Saturday, 17 March 2018

Peace Networking with Professor Beissel

Here’s how I happened to network with another amazing pacifist in Ottawa.

For years peace activists in Canada had planned a Vimy Ridge Anti-war Project, a simultaneous cross-Canada protest to educate the public that ‘the spectacle of war… where more than 10,000 were killed or wounded in 4 days’ in France in April 1919 is being glorified as the 'Birth of Our Nation'.

On November 11, 2016, I volunteered to assist an Anti-War Pop Up (#1) event about our national 100th Anniversary of the WWI Battle of Vimy Ridge, hosted by the War Resisters Support Campaign. This was an educational meeting at a bookstore to organize a larger event at the Ottawa Public Library on April 9, 2017: Anti-War Pop Up 2 : Public Readings of Plays by David Fennario.

Our library event strategically preceded the April 10, 2017, lecture in the same Auditorium about the Canadian National Vimy Memorial at the Vimy Visitor Education Centre 175 km north of Paris, France.
Henry Beissel

On April 9, I choose a good seat up front to take photos, and a late comer took an empty seat next to me. Four performers read from 2 recent plays by David Fennario: ‘Bolsheviki’ and ‘Motherhouse’. (See photo album.)

Afterward, during the question and answer session, the man next to me (photo right) stood up and made one of the most brilliant statements about pacifism I have ever heard. I really wanted to know who this man was, so before he departed I invited him for coffee. I immediately bonded with Henry Beissel as we shared our life stories, and exchanged emails.

Later by email I again thanked him, and he replied:
I don't wish to denigrate the presentation organized by the peace group, but I suspect what we heard was nothing new to any of us. The brutalities and idiocies of war have been written about, filmed and presented graphically time and time again, yet we're still carrying on with wars. What I want to know is what concretely can we do to end this vicious suicidal cycle.
That means trying to identify the root causes and proposing how to deal with them. I think I can make some contribution to research in this area, but I don't have the answers either. However, unless we zero in on an honest diagnosis we will never be able to find a cure. Of course, there may be no cure. In which case homo sapiens is doomed. I prefer to think that there is enough intelligence between the best humans to get us beyond aggression and violence.
In short, Beissel is disappointed that no solutions for world peace were discussed, nor were presented at later ‘peace’ events to which I invited him. See his comments on November 13, 2017 (Remembrance Day), and September 2, 2017 (film at Ottawa Peace Festival).

I agree that we are spending lots of time talking about promoting peace, but not actually doing it. How can it be done? Is peace possible to achieve?

I invited him to participate in our book project: 150 Canadian Stories of Peace. And he contributed 2 poems (below). I gave him a copy of the book, and asked him to send a comment in which he again raised the issue of human survival, analyzing arguments over emotion and instinct, cooperation vs. aggressiveness, concluding with the hope that the arts can save us from annihilation.

Henry Beissel is a retired professor of English literature, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and editor who lives in Ottawa. He was raised Catholic in Germany, and after WWII moved to Canada where he became a secular humanist. His wife Arlette Franciere is a translator of French and Russian and is an accomplished painter. We recently had dinner together so our wives could meet.

At one of our lunches together, Beissel told me about a book that inspired him and gave him the technology to recover from cancer some 20 years ago (Mike Samuels, M.D. and Nancy Samuels, Seeing with the Mind’s EyeRandom House, 1975). I got a copy and read it.

Beissel says that cancer is not a disease but a dysfunction of our immune system. He used visualization to shrink cancer to zero when he went through the treatment chamber and visualized the malignant cancer cells dying. He regularly uses visualization in his work.

We found that we share similar journeys:
  • In the 1950s I published The Inquirer in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan with ‘an inquiring approach to social problems’. Then in the 1960s, for two years, Henry was professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he published eight issues of Edge, an independent periodical that addressed controversial topics.
  • Henry moved to Trinidad and Tobago for two years as a Canadian Aid Professor and returned to Concordia University in Montreal as a Distinguished Emeritus Professor. He and his wife settled in Glengarry County (a rural area between Ottawa and Montreal near Manville) on 100 acres of undeveloped bush where they built their own house with a study for Henry and a studio for Arlette. They lived there for 35 years while Henry commuted to Montreal (150 km to office each way). Their neighbour Gary Geddes was editor/ publisher of Cormorant Press whom I visited to publish my books about Doukhobors.
  • We both knew Canadian poet Al Purdy. I never met him personally, but corresponded with him in the 1950s and received his newsletter.
  • We are close in age. Henry is 88 (turning 89 on April 12, 2018), while I am 86. Both of us strive to maintain our good health and fitness. We both have set the bar high, striving to reach at least 110. ‘Who will be first?’


Update: April 7, 2018

This article is republished in The Shift Catalyst, Issue 7: Peace, April 8, 2018, a bi-weekly e-zine with 420,000 subscribers.


  1. Good article and excellent issues raised - why are such people not among our elected officials who all seem to have the same mind set in lock step with U S 'leadership'? And most importantly, how can we get beyond 'preaching to the choir'?

  2. Great article Koozma - thanks.

  3. Henry Beissel, Ottawa, Ontario
    Thanks for putting me on the net as an active pacifist - which I am, though I don't have the answers necessary to establish permanent peace in the world. Perhaps that's a pipe dream. I know that apart from creating a world of social justice in which both poverty and privilege are eliminated, we also need to change ourselves. If we ever want to live in peace, we need to evolve beyond egoism and heroism, behind greed and lust, beyond delusions of grandeur and the obsession with being the first, the strongest, the smartest, the richest, etcetera. I fear it'll take a genetic mutation to get us there. In the meantime, we must work along both lines of endeavour, i.e. towards social justice and a humbler, kinder spirit. It requires great patience because it will not be achieved in anything less than a thousand years, if ever.

  4. Gunter Schaarschmidt, Victoria, BC20 March 2018 at 10:19

    I am pleased that you have met Henry Beissel who I know from my first few
    years at the University of Alberta. He left the UofA far too early, and of
    course I was studying for an MA in Russian but at that time there few
    "walls" between the various disciplines so there were a lot more contacts
    between departments. I have always wondered what had happened to him.
    Thanks to you I now know. Say hello to him for me - he may remember the
    German guy who was ambitious about building a first-class Slavic

    I am glad that you were so frank about the results of peacemaking efforts
    because I cannot help thinking that in spite of enormous efforts by people
    like you and Henry there seems to be less peace in the world, especially
    in some parts of it.

    Nonetheless, I wish you all the best in the continuation of your work.

  5. Thank you Koozma, great read your introduction of professor Beissel.
    I understand his lament: talking & promoting peace vs. doing something about it.
    For me the answer is the same as it is for all social change: mobilization. It will take a lot of work across generations considering how uncritical, embedded media have facilitated the normalization of war and military policy. e.g. the deafening silence over a 75 billion dollar increase in military spending by the Trudeau government. Citizens need to turn out on the streets in numbers and often when not clogging the inboxes of decision makers on a daily basis. Something to think about, direct action and calling out the war profiteers and their parliamentary enablers.
    Best, love what you do.