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“To die will be an awfully big adventure”

-J.M. Barrie (‘Peter Pan’ act 3)

In this strange time of “Stay Home / Reste Chez Toi,” too much inside time has presented me with a warren of rabbit holes. One peculiar rabbit hole I’ve been burrowing since March 14. Since, the Vancouver premiere of an Anglican disaster movie was showing at the Rio Theatre.

‘Brotherhood’ tells the true story of a summer camp in July 1926 that went very wrong. The camp was sponsored by St. James Cathedral in Toronto and its affiliated Brotherhood of St Andrew. Led by young men who had survived the Great War, the teenage boys at the camp were mostly the sons of men who hadn’t survived the war, or the Spanish Flu that had quickly followed.

Within days of setting up camp at Balsam Lake in Ontario, one 28-year-old leader and ten boys aged 14 to 19 had drowned. Their large war canoe had swamped far off-shore. No one had any meaningful canoe experience. Many couldn’t swim. Everyone was enthusiastic about an awfully big adventure.

The movie opens with the boys hiking into camp singing along to the 1926 hit “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along.)”

One boy, Jack (Gage Munroe) admires the radium-glowing wristwatch, an Ingersoll Radiolite, of an older boy. “Swell,” says Will. That was another big thing in ’26.

Vernon (Spencer Macpherson) can swim. Waller (Jake) idealizes the Great War. O’Hara (Matthew Isen) has “hypersensitivities” to ragweed. Will (Sam Ashe Arnold) is the annoying kid brother to Jack, the admirer of glowing radium wristwatches.

The two young adult leaders: Robert (Brendan Fehr) has a war wound in the form of a bad limp, and Arthur (Brendan Fletcher) is haunted by his dead son and wife who died from the Spanish Flu.

When almost a dozen are going to end up dead, we need these annotations to keep them apart.

Robert and Arthur are of two minds on the best way to make these boys into men. Is it “Risk” or “Challenge” that builds character? No one thinks of life belts.

Robert, though, is old school: “… get them as far away from electrical sockets as possible. I think electrical things put us further from ourselves.”

These are boys and young men who know by heart Titus Oates last words in 1912: “I am just going outside and maybe some time.” You may have forgotten Oates: the boys helpfully remind us that he committed quasi-suicide during Capt. Scott’s failed Antarctic adventure (Scott was, also, good friends with J.M. Barrie – see above, it’s all connected.) Many of the boys will emulate Oates as their cold grip on the swamped canoe weakens. Sacrificing themselves trying to heroically save others. These are boys of adventure.

And, consider this, during that same July 1926 summer, 250 km due north of Balsam Lake in North Bay, a ghostwriter, Leslie McFarlane, was writing the very first three novels about two teenage boys seeking adventure - The Hardy Boys.

Brotherhood has a nomination in the Original Song category for the 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Written by Bramwell Tovey (Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) and director Richard Bell, the naughty pastiche, "I've Got a Big One," is sung by the boys while being … naughty. It has nothing to do with fishing. Like so much of the movie, Brotherhood works hard to get 1926 right both in the ethos of the boys and the look of the film. Brotherhood, also, has a nomination in the Visual Effects category.

For some, there will be a certain pleasure in actually hearing the words “Anglican” or “Brotherhood of St Andrew” said out loud. Brotherhood doesn’t pretend to be anywhere but at Balsam Lake near Kirkfield, Ontario.

Anglicans have a lousy canoe safety record. The Balsam lake disaster with the 11 dead is in second place.

First place goes to the 12 boys (12 to 14 years old) and an instructor drowned in June 1978. Their twenty-two-foot war canoe swamped on Lake Timiskaming, QC. The canoe trip was part of the curriculum of St. John's School of Ontario, a no-nonsense Anglican boy’s school emphasizing “risk-taking, of learning-as-you-go”. Years before the boys died, the founder was quoted as saying “We, at St. John's, believe it's better for a kid to die in the woods than to die in front of a television set."

Like the Balsam Lake deaths, the Quebec coroner, would also rule the swamping an accident and no charges were laid. But, the coroner would also say, "We feel … this entire expedition constituted an exaggerated and pointless challenge.”

Streaming now.

Further reading and viewing:

Deep Waters: Courage, Character and the Lake Timiskaming Canoeing Tragedy By James Raffan. HarperFlamingo Canada. 2002. ISBN:978-0006385745

The New Boys: a 1974 National Film Board documentary about a long canoe trip made by 13 to 15-year-old boys at St. John's (Anglican) Cathedral Boys' School, at Selkirk, Manitoba. This St. John’s school and the St. John’s school of the Lake Timiskaming disaster were related. The film can be streamed for free.

 (This review is part of feature coverage of the film "Brotherhood" which will be available in the Summer 2020 issue of Topic, the publication of the Diocese of New Westminster delivered to homes and parishes as a section of the national publication, The Anglican Journal)

David Abbott is a member of the Parish of St. Helen, West Point Grey