Monthly Archives: March 2012

Barack Obama is a Good Writer

There is plenty of debate about whether Barack Obama is a good president. Right now his approval rating is at 47.7% and that is the highest it has been in over a year. Whether or not you agree Barack Obama is a good president, if you read his book Dreams From My Father I think you will agree he is a good writer.  I began reading Dreams From My Father with some skepticism.

I thought Obama might just be another one of those authors taking advantage of his notoriety to get on the bestseller list. I was interested to learn that Dreams From My Father was actually first published before Obama was famous. He wrote it after completing Harvard Law School, just before beginning his political career. 

Barack Obama writes in a way that is honest but never trite or self –serving. His book is descriptive, thought-provoking and engaging. Dreams From My Father tells the story of his childhood and young adulthood. One can’t help but be impressed by Obama who was certainly not born with a silver spoon in his mouth like his predecessor George Bush.  Obama had to work hard for everything he achieved.

The fact he got admitted to Harvard and excelled, becoming the President of the Law Review, is certainly noteworthy in itself. His family life might seem highly dysfunctional–his mother was married several times–he was raised largely by his grandparents–he saw his father briefly only once in his life–but Obama is not writing his book to make us feel sorry for him.  Indeed you can’t help but admire the way he looks for the good in both of his parents and gives them credit for the positive influence they had on his life.

Even if you don’t agree with Barack Obama’s politics I think you’ll enjoy his book. 

Other biographical books I’ve posted about…….

The Paper Garden

The Aviator’s Wife

The Constructed Mennonite


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Filed under Books, People, Politics

Autographs from A Conscientious Objector Camp

 My father-in-law Cornelius Driedger from Leamington, Ontario was a conscientious objector during World War II. Pacifism is a key tenet of the Mennonite faith and during World War II about 60% of Mennonite men who were called to military duty agreed with their church and refused to join the army. They rather participated in an alternative service program that was negotiated by the Mennonite leaders with the Canadian government.

Dad received a letter in the summer of 1942, just after he had announced his engagement to Anne Enns, that he was being conscripted to join the Canadian army. He took the letter to his uncle and the pastor of his church N.N. Driedger, who said he would apply for conscientious objector status for Dad. Since he was a baptized member of a Mennonite church it was likely his application would be approved, although not all Mennonite applications were.

Dad, shown here with his family around the time of his conscription came to Canada from Ukraine with his parents in 1924 when he was just three years old and although an earlier migration of Mennonites in the 1800’s had been promised exemption from military service, the second group had not been granted automatic conscientious objector status. Their cases had to be heard before a judge. 

Mom and Dad had only been married for four months when Dad received word he would have to report to a former lumber camp in Montreal River , 625 miles north of Toronto where conscientious objectors would be put to work for the duration of the war by the Department of Highways helping to finish the construction of a link of the Trans Canada route. The main jobs of the men were clearing bushland or working in gravel pits. Mom and Dad had been living on a farm where they were sharecropping and they had both been working at the Imperial Tobacco factory in Leamington. Dad quit his job and Mom moved to town to live with Dad’s sisters while he was gone. 

Going through a box of Mom and Dad’s things recently I found this autograph book which Dad had saved. In it are more than a hundred messages written by the men he served with at the Montreal River Camp. 

Dad, who is in the centre of this picture was serving with men from all over Ontario because the autographs in the book are from dozens of different places like New Dundee, Preston, Hawkesville, Wellesley, Toronto, Drayton, Shakespeare and Waterloo. 

The messages in the book are all unique. Some contain a Bible passage like Wilfred Shoemaker’s from Gowanstown who wrote Seek ye first the kingdom of God- Matthew 6:33 or religious poetry like a friend named Doc Sayyer from Oshawa who wrote Turn your eyes to Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His Glory and Grace. 

Other men inked words of advice and wisdom like Jacob Neufeld from Kitchner who wrote If men speak evil of you, live so people won’t believe them or  Ross Clark  from Toronto who quoted Shakespeare- To thine own self be true.

