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This site features a collection of historical articles on Winnipeg and Manitoba History. Stories about people, places, events and institutions that have shaped Winnipeg’s and Manitoba’s history.

Many of these stories were presented on CBC Information Radio 1995-2000. Private individuals may use any of the written material on this site but must credit George Siamandas as the original author and source of the material. Others must obtain written permission.

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Please note that all photos marked with a ©George Siamandas copyright may not be used in whole or in part without the express permission of George Siamandas.



The Spanish Flu Panics Canada

By George Siamandas


Is today’s swine flu an echo of the savage Spanish flu that struck the world in 1918? That fall, as our troops returned from WW1, they brought home a silent killer that would afflict one in six Canadians, killing 30,000-50,000 during the winter of 1918. Such pandemics had visited before. In 1889-90 flu affected 40% of the globe.

The Spanish flu hit Canada Sept 9, killing 9 American soldiers in Quebec City. On the same day 400 students in a Quebec College fell ill. By Oct 9, Brantford Ontario reported 2,500,cases. The flu then raged across the prairies. As the troop trains headed west, during that dreadful October, soldiers brought home the disease to their towns, villages and farms. Tens of thousands fell ill. By early October as the death toll mounted communities started to ban public gatherings. Schools, colleges, and universities closed. Across the country most church bells did not ring on Sundays. But Father Trasiuk of Hamilton’s Stanislaus Church, had defied the ban, and was fined $25.

Hudson Bay stores remained open but for the protection of customers, staff wore masks. So did employees of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and telephone workers. In more than 100 prairie towns, passengers were not allowed to de-train unless they promised to stay put for the duration of the epidemic. Some towns like Lethbridge and Drumheller threw up a total quarantine.



The most vulnerable were healthy 20-30 year olds, the dangerous age according to the Regina Leader. Their symptoms? A cold that turned into flu. Temperatures of 105. Dreadful aches. And then pneumonia where victims suffocated in their own secretions. Some, bleeding from the nose. At the greatest risk were pregnant women who miscarried and almost always died.



The flu scorched its way through northern communities devastating aboriginal populations. Amongst aboriginals living in tepees and log cabins in the Peace River district, 85% died.

Some became desperate for medical attention. An aboriginal woman whose husband had died, paddled 33 miles down the Kapuskasing River, with a 6 mile portage to find a doctor for her two children. At the Indian Village of Sand Point, near Lake Nipigon, 58 out of 70 were sick. Luckily, only five died. But according to the custom of the day, Indian caskets were painted black, while white victims had their caskets covered in white cloth.

In Calgary they ran out of coffins. And in many rural areas, with no time to bury the dead, corpses were placed on the roofs of their owners’ log cabins, out of reach of animals till spring.



After years at the front, returning soldiers could not embrace their loved ones. Anxious wives would meet husbands at the station unable to touch them, or even get near. One, who did, died, shortly after their reunion. Another case poignantly brought home the flu’s cruel irony. Airman Alan McLeod of Stonewall, Manitoba became at 18, Canada’s youngest Victoria Cross winner. Days after returning to his home town, this young hero, who had shot down three enemy planes and survived a burning plane crash, did not survive the silent killer.



At the peak of the epidemic some doctors saw 80 patients a day and one averaged 58 house calls daily. Few charged for their services. Dr James Colliers practising in Vernon River PEI would take his daughters with him on housecalls so they could do the sweeping or wash dishes. Meanwhile scientists looked desperately for a cure. Winnipeggers Major Dr FT Cadham of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and Doctor Gordon Bell, frantically worked for a vaccine, and found some success. Dr Cadham reported to a national medical conference in 1918 that of their test sample of 528 soldiers admitted to a Winnipeg hospital, no soldier who had taken two doses of the vaccine died. When word got out, Dr Cadham needed a police escort, so desperate were citizens to get the vaccine.



