Emmett Hall: Establishment Radical


Dennis published a biography of Emmett Hall in 1985. Mr. Hall was a Supreme Court judge but is best known for leading the royal commission that recommended medicate for Canada. Dennis revised and updated the book in 2005 and spoke about Hall at the Ottawa Public Library in November.


Many people have asked me why I chose to write a book about Emmett Hall. I did so because Mr. Hall has had a greater impact on this country – and a greater impact on the lives of millions of Canadians – than almost anyone that I can think of.

The late journalist Walter Stewart that sums up Hall’s contributions nicely: “A number of crucial factors have gone into making Canada the nation that it is today,” Walter said. “The Rockies, the St. Lawrence River, and Emmett Hall.”

Hall sat on the Supreme Court of Canada for 10 years. He stood alone against eight of his brethren in 1967 when he insisted that Steven Truscott had not received a fair murder trial and should be awarded a new one. The Truscott case has not gone away – far from it. Thirty-five years after Truscott was released from prison, the federal minister of justice believes that a miscarriage of justice may well have occurred and Truscott’s case is being reviewed.

It was Hall’s powerful dissenting Supreme Court judgment in the 1973 Nisga’a case that set the stage for all future negotiations on Indian land claims.

Hall also co-chaired the 1968 Hall-Dennis report that changed education in Ontario – and the results of the commission are still being hotly debated.

Another Hall royal commission in the 1970s investigated the sensitive issue of rail transportation and small-town survival in western Canada – an issue that is revisiting us today at a time of economic crisis in rural areas.

Hall’s legal judgments and his other work have an amazing contemporary relevance.

But Emmett Hall is best known as a father of medicare. It was his royal commission in the 1960s that recommended publicly financed health care for Canadians. You owe him a debt every time you visit a doctor or go into the hospital.

As a judge Hall weighed the evidence. He came to believe that a public health system is a far better plan than a myriad of competing private insurance plans duplicating services, spending millions on advertising, and leaving those who can’t pay to fend for themselves.

In writing a biography of Emmett Hall, I felt that I was writing about a big swath of the history of 20th century Canada – but writing it through the focus and prism of biography. Hall was born in 1897 when Laurier was Prime Minister. When Hall died in 1995, Jean Chretien was in that post. That makes for 13 Prime Ministers who served during Hall’s lifetime. That’s an incredible sweep of history and Hall left his mark on our country in a way that few people have.

So, that’s Emmett Hall on the wide screen. I want to tell you a bit about how I came to write the book, and about my encounters with Mr. Hall.

Hall’s life & work

Hall was born in rural Quebec in 1897, one of 10 children in a staunchly Catholic Irish family. His parents moved west to Saskatoon in 1910. When he was 17, Hall enrolled in the law school, where he was a seatmate, friend and competitor of John Diefenbaker’s.

Hall practiced law in small town Saskatchewan, then for many years in Saskatoon. It was a general practice, but he also acted in several high profile criminal trials – including his defence of some of on-to-Ottawa trekkers in Regina in 1935.

But Hall always harbored ambitions to play a prominent role on a wider public stage. He wanted to be a judge but Jimmy Gardiner, Saskatchewan’s most powerful Liberal politician in Ottawa, controlled those appointments. Hall was a Conservative and his name wasn’t on Gardiner’s list of favourites.

Hall tried his own hand at politics but lost on both occasions. In 1957, he was 58 years old and he and his wife Isabel had begun to plan for retirement. But all of that changed early on the morning of June 11. On the previous day, John Diefenbaker and the Conservatives had received enough votes in the federal election to indicate a minority government. As Hall later told the story, Diefenbaker called him early the next morning and reminded him that there was a vacancy on Saskatchewan’s Court of Queen’s Bench. How about it? Diefenbaker wanted to know. When could Hall start?

With that promotion began an amazing era that propelled Hall from relative obscurity to national renown. Rescued from retirement, he proceeded to become Saskatchewan’s chief justice and later a member of the Supreme Court of Canada and the compassionate conscience of a nation.

Hall as a judge

As a judge, Hall was not a scholar in the manner of his good friend Chief Justice Bora Laskin. But Hall had long experience as a trial lawyer. He knew how the world worked, including its seamy side, and he had good insight into human nature. He was decisive. He wrote his judgments quickly and in what is now called plain language.

He served prior to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which came into effect in 1982. In the post Charter era, courts have been called upon to play an expanded role in interpreting and guiding the law. Roy Romanow, who was instrumental in the negotiations leading to the Charter, told me that Hall would have been a progressive judge in this our post-Charter era.

