“You were as one who goes by night, carrying the light behind him – it is no help to him, but instructs all those who follow.”
Last year, probably in a moment of desperation, someone pried off one of the two brass beaver crests that flank the entrance to The Vancouver Club. Fortunately, they left the other crest behind, and so we were able to have laser copies made. I mean this only in a financial sense – even if both had been taken, we still could have had new ones made, albeit more laboriously, using their original designs, which are located in our archives. I consider the loss an object lesson in the importance of artefacts, of records, of memory. As of yet, they are uninstalled. The doors they will adorn have been locked.
Now those doors are open. During our open house “Summer Reset” the Club set up an archival display of the original minute books and artefacts. They are an interesting read. Some of the language seems antiquated, but the handwritten records are handsome and steady with the aid of a straight pen and inkwell. There’s a certain fragrance in old documents, but despite the lack of temperature-controlled storage, the books and papers in Room 15 seem in good health.
Words can become antiquated. Those most prone to do so are often highly specific to their times. Major events and catastrophes often give rise to new words (or acronyms used as words) such as COVID-19. They can also induce rather unlikely pairings of seemingly unrelated words, such as social and distancing. Other words might simply gain prominence, such as unprecedented, which, regarding this year’s pandemic, was both true and false. While our society-wide lockdown was unprecedented, pandemics, of course, are not. As our club survived the Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1919, a logical step in dealing with the present seemed to be to take instruction from the past.
Tim Ellison, who knows just about everything about anything, began with local research. It turned out that Vancouver was hit hard during that pandemic, harder than most North American cities, with a per capita fatality rate approximately double that of Chicago or Seattle. There were two peaks: in October of 1918 and again in January of 1919, hitting those between the ages of 30 and 39 as well as children and infants the hardest. The death rate among young adults also was surprisingly high. That so many victims were young and strong baffled medical authorities, as did an erratic epidemiological pattern. By the end of March 1919, it was over. “At a conservative estimate, the epidemic sickened 30,000 and killed 900 of a population of about 100,000.”
The City of Vancouver’s archival records revealed much about the times, about how the pandemic affected businesses, children, and the poorer segments of Vancouver society. They told of how distant precursors of our own Bonnie Henry emerged in heroes such as Dr. Fredick T. Underhill and Dr. Henry Esson Young. It was a time where the citizens of Vancouver wanted to see an end to this tragedy, while hoping for a new day also meant fearing it at the same time. It was an event of terrible, sad enormity.
Scouring our own Club’s archives, we were astounded to find that there was no mention of the Spanish Flu. Nor was it mentioned in the Club’s two published histories, nor in the University Club files, nor the precious papers from the Georgian Club. In The Vancouver Club: First Century 1889 – 1989, the late historian Reginald H. Roy simply jumps from Club members serving overseas during the First World War to the effect of prohibition on wine and liquor inventories – forcing the Club into a deficit – then leaps again into a new chapter titled “The Roaring Twenties and Dirty Thirties.” We all questioned this seemingly redacted piece of history, wondering: “why did they not record or reflect on this significant cataclysmic event?”
And so we had to make things up as we went.
Presently, and over the last few months, from our initial closure in March to the beginnings of a takeout program and a staff relief fund, we have had to make a momentous number of decisions, and we have had to make them quickly. As we have acted, a history has emerged. With her weekly letters throughout, our Club President, Stephanie Burns Staiano, has kept members connected and abreast of developments. Along the way, your own letters, emails, and general concern for other members and members of staff have been reassuring, heartening, and, at times, quite overwhelming.
For our Club’s present community, I am sure this will be remembered as: “the time I worked from home”; “the year I lost my investment”; “the year I postponed my wedding”; “the year I did not visit my family and friends in Europe”; “the year my children stayed home from school”; “the year we were a close family – sometimes too close”; or, highly likely: “the year where my social life appeared on a screen like we were all panelists on Hollywood Squares.” It will also be remembered as the year the borders were closed, the year the United States divided itself, the year of Black Lives Matter, and, with any luck, the year that ended with healing.
What we have collectively done, in our letters, our updates, in the minutes of our Board, is create a new chapter in the Club’s history.
In another hundred years, physically or virtually, what will our members find in the archives of Room 15? Encrypted member statements, cloud-saved agendas and minutes, digitized Presidents’ letters, member applications, Instagram highlights, letters of quaint house rules and outdated Club bylaws? Perhaps. Most certainly they will be able to find everything you ever wanted to know about steering the Club through a pandemic but were afraid to ask.
But there could be more. That is, I would like to continue with Andrew Hungerford’s noble pursuit to re-examine the Club’s history, to protect our archival treasures, and to present and display our historical artefacts. To be sure, not all of our history is splendid. There are glimpses of biases and prejudices; there are debates about women becoming part of the membership. Wendy King, the Club’s first female President, certainly doesn’t deny our history. There are moments of darkness, but it is our story. This has been our policy for a long time.
It is in this spirit of true history that I am asking the membership to continue to send us your thoughts about this present time: your life, your business, your friends and fellow members, and your relationship to the Club, both the good or bad, with the light and shade that any picture or story of realism requires. Take your time – you have up until just before the AGM of September 28th, during which we will seal them with other artefacts into two time capsules for deposit into the very bricks of your Club.
Where are they to be deposited? Behind the beaver crests, secured with 12-inch bolts, their place noted in the minutes of our virtual Annual General Meeting. There they will remain and time will pass, the polished crests reflecting night and day and the passing of people in ever-changing fashions who, hopefully, will treat each other well.
And if someone in the future opens it, it will be a letter from all of you to the future membership, who can reflect on your generosity and strength of spirit. No doubt our language will appear archaic. Readers will definitely wonder why everyone keeps saying unprecedented. But my hope is that they say (wow), what a golden time and I’m so proud to be part of this history and a member of this fine Club.
So please write. Your words will be a conduit from the present to the future, a seed to a tree whose shade we will never enjoy, and a lamp, not for us, but to those who follow.
General Manager & COO