The Battle Electronic

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 23 July 2016

It´s 5 am and my wife is still asleep in her bed while I stare at an electronic screen willing it to magically put scattered thoughts into sensible prose for public digestion and edification.

I think of the number of topics and events I have yet to write about and I feel the pressure of the modern age that suggests a topic more than 24 hours old is already obsolete.

Still I persist, for I believe that between the historic record and the latest bulletin lies a fertile and fallow field where a person can consider an event and thoughtfully give his opinion and share his ideas to everyone´s mutual benefit.

Perhaps not the sexiest or trendiest notion?

We live in an impatient age, an era where electronic communication compels people to instant response, regardless of whether this immediacy allows for rational thought.

A text message is sent.

Grammarly's photo.

Why aren´t you instantly answering it?

An email was sent.

Shouldn´t you have replied by now?

Someone has twittered an opinion.


Let´s give it credibility, because this opinion is in instant electronic form.

This person must be a worthy individual, because people he has never or rarely met have clicked “Like”.

I must not be a worthy individual, because so few people have clicked “Like” or have even viewed my blog.

Horse hockey.

If my self worth is tied to electronic feedback then I must truly be a sad example of humanity.

We live in a world where news and communication is universal, yet so many of us have never felt more alone.

The very technology humanity creates to serve, dominates us.

For we have not only become practically dependent upon our machines which control almost everything we do, we have become psychologically dependent upon them as well.

Perhaps this worship of technology was inevitable from the first moment man invented the wheel or discovered how to control fire.

Our present psychological state probably began the day a car driver in an accident exclaimed that another driver had struck “him” rather than his car.

New York Times, 11 March 2016:

Amy Butcher complains.

Where are the emojis for modern women?

My response when reading this is not connected with the typical male indifference to a world slow to grant women equal rights and attitude to all matters that concern both genders, but rather why are emojis considered important enough to merit attention?

When did the struggle between the sexes become trivialised to electronic warfare involving smiley faces?

The Independent, 16 February 2016:

Jamie Merrill informs the world that Uber, the car-sharing app, alone is used by more than 30,000 drivers across the United Kingdom in 15 towns and cities, with more than 1.5 million regular passengers in London.

Uber logo.svg

Uber has a value of more than US$50 billion, making it the world´s most valuable tech start-up.

In surveys conducted in the UK it has been found that more than 5 million people are now being paid for work through online platforms.

More than 18.5 million people have turned to apps and online services to find taxi drivers, builders, designers and accountants.

Even in my old-fashioned life I know of at least one friend whose business revolves around electronic work and payment.

Since last November even I capitulated to owning a “Smartphone” and find I must fight off obsessions in myself that I used to ridicule about others in pre-November blog posts.

Though I have never been comfortable with electronic shopping, preferring face-to-face interaction as feeling more trustworthy, even I find myself enjoying Facebook and email access wherever I travel, and apps like train networks and directional finders invaluable.

Yesterday I was in Zürich for a medical appointment and was amazed at how electronically dependent the University Clinic functioned, with electronic barcoding and scanning machines and all kinds of electronic “bells and whistles”.

USZ Logo – zur Startseite

My doctor has a room where my outstretched arms can reach both walls without moving from the centre of her office.

A doctor in a box, using technology from a box, serving canned dignity to naive patients…

A brave new world…

From which there seems to be no escape and no choice in the matter…

The St. Gallen library insists its patrons electronically check material out themselves rather than interact with a librarian.

My bills are paid and my salaries are received electronically.

One employer insists I “Doodle” all appointments, my wife complains if I don´t instantly respond to her “What´s App” messages, and even on my (last act of technology defiance) hikes, not only do I carry a mobile phone and charger for emergencies and no escape from electronic contact, I have seen hikers hiking with heads down reading their phones instead of viewing nature around them!

So I find myself drawn to the unusual case of one Julian Lewis, Tory Member of the British Parliament for New Forest East, who refuses to read emails from his constituents.

Julian at Westminster



According to the Times of 2 March 2016, Dr. Lewis, 64, is the only MP who will not communicate with his constituents online.

Lewis describes email correspondence as insecure and unsatisfactory and  can only be contacted by posted or faxed correspondence to him at the House of Commons.

Palace of Westminster (London)

His stand was highlighted by WriteToThem, a charity website which allows members of the public to find and contact their local representatives.

Catherine Ovenden of Totton, who runs a photography business, tried to contact Lewis electronically about a mental health bill:

“I think he is being deliberately obstructive.  If all the other MPs can use email I don’t see why he can’t.  It is quite stubborn.  To make a point I’ve written him a letter on parchment paper, complete with a wax seal – as I know he is concerned about security.”

Myf Nixon of WriteToMe said:

“Constituents should be able to contact their representatives via whichever means they find most convenient, rather than those which their MPs find convenient.”

In a nutshell, WriteToMe’s complaint is my defence.

This pressure to technologically “get with the times” is not at all convenient for me.

This electronic, technological peer pressure, this e-mobbing of bullying the world to be techno-savvy and electronically prompt bothers me.

This power to not only dominate our lives in the workplace and home with all services electronically linked is bad enough, but this cry to jump into the deep end of this techno pool has prevaded our very consciousness to the point that even elections and public opinions can be mass manipulated.

Though this sometimes can be a force for good in the world informing people of injustice and sorrow in the world that might otherwise remain hidden, this ability to affect so many people collectively can also give rise to unscrupulous individuals who can influence many people who believe what their electronic media tell them and in their impatience won´t take the time to test the veracity of what they are being told.

It is no accident that someone like Donald Trump uses Twitter as part of his campaign to be elected the next US President.

And without conscientious journalists fact-checking and demanding clear answers on policy and planning, he knows he can say anything and people will believe him because they believe what their techno tools tell them.

To paraphrase Will Smith in the movie I Robot:

Movie poster i robot.jpg

We are the smartest yet dumbest generation.

Certainly there is something democratic about the ability to express one’s thoughts instantly, but to express one’s self rationally and thoughtfully normally requires time and effort.

So sure you can text the person you love an emoji showing a smiley face throwing kisses, but this pales in comparison to the power and passion of a well-thought-out and laborously created love letter.

As much as I see the validity of the objections of MP Lewis’ critics, I wonder if Dr. Lewis might be wiser than he is given credit.

We have gained so much in this age of information and speed that we forget that for every gain… there are also losses.

Above: The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead depicts a scene in which a scribe’s heart is weighed against the Feather of Truth.


Canada Slim behind bars 5b: Time served

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 22 July 2016

In the past five posts I spoke of prisons – how prisons inspire literature, prisons as tourist attractions, prisons as tourist accommodation, my work and life in a youth hostel/former jail, and the road that lead to me being imprisoned for a short time in America.

In this sixth and final installment I will attempt to describe what I personally experienced at the hands of law and order in the States.

I do this with extreme awareness of two dangers…

We live in a society where if one is not cautious one can find himself publicly shamed.

We live in a society where if one is not cautious one can find himself sued for libel.

To the first danger I can only say that though I served time in an American prison my “crimes” were considered misdemeanours and not felonies.

I do not possess a criminal record and I can enter the US freely.

To the second danger my only defense is the passage of time may have created different conditions today and the immediacy of those moments decades ago have left imperfect and impartial impressions in my memory.

Should this blog ever be read by those in law and order enforcement and be found to disagree with their experience I can only say in my defence…the account that follows is what I remember to be true.

I write this account not for financial gain and nor do I seek compensation from those who dealt with me in the manner that they did, but rather I am inspired by two basic feelings:

First, my own experience has lead me to a realization of just how easy it is to get oneself incarcerated. 

If I, a pacifist and humanist, can find myself on the wrong end of the law, then perhaps there are many cases of prisoners unjustly incarcerated as well.

Second, my own experience leads me to believe that the attitude of US law and order is the reason that there are so many arrests and so many prisons in America.

My travels have shown me that, while there are far worse countries than America when it comes to enforcement and incarceration, there are also other methods in other countries that the US could learn from for its benefit.

When I think back to that Arizona interstate freeway and how the state trooper dealt with me I think I can see things from both his perspective and my own.

America is a troubled land, where too many of its citizens feel that a poorly-worded constitutional amendment gives them the “right” to carry death-dealing weapons.

Though every cop in every country knows that when he/she puts on a badge in the morning that a coroner might be examining his/her dead body that same evening, the possibility of death seems more pronounced in a country where so many citizens exercise their “right” to bear arms.

As mentioned in Canada Slim behind bars 5a: Arrested development, hitchhikers are regarded suspiciously.

Why would any sane, rational individual risk his life on a busy highway to get lifts from total strangers?

Perhaps other legal means of transportation mean the exposure of criminal intent?

The very act of hitchhiking suggests criminal behaviour to some people´s way of thinking.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a cop and see so many truly criminal individuals on a regular basis.

What is it like to be exposed to so much darkness, so much hate, so much violence?