In 1918 almost everyone was nursed at home. People helped their neighbours in whatever way they could. Women volunteered as nurses. Service club members cooked meals in church kitchens and boy scouts delivered the meals. In Ontario the thousands of women volunteers became known as the Sisters of Service. Throughout the country Christmas dinner celebrations were held to thank the volunteers. But there was a sour side too. In Calgary some women posed as private nurses charging as much as $25 per day, while real nurses worked two shifts for only $2. Meanwhile, druggists in Vancouver boosted the price of camphor used as a disinfectant from 60 cents pound to $6.50. Masks sold for a nickel. Preventive measures included bags of camphor, or garlic. At Toronto’s Union Station, tin drinking cups were replaced by disposable paper ones. Cinnamon, tobacco, alcohol and goose grease and turpentine mixtures were touted as cures.



Scarcely a family escaped being touched by the flu. Almost everyone lost a mother, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, or a dad. Thousands were left orphans. Others survived to suffer a lifetime of heart and respiratory problems. In 1918, with no national preparedness in place, all the effort had been at the grass roots level. In 1919 the federal govt finally established a health dept. Hospitals were built. Public health improved.



And where did it start? I remains unclear. The Spanish flu is thought to have originated in burning pile of manure at Fort Riley Kansas in March 1918. American troops got sick, subsequently taking it to Europe. It got tagged the Spanish flu because Spain was first to get hit hard and without censorship, the first country to admit it had an epidemic. By the time it was over, influenza had killed 20-30M worldwide. But its cause remained a mystery. In 1933 a British doctor successfully isolated the disease to an airborne virus. Later it was identified as the A type strain. Today the story of the world’s greatest killer is all but forgotten. There is little mention in history books. It’s as if it never happened. But could it happen again? And if it does, are we ready for it? Do we really have an effective vaccine today? And can we develop it quickly enough when needed?

Winnipeg Planning Commission Announces New Plan for 1912

The Winnipeg Planning Commission Announces New Plan for 1912

by George Siamandas

Winnipeg’s Planning Commission had big plans for Winnipeg in 1912. The report of the planning commission recommended moving city hall to Broadway and creating a Mall along Osborne St. Winnipeg was the third largest city. And its leading citizens thought it would still become the biggest in the country.

There was concern that Winnipeg grow in the proper way and provide health, convenience and beauty for its citizens. Winnipeg saw itself as one of the leading cities in North America and wanted to do the right things with its future growth. The committee had some of the city’s leading citizens including distinguished architect John Atchison, the heads of civic departments representatives from the real estate industry, the builders, unions, and academics.


There was a lot of overcrowding. Very high cases of typhoid. Their 1912 studies showed it was twice as high in Winnipeg’s poor areas. There were not enough parks. Houses were being built on 25 foot lots. And what were once nice apartments were degenerating into tenements rapidly. There was concern that congestion near Portage and Notre Dame would get worse and that the system of roads, bridges and subways had to be improved. They also saw this as the last chance to acquire some riverbank land for public drives before it was all privatized. There was also concern that the health and building inspection department could not do their jobs because they were understaffed.


The new Manitoba legislature was about to be started on Broadway and would form the south end of a new mall. City hall was to go near Portage Ave. And between them was to be a new mall featuring a town square providing a place for a future art gallery, public library, post office, auditorium, exposition (convention centre) and other such structures such as a new Hudson Bay store. Running through the middle would be a roadway 160 feet across becoming a new north south highway.


To overcome slums they introduced new building standards. Houses were required to have one bedroom with at least 800 cubic feet of space and a window. No more 25 foot lots. At least one room would have to be 150 sq ft. They wanted to see the establishment of a Child Welfare Bureau and education about domestic hygiene and proper child care.

The legislature was built as planned but everything else had to wait for many decades. Of course city hall was not moved or rebuilt for another fifty years. The Bay built their store in 1926. During the depression they did build the auditorium as a relief project, and in the mid 1960s they built the art gallery. By 1962 city planners felt that city hall should stay put to help prevent further deterioration in the Main St. area.


The voters turned a funding by-law for a new city hall shortly after 1912. The economy just did not support the grand vision that the planners had at the time. World War 1, then the doldrums of the 1920s when Winnipeg’s gateway role was supplanted by the new Panama Canal, then the doldrums of the 1930s and then WW2.

