Not often does a book provide an insightful and fascinating account of a dramatic event in Canada’s history and then become part of the event’s commemoration! However, such is the case with Elroy Deimert’s creative non-fiction work Pubs, Pulpits and Prairie Fires, and its celebration of the On-to-Ottawa Trek and Regina Riot.
Recently I caught up with Deimert at the Rhizome Cafe in Vancouver and asked him about the Trek’s anniversary celebration, and what prompted him to write Pubs, Pulpits and Prairie Fires.
“My contact with my wife’s grandmother, and the fact that she had been there in Regina during the night of the rioting on Dominion Day in 1935, began my fascination with the trek,” says Deimert. “She recalled coming out of a downtown movie theatre when a young man came bursting through the theatre’s doors and huddled in corner saying: ‘Don’t go out there, lady. They’re shooting at people, they’re trying to kill us.’ She responded: ‘Well, if someone’s shooting, let’s call the police,’ to which he replied: ‘Ma’am, it’s the police doing the shooting!’”
Soon after hearing this eyewitness story about the trek, Deimert began a personal quest to tape the voices of the surviving trekkers and record their recollections of the events of June and July 1935. The result is Pubs, Pulpits and Prairie FIres.
The book is set in modern-day Grand Prairie, Alberta, at BJ’s Bar and Cue Club. There, Deimart brings together an extraordinary and unlikely group of characters, including 78-year-old, Trinidad-born ex-gospel preacher and ex-alcholic Charles; ordained United Church minister Daniella; local heroes in the music scene, Tom and Cam; oil patch “rig pig” and recovered crack abuser Sammy; and the book’s main character, narrator and Deimert’s alter-ego, history professor Paul Wessner. Once Wessner introduces the club’s members, their late-night rambles begin.
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I saw as a child, I reasoned as a child,” opens Wessner philosophically in Chapter 1, quoting the Corinthians. When I became a man, I thought I had put away the things of the child. Now, I see through a glass darkly. But then…?” To which Sammy, a surprisingly well-read 35-year-old high-school dropout exclaims: “Alright already! Is this poetry we’re hearing or is this the goddamn Bible? I hear this somewhere before, and if it’s in the goddamn Bible like I suspect it is, you can’t expect us to sit here listening to you blood scripture reading for the rest of the night.” Then Sammy shouts to the waiter. “Hey, could we get some more beer here? Or are we cut off or something just ‘cause some poet, smoking funny tobacca, quotes the goddamned Bible.”
Readers soon learn, however, that the members of the “History Session” convene not to discuss the Bible but to learn about professor Wessner’s passion: the 1935 On-to-Ottawa Trek and Regina Riot and, especially, his interviews with the event’s surviving veterans. As the conversation moves to the Ottawa trek, Wessner announces that he intends to liven up the all-night gatherings by having real-life trek leaders ‘Doc’ Savage and Matt Shaw come as guest speakers to share their first-hand accounts of the events.
Savage arrives first in the book and Shaw follows, with both making more than one appearance. Meanwhile, in between the octogenarian’s visits, the Tuesday night regulars not only discuss historical episodes from the Great Depression, such as the rise of Tommy Douglas and the CCF in Saskatchewan and ‘Bible Bill’ Aberhart’s Social Credit movement in Alberta, but also more contemporary events including the 1970 October Crisis; the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit; the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and the 2001 Quebec Summit of the Americas.
To parallel events from the 1930s to more recent decades, Deimert uses the Great Depression police tactics of clubs, horses and tear-gas. How does Deimert successfully weave his characters in and out of events more than 60 years apart and, at the same time, convert them into both storytellers and audience? Drawing upon his experience as an English literature instructor at Grand Prairie Regional College, he employs the literary technique know as “intercalary chapters,” in which the even-numbered chapters and the openings of each chapter are characterized by the fictional frame of BJ’s History Session, and the odd-numbered chapters feature the narratives of Shaw and Savage.
