Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How a car guy turned his back on gas

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 25, 2008


As the price of gasoline has gone up, so, too, has the workload at Randy Holmquist's shop.

In January, he had three employees. Today, he has six.

All four work bays were busy yesterday. As soon as a vehicle was finished, another took its place.

Still, the orders pile up like the Colwood Crawl at rush hour.

"We're so freaking busy right now," he said, taking a break in a hectic day to answer a few questions.

Right off the bat, he got stumped.

He was asked the price of gasoline in Errington, outside Parksville, where he has based the world headquarters of Canadian Electric Vehicles Ltd.

"Around a buck forty, I think. I don't know."

How would he? He long ago converted his Dodge Dakota to run on diesel.

Now, he's altering it to run on vegetable oil.

At home, the ride-on mower runs on electricity, as does the rototiller.

"We don't have anything that runs on gas," he said.

That's quite a statement from a fellow who has always been a car guy.

Mr. Holmquist, 48, remembers the family car, a Rambler station wagon in which his father, a cabinet maker, used to haul wood.

He grew up in Nanaimo, where car culture thrived in the postwar years as prosperity from high-paying union jobs in the mills paid for the cost of turning a stock model into a muscle car.

He owned his first automobile before he could legally drive. He bought a '67 Mustang at age 15, rebuilding the engine before taking it for spins along the old Island Highway.

In Grade 10, he rebuilt a Volkswagen engine that he then attached to a dune buggy, which he drove on some off-road adventures. "I'd beat it to death on weekends," he said, "fix it in the school shop and then do it all over again the next weekend." He got an A in shop that year.

Among the grease-stained car culture crowd, he was seen as a bit of an oddball for his preference for building and racing vehicles that weren't street legal. What the heck was the point if he didn't intend to blow the doors off some other guy's racer?

In 1989, he had an epiphany on a beautiful summer day. He was lounging on the beach near his home at Lantzville, gazing across Georgia Strait to the Sunshine Coast. Only the other coast wasn't seeing any sunshine.

A greenish cloud of exhaust haze had moved up the coast from Vancouver.

He decided he could no longer contribute to the pollution.

He bought a wrecked '63 Triumph Spitfire for $500 from a neighbour - "It was literally in boxes" - with the intent of building a reliable, clean vehicle for his daily 30-kilometre commute to his job at Anchorage Marina in Nanaimo.

He gutted the car, replacing the internal combustion engine with a kit purchased from a U.S. company.

The two-seater roadster turned out to be a poor choice. The axle broke. The torque of the electric motor caused other problems.

He then converted a cherry-red Nissan pickup truck. It zipped along silently at 120 km/h, startling other drivers who would speed up to check out what at the time was still a novelty.

At work, the truck was plugged in for the drive back home. To cover the cost, a nickel was left for the boss.

The truck is still on the road at Royal Roads University, outside Victoria.

Mr. Holmquist left the marina job to go into business selling conversion kits.

A few years ago, he moved to Errington, which was founded in the 1890s as a roadhouse on the way to Port Alberni. In those days, horse power transported people, only to be replaced by horsepower engines. A century later, Mr. Holmquist converts Chevrolet S10 pickups to electricity. The basic do-it-yourself conversion kit for these vehicles is $9,525 (batteries not included).

He also sells something he calls the Might-E Truck, a low-speed, mid-sized truck. For five years, he has been waiting for Transport Canada's approval for its use on streets and highways.

While most of his trucks are sold in the United States, where they are approved for use on public roads, he has found a niche market in Canada. One truck is used by municipal workers in Whistler, three are on the grounds of the Bruce nuclear station in Ontario, and 10 can be found on the University of British Columbia campus, with more on the way.

A larger electric truck is in use at airports at Dubai, Hong Kong and Los Angeles.

Mr. Holmquist's company also sells an electric towing unit called a Might-E Tug, which is popular with hospitals.

