Serpent Slayer – A Lawyer Without a Ticket

January 15, 2015


How a Squamish leader beat systemic discrimination to become one of Canada’s top legal experts on First Nations issues

by Janet Nicol

Despite his lack of a law degree, Squamish leader Andrew Paull (1892–1959) was remarkably successful in defending clients in British Columbia’s courts of law in the early part of the twentieth century.

Paull had received legal training but refused to be called to the bar because at the time it would have meant giving up his Aboriginal status.

So he worked as an unofficial lawyer, as well as a land claims lobbyist, longshoreman, community organizer, and lacrosse coach.

He was also the secretary of Mission Reserve No. 1 at Burrard Inlet, North Vancouver, and formed the North American Indian Brotherhood in the late 1940s.

It was Paull’s performance in the courtroom that impressed his contemporaries. He was able to cite chapter and verse and memorize long portions of documents.

According to his colleague Maisie Hurley, “He was considered the greatest authority on this continent on Indian aspects of the law. He would have been one of the country’s most brilliant criminal lawyers if he’d had a degree. He had dignity, drama. He was superb.”

When handling murder cases, Paull was often successful in getting the charges reduced. He also argued for Aboriginal land rights and opposed laws that were discriminatory towards Native people.

You can read my story on Andrew Paull in the February-March 2015 issue of Canada’s History magazine. See more on-line at

Picket line lessons

November 18, 2014

by Janet Nicol

BC teachers went on strike for five weeks in 2014. I interviewed four teachers and a parent. Find out more in Our Times.    ourtimes

After Pearl Harbour

November 18, 2014

by Janet Nicol

Jessie Hughes and Oiyo Uno lived in separate worlds during the war years, though their homes were in the same Vancouver neighbourhood. In the tense winter days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, these two women became known to each other through circumstances neither would have predicted or desired.

So begins a story centred on a hold up and murder and told from the perspective of two mothers.

Published in BC History, Winter, 2014


Social Justice 12 students take action against poverty at city-wide conference

October 11, 2014

by Janet Nicol

Last February 2014, Vancouver secondary students in Social Justice 12 courses around the city came together to learn more about local and global issues of concern. Participants agreed to continue to meet to plan a way to connect with people living in extreme poverty in Vancouver. Their action plan concluded a day of guest speakers and thoughtful discussions. See the full article at

Many thanks to the BC Teachers’ Federation for their support through an “Ed May Social Responsibility Education” grant.

Stand up for teachers

October 4, 2014

By Janet Nicol

“It was my mother’s idea for me to be a comedian,” Paul Bae says. But back in the 1990s, Bae had other ideas. He wanted to become a teacher. He says his parents tried to talk him out of it. Check out my interview with teacher and stand-up comedian Paul Bae, at Our Times magazine’s on-line “Between Times” feature, Fall 2014  at –

Short fiction reviews

October 3, 2014


How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?by Doretta Lau. Nightwood Editions, Gibsons, BC, 2014, 120 pp, softcover $19.95

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Lau takes risks in her lively collection of short stories, inviting the reader to imagine young Asian Canadians who are sassy, guilty, funny, angry and much more. The poetic title of the book is also the final story, previously short-listed for the Journey Prize. A character with the moniker ‘Sick Man of Asia’ narrates. He describes life hanging out with his “Chinger” pals who are “Slanty-eyed teenage disappointments with no better place to haunt but the schoolyard….” The writing sings with teen slang of an Asian bent, as the group taunt each other and scheme on “Lotusland” (Vancouver) streets.

In “Robot by the River” a character named Oliver Andrews provides the female narrator with a diversion when her Japanese boyfriend leaves Vancouver. When Andrews introduces himself, there is a “pause” between the two. He then explains he is a Korean adoptee, “…as if I had queried the dissonance between his surname and his appearance.” A story of love and separation follows.