Hall served on the Supreme Court for 10 years then returned home to Saskatoon in 1973.

My encounters with Emmett Hall

I met Mr. Hall in 1982 when I was working with CBC Television in Regina. It was the 20th anniversary of medicare in Saskatchewan, and I was doing a documentary to recognize the occasion. I travelled to Saskatoon on a brilliantly sunny morning in June to interview him. He was gracious and entertaining.

A year later, I contacted Hall and asked if I could interview him for a radio documentary that I had proposed about him to a national CBC Radio program called Sunday Morning. I approached him again in 1984 and suggested a biography. It was a great privilege to spend hours talking with him in his penthouse apartment along the riverbank in downtown Saskatoon. His wife had died a few years earlier and the mere mention of her would bring tears to his eyes.

Hall was usually charming but he was tough minded and he could be blunt. He did not like questions that probed too deeply into his private life, although he was prepared to be more revealing as we went along. Nor did he appreciate questions that dealt with anything that might be considered a failure, such as his lack of success in seeking political office. I asked him why he wasn’t successful when he ran for the Conservatives. He growled at me, “Because I didn’t get enough votes.”

One day he became annoyed with me and he said my questions were “stupid.” I shut off my tape recorder and told him that these questions were the only ones that I had prepared for that day. I left his apartment, and I fully expected that the whole project was going down in flames. I called him the next day. He was friendly and he asked when I was coming over. I told him that, given what happened the previous day, I thought that our project might be over. He seemed genuinely surprised, then said, “Hell, don’t let that bother you.” So we continued.

There were aspects of my book that Hall did not like, but generally he agreed that it had been a good piece of work. I was able to visit with him in his penthouse apartment in Saskatoon a number of times in the later 1980s, but then I moved and saw him only one more time – on a precious evening when hundreds of his friends and acquaintances gathered in Saskatoon to celebrate his 95th birthday in November 1993. He was lucid and gracious in his remarks that night, but a short time later he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. He died two years later.

Summing up Hall’s life & contributions

Emmett Hall was a man of no small ego, but also a man of great principle, incredible energy and competence. He was a father of medicare and a libertarian judge who insisted that the law must be an instrument of justice as well as punishment. He was a champion of Aboriginal rights and a friend of the farmer. He was a justice seeker who opposed bigotry, hatred and ignorance with all of his impressive strength and persuasion. Laurier said the 20th century was to be the century of Canada, and Emmett Hall never stopped believing it. He was a social gadfly, an establishment radical, who believed in the system but insisted on reforming it. We are the richer for his having lived and worked among us.

Emmett Hall: Establishment Radical

Fitzhenry & Whiteside (2005)

A revised and updated version of Dennis’ 1985 biography of Emmett Hall, a Supreme Court Justice and father of medicare. Introduction by the Honourable Roy Romanow.

Toll-free order: 1-800-387-9776 Toll-free fax: 1-800-260-9777. Email orders: godwit@fitzhenry.ca

Reviewer Comments

Dennis Gruending’s book compellingly documents Emmett Hall’s failings and strengths, and above all his lasting accomplishments for our society.“ – The Honourable Roy J. Romanow.

“… a fascinating story about a father of medicare and a libertarian judge who insisted that the law must be an instrument of justice and not simply a bulwark of the status quo.” – The Canadian Bar Review.



A number of crucial factors have gone into making Canada the nation that it is today: the Rockies, the St. Lawrence River — and Emmett Hall.– Journalist Walter Stewart, 1985

It was a truly remarkable career and as the late journalist Walter Stewart has so aptly described, [Emmett Hall] became the rock on which much of modern Canada has been built. It is almost 50 years since he was appointed to the bench, but his judgments and his royal commissions have a strong contemporary resonance.

It was his royal commission in the 1960s that recommended publicly financed health care for Canada, and he is justly hailed as a father of medicare. Canadians remain firmly attached to their health care system and see embedded in it the values of caring and compassion — as Roy Romanow, another health care commissioner discovered in 2001-02.

Original Edition (1985)

Hall stood alone against eight fellow Supreme Court judges in 1967, when he insisted that young Steven Truscott had not received a fair murder trial and should be awarded a new one. Truscott served his time, and after living quietly and anonymously for many years, he has emerged to demand exoneration. . .

