Mary's Song

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By Ron Verzuh

“I sing a song of Mary.../Laughing with the earth.” – from a poem by a roommate of Mary Steinhauser

The tragic memory of an SFU student’s violent death fosters a bursary for Aboriginal undergrads.

An eerie and unsettling feeling surfaces even today when reading the graphic accounts of a hostage incident that ended in SFU alumna Mary Steinhauser’s (BA’71) tragic death on June 11, 1975. The former sociology/psychology student’s life ended in a blaze of gunfire at the British Columbia Penitentiary (B.C. Pen) after 41 hours of being held hostage by three inmates. She was 32 years old. Now, as SFU establishes a bursary in her name, memories leap back to that tragic time.

“Gunfire kills woman hostage,” announced the Vancouver Sun on its front page. “Confusion – then bloodshed,” added a second headline. A third noted that “Love for all led her to Pen.” Behind those headlines lies the story of a woman dedicated to helping people, determinedly opposed to solitary confinement as a prison punishment, and, according to some observers, disliked by prison guards for developing a program that would give prison inmates a chance to resume a healthier life on the outside.

She was someone who “always gave everyone a chance,” her roommate Petra Graves told the Sun. “Mary was very conscious of social problems – she always wanted to get involved.” Kathy Penner, a neighbour, agrees, saying “Mary always had tremendous compassion for other people’s problems.” An inmate at Matsqui Institution, a medium-security prison in Abbotsford where Mary worked as a psychiatric nurse, also remembers that “in a hard world, she had compassion.”

Compassion: it’s a word Margaret Franz (BA’70, MEd’00), the initiator of the bursary, also uses to describe her sister. To her, Mary, three years older, was “charming, very sociable, ambitious, fun-loving, very hard-working, intelligent.” But she could also be “very persistent, very focused,” and “quite strong willed.” Her keenness about education was an example of these attributes. The Steinhauser family wasn’t well off, so Mary found a tuition-free program at Essondale (now Riverview Hospital) and graduated as a registered psychiatric nurse (RPN) in 1962. She completed her BA at SFU in 1971 while working full-time as an RPN at Lions Gate Hospital. She also earned an MA in social work at UBC in 1973.

Ambitious, hard-working, intelligent, focused: Steinhauser displayed all of those attributes, but one attribute stood out from the others – bravery.

Ambitious, hard-working, intelligent, focused: Steinhauser displayed all of those attributes, but one attribute stood out from the others – bravery. Franz recalls how her sister once selflessly dived into Lower Arrow Lake, a widening of the Columbia River near their childhood home, and rescued a young girl. “It was a remarkably courageous act,” recalls Franz, whose unpublished biography of her sister Mary includes a chapter on the rescue, and it “foreshadowed her willingness to offer herself...without thought of her own safety, for the well-being of others.”

Mary was also a passionate person and “her passion was very contagious,” Franz remembers. She was an Elvis fan, liked dancing and rock ’n’ roll, but she also liked the gospel singing of Mahalia Jackson and Miriam Makeba. Early in life she wanted to be a singer herself. In her youth she liked to read, play softball, and collect stamps. At one point, “she was quite determined that she was going to be a lady boxer,” says Franz.

Determination is another word used often to describe Mary. Alice Campbell remembers her that way. Now a retired teacher in Victoria, Campbell was Mary’s closest friend when they attended Burton Elementary School, a one-room schoolhouse in the former West Kootenay hamlet of Burton, B.C. She recalls that Mary was “a thoughtful friend” who would “stand up for you in any situation.” Later, Campbell recalls, when they attended Nakusp Secondary School, Mary “could be quite opinionated.”

Others may remember Mary from her undergrad years at SFU in the late 1960s. She wasn’t part of the radical element, but she was influenced by it. “The experience at SFU was life-changing for Mary,” Franz says. “What it gave her was a theoretical framework within which she could place her practical experience. It gave her the underpinnings for a perspective on the marginalized. SFU was a major influence on her.”

Former SFU professor Mordecai Briemberg was one of three people asked by the hostage takers (Andy Bruce, Claire Wilson, and Dwight Lucas) to help negotiate their escape to Algeria. There was no hope of that happening, of course, and Briemberg recalls feeling that warden Dragan Cernetic had treated them “like patsies.” When the hostage negotiators accepted the warden’s suggestion that they take a break, the guards “stormed [the hostages], which is what the guards wanted...and in that process they then killed Mary who from all I had heard was hated by the guards because she was sympathetic and understanding of the kind of conditions prisoners were in and the backgrounds they came from.”

Briemberg didn’t know Mary personally, but he was aware of her as “somebody who really was a caring person and didn’t see herself as someone who was there to punish or make life hard, which was the attitude of most of the guards.” She was “somebody who really cared about [the prisoners’] humanity,” recalls the former chair of the now-defunct political science, sociology, and anthropology (PSA) department, and she “wanted to see enough respect developed for them so that there would be a possibility for them to regain something constructive in their lives.”

Vancouver filmmaker Christian Bruyere never met Mary either, but he was intrigued enough by her story to write the play Walls, which was produced in 1978, and later a film depicting the events that occurred at B.C. Pen. Mary’s own forceful beliefs in prison reform motivated him: “I felt Mary Steinhauser was doing something exceptional for the inmates…She understood... that you can’t just keep people in cells and expect them to rehabilitate and correct themselves.”

Bruyere recalls that Mary created a program to help accomplish this goal by bringing women into the prison so that the inmates could learn to communicate with them. “She knew that all of these guys had a bad attitude toward women...and she wanted to take that out of their psyches,” Bruyere says. “I just thought she was ahead of her time.” He remains bitter about the inaction of authorities. After a coroner’s inquest and a hearing chaired by then – B.C. Supreme Court justice John Farris, no one was brought to justice for the killing.