Before carbon taxes and gas-pump robbery and even before the 2006 release of the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, Mr. Holmquist has been a quiet evangelist for a quieter, cleaner mode of transport.

So, the price of gasoline is not something he follows closely. He called on one of his employees.

"Hey, Shane. What's gas today?"

"One forty-two nine," he replied.

Which is at least 1,429 reasons to be driving electric.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Smooth celebrations for a bumpy, thrilling 50 years

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 18, 2008


Nina Fraley shivered in the morning mist. She studied a rickety-looking contraption, lifting her head high to gaze at the top of a wooden hill.

A train filled with squealing children slowly rolled past, before climbing the steep track, a rhythmic clackety-clack, clackety-clack, counting the rise in elevation.

At the peak, the train noise stopped. The children became quiet.

At 68 feet above the fairgrounds of the Pacific National Exhibition, riders enjoy a panoramic view of mountains and the bridge linking the city to the north shore. The solitude lasts but a second or two, before the train responds, as it must, to the law of gravity, hurtling downward with a hail of shrieks.

The cries brought a smile to Ms. Fraley's face.

“I miss the sound of it,” she said. “I'd go to sleep at night with the sound of the roller coaster ringing in my ears. This takes me home.”

She has been riding coasters for 78 of her 80 years. She is the daughter of legendary coaster designer Carl Phare, who raised three daughters in a home on the grounds of an amusement park in Seattle.

“I got popular in school in the spring,” she said. Classmates were keen to befriend a girl who had a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster in her backyard.

On Tuesday, she attended a ceremony at Playland to mark the 50th birthday of The Coaster, the Vancouver landmark that has left millions of riders scared witless.

A mayoral proclamation was read, cake was served, and, best of all, free coaster rides were on offer. The lineup began in the predawn gloom, a mother and her nine-year-old son at the head. They would be joined by businessmen in suits, schoolchildren on a field trip and an assortment of daredevils and thrill seekers.

About a dozen members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts came to pay homage to a ride they have declared a classic.

“Every single dip on this coaster you get air time,” enthused Steve Gzesh, a Seattle aficionado who has survived 686 coasters in 14 countries. “That bump near the end – that's ejection-seat air time!”

Those who ride the coaster trust in the engineering wizardry of a man who quit school in the sixth grade.

As a boy, Carl Phare supported his poor mother by selling newspapers on the sidewalks of Kansas City. A stint at an amusement park convinced him to head east to work at Coney Island, where he became fascinated by the mechanics of the rides. He learned the science by correspondence courses.

In 1931, he bought a failing, year-old amusement park at Bitter Lake, north of Seattle. He managed to keep it running through the Depression, later designing several remarkable wooden coasters along the West Coast.

His Vancouver coaster is powered by a 75-horsepower engine that hauls the train to the crest of the hill. After those 20 seconds of climbing, the train is in down-bound freefall. No motor. No brakes.

The designer had an imagination. After the first big drop, novice riders assume they have endured the worst. Not so. The drop comes only within three metres of the ground, allowing for an even steeper – and more horrifying, because it is so unexpected – second drop.

The wooden skeleton creaks and groans like an old man, every passing train threatening to reduce the framework to a pile of matchsticks.

The coaster was built of Douglas fir grown at high elevations, making the wood especially durable. Some 300 carpenters and millwrights, among them a pair of Norwegian boat-builders, built the Tinker-toy coaster under the supervision of Walker LeRoy. Born in Ontario at Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), he became renowned for his expertise in building and repairing amusement-park rides.

For the maiden ride, he loaded the first train with his wife, Allegra, their two teenaged daughters, and a dozen sandbags. “I just lashed them in,” he once told me, “and away we went.”

Mr. LeRoy, who died nine years ago, understood the attraction of roller coasters.

“Everybody wants to defy the laws of gravity.”