Some of the entries are good wishes for the future. Ed Lessman of Kitchener said May the winds that blow ill, e’re they reach you, stop still. Many expressed a hope that the friendship they had developed in the camp would not be forgotten. In the chain of friendship please regard me as a link, said Earl Oesch of Zurich, Ontario and Earl Litwiller of Petersburg Ontario wrote When evening draws the curtain, and joins it with a star, Remember you have a friend, No matter where you are. 

The men obviously had good times at the camp too. My father-in-law is furthest to the left in this photo. Some of the entries reflect this sense of fun and are just plain silly. Peter Koop from Ruthven wrote to my father-in-law Cornelius, whose nickname was Cornie…..Cornie, Cornie in a tub, Cornie, Cornie forgot the plug. Oh my gosh! Oh the pain! There goes Cornie down the drain. 

Many of the pages express the hope that the men will be able to keep in touch with each other in the coming years.  Delton Bast from Milverton writes When rocks and hills divide us, and you no more I see, Just grab a pen or pencil and drop a line to me. 

The men must have played baseball for recreation in the camp because one page in Dad’s autograph book records the players on a team called The Dynamites. On a previous page Cornelius is listed as the team manager but on this page he has been designated as the short stop (ss). 

Dad’s autograph book is an interesting artifact from his era. I don’t know any people who still have them or use them. Obviously his time spent in the conscientious objectors camp was meaningful to him since he has kept this souvenir of that experience for nearly 70 years.


Filed under Books, Family, History, Religion

What Should You Give Up For Lent?

The movie Chocolat tells the story of a  young woman and her daughter who move to a small French village just before Easter and set up a new chocolate shop directly across the street from the church. 

The mayor of the village, a very pious man, is appalled that a single mother would want to entice the community’s fine Catholic citizens with so pleasurable a thing as chocolate during Lent– a time of year when they should be denying themselves pleasure. 

In an attempt to reconcile the two,  the young priest from the village church delivers a Sunday message in which he suggests to his congregation that rather than give something up for Lent they embrace something new. They might befriend a new person or be open-minded enough to accept a new idea. 

I wonder if we couldn’t benefit the most by combining the ‘giving up’ and ’embracing something new’ aspects of Lent.

What if we……..

Gave up jealousy and joyfully celebrated the success of others

Gave up holding grudges and forgave those who have wronged us

Gave up worrying about our health and started doing something to improve it

Gave up gossiping and looked for positive things to say about people

Gave up losing our temper so quickly and tried to practice more patience even with the most frustrating people in our lives

Gave up being self-centered and thought about what we could do to help someone else

Gave up expecting the worst and hoped for the best

Gave up wishing our lives could be different or better and took steps to make that happen

Gave up__________ and ___________

This approach could have consequences. Researchers have found it only takes six weeks to establish a new habit. Lent, which lasts for forty days is just about that long. Who knows? If we do give up some negatives and embrace more positive alternatives for Lent we might just change our lives forever. 

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Filed under Movies, Reflections, Religion

It’s All About Community

One of my cousins and his wife spent a month last fall walking a section of the El Camino Trail in Spain. It is a route religious pilgrims have been traveling for over a thousand years. Last night a group of extended family members got together and the returned pilgrims showed us slides of their journey through the Spanish countryside.  At the end of their presentation I asked my cousin what he had learned from the journey, in  particular what he had learned spiritually, since walking the El Camino Trail is traditionally a religious venture undertaken in hopes of gaining some kind of revelation, healing or spiritual direction. My cousin and his wife said the valuable truth or life lesson that became increasingly evident to them as they journeyed was the importance of community. They met so many people on the road who became their friends– people with whom they shared food, maps, stories, life experiences, accommodations and the journey. Indeed they had more photos to show us, and stories to tell us, about their interesting fellow pilgrims, than they did of the scenery or the villages and cities they had traveled through. Their journey had taught them that people long for community, they welcome it and it adds meaning and pleasure to their lives. 