“I wanted a structure that would look at storytelling in a larger way,” says Deimert. “Not only were these trek veterans storytellers, but, as the listeners at BJ’s heard the trekker’s stories, they were inspired to tell their own stories and therefore were pulled into the history. That’s why the intercalary chapters celebrate the audience and their stories.”
What about the book’s title? The setting for the Tuesday night storytelling is based on a real-life Grand Prairie pub with a similar name. As for “pulpits,” Deimert says: “In the 1930s, politics was going in two directions: one to a Social Credit and one to a CCF vision of the world. Both directions were instigated by ministers. The CCF’s leader, Tommy Douglas, and the Social Credit’s ‘Bible Bill’ Aberhart were both Baptist ministers. The pulpit was influential in the politics of the era.” Deimert included “prairie fires” in the title because, he says: “The populist politics of the Social Credit and the CCF, both anti-establishment and anti-banks, were like prairie fires going in different directions, with neither consuming the other - and the trek was part of the prairie fire movement.”
Robert ‘Doc’ Savage arrives on the scene in Chapter 3. “I remember camp 33 - ‘Beaver Ranch’ the called it - near Merritt,” the elderly trekker recalls as he addresses the History Session for the first time. “Primitive shacks. Forty-five-gallon drums wood stove…. No electricity in the bunks just these coal lamps, so it was too dark to read when the sun went down. There was nothing to do, and monotonous evenings and bad food were routine. There was no First Aid there of any kind… The conditions were depressing, but worse than the physical conditions was the isolation. Nothing to do. Nothing to read. No women, of course… And there was no hope, you see.”
Matt Shaw makes his first of several appearances in Chapter 7. Wessner asks him how the decision was made to take the relief camp strike to Ottawa, and Shaw replies: “The strike had gone on in Vancouver for two months and some of the boys were deserting and heading east on the freights, alone or in pairs, probably looking for summer work… So we had a mass meeting in the Avenue Theatre to vote on a proposition to continue the strike or shut it down… A member of the Strike Committee spoke out from the floor without recognition from the chair. None of us can agree who it was, and the minutes of the meeting have disappeared into police vaults, when they raided us later. But the guy simply said something like: ‘Look, fellas, we might be coming to a dead end here in Vancouver, but they keep telling us that only Ottawa can address our demands, so what the hell - let’s all go to Ottawa, lay in on their table directly. Ride the rails to visit Bennett.’ Well, we had a voice vote with fists in the air, and I think it might have unanimous to adopt the motion.”
A fair question for readers, including historians and genre critics, might be: “Just how accurate are the narratives of Savage and Shaw?” Deimert addresses this issue in the book’s epilogue by readily admitting that the voices are a compilation of several trekkers. However, he qualifies this admission by stating that Pubs, Pulpits and Prairie Fires is based on primary source interviews with Savage and Shaw, as well as sever other trekkers. “The original guys,” insists Deimert, “often knew better and provided the unadorned, unromanticized versions of what happened.”
What about the book’s connection to the 75th anniversary celebration of the trek? In honour of the anniversary, between June 5 and 14 Deimert embarked on a book tour, stopping in each of the towns visited by the original trekkers. Each stop included readings by Deimert, recognition of surviving trekkers and eyewitnesses; and the singing of labour anthems and folksongs of the era, such as, “Solidarity Forever” and “Hold the Fort.”
Film director Alan Segal of Outpost Productions rode with Deimert to film the celebrations. Deimert and Segal hope that the documentary will find a permanent home in Alberta’s Glenbow Museum and the National Archives, as well as be highlighted on national television networks.
“I wanted to concentrate on the voices, the narratives, of the men I interviewed,” says Deimert. “That’s what impressed me, and I wanted to capture the morality, and the energy of the voices that told it.” Pubs, Pulpits and Prairie Fires indeed proves that all history is a story, and these ones are indeed well-told.
–by Michael Dupuis, August/September 2010, Our Times