In this month’s Founders and Builders Series, we introduce you to Gordon Thompson. Anyone involved with CFHA has undoubtedly worked with Gordon. Gord has invested his time and shepherded the CFHA through the last number of years. He has served as chair for many years, has written countless articles for the Canadian Quaker History Journal and The Meetinghouse, served as The Meethinghouse Editor, singlehandedly organized many Annual General Meeting tours, and remains committed to sharing the story of Quakers in Canadian history. He currently leads the Friendly Fridays sessions, and is serving as co-chair with Jeffrey Dudiak. Gord’s unwavering dedication to the CFHA has ensured its continual growth and success.
By Donna Moore
Dedicated. Knowledgeable. Visionary. If you were to sit down over coffee with Gordon Thompson, Co-Chair of the Canadian Friends Historical Association, you would sense these qualities about him.
I did sit down with Gord over coffee linked by a phone line to ask him about his background and what led him to his CFHA involvement. What Gord shared with me included a number of pivotal experiences that contributed to who he is as a person.
Gord was born in Sudbury Ontario, the first child of parents who at that time lived a rather nomadic life due to his father’s work installing telephone switching devices across Canada. Some of Gord’s earliest memories are from when they lived in Calgary, and he learned about dinosaurs at a local park dedicated to the subject. His visit to this park as well as his later adult discovery of many fossils in Alberta cultivated in him a lifelong interest in paleontology and archaeology. Years later, during Grade 8 in Belleville, Ontario, he found a piece of a fossilized Trilobite (extinct marine artiopodan arthropods who lived millions of years before dinosaurs) unearthed by people putting in a telephone pole. Gord was thrilled to find this item. These various experiences contributed to Gord’s early understanding of the historical record and context of our world.
Gord’s family lived close to a Baptist church in Belleville, and his parents decided that this would be a good place to introduce him to the Christian faith. He remembers sensing a link between the Trilobite fossil and church. Gord noted that extinct forms of life he had personally encountered as fossils were not mentioned in the Genesis account. Gord had an appreciation that the book of Genesis could not be a full accounting of the events of the world, but was an attempt to explain, to the best of the ability of those who wrote it, how life came to be, how humans came to be, in a cosmic and spiritual setting. Gord believed the writers of Genesis did not have the whole story, whereas the fossils filled in missing parts of the Genesis story for him, and the fossils did not say anything about God other than there is more to the story.
One summer Gord volunteered with the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) on a week-long industrial archaeological dig located at Port Ryerse. During this experience, Gord learned excavation skills and received practical experience on a site that included the foundation of a pioneer pottery kiln that the farmer/potter constructed to fire his pots for local sale.
Two years later, Gord again volunteered on another industrial archaeological site: Huron Pottery, located in Egmondville, Ontario. That excursion introduced him for the first time to a Quaker, David Newlands. The manner by which David related to people including the volunteer excavation crew, the local landowners, and curious members of the local population who visited the site made a very positive impression on Gord. Once Gord learned that David was a Quaker, he appreciated how David and his family provided examples of individuals whose lives quite literally did speak.
Another important personal discovery of Gord’s in the 1970s was that of the Bruce Trail. Gord found hiking along it a liberating and spiritually nurturing experience. It removed him from a totally linear experience of life such as roads and sidewalks. The trail wound itself like a river, through many different habitats. Gord’s appreciation of the created world was only enhanced.
So, those early years were highlighted by three pivotal and complementary experiences: archaeology/paleontology, the Bruce Trail, and David Newlands and his family, Quakers.
Gord remembers his first visits to the Yonge Street Meeting House in Newmarket. It was winter, and inside was chilly since the only source of heat was the fire in the large wood-burning stove in a Meeting House which had never been upgraded in the 175 years since it was originally constructed.
It is notable to mention that David undertook an immense project to raise $150,000 for the purpose of jacking up the existing Yonge Street Meetinghouse (YSMH), shifting it so that a basement foundation that had never existed could be constructed and modern conveniences like electricity, central heating, and water could be added. David’s success in this task spoke to his marvellous relationships and organizational skills. Thanks to his work and that of generous donors, the project objectives were realized, and YSMH has enjoyed these benefits ever since.
Through David and other Friends, Gord was introduced to CFHA. At that time, many aspects of Quaker history were under threat of being lost. At that time, it was only twenty years after from the reunification of the three traditional yearly meetings: Hicksite, Conservative, and Orthodox. Gord realized that the spiritual experience of early Friends in Canada found expression in all aspects of the historic records, including built heritage, personal accounts, material artifacts such as clothing, minute books, and other documentation.
During the 1980s, life demands and expanded time spent in the outdoors removed Gord from an active relationship with Friends and CFHA. In the late 1990s, Gord found himself with a renewed interest in Quaker faith and practice and CFHA. The objectives of the CFHA work impressed Gord with its potential and value to existing Friends and the wider community of historians, descendants, and those wishing to broaden their knowledge of Quakers in Canada. He started to read extensively the writings of early Friends, including George Fox’s journal. Gord understood in a deeper sense that these writings formed the essential foundation that informed the Quaker legacy that was of concern to CFHA. Gord told me that he has appreciated the opportunity to work with others of like mind and concern in a spirt of close fellowship and mutual enrichment.
Gord noted that CFHA provides a model of an organization that is operated by Quaker principles. For example, CFHA meetings are held in the manner of Friends, whereby business decision making is the product of careful discernment which leads to unity on actions to be taken. The important work performed by the volunteers of CFHA is deserving of support.
CFHA’s mission statement is to preserve and communicate the on-going history and faith of Friends in Canada and their contribution to the Canadian experience. There is no other national organization which has identified this preservation and communication as its primary objective, and this makes CFHA rather unique. Nonetheless, it is this very preservation and communication of the faith and spiritual experiences of early Friends which brings a fuller appreciation and life to the historic details available.
Gord strongly believes that the spiritual experiences of the early Friends in Canada speak to our present times. The records of the lived experiences of these Friends reveal the unique manner in which their spiritual faith and practice equipped them to deal with the daunting challenges of pioneer life. The unique perspective and spiritual understandings of these Quakers provide inspiring examples of the human response to the daily realities of human experience then and now. As a result, the historical legacy of Quakers in Canada includes much more than mere historical information. The challenges of our present day may appear different than those encountered by the early Quakers in Canada, but the solutions employed by the early pioneers may prove as inspiring and effective now as they did then.
CFHA is a forward looking and positive organization, proud of its achievements over the past fifty years. It has recently sought to incorporate current internet and social media technologies to their best advantage. Exciting opportunities to greatly expand the efforts to preserve and communicate Quaker legacy through digitization and electronic archiving are opening up and are being actively incorporated into our capabilities. We encourage all who have any interest in the important legacy of Quakers in Canada to support our efforts either financially or by sharing information and historic heritage material with us, or both.
During our conversation, Gord then reflected on a personal interest of his. Since high school days, Gord has appreciated the classical Japanese haiku form of poetic expression. Although he sometimes employs the format in his own short expression of insights, we concluded our interview with Gord sharing an example relevant to CFHA:
Spirit wind bloweth
Bearing ancestral wisdom
Bid thy heart take heed
CFHA and the wider community has benefitted greatly from Gord’s dedication, knowledge and vision for CFHA’s mission.