Tuesday, December 16, 2014

History and heritage denied: No Solution

(The City of Miramichi was formed in 1995 by the amalgamation of the towns of Chatham and Newcastle, the villages of Douglastown, Loggieville and Nelson-Miramichi, as well as the local service districts of Nordin and Moorefield, a portion of the local service district of Ferry Road-Russellville, and portions of the parishes of Chatham, Glenelg and Nelson.

I was not in favour of the amalgamation and I wrote this article in 1994. It was first published in the Miramichi Leader.)

When I was growing up in Chatham in the '50s, we did all our Christmas shopping on Water Street. On the coldest days, people parked their cars and left their engines running while they dashed about, into one store, out the other. If you got downtown a little late, you couldn't find a parking space. Christmas carols played from a loudspeaker outside Scott's Drugstore.

We went into almost every store on Water St. Sometimes we went by our list, sometimes we just started at Henderson St. and worked our way up one side, down the other. I remember each enterprise clearly: Hickey's Drugs, Clare & Mary's, Loggie's parking lot (the Bowser House, earlier), Washburn's Barber Shop, Creaghan's, M & W Groceries, Simpson's order office, Daley's Jewellery, Rubenstein's, Bobby Jacobson's, Annie Rich, Stedman's, Jerry Duplessie's, Vince Brennan's, Flam's, Hachey's.

Then across the street to Aube's, MacDonald's Hardware, the Post Office, the liquor store, Sadler's Dry Goods, MacKendy's, Loggie's Shoes, Loggie's Groceries, the Chinese laundry and Leonard Hachey's Shoe Repair, Scott's Drugs, Loggie's Hardware, Loggie's Ladies' Wear, The Gazette Stationery and Printing, Loggie's Garage.

On Cunard and Duke, there were Sophie & Janie's, Lounsbury's, Mrs. Leggatt's Gowns, Mrs. Nash, Milliner.

The idea of going to Douglastown to shop was still many years in the Miramichi's future.

This is nostalgia, of course, but it's also something else. It's an important reminder of what we've left behind as we rush, without calm judgment, toward yet another proposed solution to the Miramichi's economic woes.

With one or two exceptions, all those businesses in downtown Chatham where we used to shop were locally owned by people who had a vested interest in their community. Shoppers knew where their money was going; employees knew who their employer was.

When did we begin to underestimate the importance of that? When did we stop looking at each other and at local resources as the means of building and improving our economy and start looking outward, wondering how to attract companies from away to come in and give us jobs – companies which would then hold us hostage with the threat that is so familiar to Maritime workers: do it our way or we might be forced to pull out and set up shop somewhere else?

It seems to me profoundly ironic that the Miramichi is embarking on amalgamation at the same time as much larger centres are discovering that, as efficient units, it is neighbourhoods and small communities of people that work best.

Mothers know that; in some communities, mothers are organizing with their neighbours, recognizing that a Neighbourhood Watch sign in the window is only part of providing a safe, secure environment for their children.

Environmentalists know that people working together in a neighbourhood are much more successful in setting up programs of reducing, reusing, recycling than a remote authority whose major concerns are landfills and incinerators.

In Halifax – and even in New York – community policing has been seen to work best, both for the police and for the community. People enjoy getting to know their officers as human beings and officers can do their jobs better when they understand the community and know the people who live there.

At a time when so many Canadians are feeling too far removed from the decision-making processes that control their daily lives, is it appropriate to take local government and put it even farther out of reach? At a time when both senior levels of government have made a fetish of deficit-cutting while talking "reform", have solutions other than amalgamation been considered?

In many jurisdictions, the most vital economic ventures are being generated by groups of people who form co-ops – housing co-ops, workers' co-ops, producers' and processors' co-ops (in agriculture and the fishery), retail co-ops – many of them financed through membership in credit unions (which, of course, reinvest in the community rather than transferring Maritime money out of the region as our other financial institutions do). What can't be accomplished by one person alone is often possible through co-operation.

These ideas are not new. And they're radical only because they require a serious change in attitude. They have worked wonders in other parts of the world.

