The Kootenay School of Common Sense

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Every few days, in the depths of winter, Fred Weller would rap on my cabin door and I'd follow him, stumbling miles into the frozen mountains to collect the animals unlucky enough trip the snares on his trapline.

His exclamation whisked by on a cloud of glinting ice crystals as we tramped across a frozen beaver pond: "Trouble is, too much goddamn book learnin' these days, not enough goddamn common sense." The hoary trapper squinted over his shoulder - sixty years of bush craft behind mischievous, sparkling grey eyes.

Weller was one of a half-dozen mountain men and women - an almost extinct breed - who became mentors to me in my early twenties. A man for all seasons, he never missed an occasion to dispense his hard-earned wisdom. I was a tourist in the old trapper's world, a dilettante with a cabin-full of fancy words stacked on rough-hewn bookshelves.

One crisp, sunny autumn day, a motley gathering had fanned out in the mixed pine and larch forest adjacent to a circle of log cabins, hidden deep in the Purcell Mountains of south-eastern British Columbia: assorted climbing bums, bush hippies and old-timers; a Vietnam War-amputee from the Ozarks; a California draft dodger; Weller's adopted Cree son; his wife Lydia, also a Manitoba Cree, whose muscular arms made short work of skinning a beaver and who could hoist a reluctant dancer right out of his chair.

It was getting hard to find a standing dead tree near "The Meadow." We were running out of ready-seasoned firewood. "Well, that's yer basic lesson in bush economics," Weller declared, scratching his bristly cheek.

Weller knew a thing or two about big-city economics, as well. Like many destitute workers during the Hungry Thirties, he found himself working for twenty cents a day in Department of National Defence-run "slave camps." Hungry and tired, he joined hundreds who'd had enough of brutal camp life, determined to bring their protest to the federal government.

On June 3, 1935, the "On To Ottawa Trek" began in Vancouver. They would take their grievances to the capital and lay them at the door of the aloof Conservative government of Prime Minister R.B Bennett. Scrambling on freight trains, they "rode the rod" eastward, only to be met by an army of Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Regina city police assembled there by "Iron Heel" Bennett.

Sixty-six years ago, on July 1, in an action commonly described afterwards as a "police riot," the authorities ambushed the Regina protest rally with horses, tear gas, pistols and clubs; driving terrified indigent workers into a sports stadium; detaining them without food or water, behind a cordon of barbed wire and machine guns.

When Weller told me this story - forty years later, in 1975 - his voice still cracked in anger. "Those bastards started shooting - right into the crowd!" Hundreds were wounded on that Dominion Day, but amazingly, only one man - a plain-clothes policeman - died.

The Trek was over, but the workers' call for justice resonated across the country. Protests continued into the fall, when irate voters ousted Bennett's party. The beneficiaries of the popular uprising - William Lyon Mackenzie King's Liberals - abolished the hated labour camps.

When I joined the Kootenay school of common sense, I'd been in Canada less than ten years, a refugee from the stifling ennui of England's decaying, post-industrial Midlands. Those mountain folk were my link to the grassroots history of this sprawling "land of opportunity."

They taught, by example, the importance of individual initiative and, most importantly, community solidarity. They could, if need be, survive alone, with little more than a snare and an axe. But they prized the social value of co-operation and charity. They displayed those virtues effortlessly in their daily lives.

Those pioneers remind us that the stewardship and sharing of life's fundamental assets are the core principles of civilized relations. They lie at the heart of this great country.

They would be proud of those people who occupied Seattle and Quebec City. Their hearts would go out to brave souls who rally in Prague, Göteburg, Barcelona, and G8 protesters who massed by the thousands in Genoa last week, to save those timeless principles, and the narrative from which they spring, from the crushing jaws of corporate globalization.

As the titans of "turbo-capitalism" slam history's clock into reverse, returning us to the days of extreme class polarization, the pioneers are there with us, lighting the way forward, through clouds of cynical newspeak, toward community and social progress, the authentic Common Sense Revolution.

On the rainy streets of Seattle in 1999, and again in Quebec City this year, I stood with a new generation of dissidents, witnessing today's version of a police riot. As the concussion grenades deafened, the plastic bullets flew, and the tear gas blinded, I recalled the words of another Purcell Mountain sage.

The occasion was a thanksgiving feast, tables overflowing with fresh game, and vegetables coaxed from stony alpine soils. In his eighty-second year, the late Joe Blake, prospector, and builder of the Meadow's stout old cabins, sat plucking his battered banjo. "Y'know," he suddenly offered. "There weren't never no trouble, 'til they started printin' all that goldarn paper money!"

Raymond Parker is a freelance outdoors and environment writer. He lives in Nanaimo. His articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines including the Nanaimo Daily News, Nature Canada, Beautiful British Columbia Traveller and online at rabble.ca. He has new bookcases.

"everyone's a critic" is a rabble news feature providing commentary by various writers on, well, anything.

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