Yet to a casual observer it seems that so much of a cop´s time seems mundane and routine.

It seems like cops seem endless amounts of time waiting for criminal activity to spur them into action, much like soldiers eagerly waiting for the order to attack yet ever mindful of the risks that this action entails.

To the young state trooper I must have seemed like a criminal, for why else would I be hitchhiking?

And when he grabbed me by my backpack straps and I responded by holding his wrists, I confirmed his impressions of my criminal intent.

When the plainclothes officers in the passing car saw the trooper struggling with a hitchhiker a head taller than himself, they “heroically” sprung into action to defend one of their own.

I, the hitchhiker, saw things differently.

The Canada of my experience is a different land, a different mentality.

Flag of Canada

Canadians, at least the “average” non-criminally minded Canadians, don´t see police officers as threats to our freedom but rather as guardians of our security.

From my encounters with Canadian police, though they too live in an atmosphere of potential danger, our police tend to treat Canadian citizens politely and respectfully.

If cops can be compared to dogs,(as they are in George Orwell’s Animal Farm) American cops are pitbulls, Canadian cops are beagles!

Animal Farm - 1st edition.jpg

(Never underestimate the bite of a beagle!)

Beagle (Hunderasse)

In Canada I think most Canadians respect cops as necessary and honourable.

In the US I think cops are more a symbol of fear and armed authority.

I cannot imagine a scenario where a Canadian cop would grab someone unless that person was actively doing something violent.

So when the overzealous trooper grabbed me by my backpack straps because I disagreed with him, there was a feeling inside me that what he was doing was wrong and I simply wanted him to stop grabbing me.

Somehow I had the strange notion that I could talk myself out of the situation, if he would simply stop grabbing me.

But I foolishly forgot the concept of “might makes right” –  those who wield power feel that this power justifies and makes right whatever is done using this power.

It seems one cannot argue with the police regardless of the justice of one’s perspective.

People should meekly do what they are told and accept what is done to them, no matter how they may feel about it.

Herein lies my problem with law and order…

(Maybe I do have a criminal mind after all…)

If the laws are just and order is maintained respectfully then I have no qualms with policemen or transit authority or security personnel or judges.

But slavery used to be law, apartheid used to be law.

Capital punishment still reigns in many of the US states and torture is considered justifiable in some military or intelligence situations.

I said “No” to power and authority, “No” to law and order, and I was dealt with accordingly.

(And, sadly, it would not be the sole time when I found myself on the wrong end of the law…

That´s a story for another time…a time when I complain about the SBB – Swiss National Railways.)

I am a white Canadian.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a black American, to be harassed and hasselled on a regular basis, to be considered guilty and suspicious because of one’s skin colour.

Martin Luther King, Jr..jpg

Above: Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964

A black man it seems is in far greater danger than a white man when challenging the authority of the police.

But if your experience with the police is so often negative even before your thoughts turned to acting outside of the law, then is it any wonder that some blacks might feel resentful and angry at the heavy-handedness of some police officers?

When a black person is prejudged to be criminal because of skin colour instead of character…

Or when a person´s character is judged by the colour of his skin…

When resisting arrest or arguing with a police officer seems to be justification for the officer to discharge a weapon and kill “in the name of the law”…

(It is not that black lives matter more, but rather that black lives should matter too, that they shouldn’t matter less.)

BLM Letterhead.png

In a land where statistically blacks are denied the same opportunities for employment and advancement that whites take for granted, some are compelled to survive by acting outside approved legal means.

In the prison I was held in most prisoners were black, just as most prisons in the US hold predominantly black inmates.

And money buys the best legal representation, so those who can´t afford this end up behind bars.

And if being black means fewer opportunities to make the money required to get good legal representation, then it really isn´t a great stretch of the imagination to see how and why racial disparity exists in US prisons.

(I cannot imagine the difficulty that Islamic Americans must have to endure in this climate of irrational fear that presently prevades in the US.)

Tempe / Phoenix, Arizona, 1986

I am, that very day of my arrest, after fingerprints and photographs were taken of my person, transferred to a minimun security penitentary.

No one informs me of what I am charged with.

No one informs me of what I can expect nor exactly where I am going.

At the prison the last vestiges of my identity are taken from me and an orange coverall is found in my size.

(I can´t recall if socks, shoes or underwear were included.)

The cell I would spend a fortnight in was neither spacious nor cramped.

I remember it had a table, two chairs, a toilet and two bunk beds.

I don´t recall seeing either a television or a radio.

My cellmate, a man in his 40s, was imprisoned for not paying alimony.

“Arthur” claimed his wife left him for another man and when this other man found himself unemployed he moved in with “Arthur”‘s estranged wife.

Now supporting two, his wife expected “Arthur” to pay for her and her boyfriend.

Feeling that he was the injured party, “Arthur” refused.

The courts did not agree.

Being three decades removed from the events of 1986, I cannot recall with accuracy the hours by which we were regulated or the content of the meals.

(I don´t believe the Michelin Guide gave the prison any stars!)

Neither can I recall with any certainty whether we as prisoners gathered together in a communal dining room or whether meals were brought to our cells.

(I only have a feeling it was the latter…)

I remember showers were communal but I don´t think we were allowed them on a daily basis.

I do recall with vividness being bored with my confinement very quickly and how much I appreciated that paperbacks were available from a passing book trolley and that I was granted a blue pen and a yellow notepad to record my thoughts.

I had the bottom bunk.

Nights were cool, blankets scratchy, linen clean.

I did not feel afraid of my cellmate, for he did not strike me as a violent type.

“Arthur” standing was about 5’6″ and he seemed thin under his coverall.

I never thought of having to fight him nor whether I could win should it have been required to do so.

I have rarely fought nor had/have any desire or talent to do so.

I quickly gained his friendship by giving away the cigarettes each prisoner was allotted as I didn´t smoke and the thought never occurred to me to use cigarettes as currency.

There was no demand made of me to do any labour to “rehabilitate” myself, though I think I would have welcomed it as at least I could have gotten the feeling of doing something productive with my time.

There was an opportunity for recreation – a yard where we all were required to spend some time in the afternoon.

It had a basketball court with two baskets and a basketball provided.

Though I possess the height to be a basketball player I lacked the talent and the co-ordination of one, so I remained on the sidelines watching young black men dominate the game with a flair and accuracy that left me breathless and envious.

I discovered and devoured the works of Clive Cussler, Gregory Macdonald, Louis L’Amour, Tom Clancy and James Michener, in all their dog-eared, well-thumbed, ratty and ripped covers, paperback glory.

I kept my head down and my mouth shut, speaking only to my cellmate on occasions when he needed to talk.

There was nothing to do, but read, write, eat, pee, poop, sleep, repeat, in the cell.

Little to do, but wait and watch the shadows on the walls and the lights in the building to determine the slow passage of day into night, dusk into dawn.

Time passes and only my record on yellow notepad attests to its passing.

Then on the 10th day I am summoned.

My ankles are cuffed as are my hands.

A long chain connects the two sets of cuffs and another runs between my legs connecting myself to another orange-suited inmate.

We are driven into the city.

The prison wagon halts in front of the courthouse and we are marched outside in broad daylight from the street sidewalk into the basement of the courthouse.

It is the scene of a nightmare that only Dante or Bosch could dream of.

Above: “The Last Judgment” by Hieronymus Bosch, 1500 – 1505

Every type of convict, from minimum to maximum, from newbie to hardened con, from the harmless to the violent, are all gathered below.

If the intention of taking me to this hell was to invoke fear, then it was successful.

I see a con strapped to a chair, resisting violently, loudly, six burly guards can barely restrain his passion, his madness, his fury.

I am led to a large courtroom with row upon row of similiarly orange-suited cons, dozens upon dozens, a sea of orange.

Then and only then do we learn of our right to remain silent, our right to an attorney.

Rights read, we are separated.

I am led to a cubicle where a man in a fancy three-piece suit informs me that he is a judge.

I learn that I am accused of disorderly conduct and failure to obey a police officer.

How do I plead?

I don´t feel like I have merited prison and just want out.

If I insist on pleading “not guilty” then I will wallow in prison until a trial can be arranged.

I am offered “no contest” as an option, meaning though I am not admitting culpability or guilt I will not fight the decision of the court.

The judge dismisses the charge of disorderly conduct and tells me that it is his judgment that I have served time for the second misdemeanor.

I am led back to the cellar, then back to the wagon and driven back to prison.

Four days pass.

11 pm on the 4th day after my courthouse visit I am released.

My clothes are returned to me, but my backpack remains in police storage in Phoenix.

Downtown Phoenix Aerial Looking Northeast.jpg

It is pitch black night and the open sky is filled with stars.

I had been arrested wearing boots, shorts and T-shirt in the middle of a hot sweaty day.

These same clothes provide little warmth on a cold desert night.

Another con just released and met by his girlfriend’s car gives me a lift to downtown Phoenix.

