BOYER'S MODERN HISTORY OF MUSKOKA - James Bartleman’s Living Legacy
Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka
This program, tenth in our series this year on Indigenous subjects, is a tribute to a unique Canadian. James Karl Bartleman and I shared a friendship over many decades, interacting in Muskoka, Ottawa, and Toronto, dealing with book publishing, authorship promotion, government policies, Indigenous affairs, and television work.
Jim died on August 14 this year, in his 83rd year. I’d like to highlight for you dimensions of his life that now become his living legacy.
The first, of course, was growing up in mid-20th Century Muskoka.
Perspectives on Life and Society
Jim Bartleman’s boyhood in Port Carling gave him a well-grounded view of society. As he put it, that was a ground-level view – looking up from the social bottom where his family lived. But the worldview he had was also dual perspective.
Jim and his brother Bob and their sisters Mary and Janet inherited the strong lines of two different cultures. Their mother, Maureen Benson Simcoe, was a full-blood member of the Rama Ojibwe community. Their father, Percy Bartleman, was a free-thinking day labourer of Scottish descent.
The children’s upbringing taught them there was not just one society. Many wheels turned human life. There was no single view, but a diversity of perspectives. Jim learned to live within and to merge both aboriginal culture and European-Canadian patterns.
As a child, tucked in a blanket in the bow of his mother’s canoe, he listened to waves lapping its sides as Maureen Bartleman paddled from Rama on Lake Couchiching north to Port Carling. As a boy, he spent time at the dusky Indian Village beside the Indian River in the centre of Port Carling, mingling with relatives and friends who came from Rama for the summer. He listened to stories told around campfires. He learned First Nation fishing skills. Being Ojibwe was his matrilineal birthright. There were times his mother suffered depression. She would slip away into the woods, taking only a pipe, using isolation and tobacco’s medicinal properties and her power of spirit to recover and return home.
In early boyhood years, Jim also felt the example of his father who was an avid reader. He learned to read with the adventure-filled comic books discarded at the village dump, near where the Bartleman family lived in a tent. Later, Jim continued reading comics – new ones he bought at Whiting’s Drugstore & Ice Cream Parlour with his meagre earnings from pumping marina gas and selling fresh-caught fish.
His reading continued when he became absorbed by world dramas and human events on the front pages of the Toronto Daily Star. Major news so captured his attention that he often read much of the newspaper before delivering his allotted copies to impatient subscribers waiting along his Port Carling paper route.
Far-Reaching Influence of Jim’s Parents
One day, his father took Jim to the Port Carling library where he discovered the most amazing world of all. The librarian welcomed him. He could borrow books for free. The library’s seemingly endless shelves opened a new universe. Each book became his passport to an ever widening world, an escape from the prison of poverty and racism of his time and place. “Exposed to the real thing,” Jim said, “he never returned to comic books.”
In the late 1950s his father Percy Bartleman was appointed by Muskoka’s MPP, my father Robert Boyer, as lock-master in Port Carling, to operate the system for navigating between the different level Muskoka Lakes. Critics told dad a Conservative should have got the job. What they really disliked was that appointee Bartleman had an Indian wife and held negative views about capitalism. During the 1930 Great Depression, Percy Bartleman, an intelligent and practical unemployed man, read books to understand its cause and was drawn to ideas of Karl Marx. His son’s middle name, Karl, was spelled with a “K,” as in Karl Marx – James Karl Bartleman. Dad told the critics “Percy’s the best man for the job.” and stared them down.
Meanwhile, Maureen Bartleman worked summers cleaning rich folks’ lakeside homes with teenage Jim along cutting grass and splitting firewood. One of these seasonal Muskokans, American Robert Clause from Pennsylvania, told Jim, whom he’d observed working seven summers for him, that he admired the lad’s good work habits and intelligence. This gentleman then added, “If you graduate high school with good grades, son, I’ll pay your way through university, like I’m doing for my own children.” Can you imagine a non-Indigenous Canadian making that generous offer to an Indian kid in the 1950s?
