The Prince George Citizen announces Valerie's new column on Feb. 7, 1998.
A dear friend and excellent writer, with two newspaper columns and two published books, passed away suddenly last December. Valerie’s writing journey is explored in this blog post, along with some personal memories from my sister, Kathy Plett.
1998 marked the start of Valerie’s “Remembering…” column in the Prince George Citizen, which ran for over 10 years. She wrote to me in February: “This is something I approached the new Editor [Peter Godfrey] about before he took up his post last June. We talked a few times, finally met just before Christmas, and they published the first one last Saturday.
“I want to focus on the interesting lives, and organizations that have made Prince George a community. Also, I plan to research what enterprises existed before in some of the older buildings and write about their evolution to the present. I think it is rather fun to know, for example, that there was once a drygoods store or a candy shop in the building where one now picks up one’s drycleaning (or whatever!) I just finished a story about the Legion….”
I was thrilled and even a bit jealous. Valerie replied: “Don’t be 'envious' of the history column. I’m doing it really for fun, because I have this thing about engendering pride in local history. But, taking into account the time it takes to interview or research, do some other background reading to check facts, write the thing and then edit it down to a shorter version, it’s like working for $2.00 to $3.00 an hour! However, it has been well received and the editor wants me to contribute twice a week as soon as I can.”
A regular column could be a chore, Valerie advised a few months later: “It is true that column preparation is very time consuming. The editor asked me in February to begin twice a week, but I’m afraid to commit to that because of the time. To research and write each one takes about ten hours — and longer if I can polish and rewrite. Maybe the best approach for [you] is to submit occasional opinion pieces — that way you avoid the treadmill of a schedule.”
Valerie started out by submitting occasional stories. After arriving in Prince George in 1993, she wrote book reviews. Later she often reviewed arts events like Prince George Symphony Orchestra concerts. In 2001-2002, in addition to her history column, Valerie wrote several guest editorials for The Citizen on topics like vulnerable youth and animals, hospital administration and economic recovery. Her opinion on hospitals urges a return to common sense leadership that resonates today:
“Spending more is not the answer. Perhaps having a good, hard look at how that money is used will provide the solution. The best place to begin is in examining the organization and style of hospital management. Administrators at the Vancouver General Hospital no longer ponder whether the system will collapse. Some are willing to admit privately that it’s already happened. That situation likely pertains in other hospitals.
“Someone needs to ask the blunt questions. Are the layers of hospital managers helping or hindering delivery of patient care? If cutbacks are made, why are they in access to operating time for surgeons or to nursing staff through ward closures? Both actions make patients suffer the anguish of waiting for treatment. That some patients wait in pain is unconscionable.
“Every job in a hospital should be assessed for its importance as it relates directly to patient care. It would challenge logic to defend positions which require their occupants endlessly to attend meetings, and then arrange more meetings, and that continues to happen. The importance of one’s job at a hospital should not be judged on how many other people report to that position. Instead, somebody needs to ask how that function delivers patient care. If it doesn’t, then why continue to fund those jobs?
“Hospitals were once run by matrons. Almost always, hospital matrons were former nurses appointed to those positions by dint of their on-the-ground experience and administrative ability. Waste was practically unheard of, and most certainly was not tolerated. By contributing sensible, practical and cost-conscious solutions, the matrons made their salaries many times over. They were worth more than they were ever paid. Their brand of discerning and efficient judgment is sorely missed.”
After her “Remembering…” column concluded in 2009, Valerie wrote touching tributes for Father Nick Forde and Ted Moffat, owner of the iconic Northern Hardware. When others wrote tributes for architect Paul Zanette and councillor Anne Martin, Valerie was interviewed by the reporter. She had become Prince George’s local historian.
Valerie’s articles can be found online, in a treasure trove of digitized newspapers of Prince George going back to 1909. Valerie often used old newspapers on microfiche to research her stories, but lamented the loss of the index. The search feature is helpful, but skips many entries. For 2003-2008, I had to look through individual newspapers by date.