I am penniless with only the clothes on my back.

No shelter, had I known where to find one, would take me in at so late an hour at night.

I spot a Holiday Inn side door open and sneak in before the door closes.


I find a quiet stairwell and crawl underneath it with remnants of newspaper wrapped around me for inadequate warmth.

It is a restless uncomfortable night.

Morning comes and after much searching I find the police station where my backpack was stored.

All has been restored, though it takes some time to return to the order in which my backpack had been maintained before Arizona State took an interest in me.

There is food and water and clothes and books still stored within. but what money I had had no longer remains.

I want to leave Phoenix far behind, but my troubles are not over yet.

Surrounding the city are signs telling drivers: “Federal Prison Zone: do not pick up hitchhikers”.

I walk and walk north out of town until night falls.

Under the highway I spot a drainage tunnel.

I crawl in and settle myself only to realise that I am not the sole occupant of the tunnel.

Another young man is at the other end.

We don´t speak.

It takes me many hours to fall asleep but upon awaking I find my tunnel neighbour has gone.

Hours later I am finally outside the zone and once again I find myself back on the interstate hitching.

Clearly the rehabilitation was ineffective.

I finally get picked up and resume my journey, heading west to California and north to Canada.

Looking back I realise that my prison experience was tame compared to other prisons I might have been a resident of.

Since then I am wary of police officers and generally try to avoid obvious activities of an illegal nature.

The whole experience brought me no honour nor caused me any shame.

It was both real and surreal at the same time.

An adventure is only an adventure in the telling.

Above: Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable try to hitchhike in It Happened One Night (1934)




Canada Slim behind bars 5a: Arrested development

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 18 July 2016

Somehow it feels like it’s time.

After decades of silence and sifting of memory, as more years lie behind me than ahead…

When the headlines of the moment evoke so much emotion and recollection within me…

I read of the injustice of America and its treatment of its minority populations by those who administer law and order.

I read of the fear of the American people of threats from not only abroad but from each other.

It’s time to tell the tale of Canada Slim as a prisoner.

I have few records of the years of my life before the 21st century began, as much of the memorablia of this time remains in a storage closet of my cousin in Canada, but should anyone with ambition ever one day be sufficiently curious to investigate the events I am about to recount I am certain through the magic of modern technology and diligent patient research be able to find records of my arrest, trial and imprisonment in Arizona.

To understand how a Canadian came to these circumstances I need to relate a bit of what came before…

I was born in St. Eustache, Quebec, Canada, at a time when my parents were going through marital difficulties.

The first decade of my life has few memories, but many years later I learned that my mother, an American, felt compelled to leave my father, a Canadian.

I cannot begin to comprehend the subtleties of what happens in relationships of which I am not a part of.

Neither can I condemn nor praise the female mind of which I, like many men, will never completely comprehend.

What little I know is that my mother was desperately unhappy and, seeking a freedom and a life that my father could not offer, left him and my siblings behind.

It is not even an absolute certainty whether the man listed on my birth certificate truly is my father, but if that is what the powers that be choose to authenticate then I have no desire to contradict.

She became ill and felt the call of her birth country, but Manhattan winters, like Montreal winters, are without mercy, so she chose to move down to Fort Lauderdale where she died of that beastly disease, cancer.

Though she tried to raise me on her own, financially and physically it was beyond her, so for the first decade of my life is a record of my being shifted from foster home back to her, to foster home back to her, to foster home to foster home to foster home…

I would finally be settled in a foster home in the countryside outside a wee village, actually similiar in size to the village I live in today, called, in full, Saint Philippe d’Argenteuil de la Paroisse de St-Jerusalem…even without the parish mention, the name required a long envelope…now simply called Chatham.

It was an unusual home I would spend my youth in, reminiscent in a way of how Lucy Maud Montgomery´s Anne of Green Gables was raised.

Montgomery Anne of Green Gables.jpg

My foster mother was a spinster who needed a home.

My foster father was a bachelor who had a home but needed a housekeeper.

As she desired some financial independence she took in foster children as the province paid child support for their maintenance.

Adopting me would have meant that this support would be removed so I was never adopted and my name remained different from her name and his.

They tolerated me as long as I stayed out of their way and did what I was told.

They were not brother and sister but lived as chaste as if they were.

They were not emotionally remonstrative people, except when angry, but they gave me stability and for that I remain ever grateful.

Raising me my foster mother was convinced and often predicted that my destiny would go one of two ways: teacher or prisoner.

Like most women, of course, she was right.

I remained in St. Philippe until I was 18, (though graduating from high school when I was 17, as the financial support the province provided for my care was desired until it was no longer available) then I searched for a college where I could receive instruction in English but be as far away from St. Philippe as possible while remaining in the province of Quebec and its unique system of education.

I decided on a college in Quebec City, but then my past, which had been conveniently ignored, became crucial to discover.

Clockwise from top left: Saint Louis Gate in the Ramparts; Parliament Hill and Bassin Louise waterfront area; Château Frontenac and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Vieux-Québec; Quebec National Assembly; Pierre Laporte Bridge with Quebec Bridge in the background

As any identity thief or amnesiac might tell you, to go to college or to join the military or to work, one requires an insurance number.

It is a rare native-born Brit or American or Canuck adult that cannot rattle off his insurance number (National or Social depending on where you are from) by heart.

To get a SIN card (Canada´s name for theirs) one needs a birth certificate, but in all the kerfuffle of my first years somehow a birth certificate never got made.

Though the hospital where I was born had registered my birth I had no idea who my birthparents were as this copy was kept secretly hidden away by my foster mother who did not reveal its existence until she was compelled to reluctantly give it to me.

The province that supported my foster mother’s care of me and financed my studies now needed to provide legal aid to hire a lawyer and have a birth certificate created.

For sadly we live in a world where a person is said not to exist unless a document says so.

Furthermore documents can say who you are even if what these documents say is untrue.

My first adventure beyond my comfort zone, for the prospect of waiting two months for a SIN card to be produced and delivered made me impatient, I hitched from Quebec City to Bathurst, New Brunswick, and sat on government department office chairs and refused to budge without a SIN card in my possession.

Looking north at Bathurst waterfront, with Holy Family church in background.

To my amazement I had the card within 24 hours and hitched back.

But when I and the college decided to go our separate ways, the birth certificate and SIN card search had awoken within me a wanderlust that has never left me and a hungry curiosity to discover my origins.

I would have a period of time fighting these impulses by working for a time in Quebec City and then Barrie, Ontario, then returning to the regions of eastern Ontario and western Quebec and working in Lachute, Hawkesbury, Vankleek Hill and Montreal, while trying to be an attentive son.

Downtown Barrie from Kempenfelt Bay

Lachute QC.JPG

From top to bottom, left to right: Downtown, Notre-Dame Basilica, Olympic Stadium, McGill University, Old Montreal featuring the Clock Tower and Jacques Cartier Bridge at the Fireworks Festival, Saint Joseph's Oratory

Above, from top to bottom, Barrie, Lachute, Vankleek Hill and Montreal

But life had never been easy with them and in frustration, I fled, hitching to St. John´s, Newfoundland.

Counterclockwise from top: St. John's Skyline, The Rooms, Water Street, Cabot Tower

I found work in security at a fish processing plant, slept in a tent at a campground and spent my holidays walking through towns and hamlets on the Avalon Peninsula.

But I unwisely let my foster mother know where I was and shortly received a letter telling me to come back.

I did, but immediately regretted it.

I left then for good and never saw them alive again.

I decided to once again pursue my past prior to St. Philippe and discover where and who I came from.

From 1985 to 1990, journeys of discovery would lead me from Ottawa, where I “settled down” when money was needed from employment, to Key West, Florida, to Death Valley, California to Vancouver, British Columbia back to Ottawa…

Location North America.svg

Eight months hitchhiking and living on the road in a hand-to-mouth but interesting existence.

A second journey would follow that would find me hitching from Ottawa to Minnesota, along the Mississippi to St. Louis and New Orleans, east to Fort Lauderdale and back north to Manhattan and Canada.

In these two journeys I would learn about and meet my biological brothers and sisters and father and paternal grandparents and visit them in their homes in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec and visit the birthplace and final resting place of my mother.

(There would be a third hitchhiking adventure in northern Canada and Alaska, but this was unrelated to my heritage search.)

In the process I would learn that my maternal grandparents were Irish and English, which would lead to travels to Europe – where I have remained since the beginning of this century.

I had chosen to hitch, for I had limited funds and had this strange notion that I could experience similar moments akin to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, not realising that wherever I went there I was, and that much of what Jack described was a result of who Jack was.


When I think back to all those years ago I am amazed by a number of things: how I managed to survive, the generosity strangers can show, the spectacular beauty of the North American landscape and the uniqueness of the American character.

I entered the United States that first time via a round-trip bus ticket from Montreal to Plattsburg, New York, (I never used the return portion.) with $20 US in my pocket and re-entered Canada via Bellington, Washington, to Vancouver with only $20 US in my pocket.

