Past and presence

By Aaren Madden, December 2010

With Fiona Hyslop in charge, “Safe Harbour” would be our city’s guiding theme.

There are stories, and there is history. Stories feed history, animating dates and facts, defining moments, people, families, and places. “We all have histories—individuals and cities—that shape who or what we are,” says volunteer-extraordinaire Fiona Hyslop as we sit in a Pandora Avenue coffee shop. Her own history draws from far-reaching places and experiences, yet roots deeply into the history and geography of this city. 

Born in Hong Kong, her happy childhood was interrupted by the threat of Japanese invasion. Eighteen months before Pearl Harbour, her family was evacuated to Canada. She and Victoria-born brothers Malcolm and David Anderson (David is a former federal Liberal environment minister) thrived under stability provided by maternal grandparents and “loads of relations,” with roots deeper than those of the tree in Beacon Hill Park under which her grandfather Gillespie proposed to “Granny” Todd in 1906. 

“It was a family life; it was lovely,” Hyslop recalls, considering herself lucky despite it being wartime and her father a prisoner of war in Hong Kong. He considered himself lucky: as a doctor, he worked in the camp’s military hospital, and “thus kept busy despite limited resources.” This outlook brought light to a dark time.

After the war, Hyslop was one of 20 Caucasians among the 400 students at the English-language university in Honk Kong from 1947 to ’49, an experience she recalls as “fascinating.” After studying languages in Geneva, she worked in Montreal. Two years in England working for the Italian film industry, where she met and helped launch stars like Sophia Loren beyond Italy, taught her first-hand the power of the press, of how the stories that shape our popular culture get told. 

After marrying, she and her husband settled in the Gatineau Hills, where their son was born. Her husband, and later she as well, worked for the federal public service in Ottawa. “I loved my jobs; I was really lucky,” Hyslop reiterates. Her first was with the “Why Not?” campaign, which suggested such outlandish notions as a woman for Prime Minister. “This was in the day when an awful lot of people didn’t go for that idea at all; it was up to us to change the thinking about where women fit in to society,” she explains.

Twenty-two years later, in 1986, Hyslop and her husband retired to Victoria. “I had been away for so long, I was able to treat it as a new city, despite my connections,” she recalls. “There was an awful lot to learn about Victoria; it was a bigger city.” She volunteered with the NEED crisis line, Pacific Opera Victoria, and the Minerva Foundation, among others. 

Six years on the board of the Victoria Foundation made her keenly aware of the city’s needs, and she is now in her third year of working with Leadership Victoria, responsible for the mentorship program. Of her 2006 Leadership Victoria Lifetime Achievement award, she said at the time, “I think some of it is having the nerve to stick your neck out and take the first step.” 

To do that, Hyslop draws from feelings of good fortune and her historical relationship with the city. “I’ve never had to worry about paying rent, never had to worry about where my next meal is coming from, so you could argue, ‘how do I really know what these people are facing?’ But if you feel you can do something as part of a system that’s going to help them, then shouldn’t you?” she asks. Raising funds for Victoria Cool Aid Society’s Access Health Centre (manager Irene Haigh-Gidora calls Hyslop “instrumental”) in the past 18 months is deeply meaningful “partly because it’s at one end of Johnson Street, and my great grandfather had his property at the other end. My grandmother was born on Johnson Street—in 1885. What I like is this feeling of connection,” she smiles.

But bonds can—and should—be forged no matter where you were born. “It’s very easy to lead a comfortable life in Victoria, and not notice what’s happening. Or people see it, but they don’t relate it to themselves,” Hyslop suggests. 

“But there are a remarkable number of people in this town who really care,” she adds. Many are working for nonprofits struggling to find funding, “and it’s up to the rest of us to encourage them by supporting them as much as we can. Time, money, even moral support. And saying yes, I’ll write to someone, or call someone, or lean on them, because it does matter. I think we are all much more aware, in the last 15 or 20 years, that we are totally responsible for our fellow citizens. If we’re not, who is?”

We could let that thinking define us. “Cities—great cities, anyway,” wrote Chris Turner recently in the Globe and Mail, “are products of the stories they tell themselves about what they are and what it is possible for them to become.” Hyslop ponders the quote. Though written in the context of Calgary electing a Muslim mayor and shaking its cowtown image, I offer it to Hyslop in terms of Victoria’s collective self (and projected) image. “A city is made up of all the stories that have been told in the past,” she replies. “Victoria was a hub during the gold rush. At the time, we probably felt we were one of the most important places on the West Coast. People from San Francisco had to come to Victoria in order to launch their trip up to the Yukon to make their fortune. That’s a great story, and we tell it still, and we are sitting in the area where it all went on. But it has nothing to do with what we’re doing now,” she argues. 

However, as the story is repeated, some parts, like the many brothels downtown at the time, are edited like so many weeds in our “City of Gardens.” Until, Hyslop suggests, people like Jody Patterson, champion of modern-day brothels, challenge that idealization. “She, to me, is someone who says it like it is and is prepared to defend her point of view, and bring to the attention of the community what she feels needs fixing.”

Hyslop muses on a shift in image to one of “safe harbour,” aligning us globally with “places like Stockholm, and Venice, all these great smaller ports,” she says. First Nations and the Navy speak to this history. The notion of a safe harbour also implies a narrative of social justice, of taking care of each other. “I think we’ll start something!” She laughs, kidding—but also not, I sense—as we bid good bye.

Aaren Madden feels lucky to be continuously learning Victoria’s many stories, as the city becomes part of her own.