The history column received a warm response. In 1998, high school teacher Gerry Van Caeseele wrote, “Prince George does not possess a long history compared to other cities (ie. Montreal or Toronto) but little of what we have is rarely exposed publicly. Great job to Valerie and to The Citizen for publishing such work.” Giovanni Vidotto wrote, “I’d like to applaud Valerie Giles on the writing of her column, “Remembering.” … I enjoy the snapshots Dr. Giles presents. They are tasty little tid-bits that whet my appetite for more. Thanks, Valerie, for helping us get in touch with our history. Have you ever thought of consolidating these gems in a book?” He would not be the last to make that suggestion.
In 1999, Valerie received a Jeanne Clarke local history award for her “Remembering…” column. When accepting the award, she thanked the editor: “A great deal of credit goes to Citizen editor Peter Godfrey. He gave the column a chance and felt a column on local history filled a need in the community. He gave up space for the column every week. You know he could sell that space for advertising.”
Valerie later reminisced to me about the editor’s positive approach to news. Godfrey “happened to be a former member of the Toronto Police Service. He told me one day that he always would prefer to put a picture of ‘a cute little kid’ on the front page than a crime scene or a car crash! But, his attitude is the exception.” Godfrey left the Citizen in 1999 to become managing editor of the Nanaimo Daily News; he died in 2005. After he left the city, Valerie worked with Citizen editors John Harding, Dave Paulson, Sylvie Paillard, and current editor Neil Godbout.
A note from Valerie, and her first history column dated Feb. 7, 1998.
From 2004 to early 2009, in addition to her Saturday history column, Valerie wrote a business column called “Enterprise,” which ran periodically on Mondays. Here she featured local business news and opportunities like free seminars. I love the mouth-watering description of the Red Rooster Artisan Bakery in her May 9, 2005 column:
“[Farmers’] Market founders Roman and Monika Muntener are contributing a variety of breads baked in a wood-fired brick oven. Roman built a bakery on their property, patterning the oven after the old, traditional communal ovens of Quebec. It’s huge — measuring seven feet wide by nine feet deep and six feet high. Stoked with wood on a hearth below, oven temperatures can reach 700 degrees Fahrenheit but normally the oven operates around 550 degrees. As many as 30 loaves can be baked in a batch.
“It’s fortunate for bread lovers that Monika’s passion and expertise is baking. Using exclusively organic ingredients and natural leavening, she’s developed about a dozen types of artisan breads. An example is the Rustic Country organic loaf made from whole wheat, rye and barley. The taste is mouth-wateringly delicious — so much so that it really doesn’t need any butter to be enjoyed. But a piece slightly warmed in a toaster oven and buttered and paired with a cup of cappuccino — that’s the closest to Nirvana many of us can get on any morning.
“These exquisite breads are marketed under the Munteners’ label, Red Rooster Artisan Bakery.”
Recommendations in Valerie’s “Enterprise” column naturally helped businesses. Valerie wrote about one such experience in a 2013 tribute to Northern Hardware’s owner Ted Moffat:
“During the time I wrote a business column for The Citizen, I dropped by the store one day and Ted was showing me his huge selection of Stressless chairs from Norway.
“He wanted me to sit in them and see all the features. I did that and included a few paragraphs about how comfortable they are — coming in three sizes to fit anybody’s form — and even inferred that they gave the blessing of sleep even to insomniacs. I ended up the ‘Goldilocks’ references by stating ‘You’ll sleep like a bear!’
“Ted’s call came at 2:30 p.m. on the day that column ran. He said he’d wanted to call me all day, but that was the first chance he’d had to sit down. He said when he came to work there were five people waiting at the front door wanting to get in and check out those chairs. He had one customer after another all day without a break. He told me ‘No matter what advertising I do, and you know I do a lot of it, nothing ever works like when you write about my store!’”
Valerie also contributed other articles about local businesses. In 2001, she wrote about her brother-in-law, Dwight Hickey, and his environmental consulting firm, Environmental Dynamics. The firm began in Prince George with a staff of five in 1995, expanding to 20 within a year, later rising to nearly 40 at the peak of the work season. “The team includes biologists, GIS specialists, physical geographers, and project managers with expertise in fish and wildlife habitat, forest and watershed management as well as erosion and sediment control.” Dwight’s family found the move north provided “a better quality of life, a friendlier and safer city for raising children, and a positive atmosphere in the schools.”