It was Hall’s powerful dissenting Supreme Court judgment in the 1973 Nisga’a case that set the stage for all future negotiations on aboriginal land claims. He insisted that aboriginal people had title to land in Canada by dint of occupying it since time immemorial, and that Canadian governments must negotiate with them for its use. Hall’s minority judgment didn’t carry the court but his view soon came to prevail, and was ultimately responsible for the Nisga’a treaty in the year 2000 and a growing number of land and self-government agreements between the Canadian and First Nations governments.

Emmett Hall accomplished more after the age of retirement than most people do in a lifetime. He was a man of intense ambition who relished public recognition, but one who used his position and power for the public good rather than private gains. This book describes how a poor boy from Saskatchewan made it to law school, graduated with John Diefenbaker, and became a skilled lawyer, then a formidable judge and royal commissioner. The story contained here goes well beyond the public record, searching for motivation and clues to the character of a man whose long service has had a profound impact on Canada.

Great Canadian Speeches

Fitzhenry & Whiteside (2004)

A thought-provoking collection of the finest speeches in Canadian history. The great orators are all here, from Joseph Howe in 1835 to Stephen Lewis in 2002. Dennis provides historical context, but also probes the content and technique to find out what makes these speeches great. A Canadian best seller.

Available in bookstores, or toll-free order: 1-800-387-9776 Toll-free fax: 1-800-260-9777. Email orders:godwit@fitzhenry.ca

Reviewer Comments

The book is really a history of Canada as seen from the podium.” Ottawa Citizen

“for anyone with an interest in Canada’s heritage, [this book] is a delight to dip into and

savour.” – Quill & Quire


Speech by Agnes Macphail, 1925

I want for myself what I want for other women, absolute equality

Agnes Macphail was the first woman elected to the House of Commons, and she took her seat early in 1922. She was quick, blunt, and at times sharply humourous, and almost always spoke without using prepared notes. She was best known for her commitment to full equality for women. Here she speaks in the House in a 1925 debate to modify the conditions for divorce, which until that time had been tilted entirely toward husbands.

It is a fact that all women contribute more to marriage than men; for the most part they have to change their place of living, their method of work, a great many women today changing their occupation entirely on marriage; and they must even change their name. They then work continuously for many years until death happily releases them, and that without wages at all. They work without pay. No one can claim that a married woman is economically independent, for she is not; apart from some very rare exceptions, married women are dependent economically, and that is the last possible remaining bond on women. Women have struggled for ages now, and today they are ably championed in our country by the honourable member for West Calgary (Mr. Shaw) and his friends who in this House are demanding further rights for them.

When I hear men talk about woman being the angel of the home I always, mentally at least, shrug my shoulders in doubt. I do not want to be the angel of any home; I want for myself what I want for other women — absolute equality. After that is secured, then men and women can take turns at being angels. I stress that angel part, because I remember that last year an honourable member who spoke from the opposite benches called a woman an angel and in the next breath said that men were superior. They must therefore be gods . . .

Dennis Gruending, first speech in House of Commons

Dennis Gruending in the House of Commons , 1999
Dennis Gruending in the House of Commons , 1999


Dennis was elected to the House of Commons in a by-election on November 15, 1999 to represent Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar. He made his first speech in the House of December 16, 1999 and it it he paid tribute to MPs who had preceded him in the riding, and he promised to work for equality and social justice.


Mr. Dennis Gruending (Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, NDP): It is an honour to speak in the House for the first time. There is no higher calling than public service and no higher place to serve than in the House of Commons.

I begin by expressing my heartfelt gratitude to the people of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar who elected me in the by-election on November 15. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to serve them. I will do so with all my energy and to the best of my ability.

Following Great Parliamentarians

I find it humbling to follow in the footsteps of the great parliamentarians who have preceded me in this vast prairie constituency. The list includes honourable social democrats such as

M. J. Coldwell, Woodrow Lloyd, Alf Gleave and Chris Axworthy. It includes as well the Right Honourable Ray Hnatyshyn, a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister who later became our governor general.

Mr. Coldwell represented this riding in parliament from 1935 to 1958. He led the CCF in the 1940s and 1950s. He worked tirelessly to bring about many of the great social advances that have shaped our country. These include hospital and auto insurance, pensions, family allowances, labour and welfare reforms.

Woodrow Lloyd served Biggar in the Saskatchewan legislature for 20 years, from 1944 to 1964. In 1961 he succeeded Tommy Douglas as premier. With great patience and great courage, Mr. Lloyd prevailed over the tumultuous strike by Saskatchewan’s doctors the following year. Our cherished national medicare system is at least in part Mr. Lloyd’s gift to Canada.

