Greg Dickson and Mr. BC himself, Mark Forsythe, spent this past weekend making their rounds through the Kootenays, introducing residents to their newest book, From the West Coast to the Western Front: British Columbians and the Great War.
Forsythe retired last year after a 30-year career with the CBC. After 12 years with CBC Radio, Forsythe became host of the province-wide noon show BC Almanac and earned widespread popularity and respect.
Dickson was a long-time, valued employee at CBC as well. His career was spent as a journalist and producer at CBC Radio for over 20 years. Dickson also taught journalism at the BC Institute of Technology.
Now the two are enjoying retirement and touring the province promoting this new look into BC’s heritage and the war.
Forsythe said: “We have done some talks in Nanaimo at the university where this letters- and-images project is based. Also at the Vancouver Historical Society and White Rock library. This is our little Kootenay tour. Hopefully we can do more traveling in the province. It’s great getting out in the communities.”
This book, published last September, is all about BC’s contributions to the First World War. No province participated more greatly in this war than BC, which sent 55,570 of the 611,000 soldiers who fought from Canada. Of these soldiers, 6,225 died in battle — a substantial number for a province that then barely had 400,000 people.
To gain more insight and personality, Forsythe and Dickson used many excerpts of pieces sent in to Forsythe’s show.
Forsythe said working on BC Almanac, “allowed me to dabble in this with Greg and opened up a whole different world of books and storytelling.”
Dickson added: “I had left the CBC and was working in government. I did some of the narrative and Mark handled all of the listener contributions and wrote narrative too. He had the great sources from all of the CBC listeners and the transcribing. [This book] was quite a project.”
A major driving force for this book was the 100th anniversary of the war in 2014.
Both authors have personal family history in the war and after working together for some time, Dickson said, “We were on the trail to find out more and we thought a lot of British Columbians may be thinking ‘How does my family fit into World War I?’ That really got us going and we sat down for tea in March 2013, and thought ‘Well, we better get going with less than a year and a half to write this thing,’ and so it went.”
The presentation filled the Rossland museum and Castlegar library.
Dickson explained Canadians and British Columbians in general were good at being soldiers because they already had experience with horses, wood cutting, building roads and railways, etc.
“We were innovators, but we weren’t great at following orders, unfortunately. The Brits wanted us to follow orders.”
Forsythe said First Nations at the time signed up in droves to fight for Canada, something that may not have been expected, given past circumstances.
“Aliens” or foreigners were not treated kindly once the war started.
“Once war broke out, by September 1914 we had set up internment camps at Nanaimo and a major one at Vernon which is now the playing field for a school there,” Dickson said.
“Whole families were put there, and many were not released until 1920,” years after the war ended.
Of course, a great source of Rossland pride and heritage, the mines, served a major purpose in the war effort by funding many activities and keeping the troops equipped.
The Doukhobors cause quite a stir as well during the war.
“These people entered the country with the understanding that they would not have to fight,” Dickson said. “They were pacifists and that was an agreement that the Canadian government honoured.”
However, there was a lot of resentment towards them from non-Doukobor farmers whose children had no such exemption and were off fighting the war.
To try to stem some of those feelings, Doukhobor leader Peter (Lordly) Verigin donated a carload of jam to Canadian soldiers convalescing in hospitals. They also donated money.
With strokes of both great horror and valiant triumph, Dickson and Forsythe’s book paints an epic tale of BC’s war efforts. Anyone interested in hearing about the war of 100 years ago and our province’s role in it, need simply pick up this book.