Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Remembering those to whom we owe thanks

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Last month, I entered my 20th year as a freelance writer on these pages. Back in 1989, having retired from municipal politics, I was invited, by then editor John Dafoe to write bi-weekly on city hall.

This, unquestionably, was a classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper. Some former colleagues on council came to feel the columns showed a distinct lack of sympathy for the problems and conflicts to which civic politicians (and all others, for that matter) are heir. You were once in our shoes and are now ignoring the challenges we face, was an observation made more than once.

There was, perhaps, an element of justice in this, but the converse was also true. Having gone from outsider to insider and back again provided insights not always available either to those who were still working in the system and, still less, to the great majority of people who had never been there and would never be there but whose faces were pressed against the glass anyway.

In time, the column moved beyond civic politics exclusively; indeed, I was essentially given carte blanche to write about what interested me. For a time, a later editor invited me to give particular attention to U.S. politics, an invitation that was a blessing since it reignited an interest in American politics during a memorable period, the Bill Clinton years and the Republicans' new dominance in Congress.

These years saw several issues that warranted visiting and revisiting at length -- the impending invasion of Iraq and its consequences, which continue to unfold; the controversy over the demolition of the Eaton's store on Portage Avenue; and most recently, the programming changes in CBC's Radio 2. Events that generated numerous columns also generated numerous readers' responses, particularly over Iraq and the CBC. With those two, readers' reactions were different. On the first, readers were sharply divided, and those urging Canadian participation particularly vociferous. On the second, opposition to the CBC's changes was unanimous, including a few inside the corporation.

The paper's publication last Sunday of a long and valuable year-end survey of notable Manitobans who had died during 2008 was a reminder that one other kind of column has, over the years, had some special significance, not least in eliciting uniformly positive responses -- columns that reflected on the lives of notable or interesting people, recently deceased.

Typically, readers would write of their pleasure in being reminded of things they also knew and, often as not, sharing memories and information of their own.

Most of those about whom I wrote were, in some sense, public figures whose lives seemed worthy of comment; all were people of whom I had some personal knowledge -- or about whom I knew and cared enough to want to offer some personal observations. Indeed, from the first, I felt a kind of obligation to share my knowledge of someone I thought merited a reader's attention. The first of these, in early 1991, was Eugene Forsey -- labour historian, former senator, controversialist and, in the view of many, Canada's foremost constitutional authority.

Subsequent columns recalled, among others, Sam Freedman, Helen Promislow, Sidney Spivak, Carol Shields, Izzy Asper, Robert Stanfield, Margaret Robertson and, most recently, Paul Scofield.

These people, and those in the Free Press's annual survey, have this in common: They have made valuable contributions in a variety of endeavours, large and small, local, national or international, which significantly touched other lives, leaving memories or legacies affecting, touching or inspiring those who follow.

The paper's list included several names probably familiar to most people, a few with whom they might have had some kind of connection, more whose names or activities were vaguely familiar and many more about whom they knew virtually nothing. It seemed to me and, presumably, to the paper, that such deaths should not go unacknowledged -- attention should be paid.

Several things are striking about the list. Many, once prominent, lived well beyond the years of their greatest activity or impact and had, typically, long been out of the public eye -- to whatever extent they had ever been in it. Their names, to say nothing of their achievements, would be unknown to many readers, particularly younger readers. Many others were probably known within smaller circles of the community, even though their contributions were of wider significance.

The value of a list, therefore, is to remind us that in the course of a year we lose people, memories of whom ought not to be lost.

Such remembrance -- as on every Nov. 11 -- serves to remind us that much of what functions or flourishes now and in the future is the result of the efforts and talents of many of our compatriots whose lives are ending. We survivors are, in a real sense, their beneficiaries.

History is, in so many respects, biography. Such public recognition or acknowledgment as we can render is part of the process of reminding ourselves that we, all of us, are in some measure, what -- and who -- we have been.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2009 A13

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