Radio Interview: Vladivostok book launch, Crimea and the Ukraine

Listen to this CFAX 1070 radio interview from March 11, 2014, where I discuss the launch of the Russian edition of my book From Victoria to Vladivostok, as well as the current situation in the Crimean Peninsula and Ukraine:

Link to CFAX 1070 interview, March 11, 2014

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Launching the Russian edition of From Victoria to Vladivostok

Video highlights and photos from the launch of the Russian edition of From Victoria to Vladivostok, which took place at the Arseniev State Museum of Primorsky Region in Vladivostok, Russia on February 18, 2014. Thanks to the Korpus Company and the Arseniev Museum staff for all their work organizing a successful event.

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Photo Album from From Victoria to Vladivostok Book Launch
Vladivostok, Russia, February 18, 2014


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В музее Арсеньева презентовали книгу о жизни канадских солдат во Владивостоке

(English translation below)
19 февраля 2014, Владивосток

Бенджамин Иситт, доктор философии в области исторических

Соревнования по футболу, бейсболу и хоккею, боксерские поединки, издание газет, визиты в публичные дома и прогулки в морг – такими были развлечения канадских солдат во время гражданской войны на Дальнем Востоке. Книгу о жизни в городе четырех тысяч заокеанских интервентов презентовал в музее Арсеньева историк Бенджамин Иситт.

10 лет своей жизни профессор из университета Виктории (Канада), доктор философии в области исторических наук Бенджамин Иситт посвятил изучению визита канадских интервентов во Владивосток. Восемь месяцев пребывания 4210 иностранцев в приморском городе до сих пор были белым пятном в истории гражданской войны на Дальнем Востоке.

Книга «Из Виктории во Владивосток: Канадская сибирская экспедиция 1917-1919 гг.» была издана на родине автора еще в 2010 году. Теперь она стала доступна и для русскоязычной публики. Инициатором перевода и издания книги стал энтузиаст и любитель истории, генеральный директор торгово-промышленной фирмы «Корпус» Борис Левашко.

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Interview at Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok

Interview at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok on February 17, 2014, discussing the launch of the Russian edition of my book From Victoria to Vladivostok as well as politics and culture in Canada and Russia.

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Remembering Peace: CBC Radio interview

Listen to this CBC Radio interview with Gregor Craigie from November 7, 2013, where I discuss how war is remembered and alternative forms of commemoration that embrace non-violent solutions to conflict rather than militarism:

Link to CBC Radio interview, November 7, 2013

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Coming soon…


The Russian translation of From Victoria to Vladivostok, published by the Korpus Company in Vladivostok, is being launched in the Russian Far East!

Tuesday February 18, 2014
Arnseniev State Museum of Primorsky Region
20 Svetlanskaya Street
Vladivostok, Russia 

This forgotten moment in Canadian, Russian and world history will now be accessible to scholars and the reading public in English, French and Russian editions!


History of the progressive municipal movement

Presentation to the Coalition of the Progressive Electors’ (COPE) summer celebration in Vancouver, July 10, 2013:

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British Columbia’s social pioneers

As a provincial election approaches, it is useful to reflect on our history and collective efforts over more than a century to build a fair society. Here is an eloquent overview provided by Daisy Webster, MLA for Vancouver South, as she moved the Speech from the Throne in the BC Legislature following the election of the province’s first NDP government (from Hansard, Report of Debates of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, 18 October 1972):

The BC New Democratic Party caucus, c. 1967

“The principles of democratic socialism in British Columbia pioneered long before the New Democratic Party was formed or the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation before it.

To appreciate the New Democratic Party today, and its potential for increasing strength, one must understand the history of the movement and its reasons for coming into existence. In fact, Mr. Speaker, the history of democratic socialism in British Columbia dates back to the beginning of the century. It’s the history of the successes and the defeats of the pioneers of this movement. There were also conflicts within the movement among members who with strong determination reflected the way in which they thought the party should go and did not always agree with each other. Some of these inner struggles were damaging indeed, but the party survived because all concerned basically believed in and worked for the same policies towards the advancement of reform for the working people.

