The last act of Bruce Lodge A.F. & A.M. was played out August 30 at the Saskatchewan Provincial Legislature, as the last surviving members of the now-closed Freemason lodge based in Francis. My father and uncle were long-time members before Bruce Lodge merged with the Weyburn Masonic Lodge at the end of last year.
Four of Bruce Lodge’s last members – my Uncle George (he’s the one in Pilot Butte who every so often writes letters to the Leader-Post, seeking to become to provincial politics what Don Cherry is to hockey, except that Uncle George dresses better), Don Driver, Keith Inches, and my father, Ben LaRose, formally turned over a chair that once belonged to the Speaker of the Legislature from 1925 to 1929. Bruce Lodge used it as the throne for their Master, or Fearless Leader, or whatever they called the president of the lodge chapter. My father sat in that chair for a few years.
The chair was officially presented to the current Speaker of the Legislature, Don Toth, on Aug. 30.
The story goes that the chair came to Bruce Lodge in 1930, donated by Walter George Robinson, who was also the MLA for the Francis area at the time. It’s now one of four former Speaker’s chairs that is or will be on display at the Legislature.
(It should be noted, as Toth told the Masons, that the stuff the Speaker of the Legislature gets in his term usually stays with him. It’s only recently that the Legislature abandoned the custom of giving the Speaker’s chair to the outgoing Speaker, and every new Speaker gets a new tri-corner hat and robes. Toth’s hat costs about $600: he says that when his term is over, he’s donating them to a museum in his hometown. Someone alert the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation to this egregious waste of money. Yes, I’m being a jerk.)
For Dad and Uncle George and their friends, there was a twinge of sadness at the event. When you go by the Masonic Hall in Regina, between Knox-Metropolitan United Church and the Regina Public Library’s Central branch, you see the sign that lists all the Masonic Lodges in the Regina district. Every year, that list gets shorter and shorter as Masonic members die, the numbers of members drop, and branches close. The last time the RPL released artists’ conceptions of its new expanded central branch, part of the proposed facility was to be built over top of the Masonic Hall (which wouldn’t be bloody likely, since the Masons make their money not from lodges renting the hall or dues from Masons for the facility’s upkeep, but by renting out its parking spaces during working hours.)
In the case of Bruce Lodge, the youngest member was over the age of 70 by the time they made the decision to close up shop. Of the seven or eight or so members, only one – and he would never see 85 again – still lived in the Francis area. The rest would come from their retirement homes in Regina, once or twice a month, to hold their rituals. It was a long way from the time in high school when my father would enlist me to help him mail out editions of the Masonic newsletter, where it seemed as if hundreds had to be mailed out.
If this were standard prairie dog style – or at least what people expect from prairie dog writers – you’d see a snarky column about secret meetings involving businessmen and a clip or two from the Simpsons, where they mock the Freemason movement with its own parody, The Stonecutters. And, yeah, there’s that option. But the end of Bruce Lodge goes to the heart about some of the changes that have gone on, and not just in rural Saskatchewan. We, as a society, are in a fundamental shift in what we regard as ‘community.’
Bruce Lodge was doomed more than 40 years ago, along with the family farm. That’s when the railways and governments got the idea that Bigger Is Better. Farm tractors increased in size and complexity. Farmers could farm more acres in a day, which was just as well – they needed more acres to farm, and higher yields per acre, to pay for this. So, rural Saskatchewan needed fewer farmers, and fewer hired hands. It’s no coincidence that when I was a child and Bruce Lodge had a lot of members, there were also active 4-H clubs, the Knights of Columbus, the Lions (who sponsored the local minor hockey teams), figure skating and curling clubs. There’s nothing like that in Francis today: the children have grown up and moved away, the few people of child-bearing age who now live in Francis mostly work in Regina or Weyburn. They have no real ties to the community: if they have kids, they go to school in Regina and do all their minor sports/dance/whatever activities there. And they’re not likely to have a lot of time or interest in service clubs or taking part in community activities.
And it’s something deeper than that as well. About 20 years ago, Brian Fawcett wrote a book called Cambodia: A Book For People Who Think Television Is Too Slow. The book, written by someone considering himself a Marshall McLuhan disciple, said that modern communications technology – this was 20 years ago, so he considered cable TV to be the enemy – broke down the concept of community for people, who now had no need to leave home not only for entertainment but to socialize who whomever they wanted. There’s always a danger – less so in a Masonic Lodge or a Kinsmen club or a bowling league than at a workplace, but still – of encountering anybody who doesn’t agree with every part of your personal, social, and political beliefs. The best way to get along in a society is to go along, for the most part – notwithstanding encountering racists, homophobes, white supremacists, and the like. You don’t learn how to do that when your only interaction with people is through a keyboard.
Whatever you think of a bunch of old guys sitting around a shooting the breeze in a semi-formal setting (kind of like prairie dog writers’ meetings without us wearing the aprons), it was their world. And now that world is disappearing. And there’s a void where it used to be. That chair will sit empty nowhere near Francis and the members of Bruce Lodge.