The problems of slums, and housing conditions and more recently of the erosion of the commercial base. But what seems to have changed dramatically is the level of optimism. In 1912 Winnipeg was coming off decades of unprecedented growth and progress. They dreamt big with full confidence their plans would be realized. Today we see continuing challenges to the future viability of downtown both in economic and social terms. The original vision of a health, convenience and beauty seems even more elusive in 1997 than it did 85 years ago.



By George Siamandas

You will find the Waddell Fountain in the north east corner of Central Park. It is a Gothic style fountain that has drawn Winnipeg visitors for 82 hot Winnipeg summers.

Murray Peterson’s book on Winnipeg Landmarks describes it as an example of “high Victorian architecture” …. a “collection of flying buttresses and pinnacles” with water flowing out of lion’s heads. It’s based on a design of a monument to Sir Walter Scott located in Edinburgh. The Waddells had come to Winnipeg in the 1880s. Mr. Waddell was a local leader of the Temperance movement. The Waddells were married for 25 years but had no children. They lived around the corner from Central Park at 457 Sargent and would go for frequent walks into the new Central Park. It was a very fashionable neighbourhood then. The Park was ringed with fine homes, and it had tennis courts and a bandstand as well as winding paths and gardens. Mrs. Waddell’s gift would complete the park which had once been undesirable low lying land that had required thousands of truckloads of fill.

MRS WADDELL’S DEATH RESULTS IN THIS FOUNTAIN Eighty-eight years ago on January 23, 1908, Mrs. Emily Margaret Waddell passed away. Her will contained an unusual provision. Should her husband remarry, $10,000 from her $56,000 estate was to be used to build a public fountain in Central Park. The will was dated 1904. It is not even clear Thomas knew of the provision. It does not look like Mr WAddell complied right away. Maybe he was just a procrastinator. Her will did not come to light till 1911. The will compelled the city to follow up on the provision of a fountain. By this time husband Thomas Waddell was engaged to be married. He just could not perform. He claimed he was desperately in debt due to some real estate investments that went belly up. It took two years for Waddell to find the money, and finally the Parks Board approved a design by Winnipeg architect John Manuel. It was completed in 1914 and cost $9,722. Ten thousand dollars was a huge amount of money then. It would have built one of the finest houses in Crescentwood. A reporter is noted to have said “A truly remarkable fountain could be erected for this sum.” In fact the Conservatory at Assiniboine Park was built around the same time for $15,000.

A WIFE’S REVENGE OR A TRIBUTE TO THEIR LOVE Mrs Waddell loved the park. But building the fountain was required only if her husband remarried. Assuming she suspected her “beloved husband” would remarry as most husbands did, it suggests a wish to see a monument to their life together in the place she seemed to love. I guess it depends on how you see human nature. It might be interesting to invite your listeners to answer the question. I wonder if any of your listeners know more. Parks seem to hold appeal for gifts even today. For example Leo Mol donated 200 sculptures in 1991 for the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden. (June 1991) The other major gift is probably Kathleen Richardson’s donation of the old Richardson property which is now passive park along Wellington crescent. (Jan 19th 1977)

The 1919 Winnipeg Police Strike

1919 Winnipeg Police Strike

The tale of two Winnipeg Police Chiefs

By George Siamandas

© George Siamandas

It has only happened once in Winnipeg’s history, a Police Strike, and when it happened 81 years ago June 9, during the six week 1919 general strike, it resulted in the firing of all but 23 members of the police and major changes in the careers of two police chiefs. Despite warnings by the Police Commission in 1917, Winnipeg policemen had formed their own union in July 1918. At a meeting of the trades and labour Council the newly formed union voted in support of the general Strike. Yet they stayed on the job at the request of the strike committee. In effect it replaced the city as their control.

It is thought the policemen having just returned from WW1, where they fought side by side with workers were sympathetic to the aims of the workers. On May 19 Mayor Charles Gray, asked the policemen to sign an agreement not to participate in a sympathy strike. Two hundred and twenty-eight refused and on June 9 all but the 23 who signed loyalty oaths were dismissed from the force. To keep order, a special police force was set up under Major Lyall with members of the Army and the North West Mounted Police. Three thousand “specials’ were hired.