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“On y va pas à Siberia” (We will not go to Siberia)

A group of committed citizens joined Ben for the Victoria Mutiny Commemorative Walk on December 21, 2012, retracing the steps of the 259th Battalion from the Willows Camp to the Rithet's Wharf

December 21st marks the anniversary of the mutiny in Victoria of soldiers, French-Canadian conscripts mostly, who defied the orders of their masters in 1918. The soldiers refused to march to the docks to be sent over to Vladivostok, Russia — in the opening volley of Canada’s Siberian Expedition, a failed attempt by Canada and its Allies to open an Eastern front against the Bolsheviks, hoping to return control of Russia to the supporters of imperialism and monarchy.

On December 21st, 2012 a group of Victoria residents retraced the seven-kilometre route of the mutinous 259th Battalion, from the Willows Camp, now Carnarvon Park in Oak Bay, past the mutiny site at the intersection of Fort and Quadra, and onward through downtown Victoria to the Rithet’s Wharf, the location of the Canadian Coast Guard base near Ogden Point, where the troopship SS Teesta departed 94 years earlier.

The commemorative walk built on a gathering a year earlier at the mutiny site, where attendees demanded in both of Canada’s official languages that those convicted by Court Martial of the mutiny be pardoned posthumously. This year we retraced the steps of the soldiers to commemorate this forgotten moment in the history of Victoria, Canada and the world.

Soldiers in the 259th Battalion at the Willows Camp, December 1918

The commemorative walk will take place annually, leaving from the Willows (Carnarvon Park) at 7am for a ceremony at the mutiny site at 8:30am, building toward a large-scale re-enactment and commemoration on the 100th anniversary of the mutiny  — December 21st, 2018. For more information on the mutiny and its context, visit the Siberian Expedition Virtual Exhibition, read this Legion Magazine article or the book From Victoria to Vladivostok, or contact the 1918 Victoria Mutiny Committee c/o spokesperson Art Farquharson:

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On the Borders of Bolshevism

“On the Borders of Bolshevism: Class, Race, and the Social Relations of Occupied Vladivostok, 1918-19.” Comparativ, 22 (October 2012): 72-86. Read Here (0.15MB PDF)

Abstract. In Vladivostok after the revolutions of 1917, power was in flux. Rival state and non-state actors vied for legitimacy, a geopolitical conflict that translated into local and human relations—a process mediated by class, race, and ideology—which in turn defined borders and shaped social spaces in occupied Vladivostok. More than a hundred thousand foreign soldiers converged on Russia’s far eastern port following the toppling of Soviet authority in mid-1918, mingling with a civilian population that included ethnically Asian and European Russian residents, as well as White Russian émigrés who converged on the terminal city after fleeing the fighting of the civil war in the Eurasian interior. Taking occupied Vladivostok as a case study, this work embraces a broad conception of “migrant worker” that extends from the foreign soldiers to local civilians and refugees – placing particular emphasis on relations between Canadian soldiers and local civilians. Elite officers identified with the White Russians; they saw legions of Bolsheviks and responded with outrage to the irregular tactics waged by partizan guerrillas from the hill villages of the Primorye region. Rank-and-file troops, meanwhile, were more suspicious of their countries’ aims in Russia and identified with, or at least sought to understand, the popular insurgency that surged in the spring of 1919. Local civilians of Chinese and Korean ethnicity were viewed through a “colonizer’s gaze,” yet were held in lesser contempt because they were seen (inaccurately) as being impervious to Bolshevik influence. In the cafés, street corners, cinemas, marketplaces, trams, barracks, and brothels of occupied Vladivostok, Allied soldiers entered into a complex interaction with each other and with the bordertown’s restive civilian population—creating a unique social space located on the borders of Bolshevism.