Praising the north was a familiar theme, seen in the titles of several articles she wrote for business magazines: “Prince George: The Future is Continued Growth,” and "Williams Lake: Enterprising Yet Peaceful and Natural,” appeared in Trade & Commerce Magazine (1999, 2004), while “Northern British Columbia: Poised for Development and Economic Recovery” was in Commerce and Industry Magazine (1999).
Valerie’s skill at uncovering history became a boon to business. In 1989, she wrote a corporate history for forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel (now Weyerhaeuser), “about all of the technological innovations the company put in place from changes to the pulp process at the Harmac mill in the 1950s through to the successful development and marketing of Parallam [a form of engineered wood] in the 1980s.” She wrote to me about the writing process: “I interviewed Adam Zimmerman, then chair of their board, and all the currently serving executives, and the president and as many of the retired executives I could locate. My sister was working as a paralegal assistant and so had access to a Dicta-phone machine she could bring home and transcribe all of my tapes for me.”
Later, she often drew on her knowledge of the forestry industry. In 1999, Valerie moderated a forum called “The Changing Forest Industry for the 21st Century.” In 2009, she spoke at the annual conference of the Forest History Association of British Columbia. A summary of her presentation, shared online with other conference proceedings, provides a fascinating picture of early forestry work:
“Dr. Giles situated forest history in the twentieth century in a provincial context. She estimates that, in the early twentieth century, there was somewhere around six hundred sawmill companies in the area surrounding Prince George. Though a local pulp industry was considered as early as 1921, the famous $200 Industrial Forest Services Report concluding that a pulp mill using industrial wastewood was viable, was not commissioned by Minister Ray Williston until the end of the 1950s. As a result of this report, both Northwood Pulp Mill and Prince George Pulp and Paper Mill were built by 1964. Technological and research innovations across the province paralleled the consolidation of small companies in the late 1960s and the corresponding decline in market prices. Most of those involved in forestry who she quotes recalled a resourcefulness that was necessary, given the remote and occasionally harsh conditions, but also exciting and character forming.”
When the Prince George Citizen marked its 100th anniversary on Feb. 16, 2016, Valerie wrote its history. The short version is found on pages 1-2. Her kind words again laud the north, as she points to one constant through years of technological change: “A succession of community-minded publishers and editors has kept this newspaper a prominent promoter of Prince George as an attractive place to settle and do business. Unabashedly, The Citizen is the city’s best cheerleader and role model as a good corporate citizen.”
My cat Kringle with Valerie's book, "Remembering..."
In 2007, Valerie published a biography, "Harold Moffat and The Northern Hardware: Prince George Icons," after extensive personal interviews and research. She had great respect for Moffat (1915-2009), mayor of Prince George from 1970-1979, who “ran the family business and the city’s business simultaneously.” She was awarded another Jeanne Clarke local history award for the book.
The opportunity for a second book arose in 2014. On Christmas Day, Valerie emailed me, “I’ve been meeting publication deadlines for a book and because of that, for the first time ever, I didn’t send Christmas cards.”
The book, "Remembering…", was a compilation of Valerie’s history columns. My sister, Kathy Plett, was involved as manager of CNC Press and the book’s indexer. Kathy wrote to me a couple of weeks later: “I'm still working on the index for the CNC Press Prince George History book (Valerie Giles' 560+ newspaper columns rearranged into chapters, topics, chronologies). A real effort!
“It will be launched on March 6, the official day that the city was incorporated 100 years ago. At Books & Co., with CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] there.” The College of New Caledonia kept an online scrapbook of the event and book-signings that followed.
We meet unsung heroes of all kinds in the book. Mary Margaret “Granny” Seymour (1852-1966), daughter of a Haida chief, is pictured at her 108th birthday, and we learn some of her traditional medicine treatments. Adventures of bush pilot Russ Baker (1910-1958) are retold. Lance Corporal Alex J. Smith is remembered, who tragically died in a capsized boat in a 1943 military training exercise.