One example: Mondragon, an isolated area in northern Spain which was poor and unattractive to outside investors, decided to take control of its own economic life. Inspired by the Antigonish Movement of Fathers Jimmy Tomkins and Moses Coady, it has formed a complex of companies, financial institutions and educational institutions – all based on co-op principles. Today, it has 22,000 employed workers doing billions of dollars in business – manufacturing, cultural, technical, research and more – in a number of small towns and villages.

And just as Mondragon borrowed from Nova Scotia, Father Greg MacLeod, Director of the Tomkins Institute at the University College of Cape Breton, has borrowed and adapted from Mondragon. Through the Institute, he has overseen projects in the Sydney area which have provided long-term meaningful employment to Cape Bretoners – as well as necessary goods and services.

This is only one idea. There are many others.

Such views and potential solutions will, of course, be dismissed as romantic, impractical, regressive. The same words were used 25 years ago about educators – and their supporters – who believed that consolidating schools would have a negative effect on rural communities and on uprooted children.

They were used ten years ago when inshore fishermen – and their supporters – warned that concentrating the power of the fishery in the hands of large corporations which marketed fish as if it were any other commodity, would result in an environmental and economic disaster.

There is no satisfaction for those romantics today seeing dying rural communities, a generation of alienated young people, and no fish.

"The world is changing; we've got to keep up with the times," has become a political/business mantra. Here's one more change: proponents of amalgamation on the Miramichi say that a city will have more clout and will be able to compete with Moncton and Bathurst.

But the Miramichi's competition isn't in Moncton or Bathurst. It's in Mexico and Malaysia and dozens of other destitute Third World countries where, right now, people are doing clerical and accounting work for North American companies and even for hospitals; where, right now, people are working in locked factories for pennies a day, manufacturing goods that will be sold all over this brave new Wal-Mart world.

Denying the history and heritage of 11 distinctive Miramichi communities through amalgamation is not going to change that.


(Sharon Fraser is a writer and broadcaster in Halifax. She is a former editor of the Miramichi Leader.)

Friday, September 12, 2014

I heard it on the radio

My relationship with radio is almost as old as I am. From the radios of my early childhood until the tiny match-book sized player I often use today, the radios of my life are indelibly stamped on my senses. Yes, I can hear them but I can also still see them and feel them in my fingertips.

The first radio I remember sat on our kitchen counter, near my mother's chair. She was the ruler of the radio. That radio was just before the time when everything was made of plastic; I think of it as white-painted metal, small with ridgey plastic knobs that I can still feel between my thumb and forefinger, and a little window that glowed as the tubes inside warmed up.

The next radio was also white and this one was plastic with a large tuning knob and the on/off/volume knob just under it. Our kitchen table was against the wall and the little radio, next to a small lamp, was on the wall-side of the table. It looked a little like this:

The radio was always tuned to CKMR which was a small radio station in Newcastle, five miles up the Miramichi River from our town of Chatham.

The local content was most valued by its listeners but CKMR was also a CBC affiliate so there was some diversity in the programming.

One of my earliest radio memories was The Fisherman's Broadcast (still on the air and known now as The Fisheries Broadcast) which came on every day at 5:00 p.m. The little radio on the table kept us company as we ate supper and I can hear the theme music in my head to this day. It was where I learned of the places called Conquerall Bank and Petit de Grat. It was on The Fisherman's Broadcast where I first heard of cod scrod and its daily price in Boston — and the daily price of all the other fish in Boston. I didn't see the word scrod again until a trip to Boston many years later when I saw it on a menu.

Our lunchtime programs — when we went to the White School, we came home every day for lunch — were, I discovered much later, classic soap operas, in the original sense, sponsored by soap: Ma Perkins, Pepper Young's Family and Laura Limited. I don't really remember the story-lines but I remember being politely shushed when every day's cliff-hanger ending was playing out.

One of the morning programs I remember was called the Maritime School Broadcast. I must have heard it only if I were home sick because I'm pretty sure we didn't have snow days then. (The main thing I remember about big storms is that I was allowed to stay at school for lunch.) I also remember hearing the School Broadcast on rare occasions at school. In retrospect, I think it's possible that the teachers might have brought in their own radios and provided themselves with a bit of a break without feeling guilty.