Resümee. Nach der Revolution von 1917 war die Machtfrage in Vladivostok ungeklärt. Rivalisierende staatliche und nicht-staatliche Akteure rangen um politischen Einfluss. Die geopolitischen Konflikte übertrugen sich auf die lokalen Verhältnisse und sozialen Beziehungen – ein Prozess, der mit Blick auf Klasse, Rasse und Ideologie seinerseits Grenzen festlegte und soziale Räume im besetzten Vladivostok formte. Nach dem Machtverlust der Bol’ševiki inVladivostok strömten im Sommer 1918 mehr als einhunderttausend ausländische Soldaten in Russlands fernöstliche Hafenstadt. Sie mischten sich mit der dort ansässigen asiatischen und europäisch-russischen Zivilbevölkerung und Emigranten, vorwiegend Anhängern der antibolschewistischen Weißen Bewegung, die vor dem Bürgerkrieg im Inland geflohen waren. Am Beispiel des besetzten Vladivostok soll in diesem Artikel das Konzept des „Wanderarbeiters“ so erweitert werden, dass es sowohl ausländische Soldaten als auch die lokale Zivilbevölkerung und Flüchtlinge erfasst. Ein besonderer Schwerpunkt liegt dabei auf den Beziehungen zwischen den kanadischen Soldaten und der lokalen Zivilbevölkerung. Die höheren O.ziere identi.zierten sich mit den Anhängern der Weißen Bewegung und reagierten mit Empörung auf die Guerilla-Taktik der Partisanenverbände aus den Dörfern der Region Primor’e. Einfache Soldaten hingegen standen den Zielen ihrer Länder in Russland eher skeptisch gegenüber und identi.zierten sich mit dem Volksaufstand im Frühjahr 1919. Die Zivilbevölkerung chinesischer und koreanischer Abstammung wurde durch einen „kolonialen Blickwinkel“ wahrgenommen, aber kaum mit Geringschätzung, weil man sie (fälschlicherweise) für immun gegenüber kommunistischen Einflüssen hielt. In Cafés, auf den Straßen, in den Kinos und der Straßenbahn, auf Marktplätzen, in den Kasernen und Bordellen des besetzten Vladivostok entwickelten sich zwischen alliierten Soldaten und der aufsässigen Zivilbevölkerung der Grenzstadt komplexe Wechselbeziehungen, die einen einzigartigen sozialen Raum an der Grenze zum Bolschewismus schufen.

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Доктор философии из Канады обещает через год представить в ДВФУ свою книгу о гражданской войне

Ben delivers a keynote address at a historical conference on military intervention in the Russian Civil War, Vladivostok, October 2012

Одним из участников международной конференции «Гражданская война и военная интервенция: уроки истории», проходившей в ДВФУ 25-26 октября, стал Бенджамин Айситт, доктор философии из университета Виктории (Канада), автор множества книг, статей, монографий. Темы его научных интересов – история, политика, социальная жизнь Канады. Доктор Айситт выступил на конференции с лекцией на английском языке «Canada and the Allied Occupation of Vladivostok, 1918-1919». Кроме того, студентам Школы гуманитарных наук и Школы региональных и международных исследований ДВФУ Бенджамин Айситт прочитал лекции по истории, политике и международным отношениям Канады.

International Relations students at Far Eastern Federal University listen to Ben discuss Canada's foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region, Vladivostok, October 2012

Выступления канадского доктора философии вызвали большой интерес широкой аудитории. Поэтому организаторы конференции информируют всех, кто задавал вопросы на лекциях: доктор Айситт планирует вернуться во Владивосток в 2013 году, чтобы представить свою книгу на русском языке «Из Виктории во Владивосток: канадская сибирская экспедиция 1917-1919 гг.». Книга раскроет некоторые пробелы в истории канадского военного присутствия на Дальнем Востоке, в частности, во Владивостоке в тяжелые времена Гражданской войны. Это первое исследование по данной проблематике не только в Канаде, но и в России, поэтому историки с нетерпением ждут ее выхода. Книга была уже издана на двух языках – английском и французском, также планируется снять документальный фильм по книге на трех языках. Бенджамин Айситт побывал в различных уголках Владивостока, чтобы найти и идентифицировать по старинным фотоснимкам здания, которые имели отношение к канадцам, – будь то склады, рестораны или казармы. Также доктор философии посетил поселок Шкотово, где канадская армия была близка к вооруженному столкновению с силами противника. Однако, как подтверждает Бенджамин Айситт, за все время своего присутствия в Приморье канадцы так и не приняли участие в военных действиях.

