class attending a seasonal luncheon. The faces were familiar. We had seen each other in our classes for months, if not years, wearing bathing suits in the pool, naked in the locker room. Always we were congenial, smiling, nodding, perhaps exchanging a few words. Ours was the superficial familiarity of strangers thrown together regularly, but who never really meet.

On Monday, we actually learned each others’ names, and our stories. What a gift! We learned that Florrie had come from Montreal in the ’70s but was originally from New Brunswick, that Anne was a former ballerina who, with her actor spouse, has lived across Canada, and that Agnes was from Hong Kong, spent ten years in Europe, and has been in Canada for over 40 years. Esmee came from Mexico City, applied to the U of T as a young mother to audit courses, and was offered a surprise scholarship instead. So began her long career in applied statistics. Judith was a career nurse who worked, among other places, at Baycrest, and is knowledgeable about residential care facilities for seniors. By the time lunch was over, we had moved to a level of conversation which ensures that, in the future, our interactions will be meaningful.

All this was due to the initiative and energy of three class members who invited the rest of us to “meet and mingle” in the Y Activity Room. What a splendid initiative! The original idea came from Mumtaz Jaffer, a Y member for six years who now teaches aquafit part-time, as a volunteer. Mumtaz came to Canada in 1984 from Tanzania, joining her aunt and sister already living in Calgary. Three years later she moved with her husband to Toronto, and had a career as an optician. When she became injured, she turned to the Y to help her own rehabilitation. She hasn’t looked back since. Mumtaz is an amazing woman with a long volunteer history. When she was working, she provided optical services to seniors in residential facilities. She considers it normal that she would volunteer to teach at the Y and then go the extra mile to start building a real community. Two other aquafit participants who shared her vision joined in to help make it happen. Both are retired nurses: Judith Thompson, a Y member for four years, and Caroline Shaw, at the Y since the ’90s. 

Previous efforts to get the class together were several smaller group meetings in local restaurants. This time, the aim was to expand participation and taste some ethnic cooking. Mumtaz’s husband runs a catering business, Elite Foods (416-516-5546), which provides a diverse menu responding to the particular health needs of his clients. Our luncheon was a tasty tandoori chicken dinner with rice, corn and salad that he brought prepackaged as lunches. The daughter of parents who once ran a bakery, Mumtaz baked some cookies from their traditional Christmas recipes. She then wrapped a couple of cookies individually in a little bag for each participant to take home. Hers was the crowning touch to a delightful meal where the focus was on the people and the chance to get to know each other.

This luncheon was a personal initiative which spread by word of mouth, primarily among people who speak English. Hopefully, next year, the Y will itself sponsor the event, so that it can be advertised and made more inclusive. There are many faithful aquafit participants who speak little or no English, and many more men than ever before. Bringing them all to this seasonal luncheon will be the challenge for the future. In the meantime, this event represented the best spirit of the season, and is a gift that will continue to give in the months and the years ahead. My heartiest thanks to the organizers.

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Life Lessons from Sticks

Earlier this month, we had occasion to visit my cousins in Kelowna. With them at the time were their two granddaughters, Megan (11 years) and Kelly (13 years). Megan was primed for my arrival and wanted “the retired judge” to decide a dispute she was having with her grandfather. She held a stick in her hands which she said was hers; he said it was his.

A favourite find

A favourite find

Megan started. Apparently, several weeks earlier, the girls were camping with their mother and grandparents at Logan Lake in the Highland Valley between Merritt and Kamloops, British Columbia. Searching for firewood with her sister, she came across an aspen branch that was smooth with an attractive grain pattern, about an inch and a half thick. She cut it off from the bottom of the tree so that it was a foot or so in length. Initially it was green and it reminded her of Hawaii. As it dried out, it became a lovely brown colour. She also burned it in the fire so that the top became scorched and had extra lustre. The stick was light-weight, comfortable to hold, and had notches which provided a handle that would be good for fishing. She could easily conk a fish with it. She also said that it was the perfect stick for bopping her grandfather on the arm when he became a pest. She loves sticks, held onto it all weekend, and wanted to take it home. But she has many such sticks at home and her mother didn’t want her to take another. So she cached it behind a bush. Her intention was to retrieve it when she returned. As she made her submissions, she tenderly stroked the sides of the stick.

