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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.

Simon James Dawson

Simon James Dawson

Surveyor, Road Builder and Politician

By George Siamandas
© George Siamandas

Dawson is the man that carved a trail though the Northern Ontario and Manitoba wilderness to build the Dawson Road. Simon James Dawson was born June 13, 1818 near Portsoy Scotland. He was the last of ten children born to John Dawson and Anne McDonell. His family immigrated to the Nepean townships near Ottawa in the late 1830s. After experience with surveying and lumber operations in Peterborough, he joined the Dept of Public Works. In 1857 he was appointed to work on the western survey between Lake Superior and Red River.

The head of the survey was George Gladman and the scientific member of the team was Henry Youle Hind. Disputes with Gladman saw Dawson put in charge of the survey while Hind was allowed to run his own scientific expedition. But when Dawson’s proposed route was presented in 1859 it seemed too costly and was shelved by the govt of the day. It was not until after confederation that his proposals saw the light of day.

In 1868 Dawson’s road was approved and he was put in charge of completing it. News of the Riel uprising in 1869 quickened the pace of construction, which had been slow during 1868. By early 1870 Dawson had over 1,000 men hard at work trying to complete the road so that troops could flow into red River to establish civil controls. Wolseley’s troops added 5,000 man-days to the completion of the road as they inched west during early 1870.

The 450-mile Dawson road consisted of three sections. There was a 95-mile strip between Lake of the Woods and Fort Garry. Then 310 miles of lakes, rivers and portages, and finally a 45-mile wagon road to Fort William, now called Thunder Bay. The way was cleared and a series of tree trunks were placed forming a corduroy surface of parallel logs at right angles to those below them. The corduroy surface of ridges would prove a pounding experience for those that would travel it. The Countess of Dufferin remarked that “when we had been knocked about as much as we could bear we got out and walked.” Fortunately the Dawson served for a little more than a decade till the railway arrived. It never became a popular route.

When the railway was put through it by passed Fort William much to Dawson’s disappointment and he decided to enter politics to fight it. Dawson would become a member of the Ontario legislature and after that the House of Commons. As the member for Algoma, Dawson became an outspoken supporter of Fort William and later of native fishing rights and of bilingualism. He became unpopular in the 1880s and was referred to as an old fossil. Defeated in the early 1890s, he sought but did not obtain a Senate seat.

Dawson, who had never married, died in relative obscurity in Ottawa on Oct 30, 1902.