In the eight months I travelled on thumb I slept and ate using the resources that charity organisations and kind strangers who gave me lifts offered me.

I remember meeting a fellow drifter who had developed a system he called “the Frank Method” that he had “invented” to travel around the country.

He hated charities like the Salvation Army types, for he felt that the psychological cost of staying at these shelters was more than he could stand, what with the danger and discomfort with sharing a dorm with other homeless folks – many of them violent and/or psychologically ill – and the guilt-laden preaching one often has to endure before one is allowed to eat a meal or rest one’s eyes.

The Salvation Army.svg

I understood this, for this had been my experience as well.

For accommodation, he would deliberately consult a map of the states he intended to visit and he would only choose towns with populations between 10,000 and 30,000 people to seek shelter, for these towns were large enough to provide emergency accommodation but not large enough to justify having a homeless shelter.

Frank would approach the police and ask where he could spend the night.

They would call a church and the church would organise a hotel room, often including meals, for the night with the understanding that Frank would be gone the next day.

For meals, when absolutely skint for cash, Frank would pick a diner, what he called a “Mom and Pop establishment”, order a meal, eat it, then when presented with the bill, apologize for not having funds and offer to wash dishes or clean floors to make up for the cost of the meal.

He told me he had never been arrested for this nor did he often have to do chores for the meals he consumed.

When the road would produce no rides, Frank would trudge to the nearest railroad station, hop aboard a passing train and ride for free.

If approached by a ticket conductor he was either fined and the fine sent to a phony address he provided or he was forced to disembark at the next station, either way he had at least made some progress towards his chosen destination.

My background of being raised by strict Baptist foster mother and pennywise Catholic foster father has always left me with a bit of conservatism in my character, but I tried Frank´s methods when left with no other options.

I am neither proud nor ashamed of writing this, for I felt that I only needed food in my belly and shelter for usually only one night and would no longer burden a community longer than I had to.

True conservatives would argue that what I did was already asking too much, but when I had money I spent it only on food and shelter and when offered work I would work to make this money.

And truly if a community is so mean-spirited that offering a traveller a meal and a bed for the night is too much to ask, then that isn´t a community I would want to be in.

And I have noticed in my travels in North America and abroad that the poorer the area the more generous the people.

The more prosperous the area the more miserly the people.

But maybe the rich feel that wealth does not remain if given away…

Vagrancy – being a bum, a drifter, a hobo, homeless – is in parts of America considered criminally offensive.

I had heard rumours that folks hitching down in Georgia could be imprisoned and forced to work on a chain gang, but being forewarned I did not take the chance to test the truth of this by visiting Georgia.

I entered and exited Florida via the Panhandle – a thin strip of Florida that allows access to the state via Alabama bypassing Georgia completely.

I slept for the first time behind bars in a town in Florida, as no accommodation was available for drifters.

My belt and shoes and backpack were removed, a blanket and pillow and sub sandwiches given, the cell though unshared had a seatless metal toilet in the corner and both cameras and lights remained on throughout the restless night.

Though I had committed no crime, and my records were run to be sure, I was not allowed to leave the cell until the next morning.

It didn´t bother me much, for I was confident that I would be eventually released, and the cameras and lights were understandable for my temporary flop was meant for true criminals.

But being voluntarily incarcerated is a far different thing from being involuntarily incarcerated…

Tempe, Arizona, 1986


Now hitching a ride seems easy at first glance…

Stick your thumb out, a car stops, hop aboard.

One quickly learns to consider that a car needs to be able to safely exit the highway and find a generous road shoulder upon which it can slow down and stop.

Now how far as the law is concerned they see the situation a bit differently…

A hitchhiker on a freeway is dangerous for a number of reasons:

He could be struck by a vehicle, and at freeway speeds being hit could be fatal.

A car suddenly braking to a sudden halt on the freeway to pick up a hitchhiker could cause accidents.

And of course there is the unspoken question of why is he hitching:

Could it be he is a criminal who dares not use public transport or drive a car in case he is pulled over?

Some states have laws that clearly say that a hitchhiker can try his luck on the on-ramp or on the road leading to the on-ramp.

Hitchers know this is not practical, as there is usually little room for the driver to pull his car over safely.

Now one could try standard non-freeway type roads to reach his destination but those drivers that use these roads tend not to be long-distance travellers so a hitchhiker can wait a very long time to get a lift and will find it takes a very long time to reach his destination as numerous lifts are required.

But on a freeway a fortunate hitchhiker can usually get a long distance in a short time as those who use a freeway tend to want to travel long distances quickly.

My favourite lifts were pick-up trucks, for they offered easy loading and unloading of your travel gear.

The Holy Grail of free lifts are long-haul transport truckers, for not only do they normally travel long distances but could even radio ahead for other truckers to take the hitcher onwards from the drop-off point.

But for insurance and safety, many truckers will not pick up hitchhikers.

It is spring in Arizona and this Canadian is already sweating.

I am wearing a T-shirt, shorts, black army boots and a 50-pound backpack.

I am on the interstate south of Tempe, Arizona, standing on the side of the freeway.

An Arizona state trooper on a motorcycle pulls up alongside me and tells me to jump a fence on the side of the road that has barbs at its top and is taller than I am.

I do not respond quickly enough, so the young trooper grabs me by my backpack straps.

Oddly I am neither afraid nor angry but without thinking I grab the officer by the wrists, simply to stop him from pulling on me.

My feet are firmly planted and I stand a head taller than the officer.

I have no desire to strike the man but I resist his efforts to take my backpack off without so much as a request to do so.

I am Canadian so do not have any desire to be carrying any firearms.

I was raised rather conservatively so my backpack contains no drugs, no alcohol, no contraband of any kind.

I have only clothes and books in my backpack and have no problem with showing such, but I am annoyed that I am grabbed rather than asked.

An unmarked police car pulls up, witnessing our strange desert dance.

Four plain clothes men exit.

My feet are kicked out from under me, my arms twisted behind me, handcuffs are found and restrain my wrists.

The concrete is rough.

My backpack has come open and my worldly possessions exposed to the desert sun and scattered chaotically about.

The men gather my gear and toss it in the trunk of the car as I find myself pushed into the back of the car.

Except for the holding of the trooper´s wrists I have reacted non-violently and have meekly accepted all that is done to me.

There is a feeling of unreality to the whole situation, of disbelief.

To my own surprise I find myself calm and unconcerned.

This is such an odd situation that I am more curious as to what will happen next than I am as to my fate.

This serenity and curiosity will wear off.

I feel as if I am lying on the surgery table back in Montreal, when during my teen years I had accidentally cut my foot open with an axe and everyone was conversing to this Anglophone in French and interpreting my silence and confusion with shock rather than linguistic difficulty.

The law is talking English but somehow I am not listening, not comprehending.

My backpack has long disappeared and I am ordered around the station.

Fingerprints and photos are taken and I am thrown in a cell.

I would not taste the fresh air of freedom for half a month…

(To be continued…)

(Photo sources: Wikipedia)









Canada Slim behind bars 4: Me and D´Arcy McGee

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 7 July 2016

I have some bad habits.

I am essentially a man who prefers leisure to work.

As each and every person who has ever existed, exists or will ever exist is defined by how he/she decides to use the 24 hours each day provided us indiscriminately, so it can be said your humble blogger could use his limited time more wisely, more productively.

But when I am not devoting myself to teaching or working as a barista, I find myself at my most happiest walking upon some path somewhere.

Not that I am a natural hiker…

For this morning, after yesterday´s hiking, my feet ache and my thigh burns.

I walk through the apartment like an old arthritic man, cramps in my feet and blisters on my heels.

Sitting does not help, for the chafing produced by walking shorts too tight has left the skin sensitive as if a hot cheese grater had visited my thighs without my consent.

So why bother?

For it is upon a trail that I feel most alive.

I feel as if I am a part of a wider universe, part of the circle of life, experiencing a moment pure.

On the trail, the past is but a memory, the future not more than a promise, the now – dynamic and present.

I especially enjoy walking here in Europe, as not only do I feel a connectedness to the world around me but as well I feel a link to the historic past that formed what I perceive today.

In Switzerland there are many signposted trails that one can follow throughout the country – trails that cross the nation entire or ones that simply surround a village.

Switzerland is especially proud of its national trails.

Among these is the Jakobsweg, which if followed in its entirety could lead the ambitious hiker over thousands of kilometres to faroff Santiago de Compostela in distant Spain from many parts of Europe.

How moving an experience it is to follow pathways that pilgrims might have walked over hundreds of years.

Obligations to wife and work compel me to walk only small portions of other Swiss trails and the Jakobsweg at a time.

The Jakobsweg on Swiss soil starts in Konstanz, Germany, or in Rorschach by Lake Constance, or in Rankweil across the Rhine in Austria, and through a series of interconnected trails finally arrives in Geneva to cross over into France.