Found by another

Found by another

The object of dispute

The object of dispute

Grandfather Don then put forward his case. Two weeks later, he was camping in the same spot, this time without his granddaughters. He said he found the stick, considered it abandoned, and claimed it for himself. He took it home to Kelowna and, on a later visit to Megan’s home on the coast, he bragged about the stick he had found. He argued that he owned the stick. Possession was 9/10ths of the law, right? Besides Megan’s intentions for the use of the stick seemed nefarious and surely that was relevant.

I hummed and hawed and pronounced that, without looking at the case law about property law (which I had long forgotten), Megan had the stronger claim to the stick. She had cut the stick, added a distinctive label (the scorching) and made it her own by her actions. Unable to take it home, she had not abandoned it, but hidden it the best she could for another time. Her claim to the stick was like that of the ranchers whose branded cattle we saw running free range in Wyoming. Don was out of luck. 

In an effort to mediate a settlement, they considered cutting the stick in half. But Don conceded that to do so would ruin the lines of the stick, make it too short for any useful purpose, and he wouldn’t insist upon it. Megan responded that, as she now knows that the stick is hers, she was content to have her grandfather look after it at his home in her absence. It will always be there waiting for her to use on visits.

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A Woman of the World

Liz, our Ambleside neighbour, is a woman of the world. At 91 years of age, she is a dynamo with a wealth of life’s experience she is more than willing to share. We have lived at the same end of the apartment corridor for nearly five years now, and, although my husband and I are here only intermittently, we are getting to know each other.

Liz was the child of a supermarket chain executive who lived all over western Canada when she was growing up, ending up finally in Vancouver. Thereafter, she lived in the United States, central Asia, and Ireland before settling back on the west coast. She has a personality typical of the highly mobile: an ability to adapt to constant change, inherent curiosity, and a warm congeniality which engages strangers quickly. It’s an openness to meeting people one often sees in expats and in the military.

The first day we moved into our Ambleside apartment, we established a bond. One of the movers had come to Canada from Afghanistan. She saw him, talked with him, and, within minutes, learned the same life story he had told me earlier. It turns out she had spent ten years in Afghanistan, from 1964-1974. She lived there with her husband who worked with an American company in diesel engines. At the time, Kabul was a bustling and romantic stopover on the route to India, before the city was devastated by the Russians, the civil war, and then the Taliban. Our son and daughter-in-law are career officers in the Canadian military. Both have deployed to Afghanistan several times. It’s not very often that one meets someone who has actually lived in Afghanistan for a decade. Liz joined us for dinner one evening when “the kids” were visiting. It was fascinating to listen to the stories they exchanged.

I later learned that Liz also lived in California for twenty years, and another twenty years in Belfast Northern Ireland. When her American husband died, she trained as a massage therapist and worked at the La Costa Resort and Health Spa in San Diego County. Her pay at this most expensive and exclusive of resorts was $3.57 an hour and Gloria Steinem was one of her clients. Later, she moved to Belfast to live with her widower cousin who was a writer and a playwright. When he died in 2005, she returned to West Vancouver to  the same apartment building once inhabited by her parents. 

Liz is a painter who studied at the Vancouver School of Art. Over her lifetime she has had many exhibits, Today, her paintings adorn the walls of her apartment and grace the foyer of our building. Thanks to Liz for permission to include some photos of her paintings in this post.

Liz knows how to drink scotch with the best of them. At dinner recently, she drank my husband under the table. She was going strong when he made his excuses to go to bed. Later she apologized for staying so late.