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Radio interview: Labouring British Columbia

Listen to this radio interview on The City FM, Vancouver, from September 4, 2012, where I discuss British Columbia’s labour tradition and current labour issues with host Andrew Longhurst:

Link to City FM radio interview, September 4, 2012

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De Victoria à Vladivostok

Ce livre incontournable et stimulant fait revivre un chapitre oublié de l’histoire du Canada et de la Russie : le périple de Victoria à Vladivostok, en 1918, de 4200 soldats canadiens envoyés en renfort dans la guerre contre le bolchevisme. Il éclaire la manière dont l’Expédition sibérienne a exacerbé les tensions au sein de la société canadienne en un temps où une classe ouvrière tendant à la radicalisation, de nombreux Canadiens français et jusqu’aux soldats eux-mêmes contestaient une entreprise militaire destinée à contrer la Révolution russe.

Acheter le livre
Par Benjamin Isitt
Traduction par Anne-Hélène Kerbiriou
Publié par Les  Presses de l’Université Laval en juin 2012


Vidéo sur Youtube

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Paul Phillips: Community Builder (1933-2012)

Fernwood resident Paul Phillips died peacefully in his home on May 18, 2012 — a community builder and troublemaker to the end. Here is an interview with Paul and a biography that I wrote for the Fernwood News in 2006.

Paul discusses purchasing Little Fernwood Hall, street closures and creating Fernwood Square

Link to Paul’s interview on the purchase of Little Fernwood Hall, street closures, and the creation of Fernwood Square

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*                                  *                                  *

Paul Phillips (1933-2012) restored this 1890 heritage home at the corner of Balmoral and Camosun – part of a lasting legacy to Fernwood and the wider community

FERNWOOD, BC — The corner of Balmoral and Camosun may resemble a disaster zone some days, but the owner of the 1890 yellow character home that rises out of the rubble has earned his place in Fernwood history.

“I’m always astonished by the gentleness and the niceness of the people here,” says Paul Phillips, age 73, whose recollections are coloured by his sharp Welsh tongue. “The spirit of this place—through all the mess-ups, all the interference from outside sources—they’ll all fall by the wayside and sooner or later this place will demonstrate its spirit.”

He should know. Thirty years ago, Phillips was a key player in Fernwood’s Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP), leveraging a million dollars in federal money that spawned both the FCA and FCC buildings, and ‘pocket park’ street closures on Queens, Chambers, Grant, Pembroke and Gladstone.

As a co-op organizer, Phillips helped build the first curb-side recycling box, forerunner to today’s Blue Box program. He prevented the demolition of heritage buildings and helped form the Spring Ridge Housing Co-op. Later, Phillips ran the Fernwood Solar Farm, which survives today as the Compost Education Centre. The owner of three Fernwood properties, Phillips provides housing for over a dozen low-income people. The process may be messy, but the results are widely felt.

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Paul grew up in the town of Builth Wells, Wales

Paul Gwyn Phillips was born in Gloucestershire in 1933 and raised in Builth, Wales (pronounced Bilth). The son of market gardeners who later operated a small hotel, he was raised Baptist but migrated toward an anarchist philosophy.

“The status quo didn’t quite do it for me,” Phillips says. “It was more than obvious that your accent defined who you were.”

He left England for Toronto in 1958 and worked at odd jobs, including a stint at Weston’s Bakery that fueled his later involvement in the food co-op movement. He moved west to Vancouver, returned to England for a while, then settled into the folk music scene in the United States.

Paul was arrested for sedition and deported from the United States for urging anti-war activists to sit on the railway tracks leading out of this munitions plant in Joliet, Illinois (listen to his story below)

Phillips was exposed to folk music as a young man in London in the 1950s, stumbling across a performance of the protest song ‘The Banks Are Made of Marble.’ He acquired a five-string banjo and was hooked. He played at the Seattle World Fair in 1961, and toured the folk circuit, performing with Pete Seager and Phil Ochs.

At Joliet, Illinois in 1967, Phillips was invited to address a protest rally against the Vietnam War. Motioning toward the rail tracks leading out of the town’s arsenal, he told the crowd, “If you want to stop it, you’ve got to put yourself on the lines.”

Two months later, at his home in the countryside south of Los Angeles, Phillips was arrested by two FBI agents and charged with sedition. Due to a technicality and considerable luck, Phillips was kicked out of the country and returned to Vancouver.