Another morning program was called Good Morning Mrs. Housewife. It was what you'd expect — tips for housewives about how to host a smart canasta party, how to get tea stains out of your best linen, how to make sure the gravy was served with no lumps. For at least part of its run, it was hosted by Eileen Sproul, a good friend of my mother's. They were fellow choir members at St. Andrew's United Church where Eileen was an acclaimed soprano soloist.

It's always been of interest to me that, even though Eileen's was the only female voice I ever heard on the radio, when I graduated from high school, the little blurb beside my photo said, "Her ambition is to be a radio announcer." I did grow up to work in radio as part of my career in journalism. I didn't do Good Morning Mrs. Housewife but I definitely did women's issues. Oh yes, I did. And that's a whole other story.

On Sunday afternoons we would, without fail, see our father become a classic Philistine. Dr. Louise Manny, a distinguished local historian and folklorist, had been commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook to collect and record the old Miramichi folksongs. She had done so and at 3:00 p.m. every Sunday, she shared her recordings on her radio show. The minute it came on, Dad would stomp and mutter and grumble, "Turn that @#$%^&* blankety-blank racket off!" Mum objected to his fake swearing but she didn't care for the program either so 3:00 p.m. Sunday was always radio-free at our house.

I didn't appreciate Dr. Manny's work until much later and although it was never my favourite genre, I still keep the vinyl record of Dr. Manny's collection:

Both Mum and Dad definitely preferred the beautiful duets of Gerald (Jerry) Fitzpatrick and his daughter Donna (McLean) on their program called Songs to Remember. And of course, they happily listened to the immortal Bing Crosby whose theme song was Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day. (It turns out that Bing, after some scepticism and controversy about the various sources, did indeed have a Miramichi connection so perhaps we could consider him local content also.)

For my sister and me — especially when she was a young-to-mid teen and I was what they now call a "tween" — the highlight of the week was the Top 10 Hit Parade. It came on at 12:15 p.m. Sunday, just after church got out, and it was much to our chagrin if the minister preached too long or if either of our parents tarried on the church steps, having a nice Sunday chat with friends and neighbours.

This was before the days of Top-40 radio and CKMR played mostly country music on its DJ-style programming (Hayshaker's Hoedown, anyone?) so the Hit Parade was of great importance to us and the only way we had of keeping up with popular music. We were not yet buying records. I remember the first records I bought were 78s of un-named singers covering the popular numbers of the day. Kind of no-name records. I bought them at a funny little counter in the back corner of Lounsbury's Furniture Store. I played them but I was always uncomfortably aware that these weren't the real artists although they tried hard to sound like them.

Popular music went through some major changes in the mid-1950s, generally believed to have started with Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock. Here are some medleys of the songs we were listening to at 12:15 p.m. every Sunday — just a smidgen of each song but it's fun. Here's 1955, 1956 and 1957.

By Sunday evening, homework done, bookbags packed, blouses ironed for Monday morning, we gathered in the living room to end the week with a good laugh. The radio we listened to looked a lot like this one:

I can't tell you what order they were in. In fact, I'm not even positive they were all on Sunday evening. In no particular order then, we listened to Our Miss Brooks, My Little Margie, Amos and Andy, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and, last but never least, the great Jack Benny.

There were others. I know that many of my contemporaries listened to westerns, mysteries, science fiction: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Batman, Sam Spade, The Shadow. Believe it or not, if you click on these links, you can listen to them too. (I feel a little retrospective guilt over Amos and Andy which probably included every Black stereotype that anyone could think of and, as I've since discovered, had an all-white cast playing the all-Black characters. This changed — duh — when the show moved to television.)

When I was in my mid-teens, my parents gave me a gift of my first portable transistor radio. It changed my life. I loved it so much. Very different from the compact little pocket radios that came later, it was a little bigger than a box of chocolates and came in a leather case with a handle. It looked a little — not exactly, but a little — like this:

I took my radio everywhere I could -- to the beach, sitting in the backyard, across the field where I used to sit near an old abandoned railway to read. My radio was such nice company. And at night, I would take it to bed, pull the blankets over my head and listen to WKBW from Buffalo — "50,000 watts of Rock 'n' Roll." It was a whole new life experience for me and I felt worldly and sophisticated.