She has also taken me under her wing. She recently confessed that she hated older women wearing long hair. When I first moved into the apartment, I was sporting braids. It was part of my “return to my roots” post-retirement phase which my western cousins loved but my eastern colleagues said was totally unsuitable for Toronto. Last week, I was complaining that my hair was too long. She immediately went into her bedroom, took out a couple of combs, and taught me how to pull my hair up into something more sophisticated. My new look I owe to Liz.  I think I will keep it. And she has encouraged me to drink scotch: “it is the least caloric of the drinks.”

Liz has always been healthy and vigorous, until a freak accident recently left her in chronic pain. She now has a walker and is investigating how marijuana might improve her medical condition. She has visited a cannabis dispensary on Robson street, purchased some salves and tinctures, found a family doctor knowledgeable in the use of medical marijuana, and is consulting with others about appropriate strains. That, and her daily swimming, will undoubtedly keep her alive and kicking for at least another decade. We hope so. She is the most wonderful of neighbours.

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Julian Richings: A Star of Stage and Screen in our Midst

Two weeks ago, I had coffee with an honest-to-goodness star of the stage and screen. Julian Richings, another denizen of the West End (College Street) YMCA, joined me at the local Starbucks to “talk theatre.” What a delightful experience! As Julian talked about his career and the evolution of the theatre, I was struck by his modesty, candour, and superb sense of humour. Julian may play bad guys, villains, and other odd or dark characters; in his real life, he is totally congenial. 

Julian was born in Oxford, England, studied drama at the University of Exeter, and began his theatre career in the 1970s. As traditional English repertory theatre was disappearing, young actors such as Julian increasingly worked in community outreach programs, bringing theatre to non-traditional places; schools, old folks’ homes, prisons, beaches. These programs were funded by local councils, the British government and Manpower grants until Margaret Thatcher cut arts funding in the early 1980s.

In 1981, Julian was invited to a symposium at York University, which led to a show at Theatre Passe Muraille. He fell in love with Toronto. He felt liberated from the control and domination of old English institutions and found Toronto to be “huge and underpopulated,” a place of diversity and possibility “where everyone moved.” He joined a theatre company in Orillia that used local people from the Rama reserve, and spent several months touring First Nations reserves across the province, “a mind-blowing experience” for a newcomer from England. By 1984, he was in Canada permanently, married, and on his way to building his Canadian acting career. Having moved once already, from the United Kingdom, he has never since had any desire to go elsewhere.

He soon found that he “was his own instrument” and that he was going to be “a character.” He says that “as a canvas, I’m a primary colour.” He described how actors go through a “self-identification” process which must be pursued in the marketplace, always putting themselves forward, and sufficiently confident to withstand “a lot of rejection.” His agent knows what roles are being cast, submits his résumé if he suits the criteria, and schedules him for auditions. In his view, acting is “the most collaborative medium” when actors come together for only a few days at a time, and need to be highly available and to feel comfortable coming in and out. As the theatre community in Canada is small, work also comes by word of mouth. He appreciates that the approach to stardom in Canada is more relaxed than in the United States, and that actors here may be less overwhelmed and isolated by celebrity. He recognizes “the incubating effect” of Canadian content rules, and welcomes being part of the creative community in the Toronto scene.

As an actor, Julian has been busy. He was a regular on the War of the Worlds TV series. He has had three Dora nominations and one Genie Award nomination. He has had recurring roles in Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital and John Woo’s Once a Thief. For five seasons, he has played the role of “Death” in the US television show Supernatural, the wildly successful series produced by Warner Brothers and filmed in and around Vancouver. He also played “Lor-Em” in the 2013 Superman film Man of Steel. In January 2016, he is scheduled to play at the Tarragon Theatre in Mustard. His Wikipedia entry lists all his roles in film and television. For pictures, background and upcoming roles, see his webpage. Julian also teaches as a guest artist at the Wexford High School for the Performing Arts in Scarborough, and participates in the Canadian Stage Company Outreach Program

