Blast from the Past: Of Continued Relevance

NEWS RELEASE · 25th August 2010


A Reflection by its broadcaster and host, Kevin D. Annett

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I was a budding activist in the summer of 1975, fresh out of a Vancouver high school, when Co-op Radio came into being. I remember the month it opened, in a crumbling building off Pigeon Park, long before East Hastings street had become the garbage can it is now.

An old communist sailor named Joe Hendsbee told me about the station one night over a beer at the Lotus Hotel. Joe had survived RCMP bullets on the Vancouver waterfront during the 1946 Canadian Seaman’s Union strike that had won him a lifelong blacklisting, and he didn’t have any time for idiots or fake radicals.

“They’d better do something more than talk and scratch their asses” he pronounced.

Those were the days when nobody felt the need to be politically correct, because people were authentic back then. They did what they promised. When you called a protest, five hundred people would show up, padded and armed with clubs to fend off the riot cops. When we rallied, we’d tie up traffic on a business day and never apply for a permit to gather – not politely assemble on a weekend at a closed government office, like nowadays.

Joe and I checked out Co-op Radio, and at a general meeting he pissed off some of the feminists by asking one of them out.

“How the hell was I to know she was a lesbian?” he bemoaned, later.

But nobody made a big deal about it. People were less paranoid and suspicious back then. We weren’t ego-bound. We knew we could overturn the world.

Over the years, Co-op Radio gradually acquired the middle aged layers of fat that adhere to anyone or anything that stays stuck. As the government grants arrived, so did domestication and bureaucracy. During the early 1980′s, I worked for a while on a labor program with the Canadian Farmworkers’ Union, and I remember the horror I felt when asked to fill out a form about our show for the government’s federal CRTC agency.

“You mean they monitor us, like Big Brother?” I exclaimed to the program host, who was equally appalled.

That just wasn’t on back then, any more than was the thought of being filmed by a close circuit video camera. We would have assumed you were nuts, or joking, if you had have told us that one day, Co-op Radio would be monitored by many such cameras, inside and out.

And yet for all the creeping Orwellian restrictions all around us and at the station, just knowing there was a space on the airwaves that was still moderately open and offering some alternatives was a lifeline during the regressive 1980’s – and the ‘90’s. The stupidity of Reaganism and Thatcherism, and their contrived, profit-driven scare of nuclear Armageddon, injected a new and deadly demon into our collective veins: Fear. And out of that toxin sprang distrust.

People of my generation and those who followed learned to be cautious and to worry about everything. From 500 souls at a spontaneous protest, our numbers fell to fifty or less. Many of us no longer knew that we could change the world. We had lost our faith, and self-concern replaced valor.

We are adrift in the cesspool created by those times, and for those of us who survived that era with our principles and our drive intact, we have had to fight against the stream and not go under to keep truth and clarity alive. Co-op Radio helped me and some others do that at critical moments: not because of its policies or the station staff, but simply because the space it provided helped us to remain ourselves and be freely heard.

In the fall of 2001 I returned to Co-op Radio after a long hiatus, when I was invited to share over the air my labors with Indian residential school survivors, and our evidence of church-sponsored genocide in Canada. I launched a new program that I named “Hidden from History”, based on a book I had just written. I was guided by a single aim: to give a public voice to the survivors of the worst crime in Canadian history, long before anyone – whether native or white – wanted to.

Lindsay Bickford was one of the bright souls who ushered me back into the station then. A gentle but ornery guy in his seventies, Lindsay operated as my techie for a few years.

Lindsay would spontaneously break into tears and sob when one of my guests would describe their torture, or the death of a friend, at a residential school. Afterwards, Lindsay would rush from his little booth to the native man or woman before they left the station and embrace them with a completely open and unassuming love, urging them to stay strong and pure, and to come back again. Of course, if anyone ever banged the table or fiddled with the mikes during a show, Lindsay would flail his arms and scream in anger from the other side of the glass with equal passion. And woe betide me if I didn’t announce the station I.D. every fifteen minutes!

Lindsay died suddenly one day, and when I conducted his funeral in the spring of 2004, I remember telling the many mourners that afternoon that Lindsay had made me a vegetarian, for awhile at least, by his own personal example, which was simply that he had an unflagging love for all living creatures.