That other radio in my life at the same time was the hi-fi. It resided in the living room and because television had already made its appearance, it never did get the attention that the other floor model radio had in an earlier time. For me, the hi-fi was for playing records — mostly musicals, which I loved then and still do — although it was also nice for playing romantic music when I was keeping company with a young man in the living room. This photo of a hi-fi is very close to what ours looked like and, interestingly, years later, I also owned this album:

The last radio that I took such a personal interest in — and that brought me still new radio experiences — was the table-model Grundig that my sister gave to me when I was a senior student, still in residence, at the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing. It was my first radio with the FM-band and I couldn't believe the wonderful luxury of non-stop music — on lots of stations — with no commercials. I had only minor experience with classical music so this was the first time I was able to listen and hear distinguished (sometimes pompous) voices teaching me as the music carried me away. I loved my radio:

A long time after, I left the radio with a family friend who was going to fix some little problem I was having with it. I went back to pick it up but he had taken it apart and hadn't quite got around to putting it back together. About a year later, I tried again but by then, he didn't really know what had become of it.

There have been other radios in my life since then but none of them have captured my heart the way my earlier radios did.

Until quite recently, there were radios playing all over my house. Moving from room to room was never a problem; you weren't going to miss anything.

But one day, I turned all the radios off. I don't miss them. We live on a busy street and, with windows open, I enjoy hearing conversations of people passing on the sidewalks. I can hear the birds and I can hear the pouring rain. I've heard it all before — and I guess you could say the same thing about what's on the radio. The difference is, the sounds of outdoors soothe me and we can't get enough of that, can we?

Further interest: for those who remember the legendary CKMR announcer, Art Matchett, this is an interesting look at him.

And Byron Christopher is a journalist who worked at CKMR in the '60s. This is his story.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Santa Claus Years

I was a fervent believer in Santa Claus. When I was seven or eight years old, growing up in Chatham, N.B., a kid at the White School told me that there was no Santa, that the stories about him were all lies and the presents he supposedly left were all bought by my parents. I scoffed at her. Scoffed! She might as well have told me there were no stars in the sky.

I saw plenty of Santas when I was a little girl: we used to go to the old Opera House on Wellington St. in Chatham for a visit with Santa. We sat on his knee and told him what we wanted for Christmas. He said, "Ho ho ho," and gave us a small paper bag of hard candy. This happened again at the Sunday School Christmas concert in the United Church hall and at other public events around the town.

I was never fooled for one minute nor was I bothered by these little ceremonies. I was as polite as I could be, saying, "Hello, Santa," and listing off my heart's Christmas desires. I always thanked him and walked away.

Never once though did I believe that any of these fellows was really Santa. I didn't even believe that they were -- as some people posited -- some kind of official "helper." I knew they were just guys from around town, playing the part of Santa, and that was fine with me. I didn't give them a second thought. I only believed in the real Santa.

Many of my ideas and impressions of Christmas came from a book that came out every year at the same time as the decorations and the special candles. It may have looked like this:

although by the time I was able to remember it, the hard covers were gone and it was a little ragged around the edges. The book had poems, carols, drawings and stories at least two of which were almost unbearably sad: The Little Match Girl and The Happy Prince.

There were things in the book I didn't really understand but they created a Christmas image

that stays with me to this day. Many years later, my husband found a similar book which now comes out every Christmas in our household. It has all the old favourites and reading The Happy Prince can still bring tears to my eyes.

In those days, little girls wore long brown ribbed stockings. They were held up by garters that were attached to an undergarment called a waist.

The stockings went all the way up and they had some "give" so they could easily accommodate lots of goodies and these were the stockings we hung on Christmas Eve. We hung them in the archway between the living room and the dining room and after the ritual of choosing a selection of cookies and fruitcake and making a cup of tea for Santa, off we went.

The magic of Christmas morning has never changed for me. When we crept down the stairs and peeked around the corner, the first thing we saw was fresh snow that had been tracked across the living room carpet. That was our first clue that he had been there. A few more steps and we could see the lovely array of presents and the fat bulging stockings. Our father would have stoked the furnace, our mother would have started the Christmas music -- and those stockings beckoned.