I have lived in Switzerland since 2010 and have walked the Jakobsweg from Konstanz and Rorschach and Rankweil to Einsiedeln in various stages at various times.

Yesterday I walked the section from Rapperswil to Einsiedeln.

A half day of exploring Rapperswil and a half day of walking led to many discoveries: the Polish Museum in Rapperswil Castle, deer in a deer park, roses in rose gardens, elephants and camels and sea lions and ponies and donkeys and parrots and flamingos and meerkats at the zoo, histories of Rapperswil and the Swiss National Circus Knie at museums, a long wooden footbridge crossing the Lake of Zürich, climbing many a hill, crossing rivers and strolling beside lakes, the birthplace of Paracelsus, magnificent chapels and cathedrals….

Above: Rapperswil Castle and Einsiedeln Cloister

Much to be savoured, much to be told…

But this post will only merely mention yesterday´s events as a prologue to showing how the chronicles of the past and the impact of the moment combine to make us who we are.

I will at a later date weave the events of yesterday into the blogs of tomorrow.

I confess that I have fallen behind in my regular accounts, due to the pressures of work and the distractions of the mind, but I presevere…

As my regular readers know, I began to tell the story of Canada Slim behind bars as a tourist, a tour guide and a prisoner.

Canada Slim behind bars 1: Voyeurs of tragedy spoke of prisons and their use to punish wrong-doers as well as attract visitors.

Canada Slim behind bars 2: Punishment preserved spoke of Fremantle Prison in Western Australia and why it is worth visiting.

Canada Slim behind bars 3: Prisoners of choice spoke of prison – tourist accommodation around the world.

Now what follows in this post is an account of my experiences in the Carleton County Jail / Ottawa International Hostel and how this building´s history affected my past and partially made me who I am today…

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 7 April 1868

Thomas D´Arcy McGee, the silver-tongued orator of Parliament, was gunned down in the street early this morning by an unknown assailant.

McGee, a close friend of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, was returning to his lodging home after a late night Parliamentary session that ended only at 2 am.

McGee was well-loved in Parliament and was an excellent public speaker.

Many of McGee´s outraged friends and colleagues recall his final public speech:

“I hope that in this House mere temporary or local popularity will never be the test by which to measure the wealth or efficiency of a public servant. 

It is, Sir, my humble opinion, that the leader who is ready to meet the tide of temporary unpopularity, who is prepared, if need be, to sacrifice himself, who is ready not only to triumph with his principles but even to suffer for his principles, he is one who has proved himself, above all others.”

When McGee returned to his boarding house on Sparks Street he found that the door was bolted from the inside.

Mrs. Trotter, his landlady, was waiting for her 13-year-old son, a Parliamentary page, to return home, when she heard someone trying to open the door.

She undid the bolt and just as she opened the door a crack, there was a blast from outside.

McGee was bending to put his key into the lock of his front door when someone shot him in the head at point-blank range.

McGee´s false teeth were later discovered at the end of the front hall as they had been shot right out of his mouth.

Mrs. Trotter had opened the door at the exact moment the shot was fired and her dressing gown was splattered with McGee’s blood.

The bullet was lodged in the doorway and later recovered by the police as evidence.

Mrs. Trotter didn’t see the killer when she opened the door, and when her son came home only a moment later, there was no one on the street.

Of the many people who began to crowd around McGee’s body, none had seen any sign of the murderer.

The murder is widely considered to be the work of those revolutionary Irishmen, the Fenians, who are believed to have hated McGee because of his public campaign targeting them.

Above: the Fenian Brotherhood flag

The Fenians are mostly Irish Americans who were fighting to free Ireland from British rule.

They have made it clear that one of their plans is to invade Canada and hold it hostage with the intention of exchanging Canada for Ireland’s freedom.

The Fenians have already launched several attacks from the US border in previous years, and even though McGee was an Irishman, who had once been a rebel leader himself, he had spoken out publicly against them.

Many Fenians think McGee was a traitor and there were quite a number of threats against his life so it seems likely that they are responsible for his murder.

An invasion of Fenians across the border is hourly expected.

Prominent politicians are protecting themselves with bodyguards.

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 11 February 1869

After uttering his last words – “God save Ireland and God save my soul.” – Patrick James Whelan plunged 2.7 metres through the Carleton County Jail gallows trapdoor to his death in a hanging 5,000 people watched this morning.

Whelan, a Fenian, was convicted of murdering politician D’Arcy McGee, shot from behind on 7 April last year as he unlocked the door of his lodging home.

On the night of McGee´s assassination, the police arrested a dozen Irishmen right away, eventually releasing all but one – Patrick James Whelan.

Whelan was in the gallery of the House of Commons that night.

The police started to build a case against him, but much of it was circumstantial evidence.

During Whelan´s trial this evidence began to crumble.

For example, the eyewitness Lacroix who claimed he had heard Whelan speak of his plans to murder McGee was later discredited when six of Lacroix’s coworkers testified that Lacroix was a compulsive liar and was only interested in the reward money.

Despite the lack of evidence, public opinion has been strong in this case and people want someone to be punished for this horrible crime.


Sir John A. Macdonald, McGee’s old friend and Canada´s Prime Minister, is a close friend of the prosecuting lawyer and even began coming to the trial every day and sat beside the judge.

At the end of the trial, despite the fact there was no reliable witness who could place Whelan at the scene of the crime, despite that the evidence against him was largely circumstantial, Whelan was convicted and sentenced to hang for the assassination of McGee.

Whelan maintained his innocence right up until the very end.

Richards: The sentence of this court is that you, Patrick James Whelan, having been accused and found guilty of the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, be taken from this place to the place from whence you came and be thence removed on Thursday, the tenth day of December, between the hours of nine in the morning and four in the afternoon, to the place of execution, and there be hanged by the neck until your body be dead, and may God have mercy on your soul.

When the sentence was handed down, Whelan turned to the judge and said:

“And yet all that, my lord, does not make me guilty.”

The crowd started to gather at dawn outside the jail here for the 11 am hanging despite the terrible snowstorm.

Speaking in a high, trembling voice from the gallows, Whelan asked for forgiveness from the crowd, then concluded with his salute to Ireland.

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 1 July 1989

It is noon on Parliament Hill and at the Centennial Flame I begin a journey, a walk across Canada.

I intended to make my way across Canada solely on my own resources and the kindness of others.

I planned to work my way across the country and when the region I would arrive in could not provide me employment I would return briefly back to Ottawa, work until funds were replenished then return back to the spot I left off walking and resume my journey on foot again.

From June 1989 to the beginning of 1996, I would return again and again back to Ottawa and the Nicholas Street Ottawa International Hostel as a guest, a janitorial and housekeeping assistant and a jail tour guide, later incorporating the Carleton County Jail as part of my independently-owned organised city tours.

And, even now, on those rare occasions when I return to Canada to see family and friends still resident in my home and native land, I make a point of revisiting Ottawa and staying at the IYHA (International Youth Hostelling Association) jail hostel.

Jail entrance

For many of the experiences I had there and many of the people I met would shape and still continue to shape the person I am today.

I met good friends there, including my best friend Iain of Liverpool, and as well I learned that youth hostels were not only great places to stay and often good sources of information in regards to employment opportunities, but they were also “love lodges” – places to meet significant others!

I met four significant others at youth hostels: one who would encourage me to visit Europe, one who would encourage me to develop my intelligence and enthusiasm towards serving others, another who would become fiancéed with me, and the fourth who would become my wife.

(Knowing my history, the wife doesn´t like it if I stay at hostels anymore!)

Reading area in the basement

A former hostel shop manager in Ottawa had perfected the art of seduction of guests so effectively that where others make a notch in the bedpost to signify a “conquest” he was said to have reduced his bedpost to the width of a toothpick!

In my roles as guest and resident employee I would get to know the history of the Carleton County Jail quite intimately.

Between the Rideau Centre shopping mall and the University of Ottawa campus is an impressive stone building.

Opened in 1862, the Carleton County Gaol was in its day the pride of Ottawa and was held up as a shining example of how all county jails across the province should be built.

Replacing the four-room basement jail of the courthouse next door with its dingy, damp cells, the Carleton County Jail was praised as being “probably the best in Canada”.

The Gaol was intentionally designed to be imposing and intimidating.

This prime example of English Georgian architecture with its emphasis on symmetry and proportion evokes a sense of austerity and strength.

The heavy stone foundation creates a sense of mass and power, while the building´s chimneys, stonework, dormer windows and buttresses all reinforce this impression of authority.

Throughout its history (1862 – 1972) the Carleton County Gaol was used for those serving both short-term and long-term sentences as well as for those awaiting court appearances.

Cell Floor

Any sentence of less than two years would be served here.

Longer sentences would result in the prisoner being transferred to the federal penitentary in Kingston.

Prisoners who had been sentenced to death, like Patrick James Whelan, were also held at the Gaol until their execution.

