2016 Speaker's Book Award — Shortlisted
A look back over Bartleman’s seventy years, from his childhood of poverty to becoming the Queen’s representative in Ontario.
James Bartleman, Ontario’s first Native lieutenant governor, looks back over seventy years to his childhood and youth to describe how learning to read at any early age led him to dream dreams, empowering him to serve his country as an ambassador. In time, Bartleman’s exciting and fulfilling career as a Canadian diplomat took him to a dozen countries around the world, from Bangladesh to Cuba, and from Australia to South Africa.
After a vicious beating in a hotel room robbery in South Africa, however, he was forced to come to terms with a deepening depression. In the end, Bartleman found new meaning in life when he became the Queen’s representative in Ontario and mobilized the public to support his initiatives championing books and education for Native children.
Seasons of Hope is the extraordinary story of an extraordinary man, and of his constant journey to hope.
About the author
James Bartleman is the former lieutenant governor of Ontario and the bestselling author of the novels As Long as the River Flows and The Redemption of Oscar Wolfe. A member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation, he is also a retired ambassador and a member of the Order of Canada. He lives in Perth, Ontario.
- Short-listed, Speaker's Book Award
Excerpt: Seasons of Hope: Memoirs of Ontario’s First Aboriginal Lieutenant Governor (by (author) James Bartleman)
One quiet Sunday afternoon in June 1946 a truck delivered my mother, brother, two sisters, and me together with rucksacks and an assortment of pots and pans to a tent near the village dump in the small Muskoka village of Port Carling. Bob was eight, I was six, Janet was four, and Mary just two months. My father was white and my mother Indian, a distinction we children never noticed. Always having had a roof over our heads and plenty to eat, we didn’t know our family was dirt-poor and at the bottom of the social scale. All of this would change when school started in the fall.
My father greeted us with a large welcoming smile. He had come to Port Carling a month earlier to visit his Indian father-in-law, who lived at the small Indian reserve known locally as the Indian Camp, and had decided to stay — at least for a while. His ambition was to go north to look for work near an Ojibwa reserve on Georgian Bay where my mother had relatives. In the interim he had found work shovelling gravel and loading rock on trucks by hand for a local trucker for 60 cents an hour. Not being Indian, he wasn’t allowed to remain with his father-in-law at the Indian Camp, so he constructed a rough shelter from rusty pieces of corrugated iron at the village dump and saved his money until he could buy a tent and send for his wife and children.
My family had spent the war years in a tough, multi-ethnic area of Welland, Ontario, where my father was a steelworker. Our neighbours included Canadians of French, Hungarian, Jewish, Polish, and Italian origin, a mix that Aboriginal kids fitted into easily. Everyone was working-class and described themselves as such. Literally on the other side of the tracks, the quarter was boxed in by railway spur lines. The sound of locomotives shunting boxcars was part of our lives as were the shouts and laughter of drunks on Saturday nights. Bob and I revelled in this classless rough-and-tumble world. We regularly skipped school to play with our friends along the railway tracks. We engaged in petty vandalism, slipping into the sheds of neighbours to open cans of paint and splatter their contents on the walls or simply mix them together for malicious pleasure. When our parents weren’t looking, we even helped ourselves to my father’s homebrew; it tasted terrible.
My father enjoyed life. He prepared enormous quantities of homemade raisin wine and invited his steelworker buddies over to drink. A natural storyteller, he held court in the living room, recounting the dramatic events of his life. Bob and I shared his pride in dropping out of school at the age of 14 and dodging the truant officer who wanted to send him to the reformatory for delinquent boys. He would also describe his adventures as a hobo during the Great Depression, riding the rails across Canada, hiding from the railway police, knocking on doors to ask for food in exchange for doing chores, working as a lumberjack and farm labourer, and begging on street corners.
Inevitably, he would produce well-worn newspaper clippings describing an incident some years earlier that had provided his 15 minutes of fame. My white grandmother had obtained a job as cook, and one of my aunts as maid, for Stephen Leacock, whose summer home was in Orillia, my father’s hometown. My father had taken his canoe out on Lake Couchiching just as an enormous storm blew up. When my grandmother appealed to Leacock to save him, Canada’s best-known humorist rode his motorboat to the rescue and hauled father from the water against his will. The story was picked up by the wire services and carried in the international press. What follows are the New York Times and Toronto Daily Star versions of the story.
New York Times, Orillia, Ontario, July 9, 1939
Dr. Stephen Leacock, noted Canadian author and lecturer at McGill University, played a prominent part in the rescue of Percy Bartleman, 21, of Orillia, whose sailing canoe capsized on Lake Couchiching. A sudden squall upset the canoe along with several other small craft. Residents say they never had seen higher waves on the lake. Dr. Leacock, whose summer home is on Brewer’s Bay, was about to set out on a fishing trip in his motor launch with the caretaker of his place, Jack Kelly, and Mrs. Kelly when the storm broke. They had not lifted anchor and were about to make for a dock when they saw Bartleman clinging to his overturned canoe a half mile from shore.
