VICTORIA – Whenever people say politicians are all alike, can’t be trusted and look out only for themselves, I tell them they should meet Cyril Shelford.
Cyril is no longer in politics. Hasn’t been for 25 years. But back in the days of W.A.C. Bennett, he was minister of agriculture. He was a true gentleman then and he is now.
His thanks for serving the public faithfully and with dedication was a thwack across the back with a two-by-four, swung by an angry protester during the 1972 election campaign, at the end of which he and the Social Credit Party were defeated.
Cyril comes from true British Columbia pioneer stock. His father, Jack Shelford, settled in central British Columbia, near Bella Coola, during the early part of this century. The Shelford Hills are named after him.
His father’s journey to British Columbia, via South Africa, where he served in the Boer War, America, where he earned a living as a carpenter, and Alaska, where he became a proficient trapper and woodsman, are the subject of a book just published by Cyril. I met for coffee with Cyril, and he gave me a copy.
"From War to Wilderness" is a book that should be mandatory reading for every British Columbian, particularly every young British Columbian. It tells a fascinating and inspiring story in letters written home by Jack Shelford of war, adventure and an indomitable will to succeed, no matter what the obstacles.
The trail of letters describes the horrors of the Boer War, where young Jack serves with the British Cavalry. It was the war that changed Jack forever. Emotionally drained, he decides to get as far away from people and socalled civilization as possible.
Leaving England in 1903, Jack makes his way across the United States, stopping and working only long enough to pay for the next leg of his journey. Eventually, he arrives in Vancouver, where he stays in a boarding house at 109 Hastings Street, then a mud road with a sawmill at one end and forestry operations at the other.
He tells of lots being sold on Granville, near False Creek, for $18, less than three days’ wages for a carpenter, but decides against buying because he feels that Vancouver will never grow beyond a fishing village.
Jack’s letter from Alaska provides an insight into what life on the frontier was like. During winter, he looks after his trap lines, with a dog sled his only transportation and the dogs his only company. In the summer, he cuts wood which he sells to the steamers plying the rivers of the north.
Humorous anecdotes abound, as in the story about a Hudson Bay fur buyer who was trying to get the better of some Indian trappers. With great pomp, they declare him an honorary Indian, giving him the name of Walking Eagle. What did the name imply, he wants to know.
Well, when an eagle eats too much he’s so full of excrement that he can’t fly. And you, they say, richly deserve that honor.
He tells of an old prospector friend who had lost all his teeth and spends the long winter nights whittling himself a pair of dentures from a piece of hardwood. When they finally fit, he glues bear and wolverine teeth into holes he had drilled into the dentures. "Now I eat you with your own teeth," he says, eating his first bear steak with his new teeth.
When his brother expresses an interest in joining him, but wonders if he’s suited for pioneer life, Jack writes back: "Take no notice of what people say about how tough it’s going to be. Just go ahead and blaze your own trail."
Eventually, Jack decides it’s time to settle down and raise a family. He buys land near Bella Coola, builds a log cabin and starts farming and ranching. Then he asks his sweetheart in England to come over and marry him. He picks up Safie in Montreal where they get married.
When Safie first lays eyes on the 80-acre meadow that stretches below the house, and sees the snow-capped mountains beyond, she says: "This is the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen, and when facing difficulties in life ahead, I can always walk up to his spot and remind myself how fortunate we are to live in the most beautiful place in earth."
Cyril’s mom and dad are both buried on that most beautiful place on earth. And thanks to his dad’s letters, we can now share in the wonder and excitement of its discovery. From War to Wilderness should be in every school library in British Columbia. The book can be ordered through book stores. The price is $19.95 and well worth it.