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Phillips flirted with the Kitsilano scene, then came to Victoria where he helped found the Amor de Cosmos Food Co-operative in 1970. The St. John Divine Church served as the distribution centre, with six zone houses spread throughout the city. Flower power flourished at the time, and Phillips lived in co-op houses in Fairfield, Vic West and James Bay, before he and three friends purchased a home on Mason Street, in Fernwood, for $16,000.

Paul helped start the Fed-Up Food Co-op, one the biggest co-op experiments up to that time in BC

Phillips applied for, and received, a federal grant to expand food co-ops, and worked in Vancouver for the Fed-Up Food Co-op, which developed a food distribution network extending up to the Queen Charlotte Islands, with weekly trade exceeding $80,000. At its height, the co-op ran a bakery, newspaper, honey-making plant, three retail stores, and a cannery. By 1975, however, years of activity were taking their toll.

“I’m a small-time guy, really,” Phillips says.

He returned to Victoria to focus on community work in Fernwood. Controversy was brewing over land development. The area bounded by Pembroke, Gladstone, Fernwood Road and Stevenson Park was slated for a major federal housing project, which later became Blanshard Courts.

“These were the days when houses were getting smashed down all over the place,” Phillips recalls.

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Meanwhile, at Fort and Foul Bay, 17 houses were slated for demolition to make way for seniors’ housing. BC’s deputy minister of housing, George Chatterton, challenged Phillips to find a better solution for the 17 houses. He did.

Paul helped spearhead the "Housesavers," recycling homes slated for demolition in Oak Bay to create the innovative Spring Ridge Housing Co-op

In an elaborate plan supported by the NDP government of the day, facilitated by the National Housing Act (1973), Phillips helped form the Spring Ridge Housing Co-op Association. The province purchased land on Pembroke Street, and four of the condemned houses were relocated, raised, and converted to duplex suites. The remaining houses were recycled for building material. Over time, other buildings were added. Today, 36 people are housed at the Spring Ridge Co-op.

But the Spring Ridge Housing Co-op was just the beginning. In the mid-1970s, federal and provincial politics created a climate ripe for innovative social policies.

“You could pick up the world and run with it,” Phillips recalls fondly. Fernwood residents mobilized behind the federal Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP), and in a few short years transformed the physical and cultural environment of Fernwood.

The NIP legacy began with the closure of Queens and Chambers Streets behind George Jay Elementary, and the construction of an adventure playground. Other street closures followed at Grant, Pembroke, and, finally,Gladstone, today’s Fernwood Square, where a gazebo was built by marginalized youth that still stands today.

Paul was instrumental in convincing the City to close Gladstone Street, creating Fernwood Square, and he hired street youth to build the gazebo that still stands, through the group "Bench Buddies"

When the NIP era finally ended, the Bakery building at Fernwood Road had been acquired by the City for $89,000 (25% paid by the city, with the remainder covered by provincial and NIP grants). Pressure from Phillips, the FCA (formed in 1972) and the NIP committee also secured funds for a community centre in Stevenson Park, despite a confidential memo from the City manager stating “we should…do our best to divert the residents from the idea of a community centre.” The FCA was prevented from running the facility, however, because civic leaders feared the group was too “radical.”

Phillips later served as a director of both the FCA and FCC. “I think it’s tragic,” Phillips says of tension between the two groups. “You have people with good ideas and they just don’t have the will to really behave decently. They see each other in adversarial positions.” He remains optimistic, however, believing things “will always get better… I’ve got that much faith in people’s abilities.”

In the 1980s, Phillips headed the Fernwood Solar Farm at Chambers and North Park, securing school-district land and employing young offenders sentenced to community service. He worked on the side as a landscape gardener, but in 1988 suffered a severe head injury while at work. Since then, he has focused on converting his properties for affordable housing, and restoring Fernwood House at the top Rudlin Street.

Phillips was married briefly in the 1960s, and has a daughter from that marriage, Olwen, who lives inLos Angeles. He considers his family to include close friends and their children, including a second daughter Sylvia.

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Whoopies, Red Tide, Amor de Cosmos Food Co-op, Fed-Up, Co-op Resource Society, Tunnel Canary, LEAP, Spring Ridge Housing Co-op, Neighbour-Aiders, Bench-Bunch, NIP, the Fernwood Solar Farm.

