Posts Tagged With: Roland Penner

There is Winnipeg Mennonite Fiction!

He got it wrong! In March I took a course called Winnipeg Fact and Fiction from Roland Penner octogenarian story-teller extraordinaire. One class was about the contributions immigrant families have made to the city.  Penner was right in asserting that immigrants and their children helped put Winnipeg on the map. Just  look at people like ………….

Manitoba Theatre Centre founder John Hirsch who was a war orphan from Hungary

Sculptor Leo Mol who came to Canada from Ukraine in 1948

Politician Stanley Knowles who immigrated to Canada from Los Angeles with his parents in the early 1900s.  Intrepid war hero William Stephenson, Winnipeg’s own James Bond, whose parents were immigrants from Iceland and Scotland. 

and comedian David Steinberg born in Winnipeg to Romanian immigrant parents. 

The purpose of the course Winnipeg Fact and Fiction was to introduce a topic about Winnipeg history and then suggest one or two companion novels that might shed an interesting perspective on that theme.  Our teacher Roland Penner got it wrong when he recommended Fredelle Maynard’s book Raisins and Almonds as his top fiction pick reflecting the Winnipeg immigrant experience.

Raisins and Almonds tells the story of a young girl growing up on the Canadian prairies as the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia. The first problem I have with Roland Penner choosing this book is that it’s not fiction, but Maynard’s memoirs. Secondly, although there are a some pages in the book devoted to life in Winnipeg the majority of the stories are set in the small Canadian prairie towns where Fredelle’s family moved in hopes of finding one where her father’s mercantile business would be successful. 

Someone in the class asked Roland if he could recommend fiction books that would represent the Mennonite immigrant experience in Winnipeg and he said there weren’t any. He claimed since Mennonites settled primarily in the rural areas of Manitoba, if there was any fiction about their immigrant experience it wouldn’t be set in Winnipeg. He was wrong. 

Dora Dueck’s novel This Hidden Thing, winner of last year’s McNally Robinison Book of the Year award, is definitely fiction and is set almost solely in Winnipeg. It tells the story of young Mennonite girls who came to live in Winnipeg to work as maids in the homes of wealthy people in order to help pay the money their families owed to the Canadian Pacific Railway. The CPR had financed loans to make it possible for Mennonites to come to Canada from Ukraine.  Maria, the main character in Dueck’s novel, spends almost her entire life in Winnipeg after immigrating from Ukraine as a teenager.  

Penner is also wrong when he says there weren’t many Mennonite immigrants in Winnipeg. By the 1920’s six Mennonite churches had already been established in the city and by the 1950’s there were 7000 Mennonites living in Winnipeg. 

I’d like to find out if there are any other novels set primarily in Winnipeg that reflect the experience of Mennonite immigrants. 

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The Flying Bandit

I’m taking a course with Roland Penner a well-known Manitoba lawyer. Our class is called Winnipeg Fact or Fiction. In my first post about the course I wrote about the Winnipeg Strike. Our second class was about a famous Winnipeg criminal, Kenneth Leishman. Roland was intimately familiar with his case because he defended Leishman’s accomplice Harry Backlin in court. Although Leishman’s story honestly sounds like fiction, Roland gave us a good factual account of what actually happened. 

March 3 of 1966 Ken Leishman masterminded the theft of nearly $400,000 in gold bars from the Winnipeg International Airport and he almost got away with it. The gold was coming into Winnipeg from Red Lake, en route to the mint in Ottawa and Ken knew it had no police protection as it was moved from the plane to the airport. He took advantage of this and posing as an Air Canada driver intercepted the gold and drove away with it.

Harry Backlin, a lawyer Ken had known in prison was part of the scheme. He was on a planned holiday in California so it would look like he wasn’t involved. On his return from the United States Backlin was going to take the gold to Hong Kong and sell it. Ken went to Harry’s house right after the heist and told Harry’s mother-in-law who had not gone to California, that he was Harry’s friend and was going to store some moose meat in his freezer. That’s where he stashed the gold, planning to pick it up the next day and take it to his uncle’s farm in Treherne. 

Unfortunately for Ken a huge blizzard hit Winnipeg that night and he couldn’t get out of the city in the morning. In desperation he hid the gold in the snow banks in Harry’s backyard, which made Harry pretty upset when he arrived home. Harry’s plans to go to Hong Kong were thwarted when there was a problem with his passport so Ken decided to go to Hong Kong to sell the gold himself. He sawed off a piece of gold to take to Hong Kong in his briefcase as a sample to sell. However Ken needed a small pox vaccination to go to Hong Kong. Harry arranged one with a friend who was a doctor. There was supposed to be a seven-day waiting period after a vaccination but Ken convinced the doctor to lie and put the wrong date on the vaccination form so he could leave Canada right away. The doctor feeling guilty confessed what he’d done to a friend who was a police officer. The police officer recognized Ken’s name. Ken had been high on the police list of suspects for the gold robbery because of his previous criminal activity.  The RCMP made plans to arrest Ken in the Vancouver airport when he arrived there on his way to Hong Kong. Ken managed to get out of the airport long enough to get rid of the gold in his briefcase before he was arrested. It was never found. 

Ken made the mistake of explaining the robbery in detail to the man sharing his cell in Vancouver. He was an RCMP agent incarcerated with Ken for the purpose of extracting incriminating information. After Ken’s Vancouver jail house confession the gold was dug up from Harry’s backyard and Ken was sent to jail in Headingly, Manitoba to await trial. 

