Book Remembers the Death of Grant Notley

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Book Remembers the Death of Grant Notley

Postby jon » Mon Oct 29, 2012 8:09 am

The plane crash that killed Alberta NDP Opposition leader Grant Notley remains, in my mind, and I assume many other Albertans, as a major event in Alberta provincial politics that just doesn't get forgotten even as we passed the 28th anniversary on October 19th.

After all these years, there is finally a book being published that tells the story of the event. Book signing in Edmonton tonight.

As well as dominating the News of the time on all Alberta radio and television stations, the book is authored by a former CBC writer and broadcaster.

Author tells stories of survivors of fatal 1984 plane crash
By Fish Griwkowsky, Edmonton Journal
October 27, 2012


Carol Shaben, Into the Abyss talk and book signing

Where: Indigo South Edmonton Common, 1837 99th St.

When: Monday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m.

Tickets: Free

EDMONTON - A devastating tragedy has been illuminated by the daughter of one of its survivors.

In her new book, Into the Abyss, Carol Shaben tells the story of Wapiti Flight 402, which on Oct. 19, 1984 smashed into a snowy, forested winter hillside near High Prairie. The crash killed Alberta NDP Opposition leader Grant Notley, who died instantly, as well as five others.

But the gripping account by the former CBC writer and broadcaster is ultimately about the survivors, telling the story in scouring yet respectful detail of the four men who limped away from the fatal crash: Larry Shaben, the author’s father and provincial housing minister at the time; pilot Erik Vogel; Grande Prairie RCMP officer Scott Deschamps and Paul Archambault, a small-time criminal.

What saved those four men’s lives was Deschamps’ decision, against protocol, to unshackle Archambault, whom he was escorting to face charges in a Grande Prairie court. Being the least injured, the curse-throwing dude in the Canadian tuxedo, jeans and jean jacket, kept the other three alive, constantly foraging for firewood and trying to keep his injured cohorts’ spirits up with his terrible jokes. He also turned the beacon switch on and off, signalling search-and-rescue crews which eventually brought the men to safety 15 hours later.

After their rescue, this sudden hero found himself pardoned. In archival tape from CBC he noted, “Nobody knew me and now everybody knows me. It blew me away. One minute they couldn’t give a s*** who I was and the next moment I’m something great.”

The combination of men and dispositions could barely have been scripted more cinematically, like some Greek morality play. Yet, the character setup is nothing compared to what the men endured during the frozen night awaiting rescue, and the harrowing years that followed that in many ways tore each of them down.

Shaben’s descriptions are impossibly precise, almost every noun surrounded by a couple of adjectives or descriptions of posture or Archambault’s fiddling with his watch. Asked if she fictionalized the blanks like in Rudy Wiebe’s beautiful contribution to the must-read Extraordinary Canadians series’ Big Bear, she explains, “Where I stuck very close was in dialogue. I wrung every detail that I had to the last bit of reality. It was not my job to invent.”

Luckily, thanks to televised interviews and even a Front Page Challenge (a Canadian game show where a panel of journalists guess the news story associated with a mystery guest) appearance, she had plenty of source material from which to draw mannerisms. Then, almost unbelievably, she got her hands on a thought-lost account of the event written afterward in manuscript form by Archambault.

“My main concern above everything else was getting it right,” Shaben says, on the phone from a hotel in Toronto. “I couldn’t write about that night, I didn’t have the information, until I found Paul’s manuscript, and I didn’t find it until after my dad had passed away.”

Larry Shaben, the first Muslim cabinet minister in Canada, retired from politics in 1989. He died of cancer at 73 in 2008 but did get to read some of the book.

In it, the MLA and Archambault are constantly smoking, an unlikely pair, details the younger Shaben gleaned from the manuscript.

“I’ll never forget this moment because it arrived in a courier parcel and I took out this paper and this weight of history just struck me because these pages in my hand were written by a man who two decades earlier …

“In it were just the most exquisite details of the night that none of the others were able to recall with that kind of detail and clarity.”

Her father, in fact, was hesitant to talk about it at all. He wasn’t alone.

“Scott Deschamps, the RCMP officer, did not want me to tell his personal story,” Shaben notes. “It took me a long time to convince him. He thought I was out to make money, to make a splash.”

Eventually Shaben convinced him. “I just couldn’t let it go, it was just too remarkable. I worried right up until a week ago, when Erik and Scott read the book, if I had done their stories justice. I honestly felt like I had a boot on my chest. I breathed easier when they both endorsed it and agreed to go on The Current (a current-affairs program on CBC radio).”

As well as some organizational suggestions she appreciates, Random House pushed Shaben to include at least some details of how she was a 22-year-old journalist in the Occupied Territories who found out her father had survived the plane crash in a tiny newspaper article two days after the fact.

“Ugh,” she exhales. “I didn’t want to be part of the story. It was really not meant to be about me. It is not a memoir.”

She talks about the fear. “I was hysterical. I was in the Territories and there was already death all around and then there was this whole other matter of my father. What will he look like, what will it be like when I get home? It was a very strange and dark time for me.”

Something that still stings the author is CBC’s decision to release details of the crash’s fatalities before the families were informed. An especially moving chapter engages the Notleys, including 14-year-old Stephen Notley — now the cartoonist behind Bob the Angry Flower — saying his dad will be home in the morning. The RCMP officer driving Grant’s wife Sandy home wouldn’t let her listen to the radio, which is how she knew he was gone.

“I just think it was unjust,” Shaben says sadly, explaining the pursuit of scoops and exclusives ultimately turned her off front-line journalism. She also notes a sullen consciousness that her politician father survived, while the Notley kids, including NDP MLA Rachel Notley, lost their dad that night.

The stories after the accident are gripping, as the pilot endures legal inquests, the politician embraces his culture head-on, the cop goes through a miraculous series of quests having seen a vision, and the pardoned criminal struggles with the fame and slips under the expectations of being a hero.

“That’s the heart and soul of this book. Their lives are transfigured by the one event, they were all better people. And I had to write it,” she says. “If only because I can’t stand the idea people will forget what Paul did that night in the woods.”
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