Recently I read the faith statement of a young father-to-be who was joining a church. He talked about the importance of the faith community in his own childhood and teen years and how his relationships with people in the church had helped to provide him with a moral compass and a sense of belonging when he was growing up. He wanted that same kind of supportive community for his own child. 

kevin chiefKevin Chief is the member of the Manitoba Legislature for my riding of Point Douglas and the Minister of Children and Youth Opportunities. He talked about the importance of community during his campaign for office this fall. Someone asked him whether we needed a greater police presence here in Point Douglas and Kevin said added law enforcement personnel wasn’t what was going to change this area of the city and make it safer. The most effective way to do that he said, was to create a greater sense of community in Point Douglas, so it became a place where people truly cared about their neighbors, where people looked after one another, felt they belonged and developed a feeling of ownership for their community. 

It’s all about community!

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Filed under Family, Reflections, Religion

Aren’t You Scared to Live in Winnipeg’s Exchange District?

My husband Dave and I made a deliberate decision to live downtown in Winnipeg’s Exchange District when we moved back to Canada from Hong Kong in July. One reason was because we wanted to manage with one car and living right down town would make it easier to walk places or take the bus.

We love theatre, movies, concerts, museums, sports and art galleries and so living within a few blocks of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, many cinemas, the Centennial Concert Hall, the Warehouse Theatre,the Winnipeg Art Gallery, The MTS arena and the Goldeyes Stadium was very appealing. We are also an easy walk from the river paths, shops and restaurants of The Forks and Winnipeg’s nearly completed Human Rights Museum. millenium centre main street winnipegWithin two blocks of our home I can access the overhead and underground walkway system which allows me to stay indoors and walk to the Winnipeg Millennium Library, Portage Place, the Bay, the MTS Centre, the Winnipeg Post Office, the YMCA and the University of Winnipeg. We are within a few blocks of Winnipeg’s China Town where we have already discovered at least one small shop that serves Won Ton Mein almost the way we remember it in Hong Kong.

Emptyful by Bill Pechet

I was surprised therefore when so many people asked me how I could live in the Exchange District. Wasn’t I scared? I admit there are shootings and robberies in our area, but these happen every where in Winnipeg. I know many people in the suburbs who’ve had their cars broken into while they were sitting right on their driveways.

The bar Alive across the street is hopping till the wee hours and the busy Hermanos Restaurant in my building is open till well past midnight, which means there are always lots of people out and about, and so I feel safe even if I do come home at a later hour. By 7:00 in the morning on a weekday the streets are already alive with cars and pedestrians hurrying to their downtown offices.  On the weekends the Ashdown Warehouse employs a security guard who is on duty all evening and night. He makes sure only tenants and their guests are in our building. Almost every time I go for a walk in our area I see one or two or even more Down Town Watch ambassadors in their easy to spot red uniforms, or police officers in cars or on foot, or security teams from various businesses and malls. I think our area is probably more closely monitored by security people than most in the city.

Winnipeg Exchange District painting by Caroline Dukes at the Millenium Library

Last week within one day four different people commented on the dangers of living in the Exchange.  “Wouldn’t you be happier living in an area like Lindenwoods or Bridgewater Forest?” suggested one person.  A friend told my husband he’d love to live in the area we do but his wife would just be way too scared. “I have a relative who is a police officer and he says down town Winnipeg is even more dangerous than the media reports,” someone said. Hearing these kind of things repeatedly does give one pause, but isn’t enough to make me want to move anywhere else. 

There are too many pluses to living in The Exchange, to even consider exchanging our home here for one somewhere else in the city. I think if you take sensible precautions it is no more dangerous a place to live than anywhere else in Winnipeg. There are more and more residential spaces being built in down town Winnipeg all the time. The more people who move here and make their homes in apartments and condominiums here the safer the area will be. 

Maybe I need to start asking people why they live in the suburbs when they could be living in The Exchange down town. 

I was interviewed on the CBC about the myth that it is dangerous to live in the Exchange District.  Read about that here……..

I Was on the Radio

Interviewed by the CBC


Filed under Winnipeg

A Lament for Letters

During one summer of our courtship my husband Dave and I were separated for several months because we had jobs in different countries. We exchanged letters about two or three times a week. I have saved them all and recently I reread them, as I have many times in the past.

The emotions, ideas and dreams expressed in those letters have been a real source of encouragement and strength during our nearly four decades of marriage. We were poor college students in 1972 so we couldn’t afford to call each other and it was long before the era when personal computers had become common place.  The only way we could communicate regularly was through cards and letters.

