Posted by: Bob Fisher | January 11, 2014

Norman Bethune: A Doctor Without Borders

… with Colin Old

To listen to PART ONE of this podcast, click here.

To listen to PART TWO of this podcast, click here.

An unlikely hero

Norman Bethune’s self-portrait is, like the man himself, markedly enigmatic. On the one hand, it is obviously a good likeness — one gets a sense that he knew himself quite well — but on the other hand, there is something almost defiant in his depiction of himself. It is as if he is daring the viewer to to get inside his head. The glaring expression, severe and arching eyebrows, slightly cruel mouth, penetrating falcon-like eyes, and the rigid head-on position might suggest a criminal’s mug shot. A child might see an evil man. And yet, history records this man as being a hero — in particular to the more than one and a quarter billion Chinese — and a humanitarian.

The Parks Canada National Historic Site plaque outside the house in which he was born — in the pastoral town of Gravenhurst, Ontario — is as direct and sober as Bethune’s self-portrait.

Dr. Henry Norman Bethune 1890-1939

An internationally-famed humanitarian, surgeon and revolutionary. Bethune was born in this house. He graduated from the University of Toronto’s medical school during the First World War and saw extensive service in that conflict. While at Montreal’s Royal Victoria hospital 1929-1933 he gained widespread recognition as a thoracic surgeon. Increasing concern with social and political issues took him to Spain in 1936 where he organized Canadian medical aid for the Loyalist troops and set up the world’s first mobile blood transfusion unit. Two years later he went to China and until his death worked tirelessly as a surgeon and medical adviser with the 8th Route National Revolutionary Army. He is buried in the Mausoleum of Martyrs, Shi Cha Chang, China.

A curious anomaly

The town of Gravenhurst is in many ways the essence of Muskoka, Canada’s popular and legendary “cottage country.” However, the legends and traditions of Muskoka are those of the early days of the Canadian frontier, the eventual wilderness getaway for harried urbanites that the region would become, and a repository for quiet Canadian character development. Gravenhurst is not the stuff of revolutionaries; or so one would have thought.

As you turn the corner onto leafy John Street, you may not initially notice the graceful Victorian house set back from the street on an ample corner lot. However, in front of the property next door a Chinese-red sign with three Chinese characters, a stylized image in black and white of a pensive balding man, and one English word declaring “Bethune,” interrupts the visual flow of this quintessential small town Ontario street.

The visual dissonance is quite appropriate given the story that unfolds inside the two properties, one now a museum dedicated to Dr. Norman Bethune, the other a manse, his birthplace, and a Canadian National Historic Site. Inside the visitor becomes quickly engaged in the story of one of the most resolute and colourful characters in Canadian history.

Far and beyond Gravenhurst

Born in this comfortable house, Norman Bethune died in a peasant’s hut in China. His professional life was short but momentous; there is no doubt that he achieved great things. This was a man celebrated on his death by none other than Mao Tse-tung, the leader of China’s Communist Revolution. Mao’s commentary on the life of this Canadian, “In Memory of Norman Bethune”, became required reading for Chinese students and the population in general.

Comrade Bethune’s spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people. Every Communist must learn from him. — Mao Tse-tung

The story of Norman Bethune is generally well-known to Canadians as well, although I dare say that the full sense of the man may be rather vaguely understood by most — as it was to me. But a visit to his place of birth will paint the full picture in all its hues and shades. This may well be why we visit the birthplaces of famous people. It’s not really a question of making a pilgrimage to an honoured site (I suspect that would certainly not have pleased Norman), but rather going to an actual physical and geographical location associated with the person in some significant way, a touchstone to the past.

Born in what was then a small lumbering town north of Toronto, Norman Bethune was not an ordinary child, demonstrating early in life a character of stubbornness and self-determination. He was also a child who wandered both literally and in his imagination; an imagination that in later life would be seen to be the workings of a mind that was intent on problem-solving, especially in the most difficult circumstances — such as the Spanish Civil War and the Communist Revolution in China.

Having trained as a doctor — despite the fact that his studies were interrupted by a stint in the First World War (he was wounded at Ypres) — Bethune went on to become a pioneer in the medical field, an accomplished thoracic surgeon, a social activist who was one of the first to promote universal health care in North America, an inventor of medical devices (some of which are still in use today), an artist, and a member of the Communist Party.

Marrying into a prominent family, Bethune first practised in the American city of Detroit where he was exposed to social inequities in terms of health care, a moral outrage that he would experience even more when he eventually moved to Montréal which was in the throes of the Great Depression and where one third of the population was out of work and without medical care. Before his move to Montréal however, Bethune contracted tuberculosis which in those days was often a sentence of death. After spending time at a sanatorium in Gravenhurst itself, he was eventually admitted to the Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York. For Bethune, it was the first real low point in his life; a “dance of death” as he himself called it. One of his paintings from that time is on display in the Bethune House. It is a child-like image that is almost frenetic in its detail and petulant in its tone and theme. The sanatorium is depicted as a castle-like structure on which is fixed a large and foreboding red cross. In the foreground slumped in a chaise longue is a solitary Norman Bethune. You can feel the anger and frustration of the man.

However, Bethune was not defeated — not yet. As was always the case throughout his life, he eventually refused to give in. Having researched his own disease, he presented his doctors with an ultimatum; either they perform a risky and innovative procedure on him or he would do it himself. Because he was the type of person to whom one could rarely say no, the operation was performed and was successful. And then he was off to Montréal to resume his interrupted career.

It was in Montréal that his career as a “revolutionary” thoracic surgeon and innovative medical practitioner intensified, but not without considerable controversy and personal and professional discord. The “hero” Norman Bethune was beginning to emerge but this was no shining knight on a noble steed. His flamboyant personal life and marital ups and downs (he married and divorced his wife Frances twice) added a whole other dimension to his growing reputation as an alternative thinker and doer.

War and health care

In 1936, Bethune organized in Montréal what was a for the times a radical group, The Montreal Group for the Security of the People’s Health, sponsored by like-minded medical personnel. And in that same year he joined the Communist Party. As fate would have it, Bethune’s moral outrage at the injustices of human society would be given an even greater voice when the Spanish Civil War broke out in the summer of that same year. It was a challenge that Bethune could not ignore; and so he set off for Spain as a medical volunteer under the auspices of the Canadian agency The Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy.

It was in Spain that Bethune achieved what is considered one of the greatest medical innovations in military history. As with any war, soldiers were dying in great numbers at the front far from the medical resources they urgently needed. And foremost amongst these resources was human blood. Bethune took stock of the situation very quickly and, always the pragmatist, set up a mobile blood bank that would bring this most essential of medical procedures directly to the wounded, as opposed to their having to come to him. Today it may seem simple, but at that time and in that context it was a revolutionary idea and procedure. And it worked, saving many lives.

But Bethune would eventually experience worse atrocities in Spain — the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, refugees fleeing the cities. And, as we all now know, the outcome of that war led to a fascist state under Franco and defeat of what, for Bethune certainly, were the forces of democracy. Eventually he returned to Canada exhausted, demoralized, and very angry.

It was not long however before Bethune found his next “mission.” Another major world conflict was underway; the Second Sino-Japanese War which would eventually lead to the Communist Revolution in that country. And Bethune was there with a nurse and $5000 of medical supplies. When he arrived at the Communist headquarters in Yenan, he met Mao who asked him to help the cause by supervising the Eighth Route Army Border Hospital. But as usual Bethune felt he would be of more use in the thick of things and headed to the front, the isolated and mountainous border region of Chin-C’a. Once again, he discovered appalling medical conditions and very quickly had to devise a whole new strategy. This time he became Norman Bethune the medical educator, teaching the basics of first aid, sanitation, and even basic surgery to his version of “barefoot doctors.” But training such medical personnel was still not enough because, as always, getting treatment to the wounded on the field of battle was a first priority. Once again, he literally mobilized his medical services, including a portable operating room that was carried on the backs of two mules, and thus he took emergency medical care to the front lines.

Word spread that a foreigner, now known as Pai Ch’iu-en (Bethune phonetically in Chinese), had joined the soldiers in battle. His name even became a battle cry: “Attack! Pai Ch’iu-en is with us!”

Norman Bethune was a long way away from Gravenhurst, Ontario, geographically, culturally, and conceptually. But in another sense, this son of a Baptist minister and grandson of a medical doctor was where he had always been, at the core of a personal struggle for international cooperation and humanitarianism.

But this hero of the People’s Republic of China was human, and also vulnerable. While operating in the field, he cut his finger with a scalpel. Sepsis set in and he died very soon thereafter as a result of the blood poisoning that invaded his body.

Statues and monuments to Norman Bethune can be found throughout China, and at the Mausoleum of Martyrs there has been erected an heroic larger-than-life statue of him. At his birthplace in Gravenhurst, Ontario, an eloquent and respectful celebration of his life continues.

Colin Old is the Communications Officer at the Bethune House. As a geographer especially, he understands the impact that land, landscape, and culture have on our psyches. In the two-part dialogue I had with Colin, he brings a perspective to the story of Norman Bethune that helps give a greater sense of the man.


The Norman Bethune House

Parks Canada, a federal government agency, administers and and maintains a great network of nationally significant examples of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage across the country. Each site or region is a destination unto itself and part of the collective legacy of Canadians. To visit the website click here.

The Norman Bethune house is at the heart of one of Canada’s best-loved vacation areas, Muskoka. To discover more about the region, read Muskoka: Cottage Country Canadian-style.

The Canadian Encylopedia’s article on Norman Bethune.

Gravenhurst Ontario

Chinese Posters featuring Norman Bethune.

“Chinese still cherish memory of Norman Bethune” (from The People’s Daily)

The Norman Bethune “Resource Library”

1. The Scalpel, the Sword: the Story of Doctor Norman Bethune

2. Roderick Stewart’s Bethune (a radio interview from the archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

3. The Mind of Norman Bethune

4. Bethune: The Montreal Years

5. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation film, starring Donald Sutherland: Bethune

6. To commemorate the centenary of his birth in March 1990, Canada and China each issued two postage stamps of the same design in his honour.

7. Wikipedia and Norman Bethune

8. Bethune: The Making of a Hero, again starring Donald Sutherland (See the trailer for the film.)

9. Norman Bethune is inducted in The Medical Hall of Fame in 1998

10. The Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune’s Writing and Art

11. Norman Bethune: A Life of Passionate Conviction

12. Norman Bethune: His Times and His Legacy, Canadian Public Health Association, 1982

13. Norman Bethune: Doctor for the People

14. Extraordinary Canadians Norman Bethune

15. Dr. Norman Bethune: Montrealer and Internationalist (In  2009, Montreal declares the year to be one of homage to Norman Bethune.)

The inauguration of the Bethune statue in Montreal, with former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson

16. Bethune, by Roderick Stewart (from the series “The Canadians”)

17. The National Film Board of Canada’s documentary film Bethune, by renowned documentary film-maker Donald Brittain

18. The Bethune International Peace Hospital, Shijiazhuang, China. To learn more about this hospital and its work in stem cell research, click on the following link which will take you to a PDF file. It is a fascinating journey in itself. See also Bethune International Peace Hospital, Shijiazhuang.