Julian is starring in My One Demand, a live, interactive film “about unrequited love” that will be screened in selected Cineplex theatres and streamed online as part of the Luminato Festival in Toronto next week: June 25th — 27th, 8:00 — 9:30 p.m. When I asked Julian what this was all about, he described it as a multi-media collaboration of people working with the theatrical company Blast Theory from the United Kingdom. The collaborators, from different disciplines, will act out a scenario live for one and a half hours, showing the journey of seven people starting at the Toronto General Hospital and ending at Cherry Beach. Although a set scenario, the film will use video and social media, and each performance will vary according to local conditions as they change. The idea is to push the meaning of theatre as a journey, using modern technology. It sounds fascinating. Check the trailer on Julian’s webpage and schedule it into your calendar to watch.

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June Callwood on her 91st Birthday

Yesterday, June 2nd, was June Callwood Children’s Day in Ontario. It would have been June’s 91st birthday. In 2008, the year after she died, the Ontario government proclaimed the date to honour one of Canada’s most outstanding citizens. A prolific writer, a social activist par excellence, and a passionate advocate for ending child poverty, June Callwood was a true hero to all who knew her. As Catherine Porter wrote in the Toronto Star last Saturday, June Callwood Day is “a day to imagine a better world and make a plan to achieve that. It’s a day to be unexpectedly kind to strangers.” That is what June Callwood did in her lifetime, and that is her legacy.

Inspired by her example, Keep the Promise, a coalition of volunteers and organizations across Canada, is helping children and young people remind the public and politicians that over one million kids in Canada still have inadequate housing, not enough to eat, and are going to school tired and hungry. This despite the 1989 unanimous motion of the House of Commons to end child poverty in Canada, a motion repeated yet again in January 2015. Yesterday the coalition held a celebration and a call to action to further the campaign in this federal election year. They did so at June Callwood Park, located south of Fort York in downtown Toronto.

June Callwood founded or co-founded over 50 (imagine 50!) organizations and programs, including Digger House for street kids at risk, Nellie’s for abused women, Maggie’s for prostitutes, Jessie’s for teenage mothers, and Casey House, the hospice for people with AIDS named after June’s son who was killed in a motorcycle accident by a drunk driver. She also was involved in a “pop-up daycare centre” in a shopping mall where locals could leave their children with professional providers at no cost, with PEN Canada which supports writers around the world persecuted or imprisoned for their freedom of expression, and with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

I came to know June Callwood at Justice for Children (now the community legal services clinic Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law) in 1978 when I was hired as their first General Counsel and Executive Director. She was a co-founder and on the Board of Directors. Very quickly I became a fan and she became my role model for a wonderfully productive life.

I learned that she did her writing in the morning every day, from six until noon. Her study was next to the open kitchen in the heart of her Etobicoke home. Windows on all sides flooded the area with natural light. There she wrote while raising four children, working for the Globe and Mail and, over her life-time, producing some 30 books (including ghost-writing the autobiographies of many famous people such as Barbara Walters and Otto Preminger). Writing was her craft, and she made it a daily priority.

Then, at noon, she climbed into her little sports car and went off to meet her friends for lunch and to engage in the social justice activities which were her passion. The rest of the day she was a volunteer: committed, energetic, thoughtful, optimistic, strategic, and infinitely generous with her time (and with the rolls of loonies she carried in her pocket to engage with street people whom she met). I remember how much I appreciated her visits to our office. She would pop in, catch up on what was going on, make helpful suggestions or provide useful referrals, then be off to another organization under her wing.