A friend who lived abroad with his parents for many years told me what a treasure he received from his grandmother after his mother died. His Mom had faithfully written weekly letters to the boy’s grandmother in Canada, describing the daily events of her family’s life in a foreign place. The grandmother had saved them all and gave them to her grandson after his mother passed away. Although his mother was no longer alive to share childhood memories with him, he had her letters which provided a warm, personal account of his growing up years abroad.

grandma and grandpa petersAt my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary, two of my aunts, who had lived most of their married lives in places quite far from their mother’s Manitoba home, presented a readers theatre that gave a humorous and entertaining look at the last forty years of our extended family’s history. Every line of the script for this dramatic piece was an excerpt from one of the hundreds of letters my grandmother had written to her daughters.

When archaeologists were working at the site of a former Roman garrison at Hadrian’s Wall they unearthed a large cache of letters written nearly 2000 years ago on wooden postcards. The letters were penned by serving soldiers and their families. They provided a remarkable look at daily life at the northern edge of the Roman empire about the time Christ was born. Invitations to birthday parties, samples of children’s school work, letters to friends that complain about bad roads, lack of money and illness paint a true to life picture of society in that time and place.

My husband’s grandfather Heinrich Enns was doing alternative service in a forestry camp in Ukraine in the late 1800’s. He found it difficult to express his feelings and ideas verbally but he was able to write such passionate and interesting letters to a beautiful girl, Gertrude Unrau who caught his eye in church one Sunday that he convinced her to marry him. Later during World War I when he was serving as a medic in Moscow his letters were the ones all the villagers back home wanted to hear read aloud because they provided such a descriptive and informative picture of the battle front. In those letters he was also able to offer advice and encouragement to his young wife who was trying to run their large estate alone during his absence.

This summer I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. The entire book is in the form of personal letters written by different people and together they tell an intriguing story that gives you good insight into the various characters and moves the plot along in an engaging way.

Personal letters are a special and unique form of communication, an important means of preserving memories and sharing information. They can tell a story. They help us grow and learn. Somehow e-mail missives just aren’t the same as hand written letters. My e-mails tend to be more business-like and less chatty. I think since the advent of relatively inexpensive phone calls; telephone conversations have largely taken the place of letters. During the six years we lived in Hong Kong I called family members weekly, but there is  no record of what we talked about during those calls. There would be if we had exchanged letters.

I lament the loss of personal letters every time I look at this lovely heirloom letter writing set I inherited from my maternal grandmother Annie Schmidt.  I admit I have done little to preserve the practice of letter writing. I write blog posts instead but they aren’t nearly as personal as letters. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law have hand written a personal letter to each of their grandchildren shortly after their birth, describing events in the family and the community at that time, their joy at their birth, and sharing their hopes and dreams for their grandchild’s future. Since I’m about to become a grandmother in just a few weeks, that is one kind of personal letter I must make a point of writing too.

If you enjoyed this post you might also like……..

Mailboxes of Distinction

Say It In A Letter


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Filed under Family, History, Reflections

The Flying Bandit

I’m taking a course with Roland Penner a well-known Manitoba lawyer. Our class is called Winnipeg Fact or Fiction. In my first post about the course I wrote about the Winnipeg Strike. Our second class was about a famous Winnipeg criminal, Kenneth Leishman. Roland was intimately familiar with his case because he defended Leishman’s accomplice Harry Backlin in court. Although Leishman’s story honestly sounds like fiction, Roland gave us a good factual account of what actually happened. 

March 3 of 1966 Ken Leishman masterminded the theft of nearly $400,000 in gold bars from the Winnipeg International Airport and he almost got away with it. The gold was coming into Winnipeg from Red Lake, en route to the mint in Ottawa and Ken knew it had no police protection as it was moved from the plane to the airport. He took advantage of this and posing as an Air Canada driver intercepted the gold and drove away with it.

Harry Backlin, a lawyer Ken had known in prison was part of the scheme. He was on a planned holiday in California so it would look like he wasn’t involved. On his return from the United States Backlin was going to take the gold to Hong Kong and sell it. Ken went to Harry’s house right after the heist and told Harry’s mother-in-law who had not gone to California, that he was Harry’s friend and was going to store some moose meat in his freezer. That’s where he stashed the gold, planning to pick it up the next day and take it to his uncle’s farm in Treherne. 