The stockings always included small toys and books, maybe a hairbrush and comb and barrettes, maybe some perfumed bath powder. I mostly remember the wax paper packages of fruit and candy though. Of course, the legendary orange was always in the toe. But at regular intervals throughout the stocking, there would be bunches of grapes, a banana, an apple -- always a Red Delicious called, in our house, a Christmas apple or more often, a Santa Claus apple.

There were also wrapped packages of hard candies and of peppermint-cream-filled chocolates. There were those once-a-year specialty sweets: barley toys and ribbon candy.

And -- as sure as Christmas had arrived -- there were Ganong's chicken bones. They were as much a part of Christmas as the turkey and the tree and they still are at our house.

I remember some of the big presents over a number of years -- the toboggan, the sled, the skates, all the dolls. I have a special memory of the dollhouse. How I loved sitting at its back open wall, spending hours moving the family members and their furniture around from room to room, imagining interesting lives and activities for all of them. This was in the days before everything was made of plastic and my dollhouse was made of tin. It was simple but wonderful.

But as we're so fond of reminding one another -- and especially reminding the children -- it's not the gifts we remember, it's the magic. The magic for me was all about Santa Claus. I know there's some controversy these days about whether it's good to deceive your children by letting them believe in Santa. I don't think anyone could have stopped me from believing in Santa so it was never an issue for me.

I believe in him still. Nowadays, when I creep down the stairs on Christmas morning and see the fat, bulging stockings, the old magic returns and I feel the same way that I did all those years ago. It's even more interesting and magical when you consider that I filled those stockings myself, before I went to bed.

Have a happy and blessed Christmas and a wonderful 2014.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Back by popular demand

Christmas on the Ocean Limited

(This piece was written and published a number of years ago. When the late Peter Gzowski was hosting Morningside on CBC Radio, he asked listeners to send him something about Christmas for his Christmas Eve program. I sent this and he read it to end his program that day. Years later, I read it myself on Christmas Eve, on the CBC Radio Mainstreet program that covered the Maritimes. I have been asked to share this story again so here it is. It's my own personal Christmas tradition! I hope you enjoy it and I wish you all the best of the Christmas season.

Here's the story.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

One winter day in Halifax

One of the "life stories" that has made the most difference to my life didn't happen as I was growing up. It was many years later, on a winter's day in downtown Halifax, that the events took place that would leave my life changed forever.

This story has been published before so this could be considered a later edition.

This is how the story starts:

On January 9, 1989, I walked home for lunch in downtown Halifax. It was unusual for me to go home for lunch. I was a magazine editor and there were always lots of people (writers!) who wanted to have lunch with me. I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if I had eaten out that day.

I unlocked the front door, went in and tossed my coat on the couch. I was immediately struck by the fact that I was not greeted by three cats. They had their own door/tunnel leading from the first floor bathroom window out to the deck but none of them liked the cold — and it was a cold day.

I went into the dining room and saw the doors to the china cabinet were standing open and my mother’s silver flatwear had been placed in my own suitcase, which was open on the floor.

While I stood trying to register what this meant, I heard someone coming down the stairs. I knew immediately that there was a burglar in the house. I stood still — there was nowhere I could go. I had always heard that people who did break-and-enters didn’t want to confront anyone and I imagined that he would rush down the stairs and straight out the front door, happy to be out of there.

But he came around the corner to where I was standing and he had a knife in his hand. He laid the knife against the side of my face and said, “Don’t try anything and you won’t get hurt.”

The story is written in five parts and here they are, all linked up for your reading convenience.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Monday, August 20, 2012

On the beaches, on the wharves, in the gravel pit. . .

From the time I moved to Chatham at the age of five until my early teens, I lived in a house that was part of a group called the "hydro houses" – although the power supply at the nearby plant didn't come from water. I guess they should have been called the "NB Power" houses – my father worked at the plant – but for the sake of simplicity, I'll stick with the hydro houses.

There were six houses, three on either side of a small street. There were three styles of house and each one faced its mirror image. They were at the very edge of Chatham, on the road to Loggieville. That road is very built up with subdivisions now but then, our houses and the neighbours right behind were just about the last houses before you got to Forrest Corner which you reached just before Loggieville.