On June 11, Chief McPherson took the fall for the policemen’s actions and was dismissed. McPherson had been chief from 1911 and a cop since 1903. McPherson had a good record and had been prominent in the successful firebug investigations of 1913. Deputy Chief Chris Newton who had been one of the 23 to sign the loyalty oath replaced the disgraced Chief MacPherson who was never given a satisfactory answer for his dismissal.

Hugh John Macdonald a member of the Police Commission fought against MacPherson’s dismissal. A year later MacPherson was still fighting for compensation and finally received $5,000, a year’s salary and a letter of recommendation. On June 21 the strike got ugly as two strikers were killed by Mounted Specials. By June 26 the strike was over and on June 27 the original policemen began to return to their jobs. Newton noted that 39 men several of whom had been active in the union should not be allowed to return to the force. Those that had stayed on during the strike received bonuses.


Chief Newton helped build morale within the dept. He helped organize the Winnipeg City Police Athletic Assoc and later the Police Pipe Band. Twenty five years later, at age 63 after a distinguished 33 year career, Newton would face his own crisis of confidence.

It started with a fight after a traffic incident at the corner of Broadway and Balmoral St.

In June 27 1934 300 pound Winnipeg Police Chief Christopher H Neuton was charged with beating up 145 pound Joe Erlicky closing his eyes shut. The Free Press showed the diminutive Erlicky with his eye closed shut. Neuton had the class to resign. After a circus of a trial Neuton was found guilty of common assault and had to pay a $20 fine.



Early Efforts to Help Winnipeg Children

By George Siamandas

On Mar 1, 1916, the City of Winnipeg established the Bureau of Child Health. It marked a big step forward. For years councillors and the general public had avoided grappling with the reality of Winnipeg’s alarmingly high child mortality rates. In the early 1900s it was typhoid that ran rampant revealing Winnipeg as the sickest city in North America or Europe: 23 deaths per thousand in 1904, 138 deaths in 1905. An investigation revealed most deaths in the areas without sewers: the north end around the CPR tracks. Winnipeg medical health Officer Dr Douglas likened conditions in Winnipeg’s north end to those of a medieval European city. He noted the squalor in the north end was beyond the powers of description. Also in 1904, untreated water had been pulled into the water supply system to fight a rash of fires.


A combination of ignorance and poverty was making people and especially children sick leading to the highest mortality rates in North America and Europe. Far too many people were living in slum housing conditions. Parents were ignorant of hygienic practices. Children were malnourished. The water was neither safe nor abundant. The 1912-year saw infant death rates soar again: 126 per thousand in 1912 and 199 per thousand in 1914. Clearly it was time for action.


Leading the effort was Dr AJ Douglas, Chief Medical Officer from 1900 to 1940. Douglas would face numerous epidemics including typhus, smallpox and influenza. Winnipeg was lucky to have an advocate at the job. Year after year his reports to council recommended action to hire more inspectors, ensure all houses were connected to sewers, and to reduce overcrowding. Douglas was particularly forceful in 1914 recommending that if necessary the city should get into the housing business. He urged that the city do more about the health of less fortunate Winnipeggers and in particular to put a special focus on child health. He got results. In 1913 working out of a house at 31 Martha St, Health Officer Tustin began to report on Child Hygiene.


Three years later the new Bureau of Child Health began to operate from a modern building at the corner of Main and Aberdeen. Nurses provided infant examinations and two doctors were available mornings 6 days a week. Volunteering their time to help the sick were Drs RF Rorke and E Richardson.

One major service was the dispensing of baby’s milk feedings. Over 350,000 bottles were delivered in 1916. The bulk of it given free. That year Douglas requested an automobile to help deliver the milk before it spoiled on hot days. They made 119,730 nurse visits in 1916. Each nurse cared for over 400 infants. They encountered many young unwed mothers who knew nothing about childcare. Child health improved as more and more information was dispensed. The health dept issued Monthly bulletins: simple things about hygiene, yet things mothers did not know.

Working with other agencies like the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission and the All People’s Mission, help arrived for Winnipeg’s immigrant poor. Finally a tradition for social justice was emerging in Winnipeg’s early days.