So in this building, at any given time, people thrown behind bars for being drunk and disorderly would live right next to those convicted of violent crimes.

Authentic Jail Cell

Women were also imprisoned in the building and if they had children who could not be cared for then the children would also be housed in the Gaol.

Female prisoners were treated slightly less severely than the male prisoners and lived in dormitory-style accommodations with access to a bathtub and a WC and were watched over by female guards.

Children convicted of crimes, some as young as 7 years old, were housed in the Gaol alongside the regular inmates.

The mentally ill were also kept at the Gaol awaiting transfer to the mental asylum in Kingston as there was simply no other place to keep them.

By 1946, jail inspectors criticized the Gaol as a “monstrous relic of an imperfect civilisation where cells are medieval, incredibly cramped, with conditions far below the limits of human decency”.

The cells were 3 feet wide and 9 feet long, lacked electric light and had only metal pails, known as “honey buckets” for toilets.

Cell Floor

Manual labour was performed in the Gaol until the 1950s, but after that with no other rehabilitation and no recreational facilities, with little to occupy the inmates’ time, boredom was oppressive.

Prisoners would get violent or riot just to break the monotony.

Many prisoners would die here while in custody from disease, suicide, exposure – their final moments in extreme anguish and misery.

The Gaol opened as a youth hostel in August 1973 and has since gone through many changes, some of which I have been witness.

During my time at the Ottawa Jail Hostel, I am proud to say that I was known to be an extremely outgoing, helpful and informative individual recognized for giving excellent and entertaining tours.

I made the tours as interactive as possible, including locking visitors in the cells to get the actual feeling of what it was like to be a prisoner and showing them how an actual hanging took place with visitors standing around the gallows as I released the gallow doors operating a foot pedal.

(This kind of tour has been discontinued at the Hostel after the cell door key once broke inside the lock during one of my tours and the gallows visit has been cancelled for reasons of security and insurance.)

I still recall with great fondness a visit by the Thunder Bay 84 Squadron Astra Royal Canadian Air Cadets in 1996, whose Captain and Commanding Officer wrote the Hostel a letter praising me personally and saying that my level of service was a very pleasant surprise and that I deserved an Academy Award for my immensely enjoyable tour of the Gaol!

I look back with fondness at the Ottawa Jail Hostel for living and working there gave me confidence in my abilities to teach, to entertain, to interact with other people.

All good things do come to an end and my days as tour guide ended with an organisation called Haunted Walks Inc,  outsourced since 1996 by the Hostel to give tours of the Gaol.

I met the director and founder of Haunted Walks Inc. who approached me and wanted my files and collection of memorablia on the Gaol.

Haunted Walks Inc.

Glen Shackleton, who runs Haunted Walks in both Kingston and Ottawa, offered me very little money for this and no employment with the company.

I turned him down.

I knew what research he couldn´t find on his own, he would simply create.

I have always had great difficulty with the concept of ghost tours – tours offering spirits and graveyards and suggestions that places may be haunted simply because their guides are attired in dark cloaks and lead their groups through quiet streets by lantern light.

I have no problem with entertainment and theatricality.

I do have a problem with bald-faced invention.

Telling history entertainingly does not mean having to create ghost stories.

Humanity itself is inherantly interesting without inventing legends of the supernatural.

I won´t condemn those who are entertained by ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night.

I won´t praise those who use fiction disguised as fact to generate money from the gullible.

I always find it interesting that when a ghost is mentioned or a supernatural occurence is related how often proof is rarely present.

Patrick James Whelan may have been innocent of the crime for which he was hanged, but I don´t believe he haunts the halls of the hostel.

But to each his own…

If people want to pay to be spooked and profit is to be made from it, then I can only say that this type of business practice is not for me.

As a tour guide I wanted to give people a sense of what it was like to be a prisoner and to tell of the sadness and sorrow and hardship of life as it was lived then.

I could relate to the former inmates of the Carleton County Gaol, for during my travels in America I too was an inmate of a different jail…







Canada Slim behind bars 3: Prisoners of choice

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 5 July 2016

Why do people travel?

For each person there are personal, individual reasons for venturing outside our personal comfort zones into the Great Unknown.

But essentially I think it is a quest to learn something new, something previously undiscovered, not yet experienced before.

Travellers seek to challenge themselves by discovering who they themselves are in new situations.

Some folks want to immerse themselves in situations to attempt to understand what these situations feel like.

It is one thing to cocoon yourself within your own culture and seek to find this culture wherever you go.

But for some, travel truly rewards when one immerses oneself into the experience of being another person outside of one´s experience.

Some may wonder what is it like to sleep behind the bars and walls of a prison without actually having to commit a crime.

It is one thing to voluntarily sleep in a cage and leave that cage when one desires.

It is quite a different experience being forced to remain entrapped within a confined area dependent upon the mercy of others for your release.

Tourists can indulge their curiosity about jail sleeping in more and more locations around the world.

In my last blog post, Canada Slim behind bars 2: Punishment preserved, I wrote of Fremantle Prison.

Fremantle PrisonOne can sleep there as well as tour the Prison.

And Fremantle is just one of many prisons where one can experience overnight accommodation behind bars.

On the East Coast of Australia, in the southeast between Adelaide and Melbourne, (through which most travellers speed through, thus missing wild, pristine beaches and tranquil fishing villages) close to the border with the State of Victoria, Mount Gambier is South Australia´s second most populous city.

You can stay at the Old Mount Gambier Gaol, built in 1866, this Heritage-listed building was last used as a prison in 1995.

The experience is anything but luxurious.

Very little has been done to renovate the cells which remain with heavy, rusty bolted doors and solitary loos in the corner of each cell.

The Jailhouse Hostel in Christchurch, New Zealand, boasts that it has been accommodating people for over 130 years!

Built in 1874 by Benjamin Mountfort, (who also designed the Christchurch Catheral, the Canterbury Museum and the Canterbury Provincial Council Chambers), the Jailhouse was constructed out of 60cm thick concrete and has served as a jail, a women´s prison, a military camp and (since 2006) a hostel.

In Luzern, here in Switzerland, the Löwengraben Jail Hotel was a prison from 1862 until 1998.

This ultimate location was chosen, because in that time there was still a moat in the street in front of the building.

In 1999, the Jailhotel opened.

Until 1969 all kinds of prisoners were locked up.

During the last 30 years though, only remand prisoners and conscientious objectors stayed in this prison.

Although this prison had only space for 55 inmates, there were more than that most of the time.

The prison also had a guillotine, which is now in the Museum of History in Luzern.

In 1998, Grosshof Prison in Kriens was built and all the inmates of the city prison had to move over there.


This hotel goes beyond simply renting out former prison cells as overnight rooms.



For an extra price, visitors can stay in the former library or the director´s office, both of which have been turned into luxury suites.

Every part of the prison has been put to some new and creative use without compromising the essence of the original layout or the prison contents.

The library is still full of old prison books for visitors to read during their stay.

In Oxford, England, my favourite English city, the core of Oxford Castle is a millennium old.

Most of the Castle´s structures (old and new) were converted into a prison in the 1800s.

Today the Malmaison Hotel Oxford has overnight rooms, apartments, restaurants and bars.

Much of the prison infrastructure is still evident to visiting eyes, but the cells of Her Majesty´s Prison Oxford (closed in 1996) have tripled in size and feature showers, clawfoot tubs and fancy toiletries.

The thick walls, low ceilings and original iron cell doors still remain and still today the barred windows won´t open.

In Boston, Massachusetts, USA, the infamous Charles Street Jail / Charlestown State Prison was originally a model prison in the 1800s that fell into disrepair in the mid 20th century.

Prone to riots and subject to physical decay, the Jail was officially condemned decades before it finally shut its doors as a prison.

Today it has reopened its doors as the Liberty, an amazingly luxurious four-star Hotel that would shock and impress the Jail´s former inmates.

The Liberty Hotel, Boston - Cupola

On the edge of Boston´s Beacon Hill neighbourhood, the Liberty / Jail was built from local granite in 1851 and served as a prison until 1990.

The Liberty houses 298 rooms of luxury (19 of which are in a former cell block).

You can still find remnants of jail cells all over the Hotel, often backlit in neon green, pink and purple.

Malcolm X (1925 – 1965), aka Malcolm Little, black Muslim minister and human rights activist, once did time here.

Malcolm X in March 1964

In 1946, Malcolm was arrested while picking up a stolen watch he had left at a shop for repairs, and in February began serving an eight-to-ten-year sentence for larceny and breaking and entering.

He was paroled in August 1952.

In Liepaja, on the Baltic coast of Latvia, the Karosta Prison Hotel brags that it is “unfriendly, unheated, uncomfortable and open all year round”.


Latvia’s Karosta Prison was used as a Nazi and Soviet military prison for most of the 20th century.

Hundreds of prisoners are said to have died here, many of them shot in the head.