The prison incident, the attendant media coverage, and the play are still vivid memories for Franz, who was hit hard by Mary’s death. After years of trying to come to terms with it, Franz, now teaching in the Faculty of the Academic Career and Advancement at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, turned to SFU’s University Advancement Department in 2011 with her proposal to set up the Mary Steinhauser Memorial Bursary for Aboriginal Students. The university agreed to include the $500 bursary as part of the annual giving package. It will go toward supporting an Aboriginal undergraduate student in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences with a preference for those majoring in criminology. The department will select a recipient annually for the next three years.

Why Aboriginal students? Campbell remembers Mary having an affinity for underprivileged people, and many of them were Aboriginal, so that was a clear factor in the selection criteria. Long before working her way through a degree at SFU, Mary worked with Aboriginal people at several institutions including Essondale. Then she moved to Toronto to work at the Queen Street Mental Health Centre. Tranquille School for the Mentally Handicapped in Kamloops came next, then Matsqui Institution. She continued her work with Aboriginal people as a classification officer at B.C. Pen in 1973.

It was that background that drew Franz to the idea of a bursary for Aboriginal students, and it was a motivating factor for SFU as well. “One of the focuses for the university is to help support Aboriginal students,” says Wanda Dekleva, director of annual giving at University Advancement. “They are really underrepresented in post-secondary education.” A relatively small bursary “can be the difference between having to work a part-time job and not having to work a part-time job when you’re in school.”

Nancy Johnson, the bursary’s first recipient, is from the Gitxsan First Nation and is the single parent of two young boys (ages five and seven). She worked as an Aboriginal youth and family worker in the Burnaby School District while attending courses part-time until last January when she enrolled full-time. She is now entering the second year of a BA program, and when finished she plans to become an elementary school teacher.

“The money is going to go toward tuition,” Johnson explains. “I’m always struggling with that. If I didn’t have bursaries I don’t think I could continue.” She expressed her gratitude to Mary’s family. “This is a huge factor when it comes down to financial opportunities to be able to go to school. It makes a huge difference.” She adds that “there’s a perception that First Nations or Aboriginal people get free education all the time, but that’s not my situation.” Mary, being an advocate, would have seen what was missing, and the complications for Aboriginal people.”

Johnson wasn’t familiar with the circumstances of Mary’s death until she applied for the bursary. But others, who have studied the case, still question the way authorities handled it. It was “marked by official miscalculation, broken down communications and an inability of authorities to act quickly,” according to a Sun report. Mary’s union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, expressed concern that Mary’s death came as a result of lax attention to inmates selected for rehabilitation programs. Andy Bruce told an inquest in 1976 that the prison guards “didn’t like Mary” and that he saw guard Albert Hollinger shoot and kill Mary after he was wounded himself. (The Farris inquiry commission reported that it could not determine who shot Steinhauser. But it did find that Hollinger deliberately mixed up the guards’ revolvers, so nobody could tell which guard fired the shot that hit Steinhauser.)

Most recently, former federal peace officer Terry Mallenby released Was Mary Steinhauser Murdered?, a book that charges the Canadian government was trying to cover up persistent allegations made by Bruce and others that guards “purposefully shot and killed” Mary. Mallenby, a corrections officer at B.C. Pen who worked with Mary and considered her a friend, joins others in calling for a review of the case.

Apart from the above suspicions, Mary’s memory lives on in various ways: her name is listed on the provincial Monument for the Fallen for Canadian Police and Peace Officers on the grounds of the Legislature in Victoria and on the federal Monument for the Fallen in Ottawa; the news website www.thetyee.ca calls her “a B.C. hero”; and other online discussions mention her in recollections of the hostage-taking incident.

That eerie feeling, brought on by the stunning headlines announcing Mary’s death, returns when listening to the 1978 song “Wilson, Lucas and Bruce,” penned and performed by former SFU student Bob Mercer. He asks, “Do you remember a woman named Mary/She was held on the edge of a blade./But she never died from no knife at her throat./She died for the friends she made.”

Mercer’s raspy, almost pleading voice seems to cry out for justice denied in the case of Mary Steinhauser.

Many do remember her, and now perhaps the rekindling of those memories about her life, what she believed in and fought for, and her senseless death, will inspire others to walk in her courageous path.

This year on September 30, 37 years after Mary died, Franz was selected to lay the wreath on behalf of all the families of the fallen at the 2012 B.C. Police and Peace Officer’s Memorial Ceremony in Stanley Park. This is an annual tribute to the sacrifice and heroism of Canadian police and peace officers who died in the line of duty.

Those who wish to contribute to the bursary fund can contact Wanda Dekleva, director of annual giving, University Advancement, wdekleva@sfu.ca, 1-778-782-3093 or go to. Watch for announcements of a fundraiser in fall 2013. <http://www.sfu.ca/advancement.html>

Margaret Franz, Mary Steinhauser’s sister, with the wreath on behalf of the families of the fallen.
DID YOU KNOW MARY STEINHAUSER (1942 – 1975)?
Did you know her as a friend, classmate (Burton Elementary or Nakusp Secondary School, SFU or UBC )? As a teacher, professor, former colleague or employer (Riverview or Essondale, Queen Street Mental Health Centre in Toronto, Tranquille School in Kamloops, Matsqui Institution, B.C. Penitentiary)? Or as Mary’s patient or client?
If you did, please submit a narrative or poem of your memory of Mary for a collection to be edited and published in 2013 by Margaret (Steinhauser) Franz at mfranz01@telus.net.
Pictures, letters, and illustrations are also welcome.