JAMES ASHDOWN: Winnipeg’s Merchant Prince


Winnipeg’s Merchant Prince

by George Siamandas

Hardware merchant. Mayor of Winnipeg. Philanthropist. James Ashdown remains one of Winnipeg’s most distinguished citizens. Ashdown was born in London England in 1844 and came to Canada as a young boy of eight. His family settled in Weston Ontario and he later apprenticed at Hespeller, Ontario in the trade of tin smithing. For a while he lived in Kansas but came to Winnipeg in 1868. He spent 44 or 69 days (depending on the source) in a 12×16 foot jail with 21 other men during the Riel rebellion because he had served as one of Schultz’s citizen guards. Ashdown had described Louis Riel as a “strutting peacock who fancies himself a little Napoleon.”

Ashdown made his fortunes starting with Moser’s Hardware a little shop he had purchased for $1,000 in 1869. He renamed it the Winnipeg Tin Shop. It was located at the corner of Bannatyne and Main St. Ashdown’s hardware business would continue to function from the same location for the next 100 years. By 1881 Ashdown was doing business in Emerson and Portage La Prairie and was worth $150,000. He expanded to Calgary in 1889. His buildings and businesses grew and grew with the Ashdown warehouse located east of Main St. seeing four additions in 12 years. Ashdown Hardware served the entire west both wholesale and retail complete with a catalogue division.

In a novel 1900 publicity stunt, Ashdown sent a train of 40 freight cars across every town and village in the Canadian prairies selling straight to the public from the box cars. By 1910 he had become one of Winnipeg’s famous nineteen millionaires. His first house located in Point Douglas was the toast of the town in 1878. His famous house had an indoor bathroom, a furnace and one of the first two phones in Winnipeg. And when industry intruded Ashdown built a new palatial home on Wellington Crescent. Now the Shriners’ Temple.


In 1874 Ashdown was chair of the citizen’s committee that fought for the incorporation of Winnipeg. He also helped organize the Board of Trade, and served as President in 1887. Ashdown invested in many civic minded projects including the street railway system that was being developed by Albert Austin. Ashdown served as mayor in 1907-1908. He was elected in 1907 and won by acclamation in 1908. Ashdown was a practical businessman. He was always careful not to saddle the city with burdens it might not be able to support. He journeyed to England to negotiate good borrowing rates for the city during a difficult time. As mayor, Ashdown was behind many forward looking ventures such as the establishment of evening education classes for adults and compulsory school education.

Ashdown was a director of the Bank of Montreal, Northern Crown Bank, Northern Trust, Canadian Fire Insurance, Great West Life, the City Hospitals Board, the YMCA, Children’s Aid Society, and even the Winnipeg Water District during the time of the aqueduct. A Liberal and a Methodist, Ashdown was also a founder of Wesley College. In his 36 year long association with Wesley College he served as its head for 16 years and he gifted Wesley his favourite institution over $100,000.

JH was one of those that recognized the importance of volunteer community associations as a way of providing needed improvements. Ashdown was always concerned with fiscal matters did not want to rely on the government of the day to meet all civic and community needs. Ashdown was one of those men that was building a future for himself and for his family in Winnipeg. What was good for Ashdown was also good for the city. His personal ambitions and successes fuelled the city’s growth. Ashdown was the “Richardson” of his day. When he died in 1924 he had left $380,000 of his $1.7 million estate to charity. Some included the Winnipeg General Hospital, the Children’s Aid Society, the Salvation Army, the Winnipeg Boys Club and the Winnipeg Free Kindergarten.



“Winnipeg’s Insurance Company”

by George Siamandas


Great West Life founder JH Brock, who dreamed the impossible dream of a Winnipeg-based insurance company. Jeffrey Hall Brock was a local insurance agent who promoted the idea of a Winnipeg based insurance company. His thought was that a local company would be more sensitive to the needs of westerners.

Hall was born in Guelph Ontario in 1850, the youngest of 11 children. He had worked in business in Ontario and New York and moved to Winnipeg in 1879, going into a partnership with Captain GF Carruthers who was active in insurance and finance. Brock was a great promoter of Winnipeg and a very astute businessman. He had come to Winnipeg to stay and to build a future.

