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The Star sat down with the grandson of A.S. Horswill to talk about opera, politics and his sizeable family tree.
Former Nelson mayoral candidate and councillor Marty Horswill

In the first installment of a new monthly feature in which the Star will interview local community figures, we sat down with the grandson of one of Nelson’s founding settlers.

The Star: In preparing for this interview, Marty, I was trying to make sense of the ultra-complicated Horswill family tree. I’m still confused. You guys seem to be everywhere!

I sympathize.

Even the Horswills have trouble keeping it all straight. My grandfather, A.S. Horswill — whose name is up on the wall of his former Vernon St. grocery business — had 11 children, nine of whom grew to adulthood and had their own families.

I have one relative in the States who was curious and started doing the research. She even printed a book about it, maybe 30 years ago when my father Jack was still alive, and at the point they had tracked down 274 direct descendants of A.S. Horswill.

So you can see this family tree is a bit crazy.

The Star: I’ve met your grandson Boone Dooley, and your nephew Randy. How is everyone related to everyone?

How it works is my father sold his hardware business [Hipperson’s] to my brother Mike, who in turn sold it to his son Randy. And I’m sure he’ll sell it to his son or daughter. Randy’s got three kids: Brittany, Courtney — who is Sean Dooley’s wife — and Linden who’s a hockey player.

Now on my side with my current wife Lena I've got one granddaughter and three daughters—Andrea, Anitra and Malaika. The older two are from Lena's first marriage and my current wife Lena and I had Malaika, which is a Swahili name I learned while volunteering as a high school music teacher in Kenya.

I also have a son, Tobie, in Quebec from my first marriage and he has three children—Micha, Nicholas and a new baby, Penelope.

The Star: So the Horswills were one of the founding families in Nelson? How long have you been here?

Well, the Hippersons were here first. They were here in the mining camp era, before Nelson was incorporated, sometime in the 1880s.

A.S. Horswill initially moved with his family here in 1908. He was a wholesale grocer, so he supplied the grocery stores and hospitals and restaurants. My father was born in 1910, and he was the youngest. He worked with his brother and they took on the grocery business when my grandfather died in 1927.

What happened during the Depression was the grocers and other retailers were running up ever-expanding charge accounts. Your customers were your neighbours and your kids played hockey with their kids, so you didn’t refuse them food.

My father said during the Depression he never ate a ripe banana, because he survived on the rotting bananas that couldn’t be sold. He eventually left his brother, who continued on his own. His father-in-law Bill Hipperson persuaded him to move over to Hipperson’s Hardware.

The Star: Your grandfather sounds like quite a character. How did he end up here?

Let’s take a brief step backwards: A.S. Horswill was born in England, then came to the US and ended up in northern Wisconsin. The closest community from there was Kenora, Ont., and the guys from the logging camps would go over there to party. That’s where he met my grandmother.

Eventually he wanted to become fire chief, or maybe get involved in municipal politics, but he had a problem.

Back in those days in England the lord of the local rural area owned everything, and they would basically pay for a local militia of which they were the commanders. What a catastrophe that was as a national military strategy. You had these men who had absolutely no idea what they were doing and thought they were God.

My grandfather grew up somewhere in England where they had one of these militias and it turns out his lord was not only an idiot, he was also a vicious, brutal bully. He would pick out the weakest guy and bully him mercilessly. Finally, my grandfather couldn’t take it anymore so he beat up the commanding officer. That would’ve had immediate and severe repercussions, so the guys got him out of Dodge.

So he’s in Kenora, he wants to run for mayor, but he’s got a criminal record. What does he do? He takes the whole family back to London, to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee [in 1897], to get a royal pardon.

The Star: What a crazy story! And after that did he successfully go into politics?

He got elected as an alderman in Nelson and I think he served two terms. If you look at the rogues gallery in city hall there’s a break during his period. In 1927 he ran for mayor, but died suddenly and unexpectedly from a botched surgery in Spokane.

The Star: All of that history, and we’ve only made it to 1930 so far. What happened after the Depression?

My father Jack saw his father’s business struggle according to the politics of the day, and he took the view that he would never come within a country mile of anything political because he didn’t want his family to suffer the consequences of his involvement. So he avoided politics like the plague.

He wanted to be friends with everybody. For him, that’s what a wise man did. If you were a bit corrupt you gave money to both sides, so they both thought you were a supporter. His idea was don’t touch it at all.