All these projects benefited from the unorthodox energy of Paul Phillips, and changed Fernwood for the better. When asked about the unkempt state of his Camosun Street property, Phillips refuses to mince words.

“Maybe it could be done faster, and maybe I’m not as efficient as I should be. But it’s just like an ancient dig. You’ve got to go at it with a paintbrush,” he says, citing the discovery of intricate original woodwork on the exterior of 116-year-old building, and the installation of new electrical, plumbing, heating and fire-safety systems in the 6000-sq.-foot house. “If you could do it better, dynamite! Get over here!”

Remember this unique slice of history the next time you pass the chaotic corner of Balmoral and Camosun. More important, take action in Fernwood to build on Paul Phillips’ impressive legacy.

Published in Fernwood News, February 2006. By Ben Isitt
RIP, my friend.

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Download this biography of Paul in PDF


Paul discusses an anti-war protest leading to his deportation from the USA

Link to Paul’s interview on the Joliet anti-war protest and his arrest and deportation from the United States

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Creation of the Spring Ridge Housing Co-op

Link to Paul’s interview on the creation of the Spring Ridge Housing Co-op

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On politicians, revolution and Fernwood’s spirit

Link to Paul’s interview on politicians, revolution and Fernwood’s spirit

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Full interview in Paul’s Fernwood home, April 13, 2006 (2 hours, 36 minutes)

Link to Paul’s full interview, April 13, 2006 (2 hours, 36 minutes)

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Vancouver Island’s rail heritage and future

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This 8mm film footage shows Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt & Nanaimo railroad in the 1950s, shortly after the introduction of diesel. As we consider the future of rail on the island in the 21st century, I urge my fellow Victoria City Councillors to exercise foresight and plan for the future — by ensuring that the new Johnson Street Bridge is strong enough to accommodate rail.

Toronto's Bloor Viaduct

Ben suggested the city show foresight and build a "bridge for the future" -- capable of future adaptation for commuter rail, as Toronto did with its Bloor Viaduct. Fellow councillors Lisa Helps and Shellie Gudgeon joined Ben in voting for a more functional design.

While this would entail a modest increase in design and material costs today, it would remove the need to build a second bridge (for $35-million) to accommodate rail at some point in the future. Moreover, building a rail-capable bridge today will maintain continuity of this vital, historic link on Vancouver Island.

Guided by the hopeful principle, “If we build it, they will come,” Victoria can join with the Island Corridor Foundation and citizens and public-office holders from across the Capital Region and communities up-island to build a strong, sustainable alternative for inter-city and commuter transport.

Here, you can listen to my interview on CBC Radio’s On the Island with Gregor Craigie, where I discuss the benefits of a rail-capable Johnson Street Bridge as well as potential cost savings from a simpler, more functional design:

Link to CBC Radio interview, February 9, 2012

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Freight Train – Joan Baez

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Remembering the Victoria mutiny

Ben Isitt mutiny commemoration

Ben and Maihanna Murphy helped commemorate a forgotten mutiny at the corner of the Fort and Quadra streets in Victoria, December 2011

On December 21, 2011, I helped commemorate a forgotten mutiny of French-Canadian soldiers that occurred 93 years ago at the corner of Fort and Quadra streets in downtown Victoria, as the 259th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (Siberia) embarked for the port of Vladivostok and service in the Russian Civil War.

I first discovered the story of the Victoria mutiny while researching my book From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition, 1917-19.

Casting a critical eye on the government of the day’s reading of the Military Service Act, and the use of conscription for a theatre of war a world away from the Western Front, I joined other citizens in calling for the soldiers’ pardon and for an apology for their families.

Here I discuss the mutiny on CBC radio’s On The Island program, recorded at Fort and Quadra with host Gregor Craigie:

Link to CBC Radio interview, December 21, 2011

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Documentary Film Trailer

Watch the Documentary Film Trailer on Youtube | En Française

Learn More!
Read about Canada’s Siberian Expedition in the Legion Magazine
Visit the Siberian Expedition Virtual Exhibition & Digital Archive

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Victoria mutiny of 1918 revived in call for justice

Councillor leads charge to clear names of French-Canadian soldiers who refused to fight in Russia

By Derek Spalding, Victoria Times Colonist, December 22, 2011

Ben at the Victoria mutiny commemoration

Victoria coun. Ben Isitt and Maihanna Murphy help commemorate on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011, a forgotten mutiny of French-Canadian soldiers that took place in 1918 at the corner of Fort and Quadra streets. Photograph by Adrian Lam, Times Colonist

Victoria city councillor Ben Isitt was sitting in the basement of the University of B.C. library 12 years ago when he discovered a historical event that he thought shed light on Victoria’s military past.