A more humorous plot evolves in “Two-Part Invention” when a single woman decides to date dead men. She sets her sights on the late Toronto-based pianist, Glenn Gould. In the process the reader learns a fair amount of true information about the internationally acclaimed—and eccentric–musician.

Vancouver is the dominant setting for these stories. The Burnaby ghost at Deer Lake, the Sugar Refinery live music venue and the historic neighborhood of Strathcona are among familiar landmarks mentioned throughout, sometimes in detail. This gives place an importance, in contrast to characters grappling with belonging. Lau possesses an impressive talent and beneath her often playful writing there is much for the reader to consider.


Behaving This Way Is All I have Left, by Gonzalo Riedel, Insomniac Press, London, Ontario, 2013, 119 pp, $19.95

In his first collection of short stories, Winnipeg author Gonzalo Riedel provides concise, snappy situations with ordinary people who, more often than not, make bad decisions. They commit crimes, live outside the mainstream or have unworthy thoughts which lead to wrongful deeds. Riedel gets inside the head of these characters and as a result, readers gain insights in to their motives. The prose is spare, each narration leading to an end that jolts or twists.

Child acrobats from Russia appear in “The Trained Performers.” A sudden unscripted tightrope performance leaves the reader in suspense up to the final sentence. “Clubbers” tells the story of a man’s collapse after taking a recreational drug and the reaction of the drug dealer who is responsible. Male fantasies are played out in “A Matter of Degrees” as Adam provokes a brawl with his rival over a love interest at a “downtown dive that pulled in a crossover crowd of either punks or old prairie rednecks, depending on the night.”

In “The Escort Agency” Paul nervously sets up a paid encounter with a woman over the telephone. The voice of the man he calls to arrange the service is “deep, impatient, ambiguously accented.” Paul’s tentative feelings become out of control by story’s end. The content of each story is original and contains humor and truth.

Developing a stronger presence of place, such as Winnipeg, would give more dimension to this otherwise thoughtful and entertaining collection.

Republished from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sept-Dec. 2014 – an on line journal at

The Lynching of Peter Wheeler – a review

October 3, 2014

The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, by Debra Komar. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2014. 346 pp, $19.95

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Debra Komar, a former forensic anthropologist, illuminates Canada’s past once again in her second historical true crime narrative. Peter Wheeler was found guilty of murdering 14 year old Annie Kempton in Bear River, Nova Scotia in 1896. The story details the crime and aftermath, including the villagers’ participation in the rumors and lies leading to Wheeler’s hanging. Komar believes exploring “how and why” Wheeler was falsely accused and convicted is more compelling than attempting to figure out the actual killer. She also asserts in the preface “…this is the first factual public examination of the case since his trial and the first credible attempt to challenge his conviction.”

It was Wheeler’s misfortune to discover the murder victim. A well-travelled labourer born on an island off the African coast, Wheeler, aged 27, had settled in the Maritimes village, boarding at an unmarried woman’s home. When Nicholas Power, a Halifax-based detective assigned to the murder case, arrived to the scene, he immediately decided Wheeler was guilty. Power is depicted by the author as rigid and self-serving.

The newspapers played a shameful role as well, marking Wheeler as guilty from the start and even fabricating his jailhouse ‘confession.’ Journalists were not about to let the truth get in the way of a good story—even at the cost of a man’s life. The weaknesses within the judicial institutions are also exposed under Komar’s sharp gaze—from the inexperienced coroner to the court room professionals. A jury found Wheeler guilty based solely on circumstantial evidence. Wheeler claimed he was innocent to the very end, yet his sentence was upheld in a final appeal at the federal level. Komar also describes people who tried to bring reason and truth to the situation—but they were few in number and ultimately dismissed.