19. Dr Norman Bethune’s Tomb at Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery Shijiazhuang, China.

20. The Norman-Bethune Public Health campus at the University of Montreal is expected to be completed in four years.

21. The most recent and “definitive” biography of Bethune is Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune. It is also considered by some to be the most authoritative biography of him.

The statue of Bethune in Gravenhurst, the town of his birth

One of the most iconic images of Bethune, operating in the open air in China

Posted by: Bob Fisher | December 11, 2013

Châteaux in Canada: the Great Railway Hotels

A Canadian romance

For many people — yours truly included — railways and railway travel still have a romantic appeal. I’m not talking mushy Hollywood romance (although trains have always been a convenient microcosm for that kind of sentiment); rather my reference is to a more comprehensive and historical sense of the term romantic.

Romance is from the French roman, meaning novel or narrative.

Originally the roman was a long medieval narrative in prose or poetry that celebrated adventures and heroic exploits. These were stories that had mysterious or fascinating qualities, and more often than not a strange beauty that captivated the listener’s imagination. Such tales were communicated orally and usually were based on real events. The stories also had a lyrical and sentimental quality to them, and because they contained themes of universal significance they resonated deeply with the listeners. Kind of like a distant train whistle on a dark night.

In Canada, the building of the transcontinental railway — linking east with west — was much more than a public building project; it was nation-building and the internalization in the Canadian consciousness of nationhood. It’s story is a great Canadian romance.

Railways still play an important role in the transportation infrastructure of Canada and there are still some great railway excursions to be had in this country. (See the links further down this page.) And when you travel by train in Canada, you are travelling along some of the most poignant and historic routes in Canadian history.

To truly appreciate how the Canadian railways built this nation, you have only to hear the story of what in Canada is known as “The National Dream.” (I’ll get to that in a moment.) And if you stay in one of the great Canadian railway hotels, you will be part of the dream.

What are the great Canadian railway hotels?

The great railway age in Canada is not a thing of the past; you can experience it first hand in any of the great railway hotels that today are found across Canada. Each of these hotels is a destination, a landmark, and a thing of beauty in itself. Each of the hotels I am about to introduce you to is an archive of Canadian history and a romantic moment in time in the Canadian narrative. And while some are stunning geographical points of reference in the Canadian landscape, others serve as unifying focal points for the cities and communities in which they are found.

To Canadians, the names themselves evoke the Canadian “sense of place.” Here are the principal hotels in this illustrious group:

(a) The Algonquin (St. Andrews, New Brunswick);

(b) Le Château Frontenac (Quebec City);

(c) Le Château Montebello (Montebello, Québec);

(d) The Queen Elizabeth (Montréal);

(e) The Château Laurier (Ottawa);

(f) The Royal York (Toronto);

(g) Château Lake Louise,

(h) Jasper Park Lodge, Banff Springs Hotel (Alberta);

(i) The Empress (Victoria, British Columbia).

A trans-Canadian experience

The above historic and heritage hotels also represent the flow of Canadian history from east to west, an ideal itinerary for an initiation into the Canadian way of life.

The hotels were built primarily by two of Canada’s great railway companies: the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian National Railway. Each hotel is an architectural gem, and all are located in some of the most spectacular scenery you can imagine. (That was part of the reason some of them were built; to attract travellers to undiscovered areas in Canada.) And some of the hotels are located on the most historic real estate in Canada, an easy stroll from the impressive lobbies to the best of Canadian history, heritage, and culture.

These hotels also represent some of the best “value-added” accommodation you will find in Canada. There is no additional charge for the view, for the history that whispers throughout their corridors, for their strategic locations, for their unique architectural and aesthetic appeal, and for the Canadiana that each embodies.

Whether it be:

(a) a hotel that is also the largest log building in the world;

(b) a “Château style” edifice with granite walls and a copper roof;

(c) a hotel that is unofficially known as “The Third Chamber of Parliament” (where behind closed doors, politicians conduct the gloves off, straight-talking business of governing that is never seen on the news or in the House of Commons);

(d) a world-class golfing destination;

(e) a glorious structure in the equally glorious heart of the Canadian Rockies; an august and classical example of an urban hotel at the core of the commercial capital of Canada;

(f) a gracious memento of the British Empire (afternoon tea and all); or a favourite venue from the big band era,

Each hotel is a tourist attraction and a destination in itself.

The Fairmont phenomenon

Today, each of these hotels is a member of the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts chain, until recently … sigh … an entirely Canadian company, and the largest luxury hotel management company in North America. (Most people are surprised to learn that Fairmont also owns or manages famed hotels such as The Plaza in New York, the Acapulco Princess, The San Francisco Fairmont, and numerous other properties internationally.) Not bad for a bunch of 19th-century railroaders.)

As I have suggested above, there is a century of history embedded in the Fairmont group of properties that has a direct tie to the building of a railway through some of the most rugged and least populated terrain on the continent.

To make a long and fascinating story relatively short, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) eventually also got into the sale of land and the settling of immigrants in Canada’s West, the shipping business (passenger and cargo), mining and metallurgy, armaments and other material (during the Second World War), the telegraph business, the airline business (CPAir/Canadian Airlines International), oil and gas, corporate real estate, highway transportation, telecommunications, and the hotel business.

And before you could say “All aboard,” the company whose first passenger train left Montréal on June 28, 1886 and arrived six days later in Port Moody, British Columbia, had become a very big deal.

Today, like a trumpet flourish, the name of each of the hotels in the chain is preceded by “Fairmont.”

We call him “Sir John A”

When Canada came into being with Confederation in 1867, it was made up of four provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Québec, and Ontario. The rest of the country from the Ontario border west was still under British control. The first prime minister of this new Dominion of Canada was a very colourful figure by the name of John Alexander Macdonald; the principal creative mind behind the British North America Act that created Canada.

A determined man and highly partisan politician, Macdonald was also an anglophile and consequently became a fervent Canadian nationalist. His national policy emphasized high tariffs on imports, especially those from the United States, in order to protect Canadian manufacturing. He was also not adverse to playing on anti-American feeling to achieve his goal of a strong and highly centralized form of government that held dominance over the provinces that previously had been British colonies.


Macdonald’s nationalistic feelings were primarily central and English-Canadian; and he was always wary of what he saw as the threat of political and economic influences coming from the new republic to the south. It was indeed a North America true to British traditions that he aimed to achieve in his nation-building plans. (It is not surprising therefore that the British government made him Knight Commander of the Bath even before he became Canada’s first prime minister.)

His government dominated Canadian politics for half a century and his principal preoccupation during his second term as head of government The Governor General represents the Monarch who is is Head of State) was to create a unified Canada from coast to coast by means of building a transcontinental railway. Given the distances, the vast empty spaces to the west, and the almost impenetrable terrain; it was a formidable task. (It had to cross the Rockies and the Canadian Shield, the latter a huge area of ancient mountains, forest, and tundra that covers much of Canada like a shield with Hudson’s Bay as its centre.) But Macdonald was no slacker, although he was a heavy drinker. He knew that all that westward ho activity south of the 49th parallel was a potential threat to Canadian sovereignty. He knew he had to get Canada’s act together.

The transcontinental route

And the route he chose was a (very expensive) all-Canadian route across the Prairies and through the Rocky Mountains. In theory he could have built part of the route through the northern part of the American Midwest — many Canadians today travelling by car from east to west often take the “southern” route — but this railway was to be the Canadian transcontinental. Whether Macdonald actually realized it himself or articulated it, the building of such a railway would prove to be one of the first key steps in Canada’s becoming an autonomous nation on the world stage.

And so a railway was built and market demand was built along with it. It was this “ribbon of steel” that led to the settlement of the Canadian West. And the completion of the railway was actually a precondition for British Columbia’s joining the Canadian Confederation in 1871.

Although it was eventually built by a private company, the transcontinental railway was built with great sums of public tax revenues. Longer than the first U.S. transcontinental railway by 1600 kilometres, this railway was also an enormous engineering feat. It would require another kind of leadership. And that’s where Sir William comes in.

Sir William Cornelius Van Horne

Ironically, it would be a kid from Chelsea, Illinois (born there in 1843), a telegrapher at the age of 14 with the Illinois Central Railroad, and general superintendent of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad by the age of 37 who would be the dream-maker of Macdonald’s Canadian transcontinental railway. And he too would be knighted in the process. All he had to do was build a railway.

Railway history of course has always been about nation-building. (We’re talking steam here.) By 1844 in the British Isles, the rapid expansion and promotion of railroads was called “The Mania.” And as early as 1841, Canadians were beginning to become equally manic. Although our water routes were fortuitously well-designed by nature, roads were very rudimentary and of course the winter freeze-up didn’t make it any easier to get from Abbotsford to Baie Comeau.

Our system of canals, however, was an effective way to transport people, goods, and troops but it would only be railroads that could extend real ownership of the land into new territories.

Other railways

A number of smaller railroads were built in the east as well as some major ones: the Intercolonial Railway, the Great Western Railway, and the Grand Trunk Railway are examples. One of their objectives of course was to tap into traffic from the U.S. but also to open up the Canadian hinterland around the Great Lakes, which of course they did. The great railway rush created an exponential industry; creating a demand for fuel, iron, and steel (for itself), as well as all the amenities required along the way; hotels of course being one of them. Most of all they provided jobs.

Van Horne was pretty much a jack of all trades. Today we would say he had lots of transferrable skills, perhaps even refer to him as a Renaissance Man.

He certainly was a person who did not shy away from the grand and grandiose. His aesthetic tastes were as eclectic as his abilities; he owned many art treasures including an impressive collection of Japanese paintings and drawings. He obviously had an eye for architectural design and style, and as an amateur architect he even helped design two of the best-known of these hotels: Banff Springs Hotel and Québec’s Château Frontenac.

The former is a property that initially was far from the tourist route. Van Horne’s response to that was, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” So he built a hotel to blend in with the natural environment as if found in situ. Like Macdonald, he was a visionary.

Sir William retired as president of the CPR in 1899 but he didn’t sit around playing with model trains. He went on to build another national railroad, this time in Cuba. And when he died at the age of 72, the CPR paid tribute to him by stopping all operations for a day. Cuba held a day of mourning for him. And then the trains started to run again.

A transcontinental railway + passengers = hotels

In Canada, the historical tradition of lodging travellers is founded on two fundamental types of accommodation; the roadside inn and the urban hotel.

As a nation being built through a natural wilderness of forests, lakes, and formidable terrain, the need for food and housing for the entrepreneurs and early leisure explorers followed the “King’s Highway” or later, the railways. In the cities where trade and commerce in the abundant natural resources especially grew, the hotels often became as much public venues as city halls, railway stations often built in a similar style, and other official buildings.

Growth was rapid, distances great, and the need for social interaction critical. Thus the hotel became far more than a temporary residence; it became a social institution in itself. And given the iconic history and traditions of many of the Fairmont hotels in Canada, many of these grand hotels continue to serve a purpose that goes beyond food and lodging.

Although the chain has now also built newer hotels (still in some of the most spectacular or strategic settings in Canada), most of the hotels are very much in a baronial style that embody our European roots. This is especially true of the hotels that are described as “château style.”

Reminiscent but indigenous styles

Château style is distinctly Canadian although of course it pays homage to European grandeur. Some architecture aficionados also refer to the style as châteauesque. It was a style that was also adopted for public buildings in Canada in the 19th century, in part because the materials, such as hardwoods, granite, and limestone were readily available.

When you stand back and admire a Château Frontenac, a Château Lake Louise, and even an urban hotel like Toronto’s Royal York, you will see a design that represents a free-flowing style (often asymmetrical) in keeping with a new land where space was not limited.

Backlit, the châteaux are extremely photogenic; their sculpted silhouettes, steep rooflines, high dormer windows, miscellaneous towers and turrets, and chimneys thrust skyward are a fanciful and romantic vision. However, they are also solid structures that make grand statements announcing clearly that we are here to stay; we are not just passing through.

Other hotels in the chain have a more manorial or seigneurial style which, like the château style, suggests entitlement and grandeur, but also the confidence and self-determination that is the essence of a nation that honours its roots while asserting at the same time its North American character. Although the château style derives from a number of sources — one can refer to French Renaissance, Gothic, Second Empire, Scottish baronial, Loire Valley, or neo-medieval — in the end, we just call it château style, as eclectic as Canada.

Time for a visit

OK. Go for it.

In order to view all the hotels in the Fairmont chain, go to

Below are some of my favourites with a few facts about each that I hope will kindle your sense of the romantic. Each webpage will also give you access to the full history of each hotel or resort. Slideshows and other images also allow you to take a virtual tour of some of the most important and beautiful sites in Canada. Check out the value-added packages that each hotel offers and don’t forget to factor in the truly “inclusive” value of these properties.

1. Le Château Frontenac, Québec City, Québec (

For most visitors, Le Château Frontenac is Québec City. Built by Van Horne over a century ago on Québec’s high promontory overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River, the hotel seems at first glance to be something out of a fantasy. However, it’s imposing demeanor, castle-like architecture, and its views of this strategic historic location where France lost Nouvelle France to Britain symbolize the formidable drama and power of history.

2. Château Laurier, Ottawa, Ontario (

This centrepiece of Canada’s national capital manages to communicate opulence, dignity, charm, history, and continuity without appearing self-indulgent or excessive. Like so many in the Fairmont chain, it is in many ways a public venue where guests, locals, and tourists mingle. At the same time, it is where visiting royalty, celebrities, heads of state, and high-ranking politicians stay and work. There are many stories in the Château Laurier. If you can find it, the book Meet Me At the Château by Joan Rankin is a terrific read. The book tells the inside story of a hotel in which Canadian political and social history are part of the amenities. Often referred to as “the gateway to the nation’s capital,” the Château is at the heart of this elegant capital city and within walking distance of Parliament, key historical sites, and some of the most important art galleries and museums in Canada.

3. Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, Alberta (

Banff Springs is a complete destination in all seasons, and a crystal-clear window on the Canadian Rockies. In addition to the other inclusive amenities I have suggested, here you also get world-class skiing, golf, wilderness activities, and elk that you can admire as they graze on the front lawn. A natural spa with hot springs nearby, this is one of the best examples of Van Horne’s goal of bringing the tourists to the scenery, because there is no way you can bring these breathaking views home in your backpack.

4. Château Lake Louise (

The Fairmont promotional material for these Alberta properties calls them “Legends of the Canadian Rockies.” The term legend is quite appropriate given the railway history that goes with them. When the CPR surveyor Tom Wilson wrote in his diary, “As God is my judge, I never in all my explorations saw such a matchless scene,” he expressed the awe that first-time visitors to Lake Louise still experience today. Have you ever had the kind of moment when the beauty is so overwelming that you literally have difficulty believing your eyes? Well that’s Lake Louise. Named after Queen Victoria’s daughter, this resort is indeed majestic. From a writer’s point of view, it is an experience that tests your mettle as a wordsmith. Describing it is a major challenge.

5. The Empress Hotel (

This property underscores the British in British Columbia. Tradition, empire-building, and colonial history are themes that are written all over the place. The setting of course is marvellous and simply lots of fun. The Empress is the perfect location for sitting quietly over tea (or perhaps in the Bengal Lounge) and reading Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, Rohinton Mistray’s A Fine Balance, or Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. As I said to the Duchess just last week, “It’s all quite delightful.”

6. Le Manoir Richelieu (

There is something very unpredictable about the Manoir. It’s not just its sudden appearance as you come upon it driving along the north shore of the St. Lawrence. It’s the almost incongruous setting of such a grand property in a pastoral landscape very much off the beaten track (but quite accessible). Would you have thought golf and whale-watching go together? This is poetic Québécois countryside (the region of Charlevoix). It has also been a favourite fishing destination (salmon) for quite some time — since 1761.

7. The Royal York Hotel (

A landmark around which the city of Toronto has grown, the Royal York is also right across the street from Union Station, one of the most impressive and classic railway stations in Canada. Both are reminiscent of the great railway age. Like so many of these hotels, the interiors of the Royal York are magnificent: hand-painted ceilings, lofty pillars, classic furnishings, and chandeliers. Although a previous historic hotel stood on this spot near the waterfront, The Canadian Pacific Railway began construction on “the largest hotel in the British Commonwealth” in 1927, and when it opened it was also the tallest building in the Commonwealth. It was luxury and innovation; each of the 1048 rooms had radios and private bathtubs or showers, not to mention a 12-bed hospital, library, concert hall with a 50-ton pipe organ, a glass-enclosed roof garden, a bakery, its own golf course, and copper wiring.

8. Hotel Vancouver (

This hotel was opened in May 1939 just in time for the historic visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mum). Their visit was especially significant as they were the first reigning monarchs to visit Canada. The visit of course was a “promotional tour” to rally support for the war and indeed their presence on Canadian soil did encourage many people to support Britain. Their tour was also significant because they crossed the country from east to west by train, stopping en route at many of the hotels mentioned here.

9. Le Reine Elizabeth (

One of the later railway hotels (1958), the Queen Elizabeth is situated atop Montréal’s extensive underground city which includes the gare centrale/VIA Rail passenger train station. It is also home to the oldest private club in Canada, the Beaver Club (founded in 1758). Like many of these hotels, the Queen Elizabeth was also a favourite and frequent stage for world-class entertainers such as Montreal-born Oscar Peterson, Tony Bennett, Liberace, Carol Channing, and Harry Belafonte. The hotel was also a political stage for John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It was here that they held their famous “Bed-In for Peace” in 1969 (suite 1742) and where they composed “Give Peace A Chance.” The celebrity guest list is a who’s who of The Queen Elizabeth is also right next door to the impressive Marie-Reine-du-Monde cathedral, another landmark in Montréal.

10. Jasper Park Lodge (

One of the “Legends of the Canadian Rockies,” this 903-acre resort began as an eight-bungalow wilderness retreat at the turn of the (20th) century. On the shores of Lac Beauvert and in the middle of the 4200-square mile Jasper National Park, it is especially known for its winter activities and its internationally acclaimed Stanley Thompson-designed golf course. “They” have all been here too of course: Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, John Travolta, the Dixie Chicks, Bill Gates, the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, yours truly… oh and Queen Elizabeth. If you saw the films River of No Return, The Far Country, or The Emperor Waltz, you too visited Jasper Park Lodge.

11. Le Château Montebello (

The largest log building in the world (a cedar château), Le Château Montebello was built in 1930 and is still a construction marvel. (It only took four months to build, and to begin construction the crew first built a spur line from the nearby Canadian Pacific Railway.) It was Harold Saddlemire, a Swiss-American, who conceived of what he called “Lucerne-in-Québec”; this is château style à la suisse. For 40 years it was a private retreat for the Seigniory Club, whose members included such dignitaries as Canadian Prime Minister (and Nobel Peace Prize Award-winner) Lester B. Pearson, and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. It is built on the site of what in the 17th-century was (during the French regime in North America) a seigneurial estate acquired in 1674 from the West Indies Company by Bishop Laval, the first bishop of Québec and a name you will hear throughout Québec.As the site of numerous historic international political conferences, this not-so-little log lodge has hosted important political figures such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterand, and of course Canada’s charismatic Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

12. The Algonquin (

Do you prefer your golf with a little history? Then the Algonquin is your kind of resort. This is Canada’s first seaside resort town and a quintessential Maritime province experience. In the loyalist town of St. Andrews by-the-sea in New Brunswick (a National Historic District), it was originally an enterprise of the St. Andrew’s Land Company and established (by wealthy U.S. businessmen) in 1883. A North American-style spa resort, guests arrived (of course) by train and the property eventually came under the ownership of the Canadian Pacific Railway. On the shores of Passamaquoddy Bay in the Bay of Fundy, it is golf heaven. And because of their sensitive seaside location , the Algonquin courses are role models of environmentally-friendly golf course management. A full services and great getaway destination, the Algonquin is not just for golfers however. One of the most spectacular “hands-across-the-border” sites for Canadian and American visitors especially, the Algonquin is at the heart of Canadian history.

Want To Travel Across Canada by Train?

VIA Rail, Canada’s national railway passenger service has a new one-stop-shopping website. For more information on the famous railway trips in Canada and on IA packages, go to

The private company Rocky Mountaineer Railtours ( also provides world-renowned rail tours through the Canadian Rockies.

Life in a Canadian Château

The Château Laurier in Ottawa is a personal favourite of mine. It is also a great example of the hotel as more than just a place to sleep and eat. And it is one of the best examples of how these hotels have played a very significant role in the shaping of Canadian life.

Joan Rankin’s book Meet Me At the Château tells it all. In the book she demonstrates how such a hotel is a living entity in itself and she includes some great Canadian hotel anecdotes. Here are some examples.

(a) Ottawa’s premier hotel was commissioned by American-born Charles Melville Hays, General Manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway of Canada. Unfortunately Hays never saw his dream to completion; he was one of the many who died in the Titanic disaster. Memorial services were held for him in London and Montreal. The entire Grand Trunk system (railway and steamship) throughout Canada, Britain, and the United States came to a complete halt for five minutes in tribute to Hays.

(b) Sir Wilfrid Laurier remains one of Canada’s most respected prime ministers. (Elected in 1896, he is still known for his moderate liberalism. The Grand Trunk (then owner of the Château Laurier) commissioned a marble bust of him for the lobby. (You can still see it today). Laurier however was not impressed. He wasn’t happy with the nose which he saw during a private viewing. The bust had been dropped, the nose chipped, and repaired badly. He left the hotel rather upset but still was the first person to sign the hotel’s register.

(c) Typical of hotels of the early 1900s, the Château had budget-minded dormitories for traveling salespeople, one for men and five for women. No private baths but the conveniences were just down the hall.

(d) The Château was the spot for coming out balls. Lavish receptions took place in the ballroom in the presence of the Governor General and his wife.

(e) In 1916 Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden was given a magnificent reception at the Château when he returned from England where he attended a meeting of the British Cabinet. The occasion was precedent-setting because never before had a Canadian politician been received on an equal footing with British cabinet ministers. It may sound a bit strange today, but Canada was seen to be coming of age.

(f) The Château was one of the first sites for a radio station Canada and continued over the years to be a broadcasting centre. In 1927, the country celebrated its Diamond Jubilee with a radio broadcast from the Château, also carried live by WWJ in Detroit for the benefit of American listeners. The inaugural concert of the Parliament’s Peace Tower 53-bell carillon was also carried live on CKCH (the original call letters).

(g) This story may be a bit apocryphal but … when a new a east wing was added to the Château Laurier with a new shiny copper roof (to match the other roof which in turn was a reflection of the roofs of the Parliament Buildings nearby), the aging of the roof (so that it turned green faster) was allegedly speeded up by a contractor who had his workers pee in a bucket (when they had occasion or need to do so) and the urine was used to give the oxidization process a head start.

(h) The four foot-high windows over the front doors of the Château are from Tiffanys.

(i) When Roy Rogers and Dale Evans checked in they were whisked to their rooms in an elevator reserved for their exclusive use. Other celebrities (e.g. Haile Selassie) got the same treatment. No mention is made of Trigger.

(j) The original Grill Room on Thursday was usually filled to overflowing. People came for the Thursday special: chicken pot pie!

(k) With the 1929 stock market crash, Ottawa and the Château Laurier created a winter carnival to stimulate the economy. It was advertised far and wide. Today Ottawa’s Winterlude is a major tourist attraction and hometown event.

(l) The First Imperial Economic Conference to be held outside London, took place in Ottawa and of course all the delegates (“and their wives”) were accommodated at the Château.

(m) The Art Deco swimming pool (you can still see it and swim in it today … and must) was part of a complex hydrotherapy indoor spa in the Château.

(n) One of the early managers, a certain Mr. Aylett, was renowned for being a tough but very competent and respected manager. Staff and even some guests were somewhat intimidated by him. He had standards and expected everyone to abide by them. One frequent guest who unfortunately was bent on suicide checked out of the hotel and took cheaper accommodations because apparently he feared Mr. Aylett’s displeasure. Another prominent citizen had taken a lady of the night to his room. (The lobby staff knew them all … the ladies I mean … and only because it was their job to know who was coming and going.) When the night clerk telephoned his room and advised the gentleman that “visiting hours” were over but the lady stayed on, the clerk went to the room and opened the door slightly with a master key. From inside was heard, “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, she’ll be right out.” The standards of Mr. Aylett lived on.

(o) During the Second World War, the Château was the site of many secret military conferences. Important military and industrial leaders quietly entered the hotel from a tunnel connecting the hotel to the train station across the street.

(p) When Winston Churchill visited Ottawa (and stayed at the Château Laurier) he gave his famous address to the joint session of the House of Commons and the Senate. In response to the Vichy French officer who predicted that England would “have her neck wrung like a chicken,” Churchill replied (carried live on radio) “Some chicken … some neck!”

(q) One of the most prominent radio announcers during the Second World War who broadcast from the Château was known as the “voice of doom” because in his deep baritone he relayed the terrible news from correspondents overseas. Canadians also knew him as Lorne Greene, later Pa Cartwright on a ranch called Bonanza.

(r) In 1987 the Château management held an “amnesty” during which all materials that had been, shall we say “borrowed” from the Château, could be returned. Objects such as a Sèvres china urn and matching candlesticks, a soda water siphon, china beer steins bearing the hotel’s motif, and a carved mahogany beaver were some of the items returned.

(s) There was one mysterious murder that occurred at the hotel. The wife was charged but later acquitted. The number was taken off the door, the room converted to a suite, and occupied for a long time by the Québec government.

(t) During Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967, 54 heads of state or their representatives paid visits to Ottawa, most of them staying of course at the Château.

(u) Many prominent people actually lived at the hotel, Pierre Trudeau being one of them (before his election as prime minister and before his marriage). One of these was the world-famous photographer Yousuf Karsh, known professionally as “Karsh of Ottawa.” His portraits of world leaders and personalities such as Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Audrey Hepburn, Mother Teresa are now legendary images. One of his most famous is that of a defiant Churchill. This image came to represent the courage of Britain during the war. During the photo shoot in Karsh’s studio in the Château, Churchill was posing with his customary cigar in hand. At the last moment, Karsh stepped forward and removed the cigar from the great man’s hand. Needless to say, Churchill was not pleased and put on his very best scowl.

When Karsh left Ottawa and moved to Boston, he left behind as a gift to the Château, copies of his books and photographs. These can still be seen today and are very much part of the living history of the Château Laurier.

A podcast with Robin Banerjee P.Eng, owner of the Algonquin Eco-Lodge

To listen to this podcast, click on the Play button below.

The power of regeneration in nature

In an untainted landscape there is a glimpse of something developmental, perpetual, and timeless. And in Algonquin Park, the oldest provincial park in Canada (established in 1893), you can be far from the madding crowd and yet only three hours from Toronto, the largest urban centre in the country.

In this natural wilderness, a quarter the size of of Belgium or of Wales, you can also transcend human time. Sitting beside a partially frozen waterfall on a snowy forest path, as I did, you might also find yourself re-focusing your mind and senses in order to listen to the simplicity of a consummate natural environment.

This is also Canadian Shield country where a diversified and heavily forested terrain also engenders a unique ecosystem.

But to reach the Algonquin Eco-Lodge, you must either walk or ski for 2.5 kilometres; and I can assure you that this smooth transition from the clamour of the 21st century is achieved gradually and gently. On the trail leading to the lodge, your brain may already start to feel endorphinized or you may experience a slight dopamine rush.

And as many naturalists will tell you, this integration with an infinite natural environment is the real essence of the mind-body connection.

But there is another transition that occurs at the Algonquin Eco-Lodge. The lodge is completely “off the grid,” which also means that guests experience the state of being totally unplugged. There is no cell phone service, no video games, no television, and no radio — just the sounds of silence.

Small is beautiful

In his now classic book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, E.F. Schumacher asked his readers to look carefully at the basic assumptions of modern economics.

At one point in the book he says the following:

“[A modern economist] is used to measuring the ‘standard of living’ by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption. . . . The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity. Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity.”

The book has also been described as “weaving together threads from [John Kenneth] Galbraith and Gandhi,” but a book that also looks very closely at the pragmatics of emphasizing decentralist economics, and most importantly the scale of any organization and the extent to which that scale must be considered an independent and primary problem.

And Schumacher emphasizes that “Ever bigger machines, entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress; they are a denial of wisdom.”

He also stresses the importance that “[N]o system or machinery or economic doctrine or theory stands on its own feet; it is invariably built on a metaphysical foundation.”

In recent years, of course, we have seen a growing concern and controversy over excessive consumption on the Blue Planet, as witnessed especially by climate change. We have also seen other trends towards a simpler but purer way of life such as the “Slow Food Movement” which emphasizes a global and grassroots approach to linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to local communities and the environment.

But Schumacher’s work also emphasizes that “limitless economic growth of a material kind, without proper regard for conservation … cannot possibly fit into a finite environment.”

And these are some of the themes and issues that the Algonquin Eco-Lodge embodies and personifies.

Pay a virtual visit to The Algonquin Eco-Lodge

To see images of this unique lodge, click here.

Watch a video of Robin Banerjee explaining the feat of engineering that is very much part of the lodge.

To watch this video, click here.

Humans howling

In the evening, shortly after supper, we heard the wolves howling. We rushed out to the deck and into a very dark but starry night. I grabbed my recording equipment, but forgot my reading glasses! Furthermore the darkness did not help; and by the time I managed to get the equipment right-side up, the wolves had decided that they had had enough communing with homo sapiens sapiens and retired for the night. So all I was able to record were a few humans pretending to be wolves.

Links and  websites

(a) The Algonquin Eco-Lodge

(b) The Algonquin Eco-Lodge blog

(c) Searching for the Sublime: Algonquin Park and the Origins of Wilderness Tourism in Canada

This material from the Canada Science and Technology Museum suggests why Algonquin Park is such an historic and ecological destination in the Province of Ontario.

(d) The Friends of Algonquin Park

In the Province of Ontario, there are many organizations and individuals who understand why Algonquin Park is a very significant natural resource.

(e) The network of Ontario Parks

A well-developed system, Ontario Parks can provide travellers with all the information they need.

(f) Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E. F. Schumacher

(f) Call of the Wild Adventure Consultants

The above is Robin’s sister company, named for Robert Service’s famous poem of the same name.

To see and hear the poem, click here.

And last, but not least, check out the Lodge on Facebook.

Posted by: Bob Fisher | November 29, 2013

A Wright Moment in North Carolina

Defying gravity

The elements are everything in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. These narrow sandy barrier islands which stretch for over 100 miles (160 kilometres) off the coastline south of Virginia are embraced on one side by the capricious Atlantic and its storm-spawning Gulf Stream and on the other by a series of magnificent sounds that connect to the Intracoastal Waterway.

A geological eccentricity, this remote playground of tranquil beaches, shifting sand dunes, and natural preserves has been buffeted, caressed, and unceasingly sculpted throughout time by monumental winds and waves. The Outer Banks are a laid back destination, nonetheless they have a quiet passion inherent in them — an enthusiasm fired by history, an intrepid spirit, and imagination. It is a passion moderated but not disowned by the genial locals and their casual lifestyle. This is a place where the senses are fully engaged and where the spirit can soar.

On a gusty, cool morning — not unlike the morning a hundred years ago when Orville and Wilbur Wright crossed a threshold in human history — I am standing in an open field looking down a flight path to this history. Several hundred yards behind me rises Kill Devil Hill, a 90-foot sand dune that has been stabilized by grass.

From this hill the Wright brothers experimented with gliders, first testing their potential and the winds. To my left a granite boulder marks the exact spot where human flight truly began; where Orville Wright and the world’s first powered flying machine lifted gently off the ground while his brother Wilbur ran alongside. The amateur photograph of the moment is a study in motion; as the fragile craft rises a few crucial feet above the sandy terrain, Wilbur is seen moving in solidarity with his brother. As he too pushes against the 27-mile-an-hour wind his body language conveys the breathlessness of the moment, the instant fulfilment of the brothers’ aspirations, and the timelessness of the event.

Beyond this first marker on the flight path are four more, each a visual measurement of distances flown; of the first and succeeding flights, and of subsequent moments in time. The first flight was a short 12 seconds and less than the length of a modern airliner. The succeeding three flights on December 17, 1903 were incremental in distance and in meaning. These were the moments imagined by humans throughout time — in dreams, poetry, and myths.

An age-old dream

These were moments that precipitated a new world view, the breaking of the sound barrier, a landing on the moon, the creation of a global village.

What these two bicycle-builders from Dayton, Ohio achieved in this remote retreat was a conceptual shift that changed the course of history; and they did it with the power of logic and scientific reasoning, the courage to question conventional wisdom, and imagination. And when the day was done — the last flight damaged the craft beyond easy repair — they quietly packed up and went home. Later they would calmly telegraph their father from the nearby town of Kitty Hawk giving details of the distances flown.

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface and declared his “giant leap for mankind” he was very aware of what he was doing because of many precedents.

But I wonder if the Wright brothers fully realized the significance of their moment, even though Wilbur’s own words — albeit in retrospect — hint at it: “We had taken up aeronautics merely as a sport. We reluctantly entered the scientific side of it. But we soon found the work so fascinating that we were drawn into it deeper and deeper.”

As a result of their disciplined engagement in the science of aeronautics, they achieved powered flight.

And what they did that no one else had done was to effect stability and control by working within an unstable environment and with the elements, as opposed to attempting to apply control mechanisms from without. Their ingenuity and persistence made the dream come true through a consummate understanding of the forces of lift, weight, thrust, and drag; and a realization of the critical integration of roll, pitch, and yaw. In short, they understood the dynamic environment constantly in play in the air.

And this is how life still proceeds apace, in the hurricane-prone, but benevolent Outer Banks.

A celebration of flight

The first flight the Wright brothers achieved over a hundred years ago was celebrated in many ways throughout the centenary year when I visited the Outer Banks — “Home of the First Flight.” Events were planned that celebrated all aspects of flight and the men and women who followed the Wright brothers’ flight path.

Outdoor symphonic performances of flight-inspired compositions, the 25th annual Wright Kite Festival, an all women’s cross-country air race, gliders galore, hot air ballooning, an art exhibit from the NASA art program, the unveiling of the ICARUS International Monument to a Century of Flight, an anniversary carnival, a special day for “igniting the imagination” of children (the next generation of aviators), and an aviation film festival were some of the events that culminated with the First Flight Centennial at the Wright Brothers National Memorial — the largest memorial erected in the United States to a living person.

A sense of freedom

A more appropriate venue for such a commemoration would be hard to find.

Surrounded by sand, sea, and sky — far from the commercial hyperactivity of most beach resorts — one senses the kind of liberty evoked by free flight, an emancipation that is also a primary element in the Outer Banks.

Although it is a busy place in the summer months, the Outer Banks is a year-round destination where one goes to get away, to walk the beaches, to ride the bike paths, to golf Scottish-style links, to observe the abundant bird and marine life.

In the prelude of a florid sunrise one quiet morning, I gaze at a calm sea while three groups of dolphins — near to shore, mid-distance, and far-off – make their way in crescent formations parallel to the shoreline quietly, unobtrusively, and elegantly. Their gracious procession and the enhanced perspective it gives to this Outer Banks morning confirms for me why we return to the sea for solace — and to rearrange our priorities.

Ecological awareness

The Outer Banks is also a destination for ecological enjoyment.

The Nags Head Woods Preserve, for example, is one of the best remaining examples of a mid-Atlantic maritime forest; at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge you will see some of the 400 species of birds that frequent the Outer Banks.

And for those who appreciate diversity, the Outer Banks is also a gastronomic sensation.

The fresh seafood that arrives at your table from the boats that dock in the small fishing village of Wanchese is another quality ingredient of the Outer Banks. I will not soon forget the Margarita sea scallops marinated with Cuervo and sugarcane, grilled delicately, and served with a key lime vinaigrette and toasted almond wild rice pilaf.


And to get just a small taste of the moment as Orville must have experienced it, I take a beginner’s hang-gliding lesson at Jockey Ridge State Park, the tallest natural “living” sand dune system in the Eastern United States.

After a preliminary classroom session, Kevin and Andy equip us with harnesses and helmets and our small group walks through the dunes to a sandy hill from which all around us we see an endless sky.

The wind has picked up, gusting now to 28 miles an hour. We strain to hear the final instructions as the sand swirls in veil-like wisps around us.

When my turn comes, I attach my harness to the brilliantly-coloured glider. At either end of my “wings” Kevin and Andy struggle to hold my craft down; the wind is anxious to have its way.

I shift my weight as instructed, striving to find the precise balance of the elements of flight and to “penetrate” the air. I begin to run with the wind as I am told.

And then, I feel a weightlessness, lift, and forward movement. I realize that I am defying the law of gravity.

Running alongside, Kevin and Andy guide me — airborne — down the slope of the dune. It is the softest and most peaceful sensation I think I have ever experienced. It is as if a myriad of moments have coalesced in timeless symmetry.

For more information

For more information on the Outer Banks and on First Flight events, visit the Outer Banks website at

If you want to truly experience the Wright sensation, contact Kitty Hawk Kites at

Posted by: Bob Fisher | November 17, 2013

Art Meets Innocence in Madrid

The lesson

Room 23 of the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid is the size of a child’s bedroom, warm and snug, and painted a soft rosy colour.

In the left-hand corner the teacher is seated on a small stool to one side of Nicolaes Maes’s El tamborilero desobediente (The Naughty Little Drum Player, circa 1655). The unobtrusive lighting of the room accentuates this particular painting. and also bathes the teacher in its warmth. Her loose V-neck sweater of fine beige wool lies softly over the slight roundness of an early pregnancy

The teacher

Her long wavy brown hair and dark eyes have a Renaissance appeal. Only her metal-rimmed glasses put her in the 21st century and remind the occupants of the room that they are being carefully monitored and instructed. At her feet are seven immaculately dressed Spanish niños, five girls and two boys, who are paying strict attention to the lesson. Behind them, their parents — equally well-dressed in that subdued and formal style that urban Spaniards possess — are seated on a marble bench or standing. They too are minding their manners and listening intently to the teacher while at the same time watching their offspring with pride and some apprehension. This is a family affair: take your kids to the art museum day.

The lesson is a Socratic one in which information is gently but firmly elicited and given. The method is practised, natural, and replete with positive reinforcement in the form of lots of buenos, muy biens, ¿nada mas? and ¡eso es!, the latter delivered in a muted triumphal tone.

The questioning begins simply. The children are asked to tell the story, to participate in a collective narration of Maes’s theme. It is a view of a domestic interior, an average day in an ordinary household in 17th century Holland. The mother, a model of self-control in her prim costume and neatly coiffed hair, is reprimanding the first-born — son and sibling — for playing his drum while his baby sister sleeps soundly in a wicker cradle, as she, the mother, attends to her mending.

Boys will be boys

Judging by his well-tailored little boy’s suit, his fastidious shoes, his wavy locks, and a hat with just a touch of panache, this little boy in most respects is a model child, his naughtiness a slight anomaly, surely, in the delicacy of this domestic scene. He is a proper little gentleman, and yet still a child. His tears, and the drumstick thrown in a pique to the floor, are not rewarded, not acceded to, even though, all he wants to do is play his drum. It’s not fair!

The children looking on in Room 23 answer the teacher’s questions politely and correctly as they too are being asked to be on their very best behaviour. The girls especially understand why the little boy should not be playing his drum and why he must think of the needs of his sister.

Maria, who is asked to stand and read the description of the painting on the wall, does so with a self-assurance that announces that she is well-behaved and in control of her feelings. She will be a mother one day.

The two boys in the group of watchers answer the teacher’s questions when called upon but volunteer less than the girls. One of them seems a touch discomforted, seeming to sense that he may have done something that wasn’t quite proper, but is not sure just what.

The parents

And occasionally the teacher asks the parents a question, adult-style. They answer quietly and competently but one can’t help noticing that their already excellent deportment improves just a touch. Together, teacher, children, and parents help solve the pictorial problem that the artist presents.

The technique

Applying tenebrist techniques in which large dark areas in the painting contrast with sharply illuminated ones, Maes focusses our attention on the central theme of careful domesticity and reasonable moral virtue. Through a controlled and careful use of vibrant colour, the artist also balances the painting with parallel reds in the mother’s tunic and the table cloth.

A student of Rembrandt’s Amsterdam workshop, Maes began to specialize in depictions of domestic interiors, painting genre scenes that were a clear departure from classical images. His kitchen, nursery, and backyard scenes reflect ordinary life of the time and gently instruct his viewers, then and now. His deliberate inclusion of himself in The Naughty Little Drum-player — reflected in the mirror on the wall — continues the overall theme of watching and story-telling.

This anecdotal element and the domestic feel and simplicity of the painting capture the psychology of the subjects through the concentrated representation of domestic life. In this regard Maes exemplifies 17th century innovation, becoming less dependent on literary or classical sources and yet at the same time maintaining stylistic conventions and a certain set of composition formulae that do not startle or offend the viewer. The children can easily identify with his observations of everyday goings-on and at the same time are gently instructed by his art.

But the teacher in Room 23 of the Thyssen-Bornemisza is watching all of us, as we watch her. We take our cues from her in order to see clearly how the elements of the painting — the theme, the forms, the format, and the shapes — contribute to Maes’s lesson. The children seated on the floor answer her questions with deftness, candour, and politeness. These are well-brought up boys and girls, who know a moral tale when they see it. Only towards the end of the lesson, skillfully paced and balanced, do they begin to squirm ever so slightly. And having made her point, the teacher invites parents and children to move on.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Over two generations the Thyssen-Bornemisza family of Holland, Germany, and Hungary amassed a superb collection of works of art, including outstanding pieces of Dutch art. The principal theme of the works, from the 17th to the 20th century, is one of realism.

When the collection outgrew its home in a villa in Lugano, Switzerland — and for tax and insurance reasons — it was discreetly put on the market. Major buyers, regal suitors, and politicians from eight countries courted the family hoping to acquire the collection. It was eventually awarded to Spain for $350 million and the exquisite Villahermosa Palace in Madrid was refurbished at a cost of $45 million to complement the collection. Today it is valued at between one and three billion dollars. In contrast to the grim Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza is a playground of light and humanism.

When visiting Madrid, it goes without saying that one should spend some quality time at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

Click on the link to go to the Thyssen-Bornemisza website.

A few other recommended art galleries-museums conducive to observing human behaviour and moments in time

The Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka

The Strong Museum of Play, Rochester, New York

The Morikami Museum and Gardens, Delray Beach, Florida

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Musée national Chagall, Nice, France

The Fondation Maeght, (art and sculpture) St. Paul de Vence, France

Posted by: Bob Fisher | November 14, 2013

On the Road with Dr. Ho

The travel accessory I never leave home without

Dr. Ho and I go everywhere together. He is always in my hand luggage, backpack, or even my shirt pocket. Frequently, when I am domestic bound, he is in the glove compartment of my car or in my briefcase.

I have even been known to attend lah dee da functions with Dr. Ho cleverly concealed on my person. And I have caused airport security people to occasionally give me that second electronic and hands-on pat down search when Dr. Ho and I are wending our way to the vacuous world of the departure lounge.

However, Dr. Ho and I are inseparable whenever I am on the move. As a travel journalist who knows very well the aches and pains that travel can create, and as a someone who has had the chance to discover just about every travel trick in the book, Dr. Ho is gentle on my mind … and my muscles.

Despite what you may think…

This is not an advertorial nor a five-minute quickie on The Shopping Channel; although you too can meet and greet Dr. Ho on the latter infotainment and commerce medium. This is just a friendly travel tip, especially to those who love to travel but hate the twinges and spasms which are to travel as metaphysical anguish is to aging.

The world according to Ho

Dr. Ho? I knew him when he was just a kid.

Actually I knew him when he was a relatively unknown quantity; a high energy chiropractor with ambition, a major marketer-to-be with obvious business smarts, a pragmatic health care provider who conceived an ingenious marketing venture (which by the way I suspect has made him very rich and famous), and a nice guy who decided it was time to put a relatively simple and cost-effective health care tool in the hands of the patient, or the consumer, depending on your point of view.

In some respects, what Dr. Ho did was akin to dentists handing out toothbrushes, or teachers books, or King John the Magna Carta. It was a simple consumer-friendly formula — and still is.

Why didn’t I think of this before?

In addition to indulging in global and domestic peregrinations whenever I can, over the years I have also been a denizen of the horse world: bred them; birthed them (with my own two hands); backed them (one does not “break” a horse); trained them; sat up with them many a night; suffered the mutual and reciprocal slings and arrows of aches, pains, sprains and worse (it goes with the territory); came off them (one does not “fall off a horse”); and (sadly) from time to time had to say good bye to them.

And for years an alternative therapy for muscle problems in our equine bag of tricks was a form of acupuncture performed by a veterinarian who used this neat little machine that sent electric stimulation into the offending muscle through electrodes attached to long thin needles.

Imagine that! Traditional Chinese medicine meets the horse world. And being the relatively simple creatures they are, horses generally respond well to the treatment. As a matter of fact it has a sedating effect on them; it’s all about endorphins.

And how many times have I stood there holding the horse while he or she got an internal muscle massage via a gentle current of electricity; and said to myself, “Boy that must feel good. I sure wish I had one of those little machines to use on my aching muscles.”

Well, lo and behold and voila!

Along came Dr. Ho

Initially he was operating out of one of those small all-purpose units you see in multiplex industrial plazas; and he was within 10 minutes walking distance of where I live. It was a family business and everyone seemed to be pitching in.

So after a particularly bad bout of equestrian lower back blues (and numerous costly visits to various health care practitioners who did stuff to me that gave temporary relief but ultimately was as effective as whistling in the wind), I did what every equestrian eventually learns to do; I took matters into my own hands.

After ruling out a visit to Lourdes, I went in search of therapeutic procedures I could perform on myself…. goddammit! (In the background you just might hear Frank Sinatra crooning “I did it my way…”)

No sooner had the quest begun and …

Hello Dr. Ho!

Simple, sensible, and portable

Dr. Ho does not work in mysterious ways; it’s all quite simple science. First let’s talk about muscles.

As you all know, they get overworked and neglected sometimes, and when they do they start to complain. Deprived of their normal regular and rhythmic stretching, or when they get overstretched, the fibres in them can start to get all crisscrossed like a bunch of cranky relatives at a family dinner. And then the tension builds up until you get muscles that are overwrought and oxygen-deprived.

That leads to a build-up of lactic acid (a chemical compound that plays a role in several biochemical processes); and in normal metabolism and exercise, lactic acid just comes and goes, doing its thing, minding its own business. But in beleaguered muscles, like those in your neck or lower back which (despite your best efforts to make them comfortable in the cheap seats on overnight flights) are verging on insurrection.

That’s also when the lactic acid builds up, which only makes muscle tension all the more difficult to reverse. (Ever try to reason with a revolting adolescent who is convinced he or she has been hard done by?) And then if one of those tiny muscles in your neck or lower back revolts and has a hissy fit (also known as a spasm), that initial cry of “No way José!” can then produce a chain reaction of muscle spasms in medium to large muscles, and you’ve got the French Revolution all over again.

So now you are in what is, let’s face it, hyper muscle distress. Oh my aching back! Excuse me, flight attendant, could I have a little shiatsu-like massage on my tense shoulder muscles and upper back, especially those just next to the shoulder blades? No? How about some more pretzels then?

So now is the time for Dr. Ho

I usually start with Mode One, at a fairly low level of intensity, just to kind of get things started. Then after 10 minutes of that, I move on to Mode Two which is a little more vigorous, and depending on how high I turn the dial up — and my mood — the alternating internal electrically-stimulated contracting and relaxing of the offending muscles can give visions of Brunehilda taking me for a Ride with the Valkyries. But because I am now such a pro, I like it! On Brunehilda! Go for it babe!

Depending on how self-indulgent I allow myself to be, I then move on to Mode Three which is the Zen mode, and the Mode that gets me humming:

I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’ garden in the shade
He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been
In his octopus’ garden in the shade.

And if I have followed the gentle, sensible Dr. Ho regimen carefully, my hypertense muscles are now starting to relent, to relax, to let go, to become warm and taffy-like again; and I am feeling more and more endorphinized.

And that’s when I get the most inspired.

So with no further ado…

… I will turn the soapbox over to my friend and travel mate Dr. Ho. I’ll let the man himself massage your mind.

Ladies and gentlemen, how about a big hand for Dr. Ho.

Post Scriptum

When I get a chance, I will pass on some of my other tried and true travel tips: the contents of my emergency medical kit; the two wee flashlights I always travel with (one battery-operated, the other wind-up); the absolutely-I-swear-to-God-no-iron shirts; the all-in-one converter and plug adaptors for the world of travel in which there is little standardization; the nifty battery-operated electric shaver (for beards or legs, or both); the noise-cancelling fold-up headset for seat-back movies and to discourage chatty passengers; and other stuff.

If I forget, remind me will ya?

You can find Dr. Ho here:

Dr. Ho Now!

Posted by: Bob Fisher | November 7, 2013

Transborder Sensibilities: Health Care Heal Thyself

Universal Health Care

Ask any Canadian why she or he is quite happy – thank you very much – not to be American, and at the top of the list will be “health care.” However, giving an overview of their system versus ours is like presenting a synopsis of justice or beauty.

But here goes.

As citizens of a nation born out of revolution, Americans are not partial to intervention in their private lives, especially when it comes to taxes. Remember that dust-up called the Boston Tea Party?

Canadians however are loyalists and have always had a greater penchant for not going it alone completely. Perhaps our frontier spirit is a bit more cautious. And our collective value system doesn’t require that the individual be solely responsible for providing the ways and means to wellness.

Americans seem to have developed a sauve qui peut approach to keeping well. And I dare say that in Canada health care is less of a business opportunity.

In terms of health care – how you get it, the real costs, who pays for it – Canadians and Americans face a number of similar issues. Canada’s system provides universal health care but is not a nationalized system as it is, for example, in the UK. It is often called “socialized health care” but the term only applies because it is publicly funded; the majority of health care providers in Canada are not state employees.

As a matter of fact, Canadian doctors have been referred to as “small hardware stores,” “entrepreneurs” and participants in a system of “passive privatization.” Most of our services are provided by the private sector not the public; in short, the patient pays the doctor for services rendered.

However, most hospitals in Canada are not private institutions and under the Canada Health Act the private hospitals and clinics that do exist cannot receive public funding. So this is not “state medicine”; fear of which can cause serious palpitations among doctors.

In the U.S. health care is provided by an enormous array of individuals and legal entities, for-profit and not-for-profit, but primarily the former.

A little over 80 per cent of Americans buy private health care insurance which pays for their medical needs, both routine “maintenance” as well as most hospital costs. They pay for this insurance out of their pockets either through a plan set up by their employer, individually, through a government program; or if they can’t pay, they may – if they qualify – be insured through government programs for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled.

However approximately 16 per cent of the population (46,000, 000 Americans) have no health insurance and frequently just do without (as enfant terrible and documentary film-maker Michael Moore points out in Sicko, his latest film and broadside against the American Dream).

But the United States spends more of its gross domestic product on health care than any other developed nation. The majority of American hospitals are not-for-profit but their in-hospital patients are what they are all about.

If you go to an emergency room because you are not insured and can’t pay, you cannot by law be turned away, but the only care you will get is emergency care.

Forget the annual check up.

Whether it’s Canada or the United States, the fundamental issue debated on both sides of the border is “single payer universal health care.” I advise you to parse that sentence carefully and consider the implications and ramifications of each word. Canada’s national health care program ensures that every resident of the country gets medical care and hospital treatment regardless of their ability to pay, because the costs come out of the collective purse, i.e. taxes.

Remember what I said about Americans and taxes? And to a great extent we owe this enviable state of affairs to a prairie preacher called Tommy Douglas whose “socialist” provincial government got the whole ball rolling in Canada following the Great Depression.

According to a recent blistering editorial in The New Yorker magazine by Atul Gawande, assistant professor of surgery at the Harvard Medical School, the American “health-care morass is like the problems of global warming and national debt – the kind of vast policy failure that is far easier to get into than to get out of.”

Gawande also points out that Americans “balk” at specific solutions to the morass when they realize that “any plausible approach will shift substantial costs from the private sector to taxpayers” – one more major social issue that divides our American friends.

Lest you think we Canadians are Miss Goody Two Shoes, please be aware that we constantly struggle to figure out how we got it right back in Tommy Douglas’s time, how we can hang on to it, how we can continue to pay for it, and how we can stave off creeping privatization.

In another recent issue of the New Yorker, there is a cartoon titled “Jimmy and Jane Play Doctor” in which Jimmy says, “What sort of insurance do you have?” Jane replies, “Actually, I don’t have any.”

Dr. Jimmy responds, “Goodbye then.”

For more information on where the Canadian health care system came from, read Saskatchewan: Learning From the Landscape.

Horse and human at play

Equestrian travel is one of the many niche markets within the travel industry, and equestrians especially (I am one of the breed) are fanatical about their sport.

International competitions especially are an opportunity not only to see the very best in equestrian sports, but to also experience a destination from a whole new perspective.

In terms of the equestrian sports, Europe is a top destination especially for what is known as dressage. This art-sport has been compared to ballet on horseback; it is equally as graceful, moving, and strenuous.


Have you ever looked closely at someone playing?

Did you know that play is a specialized area of study that explores the nature of the behaviour itself, in both animals and humans? Have you ever wondered why we play?

According to many psychologists and zoologists who engage in the study of human play, this complex behaviour has significant evolutionary purposes; quite simply, play is development  — physical, mental, and social. One theory suggests that play in the form of vigorous exercise is a survival strategy in that it serves to regulate energy and the surplus of same.

To anyone with small children, that might sound familiar.

Play is certainly motor training, and has become a highly specialized human activity that develops and enhances motor skills, social skills, creativity, and intellectual capacities and concepts.

Play as recreation also provides emotional release, is an important socialization agent, and can be an affirmation of individual identity. It has been demonstrated moreover that our play can foster behavioural flexibility. (We get along a bit better if we play together.) It even helps us develop and maintain spatial skills that we need in order to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Play is often highly symbolic, full of imagery, representative of some ideal inherent in our psyches, and culturally transmitted. Play helps us develop problem-solving skills. It’s a chicken-and-egg creative mechanism and need. Fantasy play should not be underestimated in this regard, nor should “rough-and-tumble play” nor “play fighting.”

Those playful puppies sure are cute, but it’s a dog eat dog world out there – or more accurately, a big dog eat little dog world. What has been referred to as “agonistic exercise games” develop all the above-mentioned skills as well as competitive skills.

(“Agonistic” play emphasizes power struggles, attack and defence, chase and escape, and the combative. The term has a similar root to antagonistic but not quite the same meaning … interesting wordplay though.)

But when does the play stop being fun? How do we balance competitive and collaborative forms of play especially when they exist side by side within the same activity? How does society in general benefit from play?

Sport as Play

Play has short-term and long-term benefits for both individuals and the community.

A quick look at the Yellow Pages reveals the myriad of businesses and not-for-profit organizations devoted to the many forms of human play: all kinds of sports, fitness training and health clubs, sports therapy, sporting goods stores, martial arts, dancersize … and the list goes on.

In many ways sport is ritualized and highly organized play, and it’s big business in my neck of the woods. If you look carefully at how many sports are “played” in your region, and how many facilities and corollary businesses support such play, you will get a good sense of the economic benefits to any community.

For example, what is required in terms of space, time, science, money, expertise, equipment, zoning laws, etc. so that I can play a round of golf? So that I can act out my hunter-gatherer heritage? Whether you call it sport, recreation, or leisure-time activities human play has increasingly become a social priority and flourishing industry in this community.

Equestrian Sports

Horse sports require the economic base and infrastructure found in cities but also proximity to the kind of horse-friendly rural areas that extend to the east, west, and north of the sprawling megalopolis in which I live.

In a nutshell, the equestrian industry is good for business; and can preserve valuable green spaces that otherwise would be swallowed up in mega-urbanization.

In my region, there is a horse industry that includes both public and private equestrian farms – for leisure and recreational purposes as well as serious training leading to international competition. It also includes many corollary industries such as horse breeding operations, specialized builders and contractors, feed suppliers, agricultural equipment suppliers, veterinary personnel and other healthcare resources that specialize in horses, pharmaceutical and homeopathic companies that serve both rider and horse, and clothing and tack stores.

A 1998 Canadian Horse Industry Study confirms the extent and impact of the industry in Canada. In that year, it estimated that there were 880,000 horses nationwide, owned by approximately 110,000 owners, and ridden by more than 1.3 million people.

Most Canadian horse owners own Canadian-bred horses and in 1998 had an average investment of $2200 in each of their horses. Ontario of course has about 21 per cent of the horses in Canada (surpassed only by Alberta with 35 per cent) but over 33 per cent of the riders. In Ontario each horse has an average of 1.89 employees looking after its needs; 116,077 of these are “non-family employees.”

According to the report, the horse industry is in a growth phase driven, amongst other factors, by “new participants.”

The general demographic profile for a rider is that of a baby-boomer, female, well-educated, a computer-based consumer and frequent Internet user; and someone who is participating in the sport with another person in the household.

The direct industry employment in the care of horses – the “invisible sector” – is 470,000+ nationwide. And equestrian sports – too many to mention here – are as diverse and distinct as those of track and field. This is not just the “horsy set”; this is a mass market of average wage earners who prioritize their lives around their horses.

Now that you are chomping at the bit and ready to ride off madly in all directions, let me introduce you to one of the fastest-growing horse sports in Canada.

The Aesthetic in Dressage

It’s called dressage, from the French meaning “training.”

Essentially it consists of the training of horse and rider to perform together a series of precise movements that emphasize and enhance the natural way in which horses have evolved to move.

This is done in a defined area (the dressage ring); the moves are of varying difficulty, and together horse and rider demonstrate the harmonious development of the horse’s physique, balance, and rhythm.

It is both an individual and team sport internationally, with the Grand Prix “test” being the most accomplished form of dressage. Once described as “equitation in bedroom slippers,” dressage is a very popular and television-friendly sport in Europe.

For those not familiar with the sport the dazzling Lippizaners of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna is the image that best describes haute école dressage.

Dressage is a very physically demanding sport for both horse and rider and, like dance, its measured simplicity and purity of form belie its intensity. It also is a sport that has 2500 years of history; the ancient Greeks were the first to practise it and that was in preparation for war. Horses were “schooled” for battle so that they performed in a calm, supple, confident, and highly flexible manner. Their well-muscled bodies moved both longitudinally and laterally in response to the rider’s “aids” – the most subtle signals from hands, legs, and shifting weight. As equine war machines they moved in concert with their human partners and with the requisite balance, lightness, symmetry, and logic that battle required.

Since that time, little has changed in classical dressage except the purpose.

Decidedly differing opinions are still very much a part of dressage but the greatest area of disagreement in dressage may be the debate over whether it is a sport or an art. Often compared to figure skating or ballet – dressage is a subjective sport – many aficionados deem it a creative process that occurs between the horse and the rider who are, in the final analysis, one and the same.

Moreover, supporters of the dressage-as-art school point to its inherent symbolism, physical and aesthetic dynamics, visions of beauty, and the grace of movement, all of which they emphasize ultimately have nothing to do with functionality. If you are in favour of this view, it is here that dressage departs from its bellicose beginnings; excellence is the essence of victory, not the other way round.


Examine the anatomy, musculature, and size of the horse above.

Imagine the energy and the power that this magnificent animal generates. (Dressage by the way is a contemplative sport.) Imagine the integration of horse and rider: the human spine in a vertical plane and the horse’s spine in a horizontal plane. The integration of the two is the source of the enjoined power; the dynamic that blends the skills and physical attributes of rider and horse, for a precise moment in time – over and over again. It’s the beginning of what in dressage is called engagement.

A dressage horse has three distinct and highly efficient gaits: the walk, the trot, and the canter. Classical dressage demonstrates the optimal use of each. When the horse is well schooled and “collected” the immense energy that is present in its hindquarters flows forward through its entire body elevating the horse both physically and aesthetically. Defying gravity, horse and rider move with apparent effortlessness, sustained vigour, and grace.

Watching a horse and rider in the show ring you will see a collaborative performance in which the rider does not subjugate the horse but brings forth the animal’s natural brilliance in the dressage display.

And respecting the laws of physics and nature, an infinite sense of balance and rhythm of horse and rider is created despite the constantly changing centre of gravity and the powerful muscle action. The carefully controlled exertion and agility of rider and horse require that they function as one. The rider’s relaxed lower body becomes part of the horse while her upper body remains erect, still, but never rigid. The horse’s elevated presence is the magnification of the collaborative effort.

And horse and rider are listening intently – to each other. The rider is listening to the horse’s motion, feeling the prodigious muscles of the animal stretch and contract, sensing the emergence of excellence. The horse is attentive to the rider’s invisible signals: delicate pressure from hands, legs, and back. He is also hearing the rider’s silent encouragement to engage with her in the performance of excellence. The result is unity and harmony and the interplay of ideals in the mind and body of both human and horse.

All photos, with the exception of the lead image, and the final ones are courtesy of Ashley Wright.


Thanks to Ashley Wright for permission to use the photographs you see on this page (except the lead image and those at the bottom of the page).

You can visit Ashley’s website at

Ashley Wright’s Ben

For horse lovers especially, I recommend the Languedoc region of France. For more information, you can read my article “À Cheval Through Cathar Country in France” by clicking on the link.


Cindy Ishoy is one of Canada’s greatest riders as well as an Olympic Silver medalist. Watch her Grand Prix Kur performance.

See also Canadian Ashley Holzer’s stunning performamce on Popart.

Dutch equestrian Anky van Grunsven has won the World Cup Dressage competition more than any other rider. Here is her brilliant performance in Aachen, Germany.

Jaqueline Brooks is also a winning Canadian dressage ride. Check out her website.

This story is dedicated to the memory of Merlin

Merlin grazing in his favourite spot

He was a Hanoverian cross that we bred, birthed, trained, and sadly, recently had to say goodbye to.

Merlin as a youth

Merlin shortly after being “backed” for the first time

Like all members of his species, Merlin was a herbivore who loved to graze. Horses are grasslands animals, best adapted to a prairie environment.

To read more about these mammals,you may wish to obtain a copy of Stephen Budiansky’s book The Nature of Horses.

… with Vesna Čuček, Head of the Agriculture Advisory Service Department, Slovenia

Sustainable truths

When I was an adolescent, I was very impatient with anyone who expressed a “good old days” mindset.

Like many young people, I just wanted to get on with my life, become immersed in the future, not the past. I still am of a “let’s get on with it” state-of-mind kind of guy, and that is perhaps why I am a travel journalist-gypsy and perpetual adolescent.

I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

However, time, personal struggles, and the lessons in empathy taught to me by many who had no idea they were engaging in that mentoring role, eventually allowed my personal worldview to coalesce.

Don’t get me wrong; I still do not “believe in” the so-called good old days — I still am very wary of nostalgia and the selective memory that goes with it — but in an existentialist way, I suppose, I now have the advantage of time and distance to understand why certain common sense universal truths and concepts so evident to so many hard-working people in the past are still operative and enduring in the 21st century.

And this, once again, was confirmed in Slovenia.

The principles, practices, and values inherent in the Slovenia Tourist Farms organization are not in any way old-fashioned, archaic, nor spent energy. Quite the opposite; they are as relevant today as they have always been. That is the nature of universality.

Small is indeed beautiful

As I did my best to process the facts, figures, and sometimes overwhelming issues of Climate Change at the FIJET annual Congress in Slovenia (and in its exquisite capital city of Ljubljana), a phrase kept coming back to me: “Small is beautiful.”

Published in 1973, Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered by the economist Ernest Friedrich Schumacher, was one of those definitive and conscious-raising books (not unlike Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring) that was both ahead of its time and is now timeless.

Schumacher’s ideas on economics are as relevant today, especially in terms of the discourse over Climate Change, as they were in 1973. The year 1973 doesn’t seem all that far away (at least to some of us), but it is interesting how his commentary and critique of Western economics, especially as they applied to energy and what eventually we would start referring to as globalization, resonate so strongly today.

His emphasis on the pricelessness of finite natural resources, his articulation of the need for economic systems that have sustainability built into them, and his assertion that bigger is not better, that growth is not inherently good — his theories questioned instead the nature of growth — are at the core of his small is beautiful worldview.

It is perhaps “smallness within bigness” that more accurately describes his philosophy and pragmatic approach. His emphasis on decentralization (the historical irony of Slovenia emerging as a highly successful tourism market from the former “collective” state of Yugoslavia is self-evident), and the integrated economic model in which the whole is the sum of the parts, working not from the top down but from the bottom up, is also the key metaphor for sustainable tourism in which the essential dynamic is a people-friendly mosaic of tourism resources that are renewable.

It is also the essence of the Slovenia Tourist Farms infrastructure.

In some respects, the success of the Slovenia Tourist Farms tourism model is easily understood because it has a clear contextual framework. Slovenia, a relatively small nation, is blessed with a geography and topography that are diverse, accessible, resource-rich, and on a human scale. From its narrow access to the Adriatic, to its sub-alpine and alpine regions, to its rich farmland and vineyards, and to its cities, towns and villages that have retained their cultural and physical coherence and authenticity, Slovenia is one of those countries that is highly accessible on so many levels.

The level on which it is most accessible, in my opinion, is on the human level.

Having said that, however, I have recently visited and interacted with other destinations that are bigger or more extensive geographically and in other ways, and have found them to be following similar principles and practices.

Canada, for example, is a huge country and yet I can point to innumerable jurisdictions here that are also following the principles of sustainable local development.

Furthermore, in the world of travel journalism, one of the essential challenges to writers and to the media outlets who publish our stuff is to not succumb to the big is better, “sexy” destinations mode of travel writing. (In my really grumpy moods I refer to such thinly-disguised advertorials as flash and trash.)

That of course is easier said than done because travel writing is a commercial activity dominated by corporate media outlets with their normal corporate agendas. But that’s a rant for another time.

In his book, Schumacher reminds us that measuring a standard of living is as much a qualitative measurement as it is quantitative. The human who consumes more is of course not always the happiest, especially if that consumption has no checks and balances.

“The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds. If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty, and chaotic. It is difficult to bear the resultant feeling of emptiness, and the vacuum of our minds may only too easily be filled by some big, fantastic notion — political or otherwise — which suddenly seems to illumine everything and to give meaning and purpose to our existence. It needs no emphasis that herein lies one of the great dangers of our time.” — Ernest Friedrich Schumacher


To watch a slideshow of the Slovenia Tourist Farms, click here.

Visit the Slovenia Tourist Farms by clicking here.


Posted by: Bob Fisher | October 21, 2013

Brother André: Simply a Saint

St. André de Montréal

When Pope Benedict XVI officially approved bestowing sainthood on a simple carpenter from Montréal on February 19, 2010, he completed the final step in a process through which this man of humble origins had already been declared “venerable” and subsequently “blessed”. His canonization was the ultimate recognition of his life’s work.

Brother André is only the third saint in Québécois history; and the only one to have lived in modern times.

Previous to Brother André, Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys 1620-1700, and the Founder of the Congregation of Notre-Dame was declared a saint. And a year after her death, Marguerite d’Youville (1701-1771) was also declared a saint by the Vatican. She was the founder of the Sisters of Charity, more commonly known as the “Grey Nuns”.

But there are other saints a bit closer to home — at least not too far from where I live. They are known as The North American “martyred saints”.

These were the eight Jesuit Brothers who found themselves in the middle of the war between the Iroquois and the Huron. There are a number of reasons why these Jesuits were seen as a threat, primarily to the Iroquois who saw them as allies of the Hurons. The Iroquois perceived the Jesuits, rightly or wrongly, as helping to organize resistance to Iroquois raids among the Hurons. In addition, some have speculated that the arrival of the Jesuit Brothers in New France coincided with the arrival of new diseases from Europe, primarily smallpox, and consequently the Jesuit Brothers suffered from guilt by association.

The Jesuit martyrs were canonized by Pius XI in 1930. See a link to The Martyrs Shrine in Midland, Ontario. See also Ste. Marie Among the Hurons. And there is also, by the way, a national shrine to the martyrs in Auriesville, New York.

Sainthood, saintliness, holiness, and enlightenment

All four descriptors describe the legacy of Brother André, but the veneration and higher honours afforded individuals like him merit further consideration.

It is a fine distinction perhaps, but the Roman Catholic Church does not create a saint, but through the extensive process of canonization, it formally recognizes a saint. Furthermore sources I have consulted differ somewhat, the theological statement of faith is that all who eventually achieve the ultimate state of grace in Heaven are in fact also saints because they have “perfected” holiness.

Generally speaking however, a “saint” is someone who has been canonized if they lived after the year 1000AD. Furthermore, in 1969 the Roman Catholic Church deleted a number of saints from its liturgical calendar because of a lack of historical evidence affirming their sainthood.

The concept of holiness, however, is at the core of most religions; although that term is somewhat ambiguous and therefore difficult to define. On the other hand, the individual who exhibits exceptional holiness is a universal figure in many of the world’s religions, even in pre-Christian times. The enlightened one is perhaps more correctly described as “illuminated” because of the halo or aureole — a circular light — that has been depicted in religious iconography as surrounding the head of the individual. Such sacred figures were seen as pure beings who had attained the highest degree of perfection.

In his writings, for example, Homer describes a light surrounding the heads of heroes in the field of battle. In Asian art, in particular the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, flames — halo-like — are often depicted as surrounding the head of the venerated individual. This is also the case in Chinese and Japanese art as well as in some Islamic art. The light emanating from the body, usually the head, of exemplary individuals has also been depicted in images of what have been referred to as Hindu saints.

The narratives of extraordinary human beings who accomplish equally extraordinary tasks, and the attendant light surrounding them, would appear to be universal in its imagery.

And in the vernacular of the 21st century, it is not uncommon to refer to extraordinary individuals as “saints”; which reminds me of the core lesson of Le Petit Prince: “Here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Such enlightened individuals are also seen as exemplary — usually charismatic leaders in a spiritual sense — special individuals who in some way are able to intercede on behalf of others.  But the concepts of sainthood and saintliness can vary from religion to religion; and herein lie the “hues and shades” of holiness and sanctity as they apply to such extraordinary individuals. What is also universal, however, is that certain “moral” traits are seen as especially worthy of veneration.

In his article “Anatomy of Sainthood”, Jack Crabtree of the McKenzie Institute of Portland, Oregon comments:

“Our English word ‘awesome’ most closely approximates ‘holy’. If someone is holy, something about him moves us to hold him in awe. In the presence of someone who is holy, we will be somewhat intimidated, silenced, subdued, and restrained; because we will be made to feel our lowliness, to feel the humbleness of our own stature and position. We will feel compelled to respect him and to grant him the honor and recognition that he deserves. There is an aura about the holy person, a spookiness or feeling of heaviness which causes us to walk softly and not to be obtrusive, to know our place and not to act presumptuously, and to be respectful and deferential. In other words, the holy person has an aura about him that makes us stand in awe of him. Perhaps we do not stand in gaping wonder; rather we may look upon him with quiet, considerate respect, but in a kind of awe nonetheless.”

To read the full article, click on the following link: “The Anatomy of Sainthood”.

A curious symbol of the history and culture of Québec

From a social history perspective, Brother André is somewhat of an anomaly in Québec because in the centuries-old struggle between the State and the Church in New France, which became especially critical in contemporary times during the lead-up to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the State and the Church in Québec often found themselves at cross-purposes.

The motto of Québec, Je me souviens (I remember), is another of those expressions that “lose something in the translation”. The phrase also has a certain implied ambiguity. The motto is enshrined on The National Assembly buildings in Québec City (other provinces have “provincial legislatures”) and symbolically and somewhat enigmatically conveys various levels of meaning.

To some, the motto is a reference to the fact that the Québécois became “a conquered people”, following the apocryphal 20-minute battle on The Plains of Abraham in Québec City in 1759 in which England and France fought over an expansion of their colonial empires. As history has shown, England won; and the destiny of North America was transfigured.

In Québec, there are those who say that the Québécois were not conquered but rather abandoned by the bourgeoisie, many of whom returned to France when they saw the “writing on the wall”. But for many, the term also suggests a deep historical attachment to French culture — long-standing traditions, and memories which have not been forgotten — and consequently the motto created considerable controversy in Canada.

In 1978, when nationalism was again on the rise in Québec, the guiding principle was changed from its former La Belle Province to Je me souviens. Today there is perhaps no greater populist expression and reminder of the history and heritage of the people of Québec than the “new” motto which can seen on license plates throughout Québec.

Furthermore, la survivance — another term that loses in the translation, meaning roughly cultural survival, on many levels. Cultural survival in its broadest terms has play a key role in the evolution of Québécois society. And according to Claude Bélanger of the Department of History of Marianopolis College in downtown Montréal:

“Without a doubt, the social institution which exercised the greatest influence and had the most impact on Québec was the Roman Catholic Church…. [but] was also echoed by the new social scientists that were trained in Québec in the period immediately following the Quiet Revolution. This group, which sought the modernization of Québec and championed the cause of radical change, condemned widely the obscurantisme that had characterized Québec in the period before the 1960s, and blamed the Church for much of the ills that many believed afflicted Québec in the contemporary era.”

As witnessed by other “distinct societies” throughout the world, social, cultural, and linguistic survival became the renewed and universal elements in the collective memory of the Québécois.

To read Bélanger’s summary of The Quiet Revolution, click here.

In addition, because for a long time Québec was a primarily agrarian society, cultural survival — including most importantly language survival — was also reflected in what came to be called the revanche des berceaux (revenge of the cradle). Because of the population growth in what was then known as Lower Canada (primarily French-speaking); and which doubled every 25 years, the clergy therefore faced enormous challenges in terms of serving what they saw as the needs of their parishioners. The ratio of priests per capita also quickly declined especially when Québec began to emerge as a major force on the world stage through La Francophonie, an international political, social, and cultural organization in which significant numbers of the populations of member countries are francophones.

In due course, the narrative of Brother André, and those who identified with him and supported him, eventually brought him sainthood. He became a populist saint in the hearts and minds of many people even those beyond Québec’s borders, but also was remembered as an ordinary working class man, and an iconic figure who represented the hopes and aspirations of a distinct society.

A Holy Cross Brother

Born into poverty and of very fragile health, Brother André was orphaned at the age of 12. However, he exhibited an intense spirituality early in life. And although he never rose in the ecclesiastical ranks (until he achieved sainthood of course ), he worked primarily as a concierge at Notre Dame College, a job that included many menial duties.

But to be canonized as a saint, there had to be proof of miracle cures, and these were reported initially by word of mouth throughout the Catholic population of Québec. However, throughout his life Brother André steadfastly refused to take credit for any of them. He did however demonstrate an equally intense devotion to St. Joseph and frequently recommended that saint as an intermediary for anyone suffering physical diseases.

When brother André (born André Bessette) died in 1937 at the age of 91, more than a million people filed past his coffin in tribute to a man who would one day become a saint.

Travelling with the Catholic Media

I have been on many media or press trips; however none have been quite as focused or “inspiring” as the one called “Montréal, The City of a Hundred Steeples”.

As a bilingual Canadian, Montréal  is my favourite city in North America and — as you may have already guessed — in some respects it is my “spiritual” home away from home.

Montréal, and this goes for much of Québécois culture, is always among the avant-garde. You only need to look at the artistry of the  Cirque de Soleil to understand Québec’s unique worldview and its intellectual courage. There are many other examples of its contemporary outward-looking worldview, including the fact that it has one of the healthiest and most dynamic music industries in the world. This too is the result of the historical-sociological-political history of what has been formally recognized as a “distinct society” by the Government of Canada.

As we moved from place to place in Montréal, my Catholic colleagues and I engaged in a mutual exploration of such issues as the nature of spirituality and “faith”, the use of the term “The Church”, and the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church in the 21st century. They did not shy away from any of these issues, but spoke of them with conviction and concern. We also dined well; after all we were in Montréal!

For me, it was a bit like being a lion in a den of benevolent Daniels.

Faith-based philosophies and other worldviews always give me reason to explore the unconscious elements at the core of our species, especially those that speak to our diversity and commonality. I believe in science and the scientific method; but I also believe in the indomitable and catholic spirit of humankind.

I also like Mother Teresa’s statement:

“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”

Audio components for this story

Father Marcel Demers of the Basilique Notre Dame in Old Montréal, talking about the state of Catholicism in Québec.

To hear the above clip, click here.

Nelson and the Blessing of the Motocyclettes at Saint Joseph’s Oratory

To hear the above clip, click here.

Organ music from the Mass in the Chapel of the Saint Joseph Oratory

To hear the above clip, click here.

“Make A Joyful Sound,” from the Mass in the Chapel of the Saint Joseph Oratory

To hear the above clip, click here.

Iconographic images and imagery to augment this story

Click here to see additional photos taken at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montréal. In order to view the images as a slideshow, click on “Slideshow” in the upper right-hand corner.


St. Joseph’s Oratory

The Oratory museum

Quebec Catholics (CBC)

Catholocism and the French Language, Henri Bourassa

The Roman Catholic Church and Quebec

The Quiet Revolution

Le Devoir: “Un patrimoine en danger”

The Catholic Church of Quebec — “Heritage in Danger” (English version)

The Saints of Canada (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Other stories in this series

“A Hotel Called Nelligan in Old Montréal”

Coming soon …

“Mothers of New France: How the Women of Québec Established a Colony”

“The Religious Art and Vision of Guido Nincheri”

This story is part of the series

“The Catholic Arts and Architecture of Montréal”.

Near where I live in Markham, Ontario, Canada there is a Catholic High School called St. Brother André CHS. There is also a Brother André high school in Bangladesh. This Catholic Secondary High School is located at West Badaripur, Noakhali , Bangladesh, and also can be seen on Facebook.

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