Nowadays the nightmarish facility has been transformed in a prison-themed hotel where guests can sign an agreement to be treated like actual inmates.

This former brutal KGB jail has no fancy touches – everything here remains as when it was a fully-functioning detention and torture centre, barbed wire included.

You are treated like an actual prisoner throughout, complete with threats and warning gunfire and crying fellow inmates.

That includes sleeping in a cell on an old mattress laid over wooden boards, eating prison food served through the barred doors, getting verbally abused by the guards and following orders to the letter.

Failure to comply to the strict code of conduct is punished through physical exercise and cleaning work around the prison.

Karosta Prison, Liepāja, Latvia

Gluttons for punishment will get a bellyful in this creepy old prison, which operated right up until 1997.

Built in 1900 as an infirmary, it was quickly turned into a military prison, even before the building was completed.

Tours depart on the hour, detailing the history of the prison, which was used to punish disobedient soldiers.

A range of more extreme ‘experiences’ is also on offer for groups of 10 or more.


If you’re craving some serious punishment, or just want to brag that you’ve spent the night in a Soviet jail, sign up to become a prisoner for the night.


You’ll be subjected to regular bed checks, verbal abuse by guards in period garb and forced to relieve yourself in the world’s most disgusting latrine (seriously).



Try booking the night in Cell 26 – solitary confinement – you won’t be bothered, but the pitch-blackness will undoubtedly drive you off the edge.

For those wanting a pinch of masochism without having to spend the night, there are one-hour ‘reality shows’.

There are also tours to the once-off-limits northern forts, where you can take part in the Escape From The USSR spy game.

Kaiserslautern, Rheinland-Palatinate, in southwestern Germany, is home to 98,166 people (including 45,000 NATO military personnel), a championship football club, the largest public swimming pool in Europe, the Pfalztheater (where the first German performance of West Side Story took place), the Palatinate Forest (one of the largest forests in Central Europe), the Karlstal whitewater canyon, the Kaiserpfalz (the castle of Emperor Barbarossa- “Redbeard”), the largest US military community outside the United States and – the Alcatraz Hotel.

Open from 1867 until 2002, this former prison features 56 rooms (some of them cells) and offers the “full inmate experience” complete with optional striped pyjamas.

Despite having no connection whatsoever to the island prison of Alcatraz,  the hotel´s decor randomly pays tribute to its namesake with plenty of pictures from San Francisco.

The full inmate experience includes inmate-made bedframes, an old prison toilet, cages and three levels of cells.

In the Swedish capital of Stockholm, sitting on its own lush green oasis island, the Langholmen Hotel once housed Sweden´s most wanted until 1975 and was the site of the country´s last execution in 1921.

There remains bars on the windows and ladders joining inmate bunks but after touring the onsite museum, one can enjoy the modern pleasures of  meatballs and pickled herring inside the prison´s former hospital which is now a restaurant.

The oldest part of Hotel Katajanokka in Helsinki, Finland, dates back to 1837 and the main part to 1888.

The building originally served as a county prison and pre-trial detention centre.

Almost 40% of Finland´s prisoners are reported to have passed through this four-winged former county prison and pre-trial detention centre.

The prison was closed in 2002.

The 106 rooms, comprised of two to three cells each, are sleek and minimalist behind the towering red brick perimeter walls.

I have visited Boston, Luzern, Oxford and Stockholm, but did not have the opportunity to visit the abovementioned prison hotels, so I hope to return to these cities to do so.

I hope to visit Christchurch, Helsinki, Kaiserslautern, Liepaja and Mount Gambier one day soon.

But the one prison hotel I have yet to mention is the place wherein I both lived as a longterm resident and worked as a tour guide: the Ottawa Jail Hostel in Ottawa, Canada…and that experience deserves a post all its own…

Nicholas Street Gaol, Ottawa, Canada - 20050218.jpg






Canada Slim behind bars 2: Punishment preserved

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 2 July 2016

Brexit and the European Championship seem all anyone can talk about these days, whether in the classes where I teach or at the Starbucks stores where I work as a barista.

As I don´t have a stake in either event, my thoughts are more preoccupied with my duties at hand, plans for future walks during my days off in my suddenly-more-open calendar, and writing my blog.

Earlier I mentioned, in Canada Slim behind bars 1: Voyeurs of tragedy, how I would tell the tales of my experience as prison tourist, prison tour guide and prisoner.

So let me begin with a confession…

I am a prison tourist.

Don´t misunderstand me.

There is no fetish involving steel bars, chains, or punishment.

There is no bloodlust craving or secret desire to build a do-it-yourself dungeon based on ideas discovered in these remembrances of penal past.

But rather I feel a mixture of emotions:

There is the grim realisation of the veracity of how we mere mortals “wrestle not against flesh and blood but rather against princes and powers and principalities”.

The state wields its enormous dual powers of law and order against crime to enact punishment upon those who breaks its laws just or injust, and though there are some who truly merit being removed from the general populace, there also exist those who are incarcerated not for crimes of violence but rather for their defiance of thought and action against rules that offend either the conscience or rational behaviour.

Sadly, these latter prisoners have often been treated as severely or worse than those prisoners of violent behaviour have been.

It is a rare man who can be trapped within the penal system of law and order and walk out stronger than when he walked in.

And, of course, not every man walks out.

There is also within me a spark of optimism.

For as bad as modern prisons are, in former times many prisons were worse.

This is not to say that this trend has been global, for there still do exist in some parts of the world hellholes unspeakably vile and cruel, but in lands where these words might be read I do believe some improvement has been shown.

I do believe in separating the truly violent elements of man apart from potential victims, but I remain unconvinced that sticking a man in a cage will somehow improve him, somehow rehabilitate him.

I also believe that a state that advocates capital punishment is hypocritical in suggesting that it is immune from moral censure for doing the very acts that it itself condemns.

Murdering a murderer is murder, regardless of the justification given.

And for those families and lovers left alone and tragic by a murderer´s act more blood spilt will not bring their lost ones back nor ease the pain of that loss.

Vengence is not justice.

It is simply revenge.

Killing someone who is trying to kill you may be called “war”, but ending a human life before its time is still murder, no matter what nobility we pretend this act has.

I don´t blame the soldier as much as I blame the folks who caused the wars to occur.

I have had the great blessing of having visited a number of countries during my brief half-century of existence and when opportunity presented itself I would try and discover for myself aspects of these countries´ heritage in hopes of better understanding these places I found myself in.

But I am only one man, limited by both time and money, living on a planet where there exists more than 55,000 museums in more than 202 nations scattered across the globe.

In the world´s tiniest nation, Vatican City, there are at least 8 museums worth exploring.

In the US, a nation of museum afficiandos, there are 35,000 registered museums.

My homeland of Canada has at least 2,000 official museums.

My present country of residence Switzerland has 750 museums.

So much to see and do in only one lifetime…

In my travels throughout Canada and during my one visit to Australia I visited a few prison museums and was fascinated by all I saw and learned about how penal order was maintained and about some of the characters that once occupied the cells within these walls.

To be clear, I separate concentration camps from prisons, as the former are not confinement for criminals as they are a state´s attempt to separate from the general populace those of undesirable ethnicity or belief or sexual orientation or physical / mental capacity in an attempt to purge these elements out.

At present, I have yet to visit concentration camps, but I fear the great sorrow and anger I anticipate feeling upon seeing such vast inhumanity being visited upon innocents whose only offense was being different from the accepted norm.

If you, gentle reader, sat me down and asked me straight out direct what prison museum have I seen that I would most recommend to a visitor, I would, without hesitation, recommend Fremantle.

Fremantle, Western Australia, Australia, April 2014

My best friend Iain of Liverpool was getting hitched to a lovely lady from Perth and I was his best man for his wedding in Perth.

Being my first visit to Oz (and to date my only) I did want to explore as much as I could, but obligations to the bridal pair as well as the normal restrictions of limited time and finance meant my explorations were bound to seeing only Perth, Fremantle and New Norcia.

I was in Oz for a wedding, not for pleasure!

To be fair, I have absolutely no regrets, though I won´t deny I did embrace my moments of exploration when they became available, I also thoroughly enjoyed my moments spent with Iain and Samantha and her family and friends and feel truly honoured and blessed that they wanted me to share in their special moment.

Fremantle Prison is Western Australia´s only World Heritage building.

In 2010, Fremantle Prison, along with 10 other historic convict sites around Australia, was placed on the World Heritage Register for places of universal significance.

Collectively known as the Australian Convict Sites, these places tell the story of the colonisation of Australia and the building of a nation.

Fremantle Prison is Western Australia’s most important historical site.

As a World Heritage Site, Fremantle Prison is recognised as having the same level of cultural significance as other iconic sites, such as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, or the Historic Centre of Rome.

For 136 years, between 1855 and 1991, Fremantle Prison was continuously occupied by prisoners.

Convicts built the Prison between 1851 and 1859.

