By Robyn Cubie
It all started as a gift to the grandchildren an insight into the life of the pioneer businessman, world traveller and family man they knew as Grandpa. It was also a piece of their own ancestral puzzle, with a few life lessons thrown in for good measure.
But as projects often do, it grew beyond that, and now the book "Louiss Place" is available for all to read. As the cover hints, it is "the story of Louis Potvin from Bonnyville to Lillooet Lake via Tokyo and Havana," with a little editorial help from former Vancouver Sun reporter, Ron Rose.
And the response has been positive, with growing public interest in Louis Potvins autobiography and offers from other book distribution agencies. Theres even talk of it being translated into Japanese. However Potvin says for him at least, the buck stops here. "My wife Carol would divorce me if I ever tried writing another book," he chuckles. "It took more than two years to write and was definitely a labour of love and frustration, especially when you have to foot the bill for publishing."
The story of Potvins life to date is summed up on the first page. "I have come to rest (more or less) in this splendid isolation after a lifetime of hard work, false starts, disappointments, brazen gall and good luck."
The book records his life history, starting with his 1924 birth in Bonnyville in rural northern Alberta. While the recollections do jump around a little, the reader is taken on a largely chronological journey with special events relished, revisited and expanded upon.
The first stop is Vancouver, BC, where Potvins parents moved in search of a better life after a year of marriage. This was the start of a existence shunting between his French-speaking grandparents in rural Alberta and his Anglophile parents in the city. He says it resulted in a wider life experience than most kids his age, but came at the expense of his education. He left school at age 15 to follow a passion that would ultimately stamp his mark in the Sea to Sky Corridor the creation of Mountain FM, with his second wife Carol. The radio station is now just months away from its 20th anniversary on November 30, 2001. But following in the style of the book, lets take a step back.
"The radio bug bit me at age 14," he explains in the book, "I found a job at the local radio repair shop at $3.50 a week but only when Joe (the boss) could afford it."
From his home ham (amateur) radio office overlooking a serene Lillooet Lake, Potvin explains what it is about radio that captivated him from the beginning much to the annoyance of his frugal grandfather, who saw it as a waste of time and power.
"When I was very young, radio was considered magic and anybody that was in radio was looked upon with awe. It was something great if you had the courage to even go before a microphone."
With the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 came the demand for radio communications people in the military. After gaining specialist training at Sprott Shaw Radio School in Vancouver, at age 17 Potvin left his own radio repair business in favour of the air force. There he trained as a wireless operator and radio repair technician. By the end of the war in 1945, Potvins Morse Code speed was a speedy 30 words a minute, he had gained a Radio Amateur Certificate in Proficiency and had married Jean, a fellow wireless operator in the forces. Soon he was installing and repairing radiotelephones on small ships and in coastal camps throughout British Columbia. It was an exciting job but dangerous due to the unpredictable coastal weather patterns and the limited flight technologies of the time. "Once I was left on a mountaintop only to find my return flight had been diverted on a rescue mission and crashed into the sea, killing all aboard."
The dream of constructing and running his own radio station however was still a long way off. A mink farm, sawmill company and property development business at Lillooet Lake would come first, plus the job of marketing B.C. manufactured medium frequency communications equipment to developing markets around the
world. "As radio progressed it moved up to VHF or very high frequency bands and microwave facilities in Canada so we had to find new markets," he explains. "I made trade missions to Japan and many Latin America countries including Guatemala, Costa Rica, Argentina, Peru, Cuba and Brazil." Potvin says the most exciting and lucrative market was Cuba, which was expanding after the revolution and keen to beef up its communication systems. "I met Fidel Castro and declined an invitation to get better acquainted with the Cuban revolution against the capitalist system I met Che Guevara, Castros lieutenant of the revolution much later during the peak of negotiating sales orders." Sales to Cuba worth more than $10 million today were sealed over a three year period, he adds.
However, it wasnt all plain sailing. Visitors to Cuba had to pass through the CIA monitored customs in Mexico and bribes were the main way to grease bureaucratic wheels. Potvin says the Soviets also vetoed a multi-million dollar deal to upgrade Cubas air services on the basis of anti-capitalist principles, costing his company lost time and revenue. "They threw huge party in my honour and I got the booby prize, a bottle of pineapple liqueur in a little wooden crate," he recalls. "However, I heard that a Canadian firm did eventually get the contract. The timing was just not right for us."
Another obvious issue was image. Was it politically touchy for a Canadian company to trade with Cuba, given the increasingly tense Cold War relationship between the new communist state and neighbouring USA? Potvin admits that it wasnt easy.
"A lot of people say how could you trade with Cuba? And I would say, Im not a traitor, Im a trader," he says. "It doesnt matter what goes on in politics, international trade just carries on."
Potvin says his wife Jeans battle with alcoholism spelt the end of his travelling days and he decided to take a year off in 1966 to help raise their two children at their isolated Lillooet Lake property. "Jean made great progress and I never enjoyed myself so much," he recalls. "Nothing to do but fish and I never went back. Ended up staying and make living off this place."
His sons capture of wild mink in 67 lead to a new venture of mink ranching, with more than 2,000 of the prized fur producers on the property at one stage. A later decision to develop the site into 77 lots helped push the next venture - a sawmill operation. "Lumber was hard to get in here with that very steep hill, only a four wheel drive could make it, so we made a lot of lumber and tongue-in-groove logs for houses and built these little cottages." He says employing locals has always been an essential ingredient in his Lillooet Lake businesses. "The people who knew the most to help us were native people plus I could see the need for a peaceful co-existence," he says. "We hired them in the sawmill and managing our private hydro energy facilities, and made many good local friends." The market crash of the 1980s felled timber prices, plus the mill was a noisy fire hazard near the new lot properties. It was time for the radio station to come into being.
"After my first wife (Jean) had died in 73, I remarried," he recalls. "Carol and I decided this place really needed a radio station, so we made it happen." He regards Mountain FM as one of his greatest successes, not least because it bridged the social divide separating the communities of Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton. "There was a lot of feuding between the three and Whistler was a love affair of its own," he says. "We hammered the name Sea to Sky Corridor and it worked. Its all one community and it flows." He adds that establishing three separate transmitters for the station was also an engineering feat at the time.
Radio is still a passion he holds onto today. Most days Potvin tunes in from his home or houseboat to catch up with fellow ham radio enthusiasts locally and around the world.
"I go into an old folks net at 4.30 p.m 5 p.m. and we talk about our aches and pains and express our narrow views on things," he laughs.
During my visit, Potvin connects with a fisherman in Alaska he first made contact with many years ago. Interestingly, the old guys still use the Morse Code abbreviations picked up in the world war days. "When you sign off you say QRT for shutting down or 73 which means good wishes or even 88 which stands for love and kisses," he says.
So how often does Louis Potvin sign off the airwaves with a cherry 88 finale? "Not much," he laughs. "That one is just for the ladies."
Louiss Place: Printed in Victoria, B.C. by Trafford Publishing, 2001