PART 1: Roots

I’ve never really looked into my family tree. You see ads on TV telling you about websites and services that will do it for you, but you always think you’ll get to it later .

On my father’s side of the family, the only grandparent I really knew well was my paternal grandfather, John Martin. He was a crusty old Scotsman, who immigrated from the Isle of Lewis, north of Scotland.  It’s a godforsaken rocky island, and it’s no surprise that Alberta looked a lot better to my grandfather.

After serving in the Boer War, John came to Alberta and was a farming pioneer in the Delia area. He would retire to Vancouver in British Columbia before I was born, but he visited us often.

He was quite a character, and would occasionally slip me $20 on the sly. That was quite a lot of money for a kid in those days. Years later, he was celebrated as the last living veteran of the Boer War.

I know even less about my mother’s roots. I never met her parents. She had lived in all four western provinces before marrying my father. And, in 1941, I came along.

I had a great childhood. It wasn’t perfect, but I have nothing but great memories of growing up in Delia. It’s a small farming town, a two-hour drive east of Calgary, close to Drumheller and Hanna. It was a tight-knit community that kids don’t experience today, so I felt lucky. Anyone could be from Edmonton, or another big city, but I get to be from Delia.

Driving to Delia was beautiful. In my day, you’d see the grain elevators as you approach, and the Hand Hills in the background.

Delia gave me a childhood filled with friends, sports, and great experiences. It also laid the foundation for the values that would guide me through 45 years of political activism.

My earliest clear memory is meeting my father, Jim Martin, for the first time when I was four years old. We were standing at the Calgary train station and my mother was kissing a strange man. He turned out to be my dad.

He had served four years as a sergeant in World War II, stationed in Europe without a single break. In my opinion, he came back from that experience pretty screwed up, probably with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Today, we know a lot more about what happens to people coming home from war. We saw the struggle that Canadian troops went through when they returned from Afghanistan. We at least understand something of that struggle and try to help where we can.

This wasn’t the case in my father’s day. He dealt with his experience with silence and alcohol. While he certainly wasn’t abusive, he was distant and often absent. He did maintain the family farm, which provided some of our household income.

He preferred to spend his free time at the Delia hotel bar, until it burnt down. After that, he would visit pubs in neighbouring towns. The drinking put a serious strain on our relationship.

In my adult years, I came to better understand what my father had gone through. While he never revealed much of his war experience, we did reconcile. Eventually, we got to a point where we could talk and socialize.

Unfortunately, my dad’s struggles left my mother, Olive, to raise me pretty much single-handedly. She did this along with running her own insurance business and working for the village of Delia as secretary-treasurer. In the process, she instilled the values that I carried with me into politics.

My mother ran her life and her office as a progressive. She believed in sticking up for the little person. She believed in the necessity of unions. She believed in equality.

For example, the Municipality of Delia ran programs for new mothers and infant children for the village. There was one unwed mother who attended. In 1950s small town Alberta, that was not a popular position to be in. But my mother always made a point of fussing over her child first, sending the message that this woman deserved equal treatment.

That being said, mom still supported the right-wing Social Credit Party. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner party to the New Democratic Party, had no presence in Delia. In fact, there were no provincial CCF candidates that ran in Hand Hills (the district name) from 1948 to 1959.

I had no brothers or sisters growing up, but I was hardly isolated. There were always other kids in our home, and vice versa. My closest childhood friend, Bill Sloan, practically lived in my home at times.

For my first year in school, we still lived on the farm. I attended first grade in a one-room schoolhouse called Newport School. We then moved into Delia, and I started Grade One in the local school, where I remained right through to high school graduation.

I was a bit of a lazy student. I gave enough effort to pass, but not much more, unless it was a subject that interested me. I usually was well-behaved and got along with teachers, but still got strapped occasionally.

I was much more interested in sports. Almost every moment that I wasn’t at school or working odd jobs and my paper route, I was playing sports.

Like any Alberta boy, hockey was my favourite. I played with a number of teams over the years, including ones for Delia and Hanna. I played forward and I was pretty good, but not necessarily the best on the team.

In those days, there were no helmets. Shoulder pads were seldom seen. I didn’t play on artificial ice until I was 14. I was never injured, and I suspect this is largely due to the game being slower than it is today. There was the odd fight, and I admittedly started a few, (to the embarrassment of my mother). I did lose some teeth over time, and to this day I have a partial plate as a souvenir.

Our area didn’t churn out any great hockey stars in my day. I did play against Lorne MacDonald, the father of Calgary Flames’ star Lanny MacDonald, who was a real mean cuss. I  got an offer for a tryout with the Moose Jaw Canucks., a Saskatchewan-based junior “A” team, but I passed on it, without regret. I just knew I wasn’t the best player around.

Instead of a playing career, I got something much better: my start in coaching. I was given a chance to coach younger kids in hockey in Hanna. It was a wonderful experience, and I learned lessons that would serve me well in my teaching career.

There were other sports as well. As an older child, I was an enthusiastic curler, while baseball was my summer sport. Later in high school, I would play football for one season, and was a regional all-star in basketball.

By the time I reached high school, there were other diversions beyond sports. I was into 1950s pop culture as much as anyone. I liked James Dean movies. I listened to rock ‘n’ roll records from Elvis Presley (I copied his “duck-bill” haircut for a time), Bill Haley and Buddy Holly. I even went to Calgary to see the Everly Brothers. Every Thursday was movie night at the Legion Hall, something we never missed.

There would be plenty of gang fighting, mostly divided between towns. I’m not proud to say I was a willing participant.

We were most often clashing with the gritty Drumheller kids. Drumheller is more a tourist town now. In my childhood, it was a tough mining town full of tougher people. I even took a set of “knuckledusters”, (also known as brass knuckles) from a Drumheller kid on one occasion.

As high school ended, I had decided that I wanted to teach physical education. Sports and coaching were my life at this point, so it wasn’t hard to choose.

Delia is still a special place to me. When I served as leader of the Alberta NDP, we always made a stop during election tours. I still have friends there, and I visit often, but at the time, I wasn’t broken up about leaving. It was the right time to move on.

Getting into university to become a qualified teacher wasn’t going to be easy. I had to write six “departmental exams” or tests that were required to graduate. Though I scored 80% on three of my tests, the other three were in the 40% range. Clearly, I’d have to do some make-up courses before university.

Due to my three bad departmental exams, university was going to have to wait a year. So, for the fall, I went to work for a private surveyor firm. We did work for the provincial government, and I was employed as a chainman for road surveys and construction. That winter, I went to a high school in Red Deer to make up my three exams. Afterwards, I was hired by the Alberta Department of Highways, working on roads around the province.

It was while working on a road crew when I got another dose of left-wing political education. One of my co-workers was constantly complaining that private firms, like Calgary Power, were making big bucks off of taxpayers’ money instead of the government performing this work in-house. It’s a notion that made a lot of sense to me then. And after decades of failure with Alberta’s expensive experiment with privatization and deregulation, it makes even more sense to me now.