Fremantle Prison is the only surviving intact convict-built prison in the world.

Fremantle Prison is the longest and tallest convict-built structure in the Southern Hemisphere, 136 metres long and 20 metres / 15 feet high.

Its original capacity was 1,000 men.

The cells were 1.2 metres / 7 feet wide by 2.1 metres / 4 feet high, fitted with a hammock slung between raw limestone walls.

Cold, claustrophobic, uninviting.

Seven gun towers around the perimeter walls look down on the Prison and the town of Fremantle with its harbour.

A chill wind whistles in from the southwest Indian Ocean.

Initially called the Convict Establishment, Fremantle Prison held male prisoners of the British Government transported to Western Australia.

After 1886 Fremantle Prison became the colony’s main place of incarceration for men, women and juveniles.

Fremantle Prison itself was finally decommissioned in November 1991 when its male prisoners were transferred to the new maximum security prison at Casuarina.

Fremantle Prison was a brutal place of violent punishments, such as floggings and hangings.

Conditions were primitive: freezing in winter and scorching in summer, infested with cockroaches and rats.

The site was lonely and cruel.

It housed thousands of prisoners, each with a fascinating story to tell.

Fremantle was the site of numerous daring escapes and prisoner riots.

Throughout its operational history, Fremantle Prison held thousands of Aboriginal men, women and children.

Fremantle Prison exhibits an extraordinary power of place.

Above: One of six cells restored to represent the Prison´s varying living conditions at different times in its history

Because it remained operational as a prison until 1991, the site is remarkably intact and authentic.

Visiting the Prison one can see first hand what life was like for modern prisoners as well as for convicts 150 years ago.

Why convicts in Western Australia?

One must remember that Australia is not just a country, but is a continent unto itself.

Western Australia is beyond huge…

If Western Australia were its own separate country (which would suit WA just fine!), it would be the 10th biggest country in the world.

Western Australia was founded in June 1829 (I think it was a Tuesday?) by a group of 69 people, including military officers, free settlers, their families and servants, led by Captain James Sterling, the colony´s first Lieutenant Governor.

Although their philosophy was Utopian and aimed at the instant creation of a community of gentlemen farmers their experience was harsh.

There were no roads, no bridges, no labourers to build them.

The land had to be cleared and fertile soil was extremely limited.

Despite the first 20 years being filled with frustration, many labourers enjoyed being free of the restrictions of life in England.

One wrote:

“We bless the day we left England….I am at work brickmaking….I work 8 hours a day….I have no rent to pay, no wood to buy.  I just go outdoors and cut it down….It is not here as in England.  If you don´t like it, you may leave it….”

But the colony would stagnate without massive injections of capital and labour, so, despite many misgivings, the settlers petitioned England, asking for the introduction of convicts.

As British jails were full, the government agreed to transport felons.

The Scindian brought the first 75 convicts to Western Australia on 1 June 1850.

9, 601 were to follow.

All were male, which would create a great gender imbalance in the colony.

On arrival in WA, convicts had all their personal possessions, including the clothes they were wearing, removed and sold to pay for their board and maintenance.

Each convict was issued the government uniform of trousers, vest, a light white canvas jacket and a straw hat.

Convicts would assemble on the Parade Ground at 5 am and by 6 am would march off to work wherever they were needed.

Besides Fremantle Prison, convicts would construct many public buildings, including the Perth Town Hall and the WA Government House, as well as bridges and highways.

After convict transportation to the colony ceased in 1868, Fremantle Prison became WA´s major civilian prison.

From 1888 to 1970, Fremantle also served as a Women´s Prison with walls built around their section separating them from the men.

From 1940 to 1946, Fremantle was one of more than 50 military prisons across Australia holding a combined total of more than 12,000 POWs, with Fremantle accommodating 400 military prisoners by October 1945.

A prisoner´s daily routine remained the same for over a century and a half.

The prison day begins at 6. 45 am (an hour later on weekends and public holidays).

The junior night officer rings a hand bell 15 minutes prior to the unlocking of the cells.

The prisoners rise, dress and prepare for the day.

The prisoners, who have been locked in their cells for the past 14 1/2 hours, stand outside their cell door until told to “file off”.

The prisoners move away from their cell with their toilet bucket and their water bucket, a flask and meal plate tucked under their arms, a safety razor in their top pocket, toothbrush in mouth.

The air has its own unique perfume, combining body odors, the stink of urine and faeces, the smell of disinfectant and the aroma of a breakfast of bacon and eggs for the officers, porridge for the prisoners, bread with Vegemite, honey or margarine, and black tea.

Lunch and dinner are meat dishes – corned beef, sausages or mince pie – with mashed potatoes and cabbage -served with bread.

The prisoners eat their meals inside their cells.

The toilet buckets are emptied into the septic traps, to be hosed and disinfected by the yardman prisoner.

The prisoners go to a water trough to brush their teeth, shave and wash their face and hands.

Showers are only three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Prior to the installation of showers, prisoners would be entitled to a bath once a week only.

The Prison attempted to install portable chemical toilets in the 1970s, but prisoners smashed them and drank the chemicals!

Buckets were used until the day the Prison closed on 31 October 1991.

The prisoners work in the cookhouse, the divisions (sections of the Prison), the yards, the hospital, the carpenter shop, the metal workshop, the tailor shop, the boot shop, the print shop, the clothes storage area, the library, the concrete fabrication shop, the gardens and the school.

The library held around 10,000 books.

Electricity was installed in the 1920s.

The Prison also has its own Church of England chapel, the only place in the Prison that has no bars across the glass windows.

Many convicts are not nice people and putting them in a prison will not make many of them act nicely, so punishments are used to keep the convicts in line.

Misbehaving prisoners are punished with flogging, solitary confinement and working in chain gangs at gunpoint, as well as restricted diets of bread and water, time spent in irons and a lengthening of the prisoner´s sentence.

Particularly difficult prisoners are put to work hand pumping groundwater into the Prison´s reservoir – “cranking” was especially despised by the prisoners.

Prisoners sentenced to capital punishment await their fateful day in Death Row, confined separately, under constant supervision, often kept under restraint, permitted an hour of exercise each day.

Death Row inmates are permitted visits by friends, relatives, legal counsel and clergy.

Hanging is usually at 8 am on a Monday, unless Monday falls on a public holiday.

The day of execution has arrived.

The condemned is woken at 5 am, taken for a shower, given special clothing held together with tape rather than buttons.

At 6 am, the prisoner is escorted to the holding cell next to the gallows.

The last meal is toast and tea.

Brandy and a visit by the clergy are offered the condemned person.

0759: Four men arrive at the holding cell.

The prisoner is brought out into the corridor and hobbles placed upon the prisoner´s ankles.

Handcuffs keep the prisoner´s hands behind the back.

A calico cap is placed upon the prisoner´s head, to be later pulled down over the prisoner´s eyes.

Prisoners in the exercise yards are still.

The entire Prison is quiet.

The condemned is escorted to the gallows door and blindfolded and a noose placed around the neck.

The prisoner drops into eternity.

43 men and one woman were hanged in Fremantle Prison, all as punishment for murder.

The first hanging was on 2 March 1889.

The last hanging was on 26 October 1964.

The tours are excellent and quite informative and some of the guides are said to be ex-wardens.

Fremantle Prison received international as well as Australian tourists, as well as ex-cons, former prison officers and their families, over 180,000 visitors a year.

Beside the Prison itself, there is a visitors´ centre with a searchable convict database, an art gallery, a café, a gift shop and tourist accommodation.

The art gallery showcases and offers for sale the artworks of current and former prisoners of Western Australia.

Many cells and areas of the Prison depict prisoners´ artwork.

The laughter of school groups does little to dispell the gloom and foreboding of this place.

And the guides will speak little, if at all, about prison tattooing, riots or graffiti portraits of revenge, sex or brutality.

A chill wind still whistles through the corridors and clouds seem everpresent above the watchtowers.

The unconscious mind compels you to want to flee, to run, to escape.

And there were many escapes from Fremantle Prison over the years.

Ask the guides for the tale of Moondyke Joe or the tale of the Fenian O´Reilly or the great escape of Hooper and Cabalt.

Hollywood writers, have your notebooks a-ready.

A prison is a scar upon both the physical and psychological landscape of a country.

And it still remains a matter of great debate how effective a prison is.

And though one might, in all good conscience, argue that it is perhaps inherently wrong to view a place of punishment as a tourist attraction, perhaps as it would be great if swords might be converted into ploughshares maybe the future may see a day when all prisons are converted into museums or alternative accommodation.

Perhaps some day societies will find a more humane and rational method of controlling its misbehaving elements and prisons become obsolete.

But prisons should still remain standing as reminders of the evil than men do and as reminders of the evil men do to control its societies.

The sun might shine brightly on the prospect of tomorrow, but the winds of the past remain chilly.

(Sources: E. Langley Smith, Fremantle Prison: An Overview; Wikipedia)