M. J. Coldwell had an abiding commitment to social justice. Woodrow Lloyd had a clear and ringing view of social democratic philosophy. “Ours is not just a gimme or a gouge the rich philosophy,” Woodrow Lloyd said. “It matches claims with obligations, imposing on each of us a greater individual responsibility than is imposed by other political parties”.

I am also guided by the legacy of Alf Gleave who represented the Saskatoon-Biggar area in parliament from 1968 to 1974, and who earlier was one of the pioneers of medicare. When Alf died last summer, journalist Barry Wilson in his eulogy quoted Alf’s own words, summing up his life as a family man, a farmer and an elected representative. “At the beginning of the century,” Alf wrote, “the people who came to the prairies and those who followed them, the next generation such as myself, made a more secure and bountiful life here by working together, by sharing the load”.

This need to balance claims and obligations, to work together and to share the load has never been more relevant than it is today, as the 20th century comes to an end and a new century and a new millennium are about to dawn.

The Farm Crisis

Nowhere is this need to work together more evident today than in the farm crisis that now engulfs western Canada, a crisis that tears at the heart of so many of the families I represent in Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar. What my NDP colleagues have said so often in the House is tragically true. That is that western farmers are gripped by the worst crisis since the 1930s, and in some respects, a crisis that is greater than that of the great depression.

The pain and misery are unprecedented economically and emotionally. Farm stress has reached epidemic proportions. Families are disintegrating. Bankruptcy is driving people from their homes and from their way of life.

An astonishing 46% of western farmers are now seriously considering leaving the land. What this means, should it come to pass, is a mass exodus of as many as 16,000 farmers across Saskatchewan and Manitoba within the next short period of time. The impact of this calamity would be unimaginable.

Why is this crisis occurring? It is happening because our national government, in its cult-like adherence to the ideology of free trade, has cut support for grain farmers by 60% over the last eight years. The government has accepted the free market mantra of the Business Council on National Issues and embraced the global gospel of the World Trade Organization.

The Liberal government has played a destructive game giving away much more in trade negotiations than it has gained in return. Western farmers have been ambushed on the free market road. Consider that European farmers receive 56 cents in support for each dollar of wheat that is sold. American farmers get 38 cents. Canadian farmers today get a paltry 9 cents.

This is happening at a time of unprecedented federal wealth. Our government, as we have heard here today, is projecting almost $100 billion in surpluses over the next five years. If he wanted to, the Prime Minister could deal with the farm crisis and he would scarcely notice the amount of money that it would take. But he refuses. He is caught like a deer in the headlights on the free market road.

II join with my NDP colleagues in pleading for a change of heart. I urge the Prime Minister to return at least $1 billion of the money that his government has scooped out of the Saskatchewan economy in recent years. This is just 1% of his forecasted five-year surpluses. Farmers need help desperately and they need it now.

This is an immediate measure. In the medium term the government must re-examine the AIDA program to see if it can be fixed. In the longer term, a combination of supports and cost cutting measures and diversification will have to be adopted if western agriculture is going to survive.

Unfortunately the deafening silence of the government in response to the plea of farmers also extends in many cases to society as a whole. We see this only too clearly in the majority report of the Standing Committee on Finance with its empty rationale recommending $46 billion in tax cuts for mainly high-income earners over the next few years. This is wrong as my colleague the member for Regina — Qu’Appelle pointed out in his minority report.

Trickle Down Economics

The finance committee report continues the bogus philosophy of trickle down economics preached for the last 20 years by leaders such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush and Brian Mulroney. This dreary message is always the same. It goes something like this: give the horse enough oats and the sparrows will eventually be fed. This has never been true and we will only make matters worse if we repeat the same mistakes again and again.

Tax cuts that benefit mainly the rich will widen the unacceptable gap that already exists between the wealthy and the poor in our society. This gap has gone from embarrassing to offensive to downright obscene.

New Democrats advocate a fair and sane approach, one that will work, if only the government will adopt it and implement it. We believe that the surpluses projected over the next few years give Canadians a rare opportunity to return to the philosophy of redistributing income to those who need it most. We can undo the damage that successive waves of government cutbacks have inflicted on families, on public services and on living standards in the 1990s.