Komar meticulously traces the lives of key people involved, bringing the distant past to life through the smallest details. She deciphers technical reports and testimony in a way which is accessible to the reader and gives a rich dimension to the narrative. The prose is concise and fast-paced, with 46 short chapters—starting with setting the scene (And So It Begins) to Wheeler’s execution (“Lord, I Am Coming”). The last three chapters describe the aftermath of the execution and the author’s reflections. Photographs and newspaper illustrations are also included, as well as sources and an index.

Komar’s relish at digging for the truth comes through, though she sometimes loses impact when overstating a point, such as her contempt over the newspaper coverage. It’s a story that “runs the gamut of negative and painful emotions,” she observes in her summation, “fear, prejudice, lust, deceit, cowardice, indifference, insecurity and unfathomable rage.” In this gripping story aimed to clear a man’s good name, Komar succeeds in delivering timeless lessons for the reader to ponder.

Reprinted from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sept – Dec 2014 – an on-line journal at

Discovering Deer Lake Park

September 20, 2014


by Janet Nicol

The sun is sparkling on the calm waters of Deer Lake as I set off from the parking lot along Burnaby’s Sperling Avenue. The lake is the centrepiece of the city’s unique 207-hectare Deer Lake Park and a walk around its 2.4-kilometre perimeter takes less than an hour. But Colleen Hale, a local volunteer who leads walks in the area and is my guide for the day, suggests we explore farther afield.

“It smells like fruit in the late spring,” she tells me as we veer off the north shoreline to a trail. I later learn that the Coast Salish gathered wild cranberries here, and farmers established strawberry fields and orchards in the late 1800s. While in operation, nearby Oakalla Prison Farm produced vegetables, along with dairy and livestock.

We pass the Townley Mansion; its all-white stucco exterior and “Colonial Revival style” harkens back to plantation life in the old American south. The house is one of a dozen city-owned heritage properties scattered around the lake. Visitors can wander the landscaped grounds and even step inside some of these former homes—including Ceperley Mansion, now the Burnaby Art Gallery, and Hart House, a finedining restaurant. Other trails lead to the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts and the Burnaby Village Museum, a replica of a 1920s village complete with carousel, blacksmith shop, and ice cream parlour.

We arrive at Price Street and turn west down the road, looping back into the park’s expansive field of tall brown grass. “You don’t want to go off these trails,” Hale cautions. “You will sink to your knees in the bog.”

Eventually a sloping trail to the southwest takes us to higher ground along the park’s border. We reach the preserved concrete stairs of Oakalla prison, all that remains of the institution. Its meadows west of the lake were incorporated into the park and in 1991 the old brick Oakalla Prison Farm was torn down. We duly read the historic marker before continuing on.

We come to the “312 Stairs,” as they are named, adjacent to the Royal Oakland Park residential neighbourhood. Small plaques on some steps tell Aboriginal stories, including the legend of an underground stream connecting Deer Lake to False Creek in Vancouver. The story reminds us of the sacred web of waters beneath our feet.

A panoramic view of the mountains gives us a good reason for rest stops as we head down a trail back to Deer Lake. At the south shoreline, we peer through floor-to-ceiling windows of the Baldwin House, built in 1965 and designed by renowned architect Arthur Erickson. Set further back is another city-owned property, the Eagles Estate.

A stack of rental boats catches my eye before we return to the parking lot. As we say our good-byes, I am already planning my next visit to this urban oasis— when I will eat strawberries and float in a canoe.

Re-published from British Columbia Magazine, Fall, 2014

See more at:

The Left in BC: A History of Struggle – a book review

September 6, 2014

“The Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle” by Gordon Hak. Vancouver: Ronsdale, 2013. $21.95.

Not every British Columbian, past or present, knows what a ‘placard’ is, let alone marched with one in public. To help navigate this colorful historical narrative encompassing sign-carrying protesters to NDP voters, is senior college historian, Gordon Hak’s book, “The Left in BC: a History of Struggle.” Under the left-wing political umbrella, the author examines groups ranging from communists to progressive liberals and offers a sweeping historical chronology of movements, ideologies and actions from the 1880s to the present day.