Georgina McInnis, the area’s “first white child,” born in 1910, who played piano for silent films, was interviewed. Valerie wrote 90 years later that at Georgina’s birth, “Members of native tribes travelled great distances to see her and brought beautiful presents — blankets and tiny beaded moccasins — some she still has to this day.” When accompanying films, “She had to look up to see the action on the screen and then play music at the right time and according to the speed required…. Sometimes the sheet music for the piece suggested was not available so she would have to improvise.”
Intimate portraits of well-known history-makers are included. Valerie shares personal memories of Pierre Elliott Trudeau from her time in the Prime Minister’s Office. “He warmed to the part of politician and it was a stellar performance…. When he was just being himself, he was actually shy.” Valerie loved the advice he gave “to some young people who were badgering him about wanting marijuana use legalized. He told them to ‘get high on life.’”
Inspiring stories of local leaders are told. Carrie Jane Gray (1912-1984) became Prince George’s first woman mayor in 1957, but fought discrimination when serving on council earlier. Mayor Harold Moffat expressed a low opinion of women’s contributions and refused her any committee assignments, to which “Gray volleyed that Moffat was a bigot and was discriminating against women in civic government.” But Moffat is redeemed, in 1977 making Grey a “freeman of the city — the first woman ever to receive that award in Prince George.”
When I wrote to Valerie how inspiring I found Gray’s story, she replied, “I know that if we had been here when Carrie Jane Gray was alive we would have known her and become her friends. Everything I've ever heard about her made me smile with delight. When I read the account of her funeral and saw that Moffat was one of the pallbearers, I grinned like a Cheshire cat. Nobody would ever do that except out of profound respect.”
A chapter on Forestry brings together Valerie’s research of the industry, building on her interviews of MacMillan Bloedel leaders in 1989. I enjoyed her explanation of Parallam: “Perhaps the most successful product was the development of Parallam. Using strips of plywood combined with resin compressed and heated by microwave technology, it became possible to extrude beams up to sixty feet long. Engineering tests revealed that Parallam was superior to steel in strength. It cost less, was more aesthetically appealing, and allowed widths to be spanned in wood construction without supporting poles.”
Even animals are remembered, including tributes to some of Valerie’s own pets. Other gems of personal memories are interspersed through the book, which tell more about the fascinating, curious author who was a friend to many.
While some wonderful references are made to First Nations noted above, I would have liked more. How did local First Nations react to being limited to “Indian settlements”? What support did First Nations provide to explorers and settlers, and what support was returned to them? Were local children able to escape the infamous residential schools? What was their history before contact, and how were relations with other First Nations? A gripping historical timeline of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation (formerly the Fort George Indian Band) identifies some tragic moments that make one hope to do better in future. There are deep stories to be told.
I can hear Valerie chuckling somewhere. “You’ve finally read all of my columns! And you are left wanting more! My work is done.”
Current Citizen editor Neil Godbout recently reflected on the contribution of the history book: “I owe Valerie a great debt that can never be paid, as will the historians for generations to come who will rely heavily on her work to know and understand the settler experience during Prince George’s first 50 years.”
PG MinitMag and a cat blog
In 2014, Valerie started writing stories for a friend, Dennis Chapman, whose full-colour weekly filled a gap after Black Press stopped printing The Prince George Free Press. But you won’t see her name there. Valerie explained, “I write the articles for it so that's why there is no author on it — a bit silly to have the same name on every one. I'm working my tail off to get 12 stories filed for next week's edition.”
Valerie highlighted clever businesses and local lore alongside curiosities from all over. The pangolin, a scaly anteater found in sub-tropical Africa and Asia, was introduced. Questions like “What is Bitcoin?” were answered. Recipes explained the easiest French bread and “Irish Boxty, a Tasty Potato Dish.” In 2016, “Where in the world is Qatar?” began a world travel series.
Tricky topics — like becoming an astronaut, or living in space — turned into bite-sized snacks. Valerie could do that! And tackle lighter themes: “Ten Reasons Why Dogs Are Better Than Cats” appeared with “Ten Reasons Why Cats Are Better Than Dogs.”
Valerie shared some of her MinitMag stories with me and my sister over the years, but unfortunately no full archive was kept of these treasures.