Unfortunately for Ken a huge blizzard hit Winnipeg that night and he couldn’t get out of the city in the morning. In desperation he hid the gold in the snow banks in Harry’s backyard, which made Harry pretty upset when he arrived home. Harry’s plans to go to Hong Kong were thwarted when there was a problem with his passport so Ken decided to go to Hong Kong to sell the gold himself. He sawed off a piece of gold to take to Hong Kong in his briefcase as a sample to sell. However Ken needed a small pox vaccination to go to Hong Kong. Harry arranged one with a friend who was a doctor. There was supposed to be a seven-day waiting period after a vaccination but Ken convinced the doctor to lie and put the wrong date on the vaccination form so he could leave Canada right away. The doctor feeling guilty confessed what he’d done to a friend who was a police officer. The police officer recognized Ken’s name. Ken had been high on the police list of suspects for the gold robbery because of his previous criminal activity.  The RCMP made plans to arrest Ken in the Vancouver airport when he arrived there on his way to Hong Kong. Ken managed to get out of the airport long enough to get rid of the gold in his briefcase before he was arrested. It was never found. 

Ken made the mistake of explaining the robbery in detail to the man sharing his cell in Vancouver. He was an RCMP agent incarcerated with Ken for the purpose of extracting incriminating information. After Ken’s Vancouver jail house confession the gold was dug up from Harry’s backyard and Ken was sent to jail in Headingly, Manitoba to await trial. 

Unbelievably Ken managed to escape from Headingly, was recaptured in Indiana and sent to the Vaughn Street Detention Centre and he escaped from there too. Finally he was tried, convicted and sent to prison for twelve years, however he managed to get out of prison after just eight years for good behavior. 

Following his prison release Ken and his wife Elva and their seven children moved to Red Lake where they opened a store and Ken became a pillar of the community, even serving as president of the Red Lake Chamber of Commerce. 

Ken, a former pilot began flying mercy flights taking people from northern communities to hospitals. In 1979 while flying one of these mercy flights his plane went missing. It took almost five months of searching but remains of the aircraft and human bodies were eventually found. 

My course with Roland Penner is called Winnipeg Fact and Fiction and for each event in Winnipeg history we study, Roland recommends several fictional accounts. I read Heather Robertson’s The Flying Bandit. It is fiction, because Heather invents conversation and actions and scenes, but she does stick very closely to the actual events that happened. 

I liked the book because I learned lots more about Ken Leishman’s personal life. He had a difficult childhood. His parents divorced. He was in a series of foster homes and lived for a while with very strict and unaffectionate grandparents. I truly admired his wife Elva who stuck with him through everything and raised their seven children. I also learned about the crimes Ken had committed before the gold heist– two bank robberies and a break and enter at a furniture store so he could furnish an apartment to bring Elva home to after their wedding.  Ken was very successful for a time at selling Queen Anne cookware door to door. I can remember a salesman coming to our home to do a pitch for that cookware for my Mom. 

Something interesting I learned from reading the book was that when Ken escaped from Headingly Jail in September of 1966 he went to Steinbach, where my family was living at the time, and stole a plane from Abe Loewen, a pharmacist my father knew well, since Dad was a doctor in Steinbach. Ken and three other Headingly escapees flew the plane to Gary Indiana before they were arrested. 

Heather does a good job of helping us get to know Ken as a person. He truly believed he could get away with his crimes. He was a ‘nice’ man –polite, friendly, dressed neatly and fashionably, was faithful to his wife, loved his children, wrote poetry and secretly reveled in the fame his crimes brought him. 

What next? I’ve just started reading Bandit, a novel about Kenneth Leishman written by Wayne Tefs. It has been nominated for five Manitoba book awards. 

If you liked this post you might also want to read……

The 1919 Winnipeg Strike- Fact or Fiction

John Hirsch Place- A Theatrical Winnipeg Street

Winnipeg’s Kelly House


Filed under Books, History, Winnipeg