After graduating from Western University, Jim travelled overseas, alone. When back, he landed a position in the External Affairs Department at Ottawa and, in time, James K. Bartleman was representing Canada as either ambassador or high commissioner in countries around the world. This diplomatic dimension became a mainstay of his life from 1966 to 2002, prime years of his career.
The Diplomatic Way of Life
Like most diplomats, his missions overseas in foreign countries were interspersed with periods back in Ottawa to brush up on domestic politics and keep abreast of departmental policies. So James Bartleman became knowledgeable about political life of our nation’s capital as well as conditions of many overseas nations.
In addition to reading books and writing clear-eyed appraisals of situations in the field to update Ottawa, he began toying with the idea of writing for the general public. His talent as a story teller, part of his Indigenous heritage from tales told around the Indian Village campfires, was leading Jim toward the self-defining rigours of authorship. And his vivid imagination was constantly working. However, before he could externalize his writer’s impulse, a surprising detour added two more dimensions to Ambassador Bartleman’s life journey.
The first was his secondment in 1994 from External Affairs to the Privy Council Office to advise Prime Minister Jean Chretien on diplomatic relations. The Indian kid who cut lawns for a summer job had emerged as a valued counsellor at Canada’s highest levels concerning the prime minister’s interactions with other leaders on the international stage. Those world events that Jim read about delivering his newspapers, and his view of social diversity gained both in his Muskoka village laboratory and overseas, telegraphed an inquisitive intelligence and instinctive balance that, like twin rails, kept carrying him through a surprisingly eventful career. This rollercoaster ride with the prime minister lasted a half-decade. In 1998, the secondment ended and the ambassador returned to the more placid life of a harried full-time diplomat.
However, during Jim’s years interacting intently with the PM on one hot issue after another, Jean Chretien recognized in him valuable qualities for someone representing the Crown in Ontario. As a result, the second unexpected turn on his trail came in 2002 when the PM appointed James Karl Bartleman Ontario’s lieutenant-governor, the first time this vice-regal office was held by an Indigenous person. “It was,” said Jim, “as if everything I’d done in life had been preparation for my new role.”
Representing the Crown Creates James Bartleman’s Unique Opportunity
All lieutenants governor must perform official duties in the name of the Crown – signing into law measures enacted by our elected legislators, reading the government’s Speech from the Throne outlining its intentions for the legislature’s coming session, and appearing at countless events.
In addition to these formal and ceremonial roles, some wield their prestige and resources of office to initiate projects serving a broader public interest. Lieutenant governor James Bartleman espoused dealing with depression, something both he and his mother suffered, and providing books and education for Indigenous children, something he also knew the need for first-hand.
Across northern Ontario, isolated First Nations communities faced empty shelves in the new schools the federal department of Indian Affairs built but failed to supply books for.
Motivated by his own experience as an Aboriginal youth discovering books in his local library, Bartleman used his persuasive powers of office to change that. In 2004 he initiated the Lieutenant-Governor’s Book Program and persuaded Canadian book publishers to donate volumes, citizens to give money, and Aboriginal air services to get boxloads of books into remote fly-in reserves in an overlooked section of the province that is the size of France.
Families began building up precious home libraries. Some youngsters helping unpack the boxes from the small aircraft were so keen they opened the books and started reading while still unloading. Lieutenant Governor Bartleman’s initiative was so impressive that Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty took the unprecedented step of asking him to address the Ontario Legislative Assembly about it. The initiative spread to other provinces and continues today.
Living in the Free Republic of Books
Jim recounted, when talking about the power of books to an audience at Bracebridge Public Library on November 8, 2006, how his worldwide adventures in the highest levels of Canadian diplomatic service and international relations physically carried him to all corners of the world, but that even though he was able to travel with ease on a diplomatic passport, he always kept his other passport close as well, quietly slipping into the realm of adventure between the covers of a chosen book.
By offering this same open passage to other First Nations children, James Bartleman gave expression to the same instinct that, a century before, drove Andrew Carnegie to build public libraries so that everyone could be equal citizens in the free republic of books.