As the Leacock boat headed into the high waves, Mrs. Kelly fainted. The motor launch headed back for shore, but when Mrs. Kelly recovered momentarily, it headed out to the youth’s aid again. Mrs. Kelly was overcome again and the launch took her ashore, where she was put in a doctor’s care. Dr. Leacock and Kelly headed into the lake again. After almost turning back within 100 yards of the canoe, as waves broke over them, they reached Bartleman’s side. Kelly lassoed Bartleman with a rope as Dr. Leacock manned the wheel. Bartleman was taken in to a motor camp, where other persons, blown across the bay in boats, were receiving shelter. The camp was littered with fallen limbs and broken branches ripped from the surrounding trees by the wind. William K. Bartlett, Orillia newspaper man, was one of those caught in the squall.
“The force of the waves knocked the rudder off my sailboat,” he said. “I let down my sail immediately, but just the same I went scudding across the lake before the wind. I passed not far from Bartleman’s boat and threw a life-buoy toward him. It didn’t get near him.”
Toronto Daily Star, July 10, 1939
Stephen Leacock, famous Canadian humorist and economist, played the leading role Sunday in a dramatic rescue. To Prof. Leacock’s knowledge of the boats and Lake Couchiching’s waves, Percy Bartleman, 21, of Orillia, owes his life. It was a rope tossed to him by Prof. Leacock that saved him as he clung to his overturned canoe.
Mostly disclaiming any heroism today, Prof. Leacock spoke of the storm and Bartleman. “I really didn’t have any part in the rescue: the young man really saved his life,” he said. “I don’t know how he managed to stick to that canoe,” said Prof. Leacock. “A couple of times he went under while we were coming towards him, but he held on.”
As for his part in the rescue, Prof. Leacock said, “I’m used to boats. We weren’t in any danger, but Bartleman was. The waves were tremendous.
“All we did was take him off the canoe, put him in the motor boat, and eventually ensconce him in a chair in my living room. So far as our saving him from drowning goes, this is twaddle. If he hadn’t been cool he would have drowned long before we got to him. But he was cool. As we approached him we could see him sitting calmly on the bottom of his canoe. First above water, and then under water. He was as cool as a cucumber. I never saw anything like it. When we took him off his dripping perch he grinned. The boy has a sense of humour, too.”
“The storm was a terrible one,” Mr. Leacock said. “It was like a sudden cyclone.”
Prof. Leacock, his caretaker, Jack Kelly, and Mrs. Kelly were prepared to set out in their motor launch for an afternoon’s fishing when the storm broke. They decided to remain in the safety of Brewer’s Bay, in front of Mr. Leacock’s home just outside Orillia, till the storm passed over. A little while after the onset they saw Bartleman’s overturned canoe with its small sail.
At the time, Kelly, six-foot Irishman, was steering the 26-foot launch, Prof. Leacock told him to make for Bartleman. Mrs. Kelly, who had been in bed all week under the doctor’s care, fainted as the launch struck the huge waves and the full force of the cyclonic wind.
“When I left the wheel to pick her up off the floor of the boat the waves and wind turned us round and almost capsized us,” Kelly related. “When she recovered we went back for another try and she fainted again. We took her to shore, tied a rowboat on behind and picked up some extra rope, and, then, Prof. Leacock took the wheel and we went out again into the teeth of it.”
Kelly stated, “once the engine began to stall, and I figured we would have to take to the rowboat, but, somehow, we made it. I don’t know how.”
When the engine began to sputter, Prof. Leacock shouted at Kelly, “We can’t turn back now. We’ll have to go on.”
“If Prof. Leacock had not got in so close to the canoe as he did, there is no telling what would have happened, because it would have taken us about an hour to come about and to have come up to him again,” said Kelly, “and we would have been lucky to keep upright ourselves.”
“It was one of those terrible storms that come up suddenly with the wind, “Prof. Leacock said, adding that he feels none the worse for his experience.
Bartleman had been out paddling with his wife and baby in the morning. At the time of the accident he had fitted a small sail to the craft. The terrible squall caught him unawares.
My father’s version of the “rescue” is different. He claimed he had been in greater danger from being run over by Leacock’s launch than from drowning. He also said the New York Times was wrong in saying he had been taken to a motor camp afterward. Leacock had taken him to his Brewer’s Bay home where to my father’s satisfaction the famous author poured two water glasses full of whiskey and they toasted their adventure. Then, as my father dried himself off, he heard Leacock on the telephone telling his story to the press. But then again, my father would likely have tried to make the story sound better each time he told it.
But these are just quibbling details. What counts, as far as I’m concerned, is that I was born a few months later on December 24, 1939, in a house on the shore of Lake Couchiching not far from where Leacock hauled my father into his launch. And I would like to believe I wouldn’t have had a father to raise me if Leacock hadn’t persevered in his rescue attempts. When I told this story in June 2003 at a McGill University convocation ceremony awarding me an honorary doctorate, I think the crowd thought I was quoting from Leacock’s famous book Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town — but I don’t care.
Seasons of Hope chronicles Bartleman’s rise to the upper echelons of political circles in Canada, detailing his extensive experiences abroad and at home, with a particular focus on his advocacy work for native children here in Canada.
Quill and Quire
A compelling story by one of its great practitioners about Canadian diplomacy around the world … an extremely important book for all Canadians; for what it means about the challenges, hardships, opportunities, and the future for Indigenous Canadians.
Eddie Goldenberg, political advisor and author of The Way It Works: Inside Ottawa