The "Welcome to Chatham" sign was in our backyard. As little kids, we thought it was fun – magical, almost – to jump back and forth on either side of the sign and do "now-we're-in-town, now-we're-not."

The neighbours behind us, on the other side of the "Welcome to Chatham" sign, were the Sprays. The elder Mr. Spray, who seemed very old to me at the time but probably wasn't, had gone to fight in the Boer War. His son, Charlie, was a carpenter and cabinet-maker. Sometimes, we were allowed to go over to Charlie's workshop and watch him while he worked. The smell of new wood, freshly cut, can still take me back to that workshop.

At the end of our side of the little street was a stand of quite large evergreens which we called "the woods." It was a lovely place to play – there was lots of walking room as the lowest branches were way higher than we were. One of the fathers had put up a swing and there was a little wooden building – left from the construction of our houses – that we called "the playhouse."

At the end of the other side of the street was a field, a field that stretched all the way to the Shore Road which ran alongside our beloved Miramichi River.

At the top of the field, we had laid out bases and stomped down enough of the grass that it served as our ballfield. We – the kids from the hydro houses – played ball with the MacFarlanes and the Thorburns from the Hollow and with other kids who often showed up from the Hill or from further uptown.

There was a path which led from our houses across the field, around the ballfield, over to a lane – more like a wagon track – that ran alongside Howard MacIntosh's field. It was used a couple of times a year, probably during haying although I wasn't keeping track. Our fathers used the path and the lane when they walked to work at the NB Power plant.

Near the bottom of the field, approaching the Shore Road, was a gravel pit. We spent many happy hours in the gravel pit – it seemed very big to me, and maybe it was. There was an "island" in the middle of the gravelly wasteland, an upward protuberance that was topped with grass and, I was told, was the last place the bulldozer/digger stood before the gravel pit was abandoned by heavy equipment. We used to scramble to the top of the island which wasn't easy as the central part had eroded away and it involved hanging almost upside down while trying to make it over the top.

On the days we were going swimming, we would pass right by the gravel pit and head down the Shore Road. We were usually on bicycles. The nearest beach was McIntyre's. It wasn't a great beach but it was the nearest and that was its appeal. Further along was The Grove, a nicer beach but frequented by older teenagers and we were often made to feel unwelcome there. (Our impression was that there were shenanigans going on.)

The last beach downriver along the Shore Road was Terrill's Point and we usually didn't go there on bikes but one of the fathers would often drive us down after work.

The real treat for an after-work swim though – or for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon – was a trip down past Loggieville to Manderson's Beach. Manderson's was sandy – it was tidal so it could also be sea-weedy – and it had a canteen for hot dogs and ice cream and other treats. There were a few cottages just to the left after driving down the dirt road and I always envied the people who were there all the time, living at the beach.

(This is not Manderson's but it's just a bit down-river and it looks similar.)

I loved swimming in the Miramichi – it couldn't have been very clean because there were polluting industries upriver, not to mention no sewage treatment – and I never liked swimming in fresh-water lakes. I found lake water cold.

I think the Miramichi would be much cleaner today.

I had another swim in the Miramichi one day that was more inadvertent than my swims at Manderson's.

I was hanging out with other kids at the cement plant wharf. The cement plant was on the extreme opposite end of Chatham from where I lived – at the edge of town on the road to Newcastle. There were ships there occasionally.

I don't remember a lot of the details about this particular day or even who all was there. There were a few kids – we had biked there – and we were all probably around 12 or 13. We were sitting around, talking about this and that. At some point, we got up – were we making plans to leave? – and one of the boys picked me up and, without warning, threw me into the river.

I could swim but I was taken terribly by surprise and I still remember the frightening sensation of sinking, deeper and deeper. I struggled to change direction and finally broke the surface, gasping and sputtering. I wasn't having an easy time of it. I was fully dressed, remember.

Just then, a boy named Billy MacLean (whom I didn't really know) jumped in beside me. He put his arms around me and "swam me" a few metres downstream until I could touch bottom and walk to shore. I have no further memory of what happened next. I guess I got on my bike and went home.

A few years later, Billy MacLean sustained a serious head injury when he ran headfirst into the boards during a hockey game. I was told that his personality was dramatically changed by the accident.