Welcome home Minister Duncan July 13, 2012Posted by admin in : News , trackback
Residents and guests at Lilac Garden in Sparwood wait patiently for a visitor to arrive. It’s five o’clock on Sunday, July 8 and the server begins to set down plates holding hamburger topped with thin slices of lettuce and tomato and sides of potato and oriental salad. A rustle is heard and MP David Wilks enters the room accompanied by several others.
The Honourable John Duncan, Minister of Aboriginal affairs and Northern Development and MP for Vancouver Island North, fiancée Donna Richardson, Laura Smith his Policy and Regional Affairs Advisor and Cindy Wilks are welcomed by Mayor Lois Halko. John Duncan was first elected to the House of Commons in 1993. He has served as Pacific Region advisor to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Federal interlocutor for Metis and Non- Status Indians, and Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. He has held opposition critic positions that include Indian Affairs and Northern Development and International Trade and Natural Resources. He is a graduate of UBC with a Bachelor of Science from the Faculty of Forestry and was employed in that sector before entering politics.
Minister Duncan is a guest of MP Wilks to “Welcome him home to his roots”, says Mayor Halko. It is also opportunity to connect with seniors who have recollections of his family. Speaking with Councillor Fraser and Mayor Halko Minister Duncan says “My grandfather ran the bar in the Michell Hotel; my grandmother ran the dining rooms and the hotel rooms. Grandfather was 55 when dad was born, last of his siblings. Grandfather was born in 1864 in Scotland. He worked in Pennsylvania, Alberta, BC and China. He was superintendent of a coal mine in China and also a policeman in Shanghai. He came to Canada and dad’s sister Margaret was born in 1908. Morris Duncan was my dad. When he moved to Vancouver he went from having meals in the hotel to living with his sister who was 19 years his senior, she was a defacto mom for him. Mom was a teacher so was dad, they both came back for the 1980’s reunion, he got up and gave a speech, no preparation but he was very funny.” Fraser comments that “He remembered the community very well”.
Duncan is soft spoken with a shy, gentle manner that belies the position he holds. He’s clearly sentimental about his roots. He continues reminiscing, asking if Frank Mitchell was present. When told that Mitchell was deceased he seems genuinely regretful. “I remember Frank as principal and Mrs. Bolkaren, my teacher. I remember when that house burned down also the Venetian Hotel; I found some nickels, some money in the ashes. Then the Ice Arena burned, I found a piece of melted aluminium, blue with craters, from the Natal Arena, I kept that for years, I think I might still have it”. The tone is wistful, he continues, “Dad organized, coached, refereed and built the ice on Michel Creek, that’s where I learned to skate. Only place where you played with a white puck on black ice. Mom said that wherever there was men working you would find me, I remember the men playing bocce down by the Kootenay Hotel, men drinking and then throwing their money down. I remember Mr. Major the banker and Mr. Sofko the drugstore owner”. Councillor Mackie leans over to say “That’s where we got ice cream.” Halko says “Yes, Freddy the barber, he was spotless; it was a nice hotel back then”. Duncan concurs, “it had white linens’. Edgar Beech, whose sister was married to Duncan’s uncle leans across to say “Do you recall when your dad overhauled the car motor in the house?” Duncan responds “I don’t remember that but I do recall the bocce courts by the Kootenay Hotel.” Beech continues “I worked for forty cents an hour. There was one court to start, then two. Papa, that’s what we called him, was going to build a theatre but instead he put in bocce pits.”
MP Wilks stands to formally introduce Duncan. “We are honored to have Minister Duncan who lived here before I was born, that was a loooong time ago. His dad was the principal of the Natal school.” Wilks draws a huge laugh at his joking words. Duncan moves from table to table reminiscing with the many residents who remember his parents. He says that both his parents and his uncle Bill were teachers. By the time he came along his dad was ensconced as principal. He talks about his first day of school, “I was given a ride, the next day they found me playing in the cinder piles by the coke ovens, I didn’t know I had to go every day.
Highway three used to be the TransCanada Highway, Natal was a very significant place, I remember Trites-Wood, everyone knew everybody, parents weren’t worried to let you go out and play for hours. I spent my first eight years, the most formative years of life here, we never moved to Sparwood, we went to Kamloops for a year and then to Vancouver. Mom is 93 and still lives in her original home with a nephew and his family. When I visit there are four generations in the house. I remember our little white house here with a steep staircase and lots of cats. My older brother Jim is deceased, we’re going to bring his ashes home to scatter behind the Michel Hotel area.” Duncan’s tone is audibly emotional as he speaks.
Halko presents Duncan and his companions with gifts. Rosalie Fornasier of the Historical Society presents him with a photo of his former home and a copy of his dad’s speech in the Sparwood memorial book that elicited the comment from his fiancée “Did you see how he choked up on getting that? I had noticed and remarked to my husband that his feelings mirrored mine when I returned to my birthplace. To which he astutely remarked “But you found everything the same, he has only memories, landmarks, buildings all gone.” For Duncan, memories are the only reality of the first eight years of his life. There is nothing concrete left for him and all the others who spent memorable years in Natal, Michell and Middletown. Wistful, fragmented memories, sometimes fleeting, sometimes real, sometimes as a vignette of imagination in the mind, but all the time so precious, so significant because truly those first few years of life are the most impressionable, the most life forming, leaving experiences indelibly emblazoned in heart and mind.
Duncan speaks with Valli Quarin who was secretary to his father for nearly four years. They mention climbing hills to first flat, second flat, where horses were kept in a corral. Duncan says it was lots of exercise going up hills and down to the river, it was dangerous but no one worried back then. “I remember a car screeching to a halt right in front of me on the highway and mom screaming at me. I remember Wes Cheston, he had dad in grade school then dad became principal of high school and Wes had him again.” Halko asks “remember Dr. Glasgow and Dr. Amundsen?” Duncan says” what about Prickles, and Tommy Krall, he is Diana Krall’s cousin”. The famous jazz pianist Diana and Tommy and Lois are related through their great-grandfather.
Duncan tells how he got a backstage pass for a concert and when he mentioned being from here she got quite excited and mentioned she knew Tommy. As Duncan peruses a book filled with photos he recalls other occurrences. The first years of life with families, friends and surroundings is an experience forever imprinted. It’s places like Natal, Middletown and Michell, towns built on hopes and dreams, good times and tragedy, coal dust and coke ovens, forested hills and streams and an astounding number of ethnic peoples who managed somehow to always make life beautiful and enjoyable. And although those physical ties are gone and only fields flanking the highway are visible the ties of love remain discernible by the lingering effects on the people who once called those fields home.
Welcome home Minister Duncan.