He survived the 1883 real estate bust and the lean 1880s that followed seeing the effects of eastern policies on the west. High insurance rates and the difficulty of obtaining financing were growing problems in Winnipeg. Brock recognized the importance of having the accumulated capital from insurance premiums, stay here to develop the west, rather than going to foreign or eastern companies as was typical.


GWL was founded in 1891 at which time half the $8.4 M premium money left the country. And of the 40 insurance companies in Canada, only 9 were Canadian, and none were based on the west. A strong insurance company in Winnipeg would tend to prime the financial pump.


Great West Life was incorporated August 28, 1891, and it had leading citizens like James Ashdown on its board. Brock’s goal was to take in $1,000,000 in premium money in the first year. Brock had been told that his dream of a Winnipeg-based insurance company would not fly, that he was dreaming the impossible dream.

“An absolute impossibility” other insurance men had said. But Brock was able to report at their first annual meeting that they had indeed sold $2.7 Million. GWL went all across Canada in 1896 and in 1906 it opened its first office in the US in Fargo North Dakota. By 1907 it was the top company in Canada and it had 100 employees in Winnipeg and 600 agents across the country.

The effort to create local institutions tended to stabilize Winnipeg’s status as an emerging commercial centre. Banks and other local financial companies flourished during Winnipeg’s fabulous decade between 1906 and 1916.

At first agents were cautioned to sell only to people of good character and in 1894 they refused a policy to man that had deserted his wife and family. GWL recognized the opportunity of selling to women by 1898 and by 1913 had established a department for womens’ sales. By 1920 a Mrs I A Jones of Toronto had become a top seller.

Agents worked an average of 13-14 hours a day and till the 1930s, most of their sales were in rural areas. One agent reported seeing 72 people in one strenuous week and selling 29 policies. Agent FC Kerr of North Battleford started to use a snowmobile in 1927 because he did not want to lose winter business. Another agent was Claude Dunfee who in the early 1920s had his car converted into an office. He would park in a prominent location on the town’s Main street and sell policies right from the car.

GWL’s first death claim was in 1893, from a bicycle accident. The policy paid out $1,000 which saved the policyholder from destitution. In the Titanic disaster GWL paid out to two policy holders of the 1,100 that were lost.


It was now time to build a suitable office building expressing the Great West Life’s prominence and this was realized in the outstanding Great West Life building on Lombard Avenue built in 1911 and designed by John Atchison. GWL went on to build two other major buildings to accommodate its staff. Each was reflective of architectural styles of the time, but neither of its newer buildings come close to the elegance and grace of its Lombard Ave location.



Winnipeg’s Man of Theatre

By George Siamandas

John Hirsch, legendary cofounder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre was born in Hungary on May 30, 1930 in a small village called Siofok. Hirsch had been born to an upper middle class cultured Jewish family. He pursued higher education in Budapest were he lived with his grandfather. During WW2 they were confined to a Jewish ghetto which his grandfather did not survive. After the Russians released Hirsch, he tried to find his parents but discovered they had perished at Auschwitz.

He decided to leave Hungary in 1946 and ended up in a United Nations relief camp in Germany were he passed the time by producing puppet shows. Later he lived in a Jewish orphan’s camp in France before being brought to Canada by the Canadian Jewish Congress.

He chose to come to Winnipeg because he felt its central geographic location would make it safe from potential invasions. He was one of 1000 children refugees brought to Canada.

The Shack family had indicated its wish to take a young child. In fact they took in two teen-age boys. It was only to be for two weeks. John and David lived with the Sasha, Polly and Sybil Shack family and saw Sybil as his sister. He went to work as an office boy with Aronovitch and Leipsic a real estate and insurance firm. At night he went to school to learn English. Tutored by Sybil Shack a schoolteacher, Hirsch obtained his high school matriculation and went to University to study English.

Sybil Shack describes him as a genius. A man who knew what he wanted to do right from the beginning. A quick student. But somewhat emotional and hyper. He hurt many feelings. People either loved him or hated him. His explosive temper was not reserved only for actors. He once called Maitland Steinkopf the father of the Centennial Centre development “Moose-headed.”