It’s a history waiting to be written, and not only a history of a ‘world’ gone by, but as the author asserts, “helps us understand current predicaments.” Emphasis is given to two key institutions on the left—trade unions and political parties. Influential historical markers include the BC fishers strike of 1900, the On-to-Ottawa trek of 1935, which began in BC, and the shaping of the federal welfare state after the Second World War. The bitterly destructive division between the communists and other leftists during the cold war across North American is depicted as played out in BC, its factions not to be reconciled until the 1980s. The rise in the sixties of previously marginalized groups, such as women, gays, aboriginals and other visible minorities, both challenges and empowers the left in BC and elsewhere. Other more contemporary activities involving leftists with BC origins include the “Occupy” and environmental movements.

Mak has good reason to take a detailed look at the trade union movement’s role. In fact the roots of the left in BC are found in unions, as the opening chapter, “Unions and Politics: 1880s to 1894” attests. Most of his research comes from well-scoured newspaper reports, with a nod to the one of the few books on BC labour history, “No Power Greater,” by Paul Phillips. These were the days when British Columbians sometimes looked south, rather than east, for ideas and expertise. Mrs. Mattie A Bridge, was one such American Mak discovers in his newspaper searches. She visited Vancouver Island minefields in 1892 and inspired coal miners with her oratory skills. Mrs. Bridge advised a line of prophetic action to her sympathetic audience: “The first step…is Labor Unions, the second the federation of these unions, the third the consolidation of the labor force at the ballot box, in the interests of women and children and freedom.”

The British leftist and trade union traditions also influence provincial trends, making sense given a population whose leadership is predominantly of this heritage. The second chapter on “rising radicalism” (1895 to 1920) shows these British influences coming to the fore—and again in the chapter covering the post-Second World War ‘welfare state.’
The left may have reached its zenith in the Operation Solidarity movement, as Hak describes the coming together of unions and community groups to protest Social Credit government policy in 1983. This was “the last gasp” of an era of trade union influence on social and economic policy. More than 60,000 people gathered at Empire Stadium, one of many momentous events, to protest the Socred government’s neo-liberal agenda. “The Solidarity critique was restricted to one government, Social Credit, and not the broader institutions of capitalism,” Hak observes. The result was “disappointment”—not victory. A coalition had coalesced, Hak states, “but the moment was short-lived.”

More recently, Hak connects the provincial left to national trends—the feminist work of Ontario-based Naomi Klein (to the neglect, I would suggest, of feminist-based groups and individuals in BC) and the national aboriginal ‘Idle No More’ movement. (Again, more on our province’s aboriginal leadership is still a history to be expanded on).

Mak also notes trade unions have weakened significantly in the private sector in a province where organized fishers, loggers and builders once held much leverage. Still he perceives a hopeful future for those who look at the world through a leftist prism. In the final chapter, ‘Looking Forward,” Mak notes class remains important, as long as there is a workplace division of employers and employees. On the future of unions, he concludes, “…increased stresses on the job, the enthusiasm of youthful and ethnically diverse organizers, attention to the needs of the unemployed and a focus on community issues and not only the interest of members, suggest the possibility of a reinvigorated labour movement.”

“The Left in British Columbia” is more than statistics and theories as Hak offers readers a litany of wins and losses within the context of British Columbians’ changing thinking, public dialogue and influences over more than a century. As the subtitle, “A History of Struggle” suggests, this book provides an engaging and enlightening understanding of BC labour and leftist history.

-Janet Nicol

Reprinted from Brtish Columbia History, Fall, 2014.

Will the Embargo Against Cuba Ever End?

July 1, 2014


by Janet Nicol

In October last year, 188 UN member states voted to oppose the continued US trade embargo on Cuba. While the Obama government has eased up on some of the embargo’s restrictions, many food and medicine products are still banned from export.

Full article available in Peace magazine, July to September, 2014


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers