Her Honour Lieutenant Governor Iona Campognola's speech for Cassiar Town Reunion, July 17 2004, Powell River, BC
In 1992 when Cassiar was 40 it was closed. Here we are 12 years later, happily reminiscing about the special character of a town that we knew and loved and that was once an integral part of the economic and social life of British Columbia. Not too long ago, former Cassiarite Cary Conder brought me a gift of her exquisitely fine Petite Point embroidery picturing the Dease River. I can’t tell you what memories came over me as I looked at the great valley and thought of the many times that I drove through it in some sort of a truck I had rented either in Whitehorse, Watson Lake or Terrace so that I could visit the people who were at the time were my valued constituents. You were distributed then as now over 600,000 square miles of electoral territory called ‘Skeena’ which was twice the size of France and contained at the time, some 92,000 souls!
I used to think as I drove that great Cassiar Valley, what a wonderful home it would be for Canadians. It is so vast and beautiful it could accommodate huge settlements (and may have to, if climate change continues and the population finds its way Northward) Save for resident First Nations, you were among the very few others at the time, to call such a remarkable landscape home! In the years since Cassiar closed, I have found vestiges of it spread across the length and breadth of the Northern landscape. In Hudson’s Hope for example, there is a fine school-community centre that started with the school trucked in from Cassiar. In Fort Nelson there are some further remnants of your once proud home incorporated into public buildings, while at the University of Northern British Columbia in their wonderfully comprehensive University and Northern archives there rests all the documentation of Cassiar from its founding agreements, through its land acquisitions and history all the way to its final days.
All of us have souvenirs of Cassiar, some are like your virtual community web-site that are a constant reminder of the firm bonds of friendship that were cemented in Cassiar and many smaller communities that are based on mutual trust and respect. I still treasure jade bookends and a jade clock given me by the Cassiar Asbestos Company in the days when I was your MP and later a Minister in Canada’s Government, advocating for a part of Canada that was rarely heard of at the time, let alone advocated for… .
We had some momentous times together in the 1970’s, I recall the gaining of the first television access to the town, and what a difference it made to suddenly feel like Cassiarites were really linked to the country and the world. There was that wonderful first high school graduation that saw three granduands to the applause of the whole town. We opened the cinema together to show first-run movies. I also remember, as I am sure most of you do, the great ‘Shmoo Daze’events that Cassiar hosted some 30 or so years ago. There were those hilarious outhouse races of ‘immortal memory’ with brightly painted, wheeled outhouses raced at break-neck speed down the snowy main street. There were also those drenching beer contests! Do you remember competing lines of men and women encouraged to quickly guzzle a bottle of beer and then pour the dregs over our heads, before passing the challenge to the next competitor in the line? It sounds terrible, but we laughed outrageously at the results!
Tonight we especially honour four people: the three first-born children of Cassiar and then another Cassiarite who I know you also appreciate. Although Kathleen Hanley now living in Panama and Brian Caron can’t be with us tonight, our organizer and Host this evening: Herb Daum was among those who were born in Cassiar in1954. For all those with special memories of Cassiar there are just a few for whom it is also their birthplace. Thank you, Herb for all the work you have done to make this evening such a great success! (Happy 50th Birthday!)
Now, I would like to call attention to another native Cassiarite who is with us this evening and who just last month distinguished himself during a terrifying human crisis. On a Greyhound bus, stopping over in the middle of the night in Merritt, the driver attempted to dislodge a sleeping transient at the back of the bus. The man lunged at the driver with a knife, severely wounding him in the throat. Eli Blezard of North Vancouver, who lived in Cassiar until he was three years old, took action immediately! He came to the aid of the driver, treated him with first aid and comforted him until help arrived.
Thanks to Eli, the driver is recovering well and the transient is in custody, awaiting trial on attempted murder. I am sure that some among you will nominate Eli for lifesaving or bravery awards, but in the meanwhile, I would like Eli Blezard to accept a small token expressing the respect of his fellow British Columbians and Cassiarites in thanks for his gallant action. The Cassiar link remains strong. It is in communities such as Cassiar that we learn very quickly that helping each other is a mutual survival strategy for all of us who ‘grew up Northern’. We were aware that we had fewer services than most other Canadians, so we depended on ourselves and on each other to make the difference! The spirit of Cassiar, like that of most of the North of our time, was vested in being self-reliant, getting the job done and caring about the well being of the person next to you. That is the strength of communities and that is what distinguishes Cassiar and sustains Canada!
With all of you here tonight, we remember the spirit of Cassiar, the hard work and dedication. We remember the excitement when NASA scientists came to gather long fibred asbestos for the nose-cones of Space Shuttles, we remember community support for the many differences of ethnic beginnings, divergent faiths, cultures and languages that made up the town. We remember the fun but also how to care about each other’s welfare.
You made a real home in Cassiar and its spirit echoes loudly here in this hall this evening. We can still see those clear cold nights, when the Northern Lights danced in magic ‘zigzag’ across the skies. We can still feel the sting of the black flies in the summer and the golden colours of autumn when the busy bears satiated with the Salmon Harvest, competed with giant eagles and ravens for the bounty of the rivers and streams that were also our neighbours. We can still relive the terrors in the dark of the year when we think of the long reaches of the venerable Stewart-Cassiar Highway. It was never as fabled or as glamorous as the Alaska Highway, but to those of us who used it, it was a Godsend! (I was recently at the Watson Lake end of Highway 37 and have to say it looked ‘downright civilized’ and a whole lot more navigable than when I first negotiated its gravely dusty expanse to seeking your votes, in my white ’74 Chevy Nova!
As representative in BC of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen of Canada it is my honour to salute you all, in this your moment of memory and respect for a little ‘company town’ that transcended its beginnings and its ending and lives still in our hearts. On behalf of all Canadians I thank you for being among the few who paved a pathway for tomorrow when our citizens will increasingly have to occupy our land to secure its lasting sovereignty!
*Do you remember that sign at the entrance to town?
Roses are Red, Asbestos is Green… (The rest is up to you!)