Hirsch helped found the Winnipeg Little Theatre or Theatre 77 as it was known for its address at site where the Lombard Inn and parking lot is today.

Sybil had taught him to drive. And while he failed his first driver’s test, he continued to drive his old Hillman to his evening rehearsals at Rainbow Stage or wherever he needed to go. One morning two policemen came to the house and after enjoying coffee and cinnamon buns while he got dressed, arrested him for a large number of unpaid parking tickets. On another they came to the house about his illegal (at the time) relationships with men.

Hirsch lived with the Shacks the entire time he lived in Winnipeg. He was chided only on two occasions: once fore leaving out the dog all day and another time fore bringing unkosher sausage to the house. And he never once offered to do any snow shovelling.

Hirsch started to do television for CBC in 1954. His work would take him all over North America. But no matter where he was he would call home to his Mother Shack every Sunday. Hirsch died on August 13 1989 of aids at age 58.



The newspaper man with ink in his blood

by George Siamandas

John Dafoe is the celebrated editor in chief of the Winnipeg Free Press between 1902 and his death in 1944. Dafoe was a well known Liberal supporter who did not hesitate to criticize the party when it strayed from its Liberal principles. John Dafoe the legendary newspaperman is reputed to have had ink in his blood.

John Wesley Dafoe grew up a farm boy who was brought up as a Tory and Orangeman. His parents were from United Empire stock that came up from the US. Dafoe was born on March 6, 1866 in Combermere Ontario where he gained only a high school education. He was considered awful at grammar and spelling, even later as the editor of the Free Press.

Dafoe’s first assignment as a cub reporter with the Montreal Star was to help expose a crooked clothing store. The Star suspected the clothier was drawing in farm boys fresh into the city, showing them and charging them for a fine suit, but substituting a cheap one when it came time to pick it up. Young Dafoe, the farm boy from Ontario seemed the perfect bait. And indeed, his experience was as expected, the police were called, and the Montreal Star exposed the store’s wickedness in a four day special series.

Dafoe went on to bigger better things reporting on Parliament. Listening to John Blake’s eloquence, the young Tory was immediately converted to Liberalism. Dafoe rose quickly in journalism. At age 17 he was the Montreal Star’s parliamentary reporter during a time Parliament was still lit with gaslights.

At 19 he was editor of the Ottawa Evening Journal. Dafoe joined the Free Press at age 20 in 1886 and stayed for 6 years. During this time Winnipeg had a population of 20,000 but Dafoe marvelled that it had four newspapers and he was glad to be with the best. After another stint in the east Dafoe returned to take over the Manitoba free Press in 1901 and ran it for the next 43 years.

Reflecting on his 60 year career and referring to that fateful offer to be editor of the Free Press, Dafoe remarked that took him only a millionth of a second to decide to take what he considered as the best job in the world. His boss, publisher of the Free Press, Clifford Sifton was a strong willed and autocratic man with whom Dafoe often differed on politics. Yet a kind of common view emerged.

While the Free press was a regional paper it had influence all over the west and was read in Ottawa. Dafoe had a great interest in international affairs and his paper gave them wide coverage. Before WW2 the Winnipeg Free Press was considered the most influential paper in Canada. He believed that a newspaper should be an advocate of things it believes are right even if they are unpopular views. He was the first voice to criticise the Munich agreement of 1938 and of British PM Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolph Hitler. He knew it would only lead to war.

Dafoe was staunch free-enterpriser and was very critical of unions especially during the 1919 strike but during the depression his views on economics became more moderate. He was a fierce advocate of free trade and of individual initiative.

Dafoe was well respected and well liked at the Free Press. But it was noted that he never uttered a word of praise. He was described as the quiet lonely man who worked tirelessly to get the story right. He received a doctor of laws degree but felt uncomfortable with the title.

Dafoe married Alice in 1890. Members of Dafoe’s family, including Dafoe’s daughter Elizabeth Dafoe, and grandson Christopher Dafoe, have gone on to become significant personalities in their own right. John Dafoe died on Jan 9, 1944.