What was striking about her was her personal integrity, her optimism, and her ability to bring out the best in everyone. Not only was she compassionate, she always had a vision of how things could be better, and the capacity to communicate inspiration. Of all the books she wrote, my favourite is Twelve Weeks in Spring: The Inspiring Story of Margaret and her Team (originally published by Lester & Orpen Dennys in 1986, then by Key Porter Books in 2003, and still available through third-party sellers on Margaret Frazer was a 68-year-old single, retired social activist who had no family locally when she learned she was dying of terminal cancer. June’s book describes how 60 people (many only acquaintances or even strangers) came together as a team to care for Margaret in her home. Rather than a lonely death in the hospital, her life ended in a “defiant blossoming of vitality and love” which is the hallmark of good palliative care. June described the experience as “an impressive example of… the human tribe functioning at its best.”

Her narrative is as relevant today as it was in the mid-80s and more than warrants a reprint. Her book became the inspiration for a similar “circle of care” which gathered around Catherine Scott, my close friend and another life-long Toronto community activist, who died of cancer in 2004. When June Callwood herself became ill with cancer, we were galvanized by her decision to refuse treatment and to live life fully, as long as she could, without medical interventions. Who can forget her grace and courage when, in a last CBC-TV interview shortly before her death, she chose to answer the question of her belief in God with, “I believe in kindness.”?

When she died, thousands of people walked in a quiet evening vigil from Jessie’s to Casey House. We had all been part of June’s circle of care over a lifetime of activism. That there is a June Callwood Day is so right, marking the person and her ongoing message.

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A Chilean-Canadian Renaissance Man

So you think we go to the gym for a workout? Only partially. An ongoing draw at the West End (College Street) YMCA is the social scene, particularly the very interesting people one meets. The gregarious and endlessly fascinating Jorge Schönherr, from Santiago, Chile, is one example.

Jorge is a consulting mining engineer who got his early experience in Antofagasta, in the far north of Chile. He came to Canada as a landed immigrant in 1974, after the Pinochet regime lasted longer than he had expected. He chose Toronto because the many mining companies based on Bay and King Streets made it “the mining capital of the world.” In what were very good times for the mining industry in Canada, Jorge thrived. Over the course of his career, he worked for a variety of companies in British Columbia (Copper Mountain), Panama, Peru, Ecuador, and mainland China. As a consultant, he did exploration, mine evaluation, project management, pit design, and mine operations. Like other engineers who have developed new mines, his work has required that he become expert in environmental issues, community relationships, and how to negotiate permits with governments and local authorities.

But mining is only one side of Jorge’s life. As a young person, he had an artistic inclination which has never left him. In 1959, he did a three-year program in sculpture at the School of Fine Arts, University of Chile in Santiago. Inspired by the rocks, the sand, and the stark geology of the Atacama desert and the north of Chile where he worked, his materials of choice were concrete, cement and clay. He later took up other art programs in 1966-67 and again in 1986-88. By this time, his interest had turned to painting in pastels, again inspired by the strong impressions derived from his “day job.”

Jorge first exhibited his paintings in Santiago in 1987, when he won second prize for painting in the Eighth National Painting Competition. The next year, he mounted his first solo show in Santiago and in Valparaíso. Four years later, he had two exhibitions in Toronto, at York University’s INDIGO Art Exhibit, and at the Gallery 306 then at 80 Spadina Avenue. He last exhibited in 2005, at the Second Annual National Art Exhibition LATINOAMERICA in Toronto, and a Solo Exhibition at the Pablo Neruda Museum, Isla Negra in Chile. You can see some of his paintings on YouTube and others in the slide show below:

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As well as his painting, Jorge has written a memoir of his life in Chile until 1974. Among other things, he discusses the artistic community in Chile during the Allende period. It was a vibrant, fervent time when the first Marxist ever elected president of a democracy attracted sympathizers from around the world. He writes of Chilean national poet Pablo Neruda and writer Graham Greene, and many others. He spent two years writing the book in Canada. It was then launched in December 2014 in Santiago. Already, there are demands for another printing, and for a second volume describing his life since. Now all we need in Canada is an English translation.

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