Two stories, “How to Talk to Your Cat,” and “Cats of the White House,” were shared on my cat blog. They join other heartwarming cat stories sent by Valerie, found here. Now they include my story, “Valerie the Cat-Lover;” published in the Citizen in a shorter format as “The Cats of Valerie Giles.” Valerie believed that such stories were “all about promoting respect and caring about dear cats. It all helps people get the idea that cats matter and deserve kind treatment and help when they need it.”
In 2012, Valerie also received a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal. The Citizen reported that she was honoured “for her work as an author, historian and philanthropist.” In 2018, the city of Prince George recognized Valerie with a community service award of merit. Most importantly, she was loved, and loved deeply.
Former prime minister John Turner said it well. They had first met in 1968 when Valerie was a keen Young Liberal, assigned to thank him after a speech. She later helped him in several campaigns, including his run for Liberal party leader that made him prime minister in 1984. She overheard him at a campaign event that year. “I was aware that John was somewhere in the crowd behind me. I could hear his voice saying ‘I’ve always been extremely proud of Valerie, and you should be, too.’ I turned around and he was talking to my Dad.”
Dr. Valerie Mary Evelyn Giles was born on March 29, 1949, and died on Dec. 9, 2021. Left to mourn her loss are her cats, Zoe, Panther, and Starry Night; her dogs, Bernard and Fluevog; and many friends and relatives. The pets are in the loving care of a friend.
Kathy Plett: Memories of Valerie Giles
I have been friends with Valerie Giles since the 1990's when she worked at UNBC. Valerie loved books and frequented bookstores and libraries, including the College of New Caledonia Library where I was the Library Director.
She was a wonderful conversationalist. We often met for lunch and attended all kinds of community events, from galas at the Public Library to the annual Fall Fair. Valerie enjoyed cooking and hosted memorable gatherings at her home. She maintained a large garden, with a greenhouse, Wendy House, a pond where koi fish spent the summer, and an impressive beehive. She was also proud of some high-tech enhancements she'd made, such as syncing her cell phone to turn on outdoor lights on her balcony. Her interest in technology was long-standing. In Vancouver she hung out with interesting people such as the renowned futurist, Frank Ogden, aka "Dr. Tomorrow."
Valerie had a deep love of animals and took on many stray cats and dogs. She also cared for our cats when my husband and I went off on trips, and always left a log of daily notes, describing how things were going. Those cats were spoiled and entertained! She often read to them in French, to keep up her language skills. She was fluent in French when she worked in Ottawa in the Prime Minister's office.
Valerie helped me in my work as the CNC Press manager. We published many local history books and she helped me set up booths at annual book fairs. Her own book, Remembering, was a labour of love for both of us. The book is a collection of all of her Prince George Citizen articles published from 1998-2009, on the history of the city. When I indexed the book, I realized how committed she was to giving credit and naming all participants in any of the events she reported on. The index is extensive and stands as a tribute to a host of people who contributed their time and energy to the city.
When I was on the Prince George Millenium Committee leading up to the year 2000, we organized a number of panels to highlight city achievements. Valerie volunteered to moderate one of the sessions and she did a wonderful job of it. I didn't learn until after it was over that she had come to the session just after she had received word that a close friend had died. She was in mourning, but she soldiered on. It made me realize what real courage she had, and how important it was to her to honour commitments.
We began a travel club, with friends sharing photos and stories of trips taken. The group rallied around me in 2020 when I was undergoing cancer treatment, and Valerie became the organizer of weekly "bags of treats and amusements" for me, to keep up my spirits — the very definition of true friendship. Included in every package was the latest MinitMag, a weekly magazine in which she had been publishing interesting, entertaining, and topical articles since 2014.
In September, Valerie was scheduled for a knee operation, but the surgery was delayed because of Covid cases. I helped her with her garden and yard work and visited on a weekly basis. When the snow came, we changed it to weekly phone calls but she wasn't answering in that last week in November. It took some time to find out she was in hospital with a much more serious diagnosis, and not even able to see visitors. She passed away on December 9. It was a seismic shock for all of us. Our dear friend is gone and she is sorely missed by all who knew and loved her.
Kathy Plett and Valerie Giles at the launch of "Remembering..." in 2015.