Growing up in the fifties and sixties, I had a insider's view into the harsh and unforgiving social conditions of James Bay. I knew people who were dirt poor, with no welfare programs to help them survive a hard life. Poverty, malaise and hardship were rampant. Our family and others did well - but many suffered. I witnessed a fascinating social experiment with affluence and destitution living side by side in a neighbourhood riddled with inequity. In our neighbourhood at Government and Dallas, I had friends who lived on ketchup sandwiches and flashed smiles full of rotten teeth; but I also hung out with kids who had the best of everything. There was a revolution in the seventies, with a massive infusion of social services in James Bay. It was also a time of high ideals and "possibility thinking," of trying to forge a humane community built on values of acceptance, respect and caring for one another. Dave Allan, former South Park School Principal, was part of that spirited time in James Bay history.
The seventies were a time of massive social change in James Bay as many services for people moved into the area. It was a time of hope, excitement and energetic social activism. A new paradigm took over mainstream thinking: the sky is the limit, we can change James Bay to make life better for everyone! Dave Allan was caught up in that heady time. He started as principal of South Park School in September 1971: "Activism was starting to grow. There was a huge 'counter-culture' community living here and there were many disenfranchised kids. Many of the kids were in deep trouble, intellectually and socially." Dave was interested in a Community School "womb-to-tomb" model - opening up the school to the community, day and night. Dave: "People needed to get together and get to know each other in the community. It was natural, organic and non-institutional. This wasn't about programs or policy. This was about people relating to people."
Dave took his idea to the District Superintendent and they opened up South Park at night. At that time the Action Committee of the James Bay United Church applied for and received $14,970 in Local Initiative funds from the feds to do progressive work in the community. Dave received some of the money for his "Community School" idea - and he used it where the need was greatest. A true caring "community" grew: Dave and his team brought in disadvantaged kids and marginalized adults to work in South Park School. "People got together and it worked." Children were encouraged to learn from elders in the community. Dave speaks from the heart: "There was a moment in time when that was possible!" They called it South Park Community School and "We were making a difference." A big part of the success of this community movement was having the flexibility to use the money as they saw fit.
Life improved dramatically for families when the NDP came into power in 1972. An October 1973 article in the Daily Colonist by Susan Ruttan, "Cabinet Trio Supports Plan," talked about the provincial government working with community groups in James Bay to get an integrated service model of health, social and educational services: "The project has received the backing of three ministers." Illuminating the strong activist community in those days, the article refers to the contributions of a few of the bright lights of that time: Lorne de Girolamo (Carole James' father) and the tenacious members of the James Bay Neighbourhood Services Council.
Back in 1971, Dave Allan and his Community School already knew the value of combining services to people in one bundle: "The community's strength had come from working together." They knew how important it was to have an integrated community of supports for people, serving their social, educational and health needs. The vision back then was forward-thinking, humane and people-centred. "There were no 'throw-away' people" in Dave Allan's world. Everybody had something to offer - a gift, a talent - regardless of their station in life.
Dave Allan beautifully captures the mindset, the Zeitgeist, of that intoxicating time in James Bay: "informal, human and rather wonderful."
Part Two of my article will deal with Dave Allan's recollections of how the Seventies' social upheaval was recorded in the old James Bay News - the precursor to our venerable James Bay Beacon.