The Maclean’s Excerpt

‘I WAS FIGHTING FOR MY LIFE’

Ontario’s lieutenant-governor recalls the attack that almost killed him

December 9 2002
The Maclean’s Excerpt

‘I WAS FIGHTING FOR MY LIFE’

Ontario’s lieutenant-governor recalls the attack that almost killed him

December 9 2002

‘I WAS FIGHTING FOR MY LIFE’

Ontario’s lieutenant-governor recalls the attack that almost killed him

The Maclean’s Excerpt

OUT OF MUSKOKA

James Bartleman’s rise from an impoverished small-town childhood to his position as Ontario’s first-ever aboriginal lieutenantgovernor is a uniquely Canadian success story. Prior to his appointment lastJanuary, Bartleman, now 62, a member of the Mnjikaning First Nation, had spent more than three decades as a diplomat, serving as high commissioner to Australia and South Africa, ambassador to the European Union, Israel and Cuba, and as an adviser to Prime Minister \ Jean Chrétien. But that rise was not painless. In this excerpt from his memoirs, Out of Muskoka, Bartleman recalls the violent incident that almost cost hi?n his life—and that ultimately forced him to come to terms with his inner demons:

IT WAS A VIOLENT MUGGING, no different from dozens that occurred daily in South Africa in February, 1999. This time I was the victim.

The Canadian government had named me high commissioner to the post-apartheid country of Nelson Mandela in August, 1998— a posting I had requested. Life could not have been rosier—or so it seemed. My family was close and supportive. Professionally, I had been entrusted with progressively more senior responsibilities. And I had been nominated to receive a prize from one of the major Canadian Aboriginal organizations.

On the day of the mugging I had been in Pretoria, hosting a meeting of Canadian ambassadors and high commissioners from neighbouring missions. I caught an early evening flight to Cape Town, 1,300 km away.

A driver whisked me to the Winchester Mansions Hotel, at the foot of the Cape mountains. The consulate had made the reservations, assuring my secretary in Pretoria that it was clean, comfortable and safe.

Fifteen minutes after checking in, I was fighting for my life. A black, neatly dressed, heavily built individual in his early 30s had come to the door to say that the front desk had asked him to check the condition of the fan. When I turned my head, my visitor pressed an electric stun gun against my

stomach, pulled the trigger, and released 50,000 volts of electricity into my body.

I did not collapse, but fought back. Shouting “No! No! No!” I stepped back to kick him as hard as I could. I looked into the man’s eyes. They were blank, impersonal and hostile. I was an Aboriginal Canadian, but to him I was just one more rich white man, of the same race and social status as the South African European elite that had oppressed blacks, coloureds and Asians for generations under apartheid.

I saw that I had knocked my assailant to the floor, but he was rising to his feet. He smashed his fist against my jaw, cutting my mouth and jarring my teeth. As I backed away, throwing ineffectual punches, I listened to myself screaming. He delivered a

blow that broke my nose. After giving me a thorough beating, he said that if I did not co-operate, he would kill me.

“Take what you want and get out,” was my answer. He was in no hurry, preferring to bind my hands behind my back and search my luggage. All he could find was 1,200 rand (about 300 dollars). He became even nastier, slapping me around and demanding to know where I had hidden the money. He had seen me arrive by chauffeur-driven limousine, dressed in an expensive suit. Obviously I was a rich man. He didn’t understand my explanation that as a diplomat I received a clothing allowance, but in reality was just a moderately paid public servant.

I looked over his shoulder at the television; an obscure piece of South African drama

was being enacted. The actors strutted across the stage, oblivious to my distress and leaving me with the feeling that I too was just playing a part in a play.

Like everyone else, I had my routine. I revelled in the company of a close, loving family. I had, however, been struggling with a depression that had been growing in intensity over the previous three years. Sometimes at night I had a nightmare: I dreamt that I was a poor half-breed kid in Port Carling dreaming that he had become a diplomat who had successfully faced challenge after challenge to rise to the top of his profession. I would then awake (still within the dream) to find myself back in Muskoka, the half-breed kid once again afraid to confront the outside world.

This dream had been visiting me periodically for more than three decades. This would lead me to ask myself two questions: Who am I anyway? Have I earned the right to such success as I have had?

My captor paced back and forth, talking on his cellular telephone. Every few minutes he returned to cuff me on the head, demanding that I tell him where the money was

hidden. At last he decided to leave. He started to force a piece of underclothing down my throat; he wanted to be sure I wouldn’t raise the alarm.

In the course of my career in the foreign service, I have been held up by bandits in Latin America, hit by rocks during the intifada in Israel, forced to make an emergency landing on board a military helicopter in northern Italy, and almost swept to my death in a raging river in Labrador while a guest of Canada’s military. I had escaped disaster so often that I had come to think I was invulnerable.

This time it was different. My broken nose was filled with congealing blood, and I couldn’t breathe. I would die a horrible death by suffocation unless I could remove the gag. I managed to spit it out.

My persecutor was starting to stuffit back in when I began to beg for my life. I told him I had a wife who would be widowed and children left without a father. I would make no noise as he made his departure. Why not simply tie me to an armchair?

He looked at me carefully, perhaps seeing

for the first time that I was a human being. I continued to seek to reach him on a personal level, telling him that the cashmere sports coat and Hermès tie that he had stolen suited him and saying the Jaeger-LeCoultre watch (an anniversary gift from my wife) went well with his new wardrobe.

Suddenly he stopped, saying he would let me live. He bound me to the armchair and walked to the door. Then he turned around and came back. I thought he had changed his mind and it was the end. Instead, he said, “I’m sorry,” and left the room. I was devastated. This petty thief, after brutalizing, humiliating and robbing me, was now seeking to deny me the right to hate him.

The next few days passed in a blur. Prime Minister Chrétien called to express his shock. Hundreds of colleagues sent messages of goodwill. Others started a rumour, still alive years later, that I had been beaten up in a bar. The departmental press officer called to remind me of the unwritten code all Canadian diplomats who are victims of crime when abroad must follow: play down the gravity of the incident to avoid offending the host government. I complied.

I was shaken to the core. The dream appeared each night. It was as if the grovelling I had had to do to survive had resurrected old struggles over existential issues that I had come to terms with as a child and youth. If I wanted to recover, I would have to address the questions raised by my dreams.

At first I blamed problems of identity and early childhood poverty for creating a personality so fragile that it would collapse in the face of a mugging. I pulled myself together as I realized that the racial discrimination and poverty I had experienced were no different from what millions of Canadians endured at that time and continue to experience today. I had been the lucky one. My family had emerged from poverty; iconic figures of rare power from both the Indian and white sides of my heritage had served as role models; my close idiosyncratic family had provided emotional support; a benefactor had sent me to university; I had travelled to Europe at a time of great change in post-war history—and against the odds I had become a diplomat and a representative of my country. IJ1

The excerpt is from Out of Muskoka, copyright © 2002 by James Bartleman and Penumbra Press, and is reproduced by arrangement with Penumbra Press (ISBN 1-894131-31-2)