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Eventful visit to Soviet Union remembered

By Don Telfer


When Len Marchand of Kamloops died June 3 at the age of 82, his name brought back memories of a trip we made together to the former Soviet Union.

Marchand, the first status Indian elected an MP and the first status Indian to serve in the federal cabinet, had just been appointed Minister of Small Business and led the largest trade delegation of business and government to the former Soviet Union. It was October 1976.

Before we left Ottawa on a chartered Air Canada DC-8, the RCMP gave the 150-some Canadians a pep talk on what not to do in the Soviet Union, especially talking critically of the Soviet system in taxis, excessive drinking and fraternizing with Russian women (hookers), which to our surprise there were many openly selling their wares.

One night we attended a reception at the Soviet foreign minister’s lavish digs in Moscow. There were an estimated 200 or so people crowded into a room about the size of the Pioneer Bar in Humboldt. It was standing room only. And noisy. Marchand’s secretary asked where the washroom was and a minute later someone walked up from the other side of the room and announced: “Over there, ma’am.”

There was nothing made of the incident until we realized, as the RCMP had warned, we were bugged — including our hotel rooms in the Intourist Hotel. The incident did not bother me as I had nothing to hide or reveal; I took it a step further and visited the “spy room” on the top floor of the Intourist Hotel where men and women joked about monitoring our rooms with an old-fashioned telephone exchange.

Later that night, we proceeded to return to our hotel to find it sealed off to vehicles — the military was holding exercises for the annual October Revolution Day. Our taxi stopped several blocks away and we hoofed it back to the hotel, located near Red Square. When the secretary saw the might of the Soviet military pass in front of our hotel — an endless parade of squeaky-clean missiles, tanks, soldiers, armoured personnel vehicles — she had a nervous breakdown. The spying, the military force, the Cold War pressure were overwhelming and she collapsed, which also deeply affected Marchand.

Shortly before midnight the next day about a half-dozen of us, including Marchand and a French-Canadian with a bottle of scotch, boarded the Red Arrow Express for the seven-hour trip to Leningrad (since renamed Saint Petersburg). I left the merry-makers and returned to my compartment on the train, and along the way opened a blind in the hallway to view the snowy moonlit landscape, which resembled a winter scene out of the movie Dr. Zhivago. Seconds later a KGB agent who had been pretending he was hammered with the merry-makers burst into the hallway and slammed down the shutter, “Nyet! Nyet!” he shouted. That was the end of viewing what obviously the Soviets did not want westerners to see, the horribly decrepit peasant life.

It is unknown how well the trade mission fared, though one businessman did well. Jack Nodwell of Calgary, whose father Bruce invented the famous huge tracked transporters to traverse muskeg in northern Alberta, landed a multi-million-dollar contract through their Foremost Industries for firefighting vehicles in Siberia.

Incidentally, many on the trade mission were planning contracts for the 1980 Summer Olympics, which never happened because of a U.S. protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Marchand, the son of illiterate parents who grew up on a reserve and attended a residential school, was one of the first Aboriginal students to enrol at the University of British Columbia. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in agriculture, and a master’s degree in range management.

He leaves his wife of 55 years, Donna Parr, daughter Lori Marchand, who is general manager of Western Canada Theatre, and son Len Jr., who is a provincial court judge.

A memorial service was held June 11 at Tk’emlups Indian Band Pow Wow Arbour Grounds in Kamloops with the burial to follow in Vernon.

Telfer is a former editor and publisher of the Humboldt Journal