Frank Snowsell was the last of the Canadian Snowsells to be born in England—in Cirencester, an old Roman town in Gloucestershire, more popularly known as the Cotswolds. He came over to Canada as a baby: the rest of his siblings were born Canadians. I know this only because Frank took it upon himself to be the family historian: without his account of our arrival—first in Sedgewick, Alberta, and from there to Glenmore, now a suburb of Kelowna in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley—I doubt if it would be knowable. The Snowsells were farmers, they weren't documenting things all that much. It was just Frank who wrote, and wow, did he write a lot. He wrote hundreds, maybe thousands, of letters to the editors of the Kelowna Daily Courier. Frank had a reputation: he was always outraged about something. He wrote a book warning about the future consequences of post-war American foreign policy. He wrote another about liberating the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, which he did in his capacity as an intelligence officer with the RCAF, what Frank did during the war. A letter he wrote home from Belsen has previously been published in the Vancouver Sun. It reads:
“The camp stinks, not the rich odor of dead men, but a sticky rancid fetid odor which tastes as well as smells.
"Scattered around among the trees and workers and on the little slopes in the sun are bundles of rag, which move. Three are lying in the sun just beside the fence; they are women.
"On the hill inside the camp not far from the buildings are the graves—great holes on the hillsides dug by bulldozers. The sign on Number 1 grave says, “5,000, April 1945.” Another, No. 2, 2,000. Not one grave has less than 1,000 bodies. Two signs read, “No. 9, number unknown.” “No. 10, number unknown.” No. 11 is now being filled."
Frank came back to Canada and there was an urgency about him. The letters he wrote weren’t cuz he’d turned kooky, although this was his reputation in the Okanagan and even amongst his own family: my father, his nephew, told us he was a pinko commie and my mom and dad laughed whenever they talked about him. He wrote so many letters because he cared so much about his country, and because he’d seen with his own eyes, he’d smelled with his own nostrils, what happens when civilization fails. He became a teacher, at first, when he got home from the war. Frank taught high school in Salmon Arm for a good long while. When that wasn’t enough, he tried to make a difference through politics. As a member of the Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the political party which became the NDP, Frank ran, and won, as an MLA for Saanich in 1953. He lost his seat after a year, tried to win it back two more times, but couldn’t. He was elected president of the B.C. NDP in 1965. When he left politics, he returned to teaching. When he left teaching, he returned to letter writing. This he kept up until his death in 2003.
I only met Frank once. It was in the mid-1990s. Frank was retired, to his home in Kelowna. He lived just off Benvoulin, in an orchard hidden in the middle of the city. I was working at Greyhound in Calgary, and had big plans for a novel about my grandfather, Frank’s younger brother, Jim. Jim had been changed by the war, too. Whereas Frank had been able to channel the horror of what he’d seen into a political urgency (so that tyranny like he’d seen in Germany could never grow and thrive in Canada), the horror of what Jim went through as a POW metabolized after as an anger so intense it consumed him. I drove out one weekend to talk about these things, but it wasn’t his answers to them that I remember. Frank was the first and only Snowsell I’d met who wanted to know about me: our curiosity was mutual and he was gentle when talking about my family and my future like he was the first person I knew who understood the danger of offering advice, no matter how well-intentioned.
I think about Frank Snowsell a lot whenever we’re in election season--wait, when aren’t we in election season? All political speech has become a campaign speech. The inane, incessant flow of mediatized jabber no longer seems to start or stop, it just always is and was as though the dulcet sounds of lying psychopaths exists outside of, or precedes, time itself. What would Frank, for instance, think of the federal NDP as it careens serenely to its own oblivion? What would he make of the incongruous sartorial splendour of the party’s leader in the face of a catastrophic, and possibly irreversible, descent into global totalitarianism? Fuck man!-how should I know? I only met the guy once.
What I do know is that the old NDP, and the CCF before that, was filled with people who’d really seen things and who really cared and who really worked and who really believed. I don’t know who the NDP is now. Do you? If you say you do, I will know you are lying. No one can know this, for they have no identity. It is not possible to know what does not exist.
The NDP is now a party that careens absurdly, each election cycle, exchanging pragmatic lurches to the centre, with revolutionary leaps back to the left. They have moved so often that where they currently sit or stand or position themselves matters not at all because they are nowhere. They are a blur that is about to disappear. Good. The NDP probably needs to die at this point so that a new party can be born from its death. The noxious rot within each and every Canadian political party is too far gone. It has destroyed all within them. Our entire political system is beyond rehabilitation. Why vote NDP? Why vote at all? If you care about change, that is no longer the way.
(top picture) Frank Snowsell, getting his candidate papers signed for the 1952 B.C. provincial election, the only one he won. (above) The Sex Pistols copped a lot of flak for "Belsen Was A Gas." Crossed a line. When you read Uncle Frank's description of the camps, you can see why it upset people so much. It's a pretty gruesome thing to write songs about. But I take the point of Frank's description to be this: that unless you are physically present at an atrocity, it is not possible to understand it. Words and pictures remain inadequate communicators of gruesome experiences. The rock critic Lester Bangs described the Sex Pistols' live performance of "Belsen Was A Gas" as "one of the most frightening things I ever heard."