October 1 1969


October 1 1969


The expatriate American who built an underground railway to Canada

The phone rang at 3 a.m. in William Spira’s home in suburban Toronto. The voice at the other end sounded American and frightened. The young man told Spira he was in danger of being court-martialed — could Spira do anything? Spira told the boy to come to his home where they’d see what he could do. The boy hung up, promising to come. He never arrived.

Telling the story, William Spira still sadly shakes his head. Looking more like an overweight sergeant major than a friend of the New Left, Spira is a kind of one-man immigration department for American draft-dodgers and deserters. Largely by word-of-mouth, he has become Our Man in Canada for hundreds of young men unable to live in the political mood of the U.S. at war. Spira estimates there are about 60,000 draft-age Americans in Canada, including 3,500 deserters.

Spira himself left the U.S. for Canada in 1953. “I couldrj’t stand the atmosphere in the McCarthy era/1 he says. “The attitude seemed to be: ‘Our roses are the reddest and our cherries are the sweetest.’ The FBI was constantly questioning everybody.”

Now a Canadian citizen, Spira has opposed the war in Vietnam since it began. Three years ago he decided one way to help end the war was to help those trying to avoid fighting in it, so he opened his home as an information centre for new arrivals. The word spread. “About a year ago,” he recalls, “I had 17 kids staying at my place in one week. That’s when I knew I needed a committee.” Today, he has a list of some 800 families willing to take in temporary guests.

A few months ago, Spira gave up

his presidency in three firms to concentrate full-time on his counseling work. With two sons, eight and 10 years old, still at home, his wife teaches high-school languages to help make ends meet.

In spite of his stand on Vietnam, Spira is no pacifist. He volunteered in World War II. Asked if he would fight for Canada, he says, “It depends on the cause. I’d fight the Nazis but not the Vietnamese.”

Inevitably, Spira’s activities arouse

attacks on his motives, but time has taught him to live with them. “Am I a communist?” he smiles. “Sure I am. The only trouble is that Communists aren’t. You should ask: am I a Christian? The answer is: sure I am, but the trouble is the Christians aren’t.”

The 52-time loser who helps others win

At 34, Gerry Burton has left one third of his life behind bars, most of it, as he describes himself, “as a phony little bastard who didn’t care for anybody except himself.” Now, he is making up for lost time in a hurry: for the past two years, Gerry and his 23-year-old companion Sharon (above) have thrown open their home in suburban Montreal to a conglomerate of addicts, alcoholics and homosexuals — anyone, in fact, “who reaches out for help.”

So far some 75 people have sought out the venture Burton calls “Life Savers.” He asks nothing of his guests except that they respect the household. They stay as long as they feel a need. Money comes from Burton’s occasional work in construction and from Sharon’s unemployment cheques. In two years, Burton has managed to scrape up $200 in donations.

Burton himself was almost the textbook dead-end kid: he ran up a score of 52 convictions, ranging from breakand-enter to robbery to attempted murder. Three years ago, he found himself at the bottom end of a ninemonth drinking binge on San Francisco’s skid row. Desperate, he called Alcoholics Anonymous. “After that,” he recalls, “I felt clean for the first time in my life.” Soon after, he started Life Savers.

So far, only four of Life Savers’ guests have made a successful readjustment into society. As for the rest. Burton, as always, is realistic. “I can’t kid myself that I’m going to get 25 out of 75. That’s wishful thinking. All I can do is plant a seed of truth about themselves — that is, that they alone are responsible for what they are. Once we get them to accept that, all we can do is hope for the best. The rest is up to them.”

The moviemaker who made it in Europe, but was banned in Vancouver

The shoestring movie has a long and heroic history in English Canada, and the men who wrote it have included Sidney Furie and more recently Larry Kent. Soon, we may have the chance to see for ourselves whether the latest of the shoestring producers, 25-yearold Morrie Ruvinsky, deserves a place on the honor roll.

Ruvinsky’s one-hour-and-30-minute movie, The Plastic Mile, was chosen for screening at the Berlin and Edinburgh Festivals this summer, banned (for an explicit rape scene) from Ruvinsky’s hometown Vancouver Festival, and is about to be commercially distributed throughout Europe. Mile may be seen in Canada later this year. “Distributors say the bloom is off the art-movie business over here, and they are still worried about losing money,” says Ruvinsky.

Ruvinsky was a film critic who set out to show how it should be done. After a couple of short shorts, he and friends found one of movie history’s most improbable angels — The Bank of Montreal, whose University of British Columbia campus-branch manager anted up the first $5,000. Ruvinsky put up $15,000 of his own; actors and technicians worked for a share of the profits; and the balance of the $130,000 cost Ruvinsky raised by a further bank loan and from friends in the U.S.

Mile is a confusing movie. Ruvinsky was learning as he went, and parts are reminiscent of Godard, Fellini, Antonioni. Despite its patchiness, however, it remains memorable — the story of a movie-director’s alienation from his work, his wife and the world.

Ruvinsky, who wears a prophet beard and guru shirts and is said by friends to have an “almost saintly serenity,” emphasizes that the film is not autobiographical.

With a $25,000 pre-production grant from the Canadian Film Development Corporation, he is planning his next film, a'fchoice between “a love story parodying American superheroes and student rebellion; and an adaptation of the Orestes myth from Hamlet.”

The Indian Grandma Moses of rug-making

If the white-man’s ways are destroying the culture of the Indian, 92-year-old Martha Tawyaka doesn’t know it. Martha, a Sioux who lives on the Standing Buffalo reserve outside Regina, is the spiritual head of an Indian artists’ co-op called the Sioux Handcraft Co-Op.

“If it hadn’t been for Martha we’d have had no co-op,” says Lorna Ferguson, the white woman who first conceived the idea.

Together with four other old women, Martha is the fountainhead of Sioux stories, legends and designs that the 17 younger co-op women work into handcrafted tapestry. They share the profits from the rugs, which are sold through art galleries in Toronto, Montreal and New York. So far, the women have created 182 designs, no two alike, and Martha herself has made seven rugs in the past two years. At a dominion-provincial conference in Waskesiu, Saskatchewan, Premier Thatcher picked out nine Sioux Handcraft rugs as presents for the visiting premiers. Three were Martha's.

She sustains an enviable independence. She. bakes her own bread, dries her own fish and meat. The only white-man’s foods she allows herself are sweet buns and ice cream, which she keeps in her refrigerator, one of the few on the reserve.

In spite of the co-op’s success, Martha doesn’t see its importance as a money-maker. Instead, she works to pass on the skills of the past to the younger generation, and has started classes in tanning and beadwork for the co-op women.

“I always tell the children the old stories,” says Martha, a mother of 10. “1 worry that they grow up without knowing that they are worth something.”