Canadian literature isn’t exactly teeming with memoirs of small-town mayors. Among those that have been written it’s hard to imagine that there has been a funnier, more insightful result. Welcome, readers, to the weird, wacky and wonderful world of Gary Wright, longtime mayor of New Denver and former chair of the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK).
Wright, like fellow ex-pat American Corky Evans, wound up in Canada because of his objections to the Vietnam War. His book, Unrepentant: The Story of an Era, has only one real flaw that I can think of. At 200 pages, it’s too short.
I know Wright mostly by his reputation, information gleaned mostly from Crestonites who have served with him in various local government capacities. In the times that I’ve seen him acting in an official capacity I have found him to be fair-minded, extremely knowledgeable and quick-witted. When I received a review copy in the mail I was completely unprepared for the reading experience I was about to enjoy. Halfway through the book, I went to bed that night, then woke up at 3 a.m., thinking about what I had read. I turned on the bedside lamp and finished it.
Born in Montana to a Republican family, Wright’s story of transformation to a radical began when he left home to attend university in Missoula, Mont. It was the 1960s and the anti-war movement was just beginning to gather momentum. One thing led to another and Wright got involved with Students for a Democratic Society, a membership that would land him on an FBI watch list and eventually get him planning a move to Canada.
Unrepentant starts with those university and protest years and takes the reader through his two decades as a musician and, shall we say, free spirit, before he arrived in New Denver. Wright was working as the town’s janitor when he was first encouraged to run for a vacant spot on town council. A few months later, in 1989, the New Denver mayor resigned due health reasons and Wright got the job, one he would hold on to for nearly a quarter-century. For much of that time, he also served as New Denver’s RDCK director and was for a number of years the board’s chair.
In an early chapter of Unrepentant, a chapter he calls “Purple Haze”, Wright takes on the task of explaining the drug issue:
From time to time, people we don’t know pick certain drugs to be legal and others to be outlawed. This is necessary in order to provide worthwhile career opportunities for policemen, criminals, jailors, lawyers, judges and lawmakers who would otherwise have to become firemen, teachers, farmers or better cooks.
If you sell legal drugs, you are called a pharmacist. That’s okay.
If you sell illegal drugs, you are called a pusher. That’s not okay.
If you use legal drugs you are called a consumer or a patient. That’s okay.
If you use illegal drugs, you are called a doper or an addict. Not okay.
If you plant hops, you are called a farmer. Okay.
If you plant hemp, you are called a grower. Not okay.
Distill spirits in Saudi Arabia and you can be executed.
Distill spirits in America and your son can become president.
It’s all wonderfully arbitrary, depending on what century and what country you are living in. There is no rhyme nor reason for this, so you had best be your own judge of what works best for you. It will involve some trial and error. Good luck.
Near the end of Unrepentant, Wright includes a chapter called “A Canadian Primer for Yankees”, in which he describes the differences in our federal systems, explaining in humorous terms the roles of the prime minister, senators and governor-general:
Historically the country runs better during the periods when it has no government than it ever does when the elections are over and a new one proceeds to once again dash the hopes of the electorate.
Wright’s book is a refreshing look into the life of a man who has never stopped trying to make sense of the world around him, who wears his values on his sleeve and who never made the too-often fatal political mistake of taking himself too seriously.
Creston Valley readers may be especially interested in a chapter written by Corky Evans, a moving and sobering account of the former MLA and cabinet minister’s transformation from a youngster who assumed that a stint in the armed forces, and tour of duty in Vietnam, would be part of his life to becoming a respected left-wing politician and orator. Wright also includes chapters about Area B director John Kettle, who succeeded him as chair of the RDCK board.
I don’t remember when I enjoyed a book more than Unrepentant.
Unrepentant: The Story of an Era is available in Creston at Black Bear Books.