Building Jerusalem

There is only one real test of any economy that matters and that is, does it serve its people? New Democrats believe that the debate over surpluses must focus on improving the quality of life for all Canadians. We can deal with the farm crisis, child poverty and homelessness. We can give our children the best possible start in life. We can preserve public health and expand it to home care and pharmacare as the Liberals had promised to do in 1993. We can foster world-class education and training. We can invest in roads and public transit. We can provide tax relief by making an initial 1% cut in the GST. We can, as Canada’s churches have asked, have our country forgive the debt owing to us by some of the world’s poorest countries.

I commit myself, as my social democratic predecessors have done before me, to work tirelessly to achieve these just and time honoured goals. I will not rest and my predecessors will not rest in peace until we have built Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land.

The Middle of Nowhere: Rediscovering Saskatchewan

Fifth House (1996)

A collection of non-fiction writing about Saskatchewan, from the fur trade to the 1990s. Includes vivid recollections by aboriginal people, excerpts from fur trade diaries, accounts of mounties, explorers, and settlers, as well as stories of protest politics, booze, dust, the Depression, war and the environment.

Toll-free order: 1-800-387-9776 Toll-free fax: 1-800-260-9777. Email orders: godwit@fitzhenry.ca

Reviewer Comments

“a splendid collection of non-fiction pieces on Saskatchewan.“ The Toronto Globe and Mail.


The Last Buffalo Hunter

These descriptions of buffalo hunts were told to Mary Weekes by Norbert Welsh when he was eighty-six years old and blind. Welsh, a Metis, had been a buffalo hunter and a trader on the plains and in the valleys of the Saskatchewan and Qu’Appelle Rivers since the 1860s.

I could see buffalo all over. There were thousands and thousands of them travelling in the direction in which I had seen the bull. There was not one herd, but many. Our Chief decided that we would have breakfast before we did anything. He went from tent to tent and gathered up all the food. We had a good breakfast, and by ten o’clock were ready to chase the buffalo.

Two or three men took a herd. That afternoon twenty-five men shot three hundred buffalo. Buffalo never came very dose to camp. They would smell us, bunch together, and move away. They seldom came nearer than two or three miles.

The next day we went after the buffalo again and killed four hundred. All around us, as far as we could see, the plains were black with buffalo. The prairie seemed to be moving.

There was one thing that I did not like about that hunt. I saw hundreds of buffalo, during that week, slaughtered for their hides. The whole carcass was left to rot on the plains. One time I saw three fine fat buffalo cows lying dead, side-by-side. I jumped off my horse, cut out their tongues, tied them to my saddle, and took them home. Buffalo tongue was very choice.

There were many bands of hunters on the plains beside ours. In all my years of buffalo hunting, I never destroyed buffalo for their pelts alone. I always took the whole carcass, except the head, home.

My wife had once said that since we were going to make a living hunting buffalo, she did not want me to kill more than we could dry and pack. She told me that if I brought in an extra hide without the carcass, she would not dress it. One day my brother-in-law and I were travelling on the prairie, and we sighted a little herd of buffalo. I let fly and killed a cow. We skinned it, and took a little of the fattest part of the animal. When we reached our tent, I threw the hide and saddle down. My wife smiled, and lightly kicked the hide away. She meant what she said. I gave the hide to my mother-in-law . . .

We camped there for a week. We had a hundred people in our brigade, and they were all loaded the carts followed the hunters. It took us four days to get home. All around us the buffalo travelled. When we got back to Round Plain [near Dundurn], we found the buffalo there too. We had a good time that winter. Plenty of buffalo.

Promises to Keep

Western Producer Prairie Books (1990)

A political biography describing how Allan Blakeney defeated the Liberal government of Ross Thatcher in Saskatchewan, and how as premier Blakeney stunned the continent by taking over half the province’s potash industry; how he broke with many in his own party over the issue of uranium development; and how he fought Pierre Trudeau in the constitutional wars of the early 1980s.

Out of print. Available from the author. Tel: 613-730-6902

Reviewer Comments

Gruending’s book is more than just Allan Blakeney’s story. It’s also the story of well over a decade of Saskatchewan history. The two are inseparable.“ Saskatoon Star Phoenix



When Allan Blakeney swept to power in June 1971 he had promises to keep-about 140 of them. They had been printed months before in a slim blue-on-white booklet called New Deal for People. Someone in a Prince Albert constituency office had wanted a promotional matchbook with the letters “NDP” on the cover. It seemed clever. Provincial office picked it up, and it became the campaign slogan . . .