Fifty years ago yesterday, he stood atop the big hill when he heard a low rumble that caused his stomach to churn. For an instant, he feared his beautiful coaster was falling beneath him. Instead, to the north, a cloud of dust rose from the collapse of a bridge under construction. Mr. LeRoy returned every year to check up on the Vancouver coaster, reminded when he climbed the hill of the 18 men who had died at the bridge.

A few hours after the giddy coaster ceremony, a more sober gathering remembered those lost at what is now known as the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing.

The bridge and the coaster, built in the same year, were heralds of a modern, exciting city. Today, one is a humdrum commute of little notice, the other a thrilling transgression of our earthbound status. The bridge came at great cost. The one that is scarier is a tease.

The coaster has been featured in movies and ridden by such Hollywood stars as Mel Gibson, Johnny Depp and 1.42-metre-tall Gary Coleman, who beat the height restriction by 22 centimetres. Couples have been married at the top of the big hill, vows exchanged before literally plunging into wedded life.

The octogenarian daughter of the coaster's designer travelled north from California to attend yesterday's celebration. Having come so far, there was no way she was not going to ride the last of her father's coasters that still stands.

She sat in seat No. 1 of the lead car of the purple A train, waving to onlookers like the queen. Ninety seconds later, having endured two big drops, short climbs and dips, a horseshoe curve, a wicked reverse curve, a pair of bugaboos known as camel humps, her train pulled into the station.

Her white hair was askew. She clapped in delight at her father's handiwork.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Part scholar, part activist

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 11, 2008


The horse-drawn covered wagons rolled toward Fort Snelling as part of ceremonies organized to mark 150 years of Minnesota statehood.

A wagon train of carts and prairie schooners – the drivers and their passengers clad in fringed buckskin and other pioneer costumes – travelled 160 kilometres from Cannon Falls to St. Paul.

At the fort, the procession was halted when a handful of protesters blocked the road. Among them was a 40-year-old professor named Waziyatawin. She was in no mood to honour a colonial triumph.

“They gained statehood at Dakota expense,” she said.

A Wahpetunwan Dakota from the Upper Sioux reservation, she learned stories about her people from her family as a little girl. As an adult, she earned a doctorate in history, bringing formal academic training to her studies.

Minnesota is having a birthday party. Talking about stolen land, broken treaties and of mass murder does not fit into the narrative of a celebration.

So she blocked the road. She was cited for misdemeanour disorderly conduct and held for an hour.

A few days later, a protest on the steps of the state capitol turned into a scuffle with police. Although not directly involved in that incident, she was warned not to continue shouting. When she did so, she was arrested again.

Two arrests on successive weekends made May a memorable month.

On July 1, she will leave Minnesota for British Columbia. Waziyatawin (pronounced Wah-ZEE-yah-tah-ween) will be taking up a five-year position as the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples at the University of Victoria.

She plans to teach courses on such themes as truth-telling and reparative justice, indigenous women and resistance, and decolonization.

She was born to parents who were both educators. Her father earned a doctorate in the field, while her mother is currently a director of a social welfare agency in North Carolina.

“I grew up in a family with a strong oral tradition,” she said in a telephone interview from Granite Falls, Minn. “I can't remember a time when I didn't know stories. It was something I heard always when I was growing up.”

What she heard at home was unlike what was taught in class.

“All the children in U.S. schools learn all these myths we have about Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. Those were all nightmares to me.”

She remembers a dark day in Grade 9 when a social studies teacher offered for debate the statement that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.

After gaining a double major in history and American Indian studies from the University of Minnesota, she earned a master's degree and a doctorate from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Her doctoral thesis was an oral-history project that became the first of her four books.

Research into the history of her people has not eased the pain.

The skirmishes of 1862 go by many names – the Sioux Uprising, the Minnesota Massacre, Little Crow's War. The details are familiar to her, even as they are unknown to so many others. The outcome was dismal for the Dakota, some of whom had risen in opposition to the occupation of their lands.