Unbelievably Ken managed to escape from Headingly, was recaptured in Indiana and sent to the Vaughn Street Detention Centre and he escaped from there too. Finally he was tried, convicted and sent to prison for twelve years, however he managed to get out of prison after just eight years for good behavior. 

Following his prison release Ken and his wife Elva and their seven children moved to Red Lake where they opened a store and Ken became a pillar of the community, even serving as president of the Red Lake Chamber of Commerce. 

Ken, a former pilot began flying mercy flights taking people from northern communities to hospitals. In 1979 while flying one of these mercy flights his plane went missing. It took almost five months of searching but remains of the aircraft and human bodies were eventually found. 

My course with Roland Penner is called Winnipeg Fact and Fiction and for each event in Winnipeg history we study, Roland recommends several fictional accounts. I read Heather Robertson’s The Flying Bandit. It is fiction, because Heather invents conversation and actions and scenes, but she does stick very closely to the actual events that happened. 

I liked the book because I learned lots more about Ken Leishman’s personal life. He had a difficult childhood. His parents divorced. He was in a series of foster homes and lived for a while with very strict and unaffectionate grandparents. I truly admired his wife Elva ( the photo is their wedding picture) who stuck with him through everything and raised their seven children. I also learned about the crimes Ken had committed before the gold heist– two bank robberies and a break and enter at a furniture store so he could furnish an apartment to bring Elva home to after their wedding.  Ken was very successful for a time at selling Queen Anne cookware door to door. I can remember a salesman coming to our home to do a pitch for that cookware for my Mom. 

Something interesting I learned from reading the book was that when Ken escaped from Headingly Jail in September of 1966 he went to Steinbach, where my family was living at the time, and stole a plane from Abe Loewen, a pharmacist my father knew well, since Dad was a doctor in Steinbach. Ken and three other Headingly escapees flew the plane to Gary Indiana before they were arrested. 

Heather does a good job of helping us get to know Ken as a person. He truly believed he could get away with his crimes. He was a ‘nice’ man –polite, friendly, dressed neatly and fashionably, was faithful to his wife, loved his children, wrote poetry and secretly reveled in the fame his crimes brought him. 

I’ve just started reading Bandit, a novel about Kenneth Leishman written by Wayne Tefs. It has been nominated for five Manitoba book awards. I am sure to learn some new things about one of Winnipeg’s most famous criminal from reading it. 

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The 1919 Winnipeg Strike- Fact and Fiction

I am taking a course at the McNally Robinson community classroom from Roland Penner, a former dean of the University of Manitoba law school and the province’s Attorney General in the 1980’s. The course is called Winnipeg History- Fact and Fiction. In each class Roland gives a quick overview of an event in Winnipeg’s history and then introduces us to novels which have been written about those events. I decided I would try to read one novel about each event. 

In our first class we looked at the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. For six weeks beginning in May more than 30,000 Winnipeg workers walked off the job. The strike was the product of poor working conditions, unemployment–especially in the case of returning World War I soldiers, the economic recession and the activity of union organizers.  The strikers wanted an eight-hour work day, collective bargaining and a living wage. 

The strike virtually brought the city to a stand still. Work stopped at the railway yards and factories. Winnipeg had no mail, streetcars, taxis, newspapers, telegrams, telephones, gasoline, or milk delivery. Most restaurants, stores, and even barber shops closed. Police, fire fighters, and employees of the water works joined the strike. 

The strike leaders were arrested and imprisoned and the strike ended on June 21,1919 when a contingent of Royal Northwest Canadian Mounted Police charged a group of strikers, killing two and injuring many others. 

The novel I read about the strike was Fox by Margaret Sweatman. There is a rather elegant and obviously wealthy young woman on the cover. Her name is Eleanor and it is basically through her eyes and that of her upper class friends and family that we view the strike.  Eleanor leads a very privileged existence and knows little about the lives of Winnipeg’s working class. However when she begins a romantic relationship with a book store owner who is a strike supporter, her eyes are opened to the working conditions of Winnipeg’s lower class as well as the suffering they experience as a result of the strike. 

Although it is clear author Margaret Sweatman’s sympathies lie with the strikers, interestingly her grandfather Travers Sweatman was one of the company of 1000– a group of Winnipeg citizens who banded together to bring about the unconditional defeat of the strike. They hired 2000 militia men to take the place of the striking police and discouraged all attempts to try to find a peaceful negotiated settlement with the strikers. Margaret’s grandfather was an attorney who helped in the legal prosecution of the strike organizers. One wonders if writing her novel was a way for Sweatman to do penance for the sins of her grandfather.

I was glad I knew some general information about the Winnipeg Strike before I read Fox. I think I would have been pretty confused otherwise, since Sweatman doesn’t provide a straight forward narrative but rather a kind of crazy jumble of newspaper articles, lists, headlines, stories, letters, poems and journal entries. She does a nice job of juxtapositiong events–a high society wedding is described right after we read that the strike leaders have been arrested– while Eleanor is hosting a tobogganing party the union leaders are meeting illegally at the Walker Theatre. Margaret shows what widely disparate economic and social class distinctions existed in Winnipeg at the time of the strike. 

Can anyone recommend other novels about the Winnipeg Strike?

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