After years of research, he’s leading a charge to clear the names of French-Canadian soldiers who mutinied in Victoria in 1918 because they refused to fight in an overseas battle in Russia.

Isitt was joined by about a dozen people on Wednesday as he commemorated the mutiny that took place at the corner of Fort and Quadra streets. Ninety-three years ago on Dec. 21, French-Canadian conscripts in the 259th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force mutinied on the very spot Isitt stood.

The soldiers did not support Canadian forces entering a battle simply because Great Britain had sought their support, Isitt said.

He is calling on the Canadian government to pardon the men.

Isitt has extensively documented the event in his book From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition. The nine ringleaders of the mutiny served a range of jail terms, stretching from 30 days to three years.

“I’m really happy today to see this history remembered by a growing number of people,” he said.

Isitt has met the families of the men in Quebec and is preparing a legal brief outlining that the Military Service Act did not empower the government to force soldiers to serve in Russia.

Linda Doctoroff at Victoria mutiny commemoration

Linda Doctoroff sings at the site of a 1918 Victoria mutiny. Photograph by Adrian Lam, Times Colonist

“The military command admitted as much back in 1919 when it suspended their sentences before the soldiers came home,” Isitt said.

“So they came home as free men, but we think it should go a step further in that their records should be cleared or pardoned and their families should receive an apology.”

The executive director of the Victoria Francophone Society attended the event. Christian Francey said the work being done on behalf of the dead soldiers represents the ability of French and English communities to work together.

“For many, many years we are two communities, English and French here in Canada and we’ve been working together even if we have different challenges and different ideas,” Francey said.

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Feds needs to invest in E&N

Letter to the Editor of the Victoria News, 10 December 2011

The E&N railroad, Vancouver Island's rail lifeline

The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railroad, Vancouver Island's historic and vital rail link

A letter writer suggests that rail service along the Esquimalt and Nanaimo (E&N) corridor “doesn’t seem to fit Via Rail’s mandate” (“E&N track is dead thanks to inaction,” Dec. 9).

But what then is Via Rail’s mandate? Is it to focus exclusively on inter-city rail service in vote-rich Ontario and an over-priced, tourist-oriented trans-Canada train?

Or does the federal crown corporation have an ongoing obligation to connect the communities of Vancouver Island, providing an efficient alternative to automobile transport that will help reduce carbon emissions and mitigate harmful climate change?

Nearly a quarter of Vancouver Island was handed to the Dunsmuir family in the 1880s to build a railroad connecting the port at Esquimalt with the coal-mining towns further north. Surely this massive transfer of public land to private interests should provide an ongoing benefit to the public in our 21st-century world.

Whether the federal government supports the restoration of the E&N corridor through Via Rail, or provides capital funds along with the province to a public island-based operator, is an open question.

But we should reject the notion that a sustainable future can be built on this island in the absence of commuter and inter-city rail.

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In solidarity with the 99%

A thousand people gathered in downtown Victoria on October 15 as part of the "Occupy Together" movement , advocating for a fairer, more sustainable economic system. Photo: Times Colonist

Victoria, like cities across Canada, North America and the globe, has become a site of contestation, where young and old people have drawn a line in the sand against a system they believe is built upon inequality and exploitation. These visionaries offer the brightest beacon in a generation of the possibility for a better world.

The people camped in Victoria’s Centennial Square belong to a global movement, inspired by the “Occupy Wall Street” protest that emerged in mid-September as a spear in the heart of the global financial system. They also look beyond North America to millions of people in North Africa and the Middle East who collectively made the “Arab Spring.”

My sympathies are with the visionaries occupying the world’s squares and the 99% they believe are on the losing end of our so-called “free” market economy. Read more »

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