As premier, he was immediately in his preferred element – building, fine tuning, and running a government, dealing brilliantly with a broad spectrum of issues and a constantly shifting mass of detail. He performed those tasks with a range and discipline which was quite remarkable, but which, in the best Saskatchewan tradition, he was careful not to flaunt. Asked by a reporter how he would like to be remembered, he said, “People can say about us, ‘They run a pretty good shop’.” He was the ultimate civil servant.

The people side of politics did not come easily to Blakeney. He had to work at it. He showed great determination in applying himself to the task. Early on he attempted to downplay the inevitable comparisons between himself and Tommy Douglas. He liked to tell reporters that, although he was premier, he was really only a “retreaded” civil servant. In that description he was being honest, if typically understated . . .

Blakeney gained a national reputation as a pan-Canadian statesman who cared about the integrity of the federation and the aspirations of Quebec, and at the same time demanding a new deal for the West and the Maritimes. During the constitutional negotiations, he remained the point of contact between anti-Trudeau hardliners like Lougheed and Lyon, and the pro-federal forces led by Bill Davis. He was supple, always ready to negotiate, to make a deal. Trudeau was wary of him; he thought Blakeney was indecisive at best, disingenuous at worst. There was respect between them, but also bad blood. Their contact brought out the pride and competitiveness in each.

In the early 1980s, as interest rates soared and recession loomed, the immediate benefits of Blakeney’s state capitalism were not always apparent. He and his senior ministers were looking over their shoulders at the emerging Conservatives, aware that society was changing but not knowing quite what to do about it. In 1982 the Tory deluge came. Blakeney was not only defeated, but routed, by Grant Devine, whose government spent the following years pursuing their New Right agenda-a shredding of government services and the wholesale sell-off of Crown Corporations . . .

Blakeney observes the fracas from a distance. He stepped down as leader in 1987. He has made a gracious transition from public figure to private citizen. He appears comfortable, and at peace with himself. But his life is by no means over, and, as this book will indicate, he has missed no detail in recent political debates.

Gringo: Poems and Journals

Fron Latin America – Coteau (1982)

In the late 1970s Dennis Gruending traveled alone for nine months in Latin America. Gringo is a journey of discovery, told with the reporter’s careful eye for detail and a poet’s feeling for the nuances of the heart.

Out of print. Available from the author
at 613-730-6902

Reviewer Comments

Gruending’s language is vivid but restrained. The poems are accessible and powerful; the journal entries are self-mocking and informed by an eye for irony.“ Vancouver Province.


Introductory Diary Entry

For years Latin America had beckoned. A teacher from my boarding school went to Brazil as a missionary, and I recall how we clustered around his car, a hundred boys tense with excitement as he left. Later he sent me letters saying that South America might become the next Viet Nam.

While modern colonizers levelled Amazon forests and leaned from airplanes to shoot Indians, I went to university in a prairie city and later made the obligatory trip to Europe. I returned, graduated, took a job, fell in love, took a better job, bought a house. Seldom did I think about the love and torture being committed in the south.

My mother and father began to die. I was filled with grief and became a stranger to everyone I knew. Then suddenly it was over. My parents dead. A near marriage of five years lost. An empty house. A stumbling man being helped by friends he had neglected. I felt compelled to break with the past; to do something dramatic; to place myself at risk.

I had begun to write poetry. I began to read it again: Unborn Things, Patrick Lane’s book about Latin America; Earle Birney’s poems about the “sunflowering women” of Tehuantepec; Eli Mandel’s description of Intihuana, the “hitching post of the sun,” where the Incas tried to stop the sun in its solstice so it would not leave them in darkness.

I found Neruda in translation, his treasurehouse of detail and imagination about Chile and all of Latin America. I became acquainted with Chileans who arrived in Canada after the coup that killed Allende and destroyed the country. I felt close to them in a politically instinctive way, but knew little in detail about the continent which Eduardo Galeano calls the “region of open veins.”

I gave notice at work and packed my bags.


You Send Feathers

You send feathers from Canada
tell me
to ride dreams like white-backed gulls
listen to what birds say
read the flowers.

I see high stone walls
topped with hedges of blue bougainvillaea
and chunks of broken glass in concrete
to protect the parrot
complaining in his cage.

My nights are bruised
by the din of dogs fighting over cans
in dark alleys where stones
break the ground like teeth.
There are boys in heavy black boots
who ride the backs of trucks
and point guns at the sky.

I dream blue mountains leaning over us
morning streets, hands patting the corn flour
children snug in rebozos, women braiding hair
and men carrying machetes to a harvest of flowers.