Survivors were marched across the state, held in a camp, and then forcibly expelled. (The camp was near the fort at which she was arrested last month.) Thirty-eight Dakota were hanged in what remains the largest mass execution in American history.

A price was placed on the head of any Dakota found in the state.

At lectures, Waziyatawin shows a newspaper clipping from an 1863 edition of the Winona Daily Republican. It offers a bounty of $200 for a single Indian scalp – enough, she notes, to purchase a 160-acre homestead.

“It's still stunning to me. It still appalls me. There's still the hurt, a recognition of just how expendable aboriginal persons have been. And still are.”

Twice she has embarked on Dakota Commemorative Marches, treks of nearly 200 kilometres retracing the route her ancestors were forced to follow in their expulsion a century-and-a-half earlier.

The marches “provide a wakeup call to all of us about the extent of the injustice perpetrated against us.”

She is also left with a thought – “as Dakota people we are very much visitors in our own homeland.”

An elder gave her the name Waziyatawin as a girl. It means “woman of the north.” She began using it regularly five years ago and last summer Angela Cavender Wilson legally changed her name.

The lone difficulty with bearing a single traditional name has been in booking an airplane flight, as the computer system demanded a first name. A boarding pass was acquired by signing in as Miss Waziyatawin.

“Felt like a pageant title,” she quipped.

She looks forward to learning the history of the indigenous peoples of Vancouver Island. British Columbia, she was told, is also marking a sesquicentennial this year.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Marking 50 years on the legislature floor

Deddeda Stemler photo

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 4, 2008


George MacMinn’s office contains one of only two working fireplaces in the capital’s historic parliament building.

His desk has a plaque marking it as once having been used by the Queen.

Such perks are the reward for someone whose workday includes interminable hours at a table on the red-carpeted floor of the Legislature.

He is the clerk of the B.C. Legislature. For 50 years, Mr. MacMinn has been surrounded by politicians, his ears buffeted by the warm blast of rhetoric.

No table officer anywhere in the vast Commonwealth — from Antigua to Zambia — has enjoyed so long a tenure.

In the raucous chamber, in which sitting members square off like irate hockey players, the Speaker acts as referee, wearing a robe instead of a striped shirt. As clerk, Mr. MacMinn is the neutral and nonpartisan keeper of the rule book. He is an expert in procedure, precedent, and standing orders.

Some may think a half-century of listening to politicians to be cruel and unusual, but not Mr. MacMinn.

“It’s a rather awesome experience sitting there in the middle of the action,” he said. “Bullets flying back and forth. And none of them seem to hit me.”

He’s written what some parliamentarians describe as the bible. (No, not the Bible. He’s not that old. He’s only 78.) Mr. MacMinn is currently at work on the fourth revised edition of his Parliamentary Practice in British Columbia, which he hopes to get to the Queen’s Printer later this year.

While not spellbinding reading, it does include a chapter with the promising title of “Offer of money to member; bribery in elections.”

“Haven’t had to consult that one,” he said. “Yet.”

He spent part of yesterday afternoon watching on a computer debate in the Louisiana House of Representatives. He then surfed over to Westminster, where he was once seconded, to see the House of Commons in action. Another few keystrokes and he watched the members of the House of Lords file into the chamber after a division.

His office is filled with souvenir tchotchkes from parliament’s around the world, a kitschy collection of plaques and paperweights. In a corner, near the fireplace, a table holds the Speaker’s Trophy, a homemade prize awarded to the winner an annual tennis tournament pitting the press gallery against a team formed by the Speaker. The current score is 14-1 and Mr. MacMinn’s wide grin betrays which side maintains the advantage.

Asked the secret to his longevity, he replies quickly: “Good scotch and good pipe tobacco.”

He has served 15 Speakers, observed 10 premiers. His tenure has been such that he has seen sons follow fathers — the Gordon Gibsons, as well as Bill and W.A.C. Bennett — onto the floor.

