Whatever you can say about Jeremie Louis Quesnel LeBourdais, he made a difference. Born May 8, 1925 in Quesnel, Jerry passed away December 26, 2004 at the Millsite Lodge in 100 Mile House. He was 79.
Words hardly describe this son of popular Cariboo MLA Louis LeBourdais. Pioneer adventurer, radical activist, union leader, commune leader, political prankster, environmental practitioner, rogue rabble-rouser, revolutionary, organic farmer, Jerry was a guy who walked his talk and lived his ideals. He was well loved by some, despised by others, and he commanded respect from the unlikeliest of quarters. Judges knocked on his door for a social visit. So did down-and-out street people.
It was more than 30 years ago that my path crossed with Jerry’s. Some of us had started a local chapter of Fed-up food co-op in Williams Lake to bring bulk organic food to the Cariboo-Chilcotin, and Jerry and his wife Nellie, with their massive organic garden at Rose Lake, were members.
They had recently sold their North Vancouver home and moved lock, stock and barrel to the Cariboo to start a rural agricultural commune. That was Jerry’s dream.
Front and centre, he was an advocate for the back-to-the-land movement in those early days of the 1970s. An avowed communist, he contrasted many armchair philosophers by actually putting his money where his mouth was. He maintained that a communist should live on a commune.
Jerry’s communal dream began on Quesnel Lake in the summer of 1970, when he and his family and a group of young people from North Vancouver set up a communal camp there. Then he and Nelly bought a 15-acre farm on Rose Lake near Miocene.
At a January 3 memorial tribute to Jerry at Lone Butte, Nelly recalled their journey north from the city.
“It was a big undertaking to move from North Van, we had to simplify our lives. Jerry threw his watch away over Jackass Mountain in the Fraser Canyon.”
From then on it could be said that Jerry lived on Cariboo time.
There are some humourous recollections of those times. Along with espousing his Moaist communist doctrine, Jerry loved to smoke pot. Smoking copious quantities of homegrown weed was a mainstay ritual in those early days. A neighbour recalls how some 30 or 40 people were crowded in the Rose Lake cabin one afternoon when Jerry rolled a joint and passed it around. Because of the big crowd he rolled another joint, then another, and another. Pretty soon almost everyone had their own joint burning and the air became so thick with smoke you could hardly see across the room. Then Jerry piped up: “You know we’ve smoked so many joints in this cabin, when it comes time to tear it down, I’m going to grind up the logs and smoke them too.”
In 1975, Jerry and Nellie took another big step. Their commune at Rose Lake was faced with an economic crunch. They couldn’t support their lifestyle, which included raising pigs, beef cattle, dairy cows, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks and geese, along with a massive garden.
They decided to sell the Rose Lake place and take up an offer from neighbour, Willie Wiggins, to relocate to his quarter section of wild grass meadows known as the Borland Meadow, 10 kilometres south of the Horsefly Road. The plan was to use the money from the sale of the Rose Lake property to sustain the commune until it could become self-sufficient. This move fractured some family involvement in the commune, because not everyone agreed with the decision.
Jerry was “common-sense powerful.” He gave many a critique on the follies of society, but backed up his words with action. At the Borland Meadow he employed a team of workhorses bought from Lestor Dorsey of Anahim Lake to haul in supplies of feed and groceries and to work the fields. As elder statesman of the group, he passed on his knowledge of homesteading skills to the younger members around him, from raising animals to operating horse-drawn equipment.
I fondly remember meeting the team and wagon or sleigh on the Horsefly Road. It was my role in those days to drive out truckloads of supplies from Williams Lake, food, animal grain or hay, and meet the horse-drawn transportation at the end of the Borland Meadow Road.
It was during this time that Jerry and the commune formed a relationship with a local aboriginal group known as the Troopers. Let it be said that the Troopers weren’t homeless and were not without family. But many preferred to hang out on the streets of Williams Lake and drink. Most, however, had homesteading and ranching skills no longer in great demand by the mechanized ranching industry. The commune, however, had a need for these skills, and offered a home to them in exchange for labour. A lasting bond and friendship was forged between the Troopers and the commune that continues to this day.
The first decade of the commune’s existence was tumultuous.
After five years at the Borland Meadow, a parting of the ways occurred with Willie Wiggins. A BCTV film crew captured the court-ordered exodus from the Borland to nearby Pioneer Ranch. Nomad-like, Jerry and the commune took up residence in several satellite locations in those years, including Sugarcane reserve, the McTaggart Meadow at Toosey, and downtown Williams Lake. Eventually they headed south to the 100 Mile House area where commune members remain today.
An important chapter in Jerry’s life was his candidacy in various political election campaigns. Never a serious contender to win, Jerry brought forward serious issues that rang true for many of the electorate. In fact his down-to-earth manner, free of the spin of party politics, was a refreshing contribution to the debates. During one campaign against Alex Fraser, Jerry received notoriety when he got busted for smoking pot.
Over the past two decades the commune consolidated its efforts under the acronym of CEEDS, Community Enhancement and Economic Development Society, on several properties in the Horse Lake and Lone Butte area. There they focussed their efforts on raising organic meat and produce. Jerry’s home was the “Betty Place” at the end of Horse Lake, until his Parkinson’s disease forced him to abandon the farm and take up residency at the Millsite Lodge.
His political life didn’t end there, however.
Several care aides speaking at his memorial noted they were impressed by the steady stream of “pretty colourful characters” who paid him visits.
“He was always kind and a real gentleman,” said one. “When we went on strike last spring, we were proud to have Jerry on the picket line. We really appreciated his support.”
Another speaker said Jerry always tried to make a difference, remembering his particular words of wisdom. “All you have to do is stand up and you win. If you don’t stand up, you’re dead in the water.”
There is more to say, obviously. Stories about the “outlaw” Cariboo potato that Jerry had a hand in reintroducing to the market place; the commune’s involvement with Vancouver’s Downtown East Side community; its international participation with the WOOFERs.
A former commune member concluded at the memorial that for Jerry everything was a moral lesson. “When I first met Jerry I was an 18 years old and he was the age I am now. Sometimes it was hard for a young man who felt he knew better to take direction. But I stayed in the Cariboo and adopted a lot of what Jerry believed. He was a man among men.”
In an interview with a Vancouver Sun reporter last August, Jerry, then mute with the final stages of Parkinson’s, was asked what he felt he had accomplished. Mustering his strength through the paralysis gripping his body, Jerry barked out three words: “Not done yet.”