I’m afraid his youngest son, me, in 1972 helped start a municipal political party called the Nelson Civic Group. The three key people were myself, Michael Jessen who was on council, and a young kid just out of high school who worked for the local radio station named Andrew Petter. Now he’s president of Simon Fraser University.

We decided the political scene was crap. We got Jessen elected because the mayor of the day, Louis Maglio, thought the whole idea of recycling was ridiculous. At that point they were only dealing with cardboard, because they were selling it, and they were going into the dump and pulling it out in piles. They were baled up somewhere and they had it in piles on city land, but eventually the mayor ordered city staff to go down there and burn it.

All these bales of ready-to-sell cardboard and the city torched it. Folks like myself were so incensed we decided we had to do something about it.

The Star: So you started a municipal political party? That sounds like quite an undertaking.

We ran in two or three elections — they were every year in those days. Half the council was elected every year. At some point we realized we weren’t going to elect people solely on the righteousness of their platform. If you read our materials back then, the righteousness came out loud and clear.

We thought Michael was re-electable but we needed two other candidates. So I started working on my father. At that point my mother Marg intervened. She was the political one. She would probably be an ardent feminist today. She bit her lip a lot of the time but when she was home, free to talk, the lid blew off.

She came in and said “Jack, they need you and the community needs them. You should do this.”

She basically shamed him into it.

Below is Marty's father Jack Horswill (left) and his grandfather A.S. Horswill (right).

The Star: So he ran?

Well, because we were a political party we had to have a nominating process. He put his name in, and he had to explain why he was running. He said “I want to be there so I can second Michael’s motions.” Michael had been there with nobody to second him for two years.

The first time we’d run none of us were elected, but we brought out enough new voters they voted for the new guy, Tex Mowatt, who beat Louis Maglio, so of course he blamed us. That was the first year, then in the second Michael needed to run again and I convinced my father too.

As it turned out, Michael didn’t get re-elected but my father did. That was the saddest thing. He ended up being the spokesperson for our organization and he didn’t have a political bone in his body.

It was the most unfair thing. It was a huge embarrassment for me, but it was also a struggle for everyone else. He was being held to account for something he originally didn’t want anything to do with.

The Nelson Civic Group couldn’t survive the guilt we all felt about Jack being put in such an awkward position.

The Star: What were you doing around then?

Around that time I went to Quebec, and when I came back in the late ‘70s I got involved with people who have mental disabilities. In those times they were segregated off in sheltered workshops, and the workshop was essentially a place where the community could set people aside they didn’t want to deal with and keep them occupied.

By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the whole movement was being severely challenged intellectually, and a new approach called normalization was coming into play. We were acknowledging these people needed to be included in normal social and economic activities.

I was the co-ordinator of all the services in Nelson for that community, but what that meant in practice is I ran this workshop situated where the Waldorf school is today — two miles out of town and up a hill. You can see the message that sends. I was at the tail end of the old workshop approach and what struck me was we were putting people to work manufacturing cedar patio furniture and to make it work we had to sell our products, so we were under the same pressure as any other wood manufacturer to make a profit.

Even worse: we didn’t have any money to pay for proper equipment so we were running a wood manufacturing workshop with no dust control. Here were 25 or 35 workers whose lungs were being contaminated, not being paid one cent, in order to keep the doors open.

My challenge was: how can we get this operation up to standard? So I went to the media and blew the whistle.

The people being exploited and unpaid were also being poisoned and the Workers’ Compensation Board was washing their hands of it. They said they weren’t workers because they weren’t being paid.

The Star: Did it ever get addressed?

We shamed the provincial government into giving us some money and we went from being a Mickey Mouse operation to a place with a proper industrial dust control system that could produce stuff efficiently and safely. But the fundamental reality hadn’t changed.

I went from that job to working in the southern Sudan, and within a year of my leaving the place shut down. When I came back six years later I got a job with what replaced it, a program called supportive employment that had staff whose job was to assist someone with a disability find regular work for a regular employer with a regular wage.

The Star: And eventually you got involved in politics again, right?

I sought the NDP nomination federally twice, and discovered I was not cut out to be a politician. I hated the process of tooting my own whistle.

After that I smartened up in 1989 when I moved back to Nelson and just ran as Marty Horswill for council in a by-election and got elected. I was a city councillor for four years. (Editor’s note: Horswill also ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1995.)