To encourage aboriginal youths to expand their horizons and enrich their lives through books, he further promoted literacy and bridge building by initiating a program to pair Native and non-Native schools in Ontario and Nunavut, and set up summer camps for literacy development in five northern First Nations communities. In tandem, he launched a literacy campaign, with competitions for young First Nation writers.
While fulfilling his public roles between 2002 and 2007, Jim’s urge to write came to the surface. The originality of his writing flows from having First Nation and non-Indigenous cultures in his makeup, which gave Jim double-vision on things and an easy-shifting duality. When he enrolled in a creative writing course at Humber College, His Honour climbed from his chauffeured limousine a few blocks from the Lakeshore campus and sauntered over, minus tie, to sit in the classroom as “just Jim” and take notes.
The Reader of Books Becomes an Author
James Bartleman published memoirs, non-fiction, and novels – the full gamut. His four memoirs grab attention because of the honesty and creativity by which he brings to life experiences as an aboriginal Canadian, courage in public service, and a life intensely interwoven with literature. His breakout memoir in 2002, entitled Out of Muskoka, won a literary award. This coming-of-age saga portrays an impoverished “half-breed,” as he was called struggling to grow up in Port Carling’s hierarchy of classes, where the local library became his passport and a summer resident paid his university education and his trajectory became getting out of Muskoka and into a larger universe.
Bartleman’s 2004 memoir, entitled On Six Continents, captures his decades-long adventures in Canada’s diplomatic corps. We accompany him opening a Canadian mission in famine-stricken Bangladesh, dodging roadblocks in South America, telling Fidel Castro to back off after the Bartleman’s dog was poisoned and Canadian Embassy staff harassed by the Cuban regime’s thugs in Havana, and surviving a beating in South Africa. We share his controversies in the Middle East, where he served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel, and witness confrontations in Brussels, where he represented Canada to NATO.
If that book was not enough to persuade fellow Canadians that diplomatic service to our country is anything but dull, Bartleman followed with a sequel the next year. Rollercoaster portrays the author’s harrowing ups and downs, emotional twists and turns, during his “hectic years” and “nights from hell” – again, his terms – as Prime Minister Chretien’s senior advisor on international relations.
These books engage and inform us with insider’s revelations, reflective analysis, and irony. They vividly capture Bartleman’s front-line roles as the world and Canada’s place in it kept constantly shifting.
His fourth memoir, Seasons of Hope, published in 2016, reprises his diverse experiences as Ontario’s first aboriginal lieutenant governor. All four memoirs, presenting his unique vantage point on contemporary realities, are richly documented with photographs.
Writing Powerful Novels Extends Bartleman’s Mission
James Bartleman’s three published works of historical fiction and creative non-fiction are entitled As Long as the Rivers Flow, The Redemption of Oscar Wolf, and Exceptional Circumstances. Each addresses Indigenous experience. Jim was developing some quite brilliant plots for further work-in-progress that we discussed, before time ran out.
While his living legacy is superbly recorded in the books he did leave us, Jim’s related keenness for reading, literacy, and writing-related opportunities for First Nation youths is also part of his enduring gift.
He was a man who proudly embraced his Indigenous heritage. His is the sole oil painting at Queen’s Park, among those of all past premiers and lieutenants-governor, of a person wearing beaded buckskin. His 3-word motto was KNOWLEDGE. UNDERSTANDING. RECONCILLIATION. People really need to know about reality. Having information, people have to understand its meaning. Only then could understanding lead to reconciliation – the ultimate goal.
The Summing Up
Jim Bartleman began his 2016 memoir Seasons of Hope with a quote from Canadian writer André Alexis, who said, “You can’t know what a life has been until it is over.”
Now that his own is over, we begin to see clearly what the life of James Karl Bartleman was about.
He was a humble man of bold vision.
He blazed a path for others to follow where there was no trail.
He lived through books – reading, writing, and sharing them.
He fashioned reality out of nothing but a dream.
These elements we cherish as Jim Bartleman’s living legacy, even as we now miss him dearly.