He has had a front-row seat to some of the most dramatic events in the province’s political history. He has felt the elder Bennett’s dominating personality, heard Flyin’ Phil Gaglardi in full rhetorical flight, witnessed a defiant Dave Barrett being carried out of the chamber.

He takes so seriously his role as a nonpartisan officer that he has not cast a ballot in the 13 provincial elections since he joined the clerk’s staff.

The hiring was an unexpected turn of events.

On a quiet day, the struggling 27-year-old lawyer took a telephone call at his office. The voice on the other end wanted to know if he was available that day to meet the province’s attorney general.

“Just a minute, I’ll check my calendar,” Mr. MacMinn replied. The day’s schedule was blank. He agreed to a 3 p.m. appointment.

Robert Bonner had been wounded as an officer with the Seaforth Highlanders during the war. He was a powerful minister in the Bennett cabinet.

“Your name has been given to me by a lawyer in town as someone who might be interested in taking a job at the assembly as a table officer,” Mr. Bonner said. “Would you be interested?”

Mr. MacMinn was. The job came with a munificent $800 salary.

The attorney general had two questions.

“Are you closely aligned with any political party?” he asked.

“I must confess,” Mr. MacMinn replied, “I haven’t been too interested.”

Mr. Bonner seemed pleased by the response.

His final questions was succinct, though unexpected.

“Do you have a sense of humour?”

“I think so,” Mr. MacMinn answered.

He was then dispatched to meet with a white-haired, craggy-looking fellow named Ned de Beck. The job interview with the clerk of the house was even quicker than the meeting with the attorney general. He mulled over the applicant’s family name.

“Are you in any way related to Hope MacMinn?” he asked.

That was his mother.

“I play bridge with her,” the clerk said. “You’ll do fine.”

His appointment was ratified by the House at its next sitting. He has not left the table since.

He came to law only after realizing poor science marks did not herald a career in medicine.

He was born in 1930, on the cusp of the Depression, at New Glasgow, N.S., where his father was a bank manager. Earle George MacMinn had dreamed of being a doctor, passing on to his son both his name and own thwarted ambition, if not necessarily his Conservative politics.

The family moved to Victoria when George was 13. Five years later, he was bird hunting with his father on a day when what seemed to be an inconsequential decision proved to be tragic.

Not seeing any birds in the sky, the elder MacMinn slipped into a punt on a lake near Duncan. He was going to roust birds on the far shore. Unseen by his son, the boat tipped.

After spotting the overturned craft, as well as his father’s hat, floating on the water, the boy got help. The police were unable to to find the body. The next day, cruelly, the lake froze over. His father’s remains were recovered later.

It was from his father that he got his love for tennis. His father had been a doubles player for his home province and the son adopted his father’s now-antiquated continental grip.

Mr. MacMinn makes a biannual pilgrimage to Wimbledon. He has also transformed the expansive lawn between his Oak Bay house and the sea into what he calls Spoon Bay Centre Court. He thinks lawn tennis a subtle game and one easy on the knees of a septuagenarian whose backhand remains defiantly one-handed.

Once a year, he invites members of the press gallery to practice at Spoon Bay before the annual tournament.

Ornithologists know Spoon Bay as a spot visited by the likes of oystercatchers, black-bellied plovers and greater yellowlegs, which, come to think of it, is not a bad description of the denizens of the press gallery.

Two years ago, gallery members made Mr. MacMinn an honourary life member, an award perhaps not as celebrated as his being named Queen’s counsel, or to the Order of British Columbia, or being awarded the Queen’s Medal for Outstanding Service.

The announcement of the gallery membership earned Mr. MacMinn a rare rebuke in the legislature.

A government minister rose on a point of order.

“It is one thing as politicians to joust to determine whether we will sit on that side or this side of the House,” Mike de Jong said, “but to join the dark side of the House, as the clerk has done, is reprehensible.”

The province is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year, marking 150 years of modern history. The mighty MacMinn has sat dutifully in the Legislature for one-third of all those years.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.