As the best of us went that way and the years passed, our Hidden from History program persisted, and it kept something alive that began to shake the very foundations of the Canada we knew. From those airwaves, voices began to open sealed graves and official secrets. Churches were confronted and occupied by the same stumbling men and women who found their lost voice on our airwaves. Official Canada was forced into a pseudo “apology”, and even some admissions of criminality. The women who still go missing were remembered, and their murderers named. The myth of a liberal, decent Canada was forever shattered because of the struggling men and women who spoke every week on our show.

But more vitally, the program saved lives. As one survivor recently told me, “Doing Hidden from History let me be myself.” The freedom to speak what we are without fear, in season and out, is part of our soul’s right to breathe, and sharing that right brings life again to even the most unlikely of people.

Every week, I fought to give William Combes and Bingo Dawson and Harry Wilson and a hundred others like them the right not to be censored, not to crawl away with their pain and die from it, but to shout it to a world that wouldn’t listen, to name the names and demand something as unattainable as justice.

It worked. William survived longer than he would have, thanks to that microphone. So did Bingo, and Harry. Their torture didn’t hold them, during that blessed hour from one to two p.m. every Monday, when we gathered as in a sacred circle to simply tell the truth. Somehow, they acquired their manhood again.

Often, ten or twelve people would show up fresh from the street and crowd Studio B in a noisy and joyous clamor, each wanting to share something of their life or some latest brutality. I never had to worry about scheduling the truth. It always arrived and was heard. And often it sang, like when homeless Ricky Lavallee would arrive with a battered and near-stringless guitar, and belt out a new tune of his about seeing Jesus that day, laid out and drunk behind a dumpster.

The spontaneous nature of our show raised hackles among the senior staff, especially those like station manager Leela Chinniah who would one day axe our program on government orders. I was told I needed to be careful about allowing people to speak of murders. I was told to restrict people, and guide them, and structure everything.

It didn’t impress me much, that fearful need for management, nor did it the way that station policy was selectively enforced or ignored at the whim of the staff. I saw programmers who weren’t liked by particular staff people ostracized and forced to give up their shows; and those who were favored granted privileges and rights denied to the rest of us. But the worst filth was never seen until it was too late, as Leela and the other staffers went behind our backs and made a secret deal with a corporate media mogul named Jim Pattison to buy up the station. And all the time, these actors in deceit justified everything with the same politically correct lingo.

Hannah Arendt observed that evil is mostly banal, utterly sure of itself and bureaucratically incapable of hearing any voice but its own. So too with the now-extinguished Vancouver Co-op Radio, and those who pretend to run it. 

But now is not the time to mire our spirit in banality, especially in the light of the victorious nine years that I was honored to establish and share Hidden from History, and help change the nation. Now is the time for all of us, bureaucrats included, to rise to the opportunity granted to us by William and Harry and Bingo, and those many others who will no longer sit with me in Studio B.

Opportunities in life come and go too rapidly to notice, and in our daily stumbling, these golden chances are easily lost. The truth is, we who were Hidden from History held out every Monday to anyone who would truly listen a priceless gift: the chance to know what we are really a part of, here in “Canada ” – our true legacy on this land, and how we can overcome its blood and horror. And we did so not by speaking “about” the truth, but by embodying it.

The Beast that is devouring all of us can only tolerate that kind of upsetting example for so long. Then it takes careful aim and strikes at the head of the threat, and the others scatter – for a time. Thus do I find myself now on the outside of what had been our voice, after so long, as the calumny and deceit tries to discard me and our witness like so much refuse.

But that is only the present moment. We have made our mark, and its impact continues to swell like an approaching off-shore Tsunami.

Shortly before he was killed by three Vancouver cops last December, Bingo Dawson – a regular on our program – showed a rare joy in his eyes when I asked him to come with me to Rome and help confront the Pope for what his church did to Bingo’s people. He paused and looked around the struggling human ebb and flow from his perch at Main and Hastings street. And then he said,

“I wish we could bring all of this shit with us there to make them see.”

I can’t remember how I responded, but then Bingo gave me a happier look and continued,

“Remember when me and Frank invaded that Anglican church with our banner, about the missing kids? And we got locked in there with all of those idiots and those priests went ballistic in panic?”

I nodded, smiling and remembering. Then Bingo said,

“That was the best.”

As George Orwell wrote about a stranger he briefly met who was later killed fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War,

For the look I saw in your eye,
No power can disinherit.
No bomb that ever burst
shatters the crystal spirit.

Struggle and survive, O you poets and witnesses.