See all the sidewalk cafes in Nelson? That’s something we did. I ran on a housing platform and after four years they had about 40 new units up at Cedar Grove up in Rosemont. I feel good about that.

The Star: Any stories you’d like to share about how Nelson has changed over the years?

I have an awful lot of emotional connection to this place, and nothing upsets me more than when I see the city — and usually that means council — doing something stupid.

The one I remember most vividly is the mall. The section between Lakeside Park and the airport was planned from the outset to be a park, and the city had painstakingly worked on it until the 1960s and at that point it was probably halfway completed.

They would build these berms of rock and earth and then fill the area in slowly. It was mostly clean fill they were trying to use. But at some point somebody came up with an idea: everyone was complaining about the fly ash coming from the mill up in Fairview. “Why not use the sawdust as fill?”

Of course at the other end where the airport is now they’d been filling it with garbage because it was the dump. I worked down there one summer.

Now some people in the business community had been saying Nelson is going to die commercially if we don’t have a mall, because malls are the way of the future. Others were saying it was going to kill downtown, and that debate went back and forth. It depended who was on the Chamber of Commerce or council which point of view was dominant.

Council decided in a closed meeting to sell some land that they owned that was zoned as a park. They agreed to sell that site for a mall, but included in the contract was a clause that if the city was unable to sell they would provide an alternative site.

As it turned out, they couldn’t sell and the only alternative was the land that had been painstakingly prepared, where the mall is today. And in order to build the buildings they had to dig up all the half-rotted sawdust. For months the city reeked.

I was so upset they were going to build a run-of-the-mill mall on our waterfront. I used to drive by and dream about burning it down.

The city went to the province and got the okay to exchange the park land where the mall is today with where the dump and city works yard was. They designated that as a park.

We’re still waiting for our replacement park.

The Star: I know you’re passionate about Nelson Community Opera, and most recently we hosted the world premiere of Jorinda. What can you tell me about that scene?

The most amazing story is about the writing of KHAOS.

Don McDonald and his wife Alison Girvan had been living in Nelson for about 10 years, and we commissioned Don to write something to celebrate the opening of the community complex.

Then in 2009 we signed a formal commission agreement that we were going to raise $60,000 to commission them to write an opera. At that point they didn’t have a theme or anything, but the opera they ended up writing was KHAOS.

The idea behind it was to take the old Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. Demeter was the god of fecundity of the earth, she provided warmth and water and made things grow. But when she was grief-stricken because her daughter was stolen by the god of the underworld she withheld her gifts to the world.

They took that basic concept and said “what would happen if Persephone was prevented from coming back?” and they made the story a myth about climate change, to retell the story but with the ending we’re facing today.

It was a great opera. It was written up in The Globe and Mail and all over the place. But it’s extremely difficult to get an opera funded for a second time.

The Star: How about Jorinda?

In one sense Jorinda was an easier project than KHAOS because the composer, Doug Jamieson, had already written the whole composition when he approach the Amy Ferguson Institute with a proposal that we mount his new opera. So we didn't have to do any of the commissioning work involved in KHAOS.

The actual production of Jorinda was extremely challenging and innovative because Doug's artistic vision was for the opera to be staged a puppet show rather than the traditional opera format. In the end we staged it using a combination of puppetry, dance and mime as well as the vocal and instrumental elements of normal opera.

And, thanks to the tremendous talent of everyone involved, it worked. By all accounts our audiences loved it.

That our small community has now mounted two operatic world premiers in under five years using entirely local composers, playwrights, performers, designers, directors and technicians is, I think, a tremendous testament to how much the arts in Nelson have matured and diversified since I first started singing here with Amy Ferguson's boys choir in the 1950s.

The Star: Any final thoughts?

This is old history but it’s still my message: the greatest impediment to this community’s future success is the ridiculous anachronistic political boundaries.

We have half the community that’s deemed to not be part of the community, and that’s Area E and F. I wrote a series of letters to the editor in 2008 and 2009 basically prompted by a ridiculous exchange at the regional district about the distribution of a grant the province was going to pay.

Rural directors were complaining they weren’t getting their fair share and what struck me was the absurdity of wasting your energy bitching and moaning about whether the money went to the city inside those boundaries or the areas outside when we’re all going to benefit, no matter where it went.

We’re all using all the same services and facilities.

Essentially what all these stories illustrate is the ways we punish ourselves in order to maintain this ridiculous fiction that we’re three separate communities, because we ain’t.

We’re one community and until we act as one community we’ll always be that much weaker.