For the last 76 years, Michael Duncan has overcome hurdles and obstacles during his extraordinary life. One of the most difficult occurred nine years ago when Michael lost his wife of more than 30 years. He was depressed, angry and realizes now he did not deal well with the loss. Two years after her passing, fate intervened as a new four-legged friend named Ellie entered his life.
“One of the students taking my self-defence class happened to be a veterinarian,” says Michael. “I think he saw I was having difficulties so, one day, he asked me if I would like to meet one of the dogs he had rescued. Ellie, an Australian Cattle Dog, was starving, had been beaten and was surrounded by eight of her dead puppies when she was taken from her owner. I agreed to get together with her.”
Michael and his daughter took Ellie to a local park so they would have a chance to get to know one another. Michael took things slow, taking a seat on a park bench and staying still as Ellie checked him out.
“She came right up to me and got up on her hind legs, staring me right in the face,” he recalls. “We remained like that for what felt like minutes until she jumped down as if to say, ‘he’s alright.’ It was love at first sight for me, though things were not always easy. This dog had been badly traumatized in her life. The first time I raised my hand over her to throw a stick for her to fetch, she curled up into a little ball and whimpered. I dropped the stick and got down beside her on the ground to reassure her I was not going to hurt her. I got a lot of strange looks at different times, but I didn’t care. My dog needed me.”
Last year, following an illness, Michael decided the time was right to put his feelings for Ellie into action. A highly acclaimed artist, Michael formed a charitable organization called Artists Helping Abused Animals, A-HAA for short. For seven months, he toiled and worked hard to produce 50 black and white original works of art, which will be sold to raise seed money for his organization.
“Each one of the pen and ink drawings are of heritage scenes in Delta and around British Columbia, and we are selling them for $200 each,” says Michael. “This will raise a total of $10,000 to help the shelter. All the money goes directly to the shelter, never to me. I would like to see groups like this start up all over the province. People now recognize me and stop me to ask about it and often want to help. There is a whole new awareness that cruelty to animals is unacceptable.”
Michael feels so strongly about animal abuse, he even hopes to establish a fund one day to go after the abusive owners legally and shame them publicly.
“As an independent, I can make their lives miserable, where the SPCA can’t due to regulations,” he says. “You have to make that commitment. You have choices.”
Michael has made choices in his life. One of them came after he was expelled from the prestigious Gordonstoun School in Scotland, home of the Outward Bound Sea School. He had received years of training there, excelling in martial arts and seamanship, while honing an appreciation and talent for writing and fine art. The Gordonstoun, a castle on the northeast coast of Scotland was built in 1679 and became the first school in the world to combine education with Outward Bound. In 1948, Michael was honoured to dance a solo for the Queen Mother, then the Queen of England.
Fiercely loyal to his Scottish roots, Michael was born in England when his mother was there visiting. “I often asked her why she couldn't have waited until she got back across the border before having me,” he says. “Now, here I was dancing for the Queen and everything was supposed to be just right. I couldn’t help myself, giving a warrior’s cry before I danced, then dancing for all I was worth. I heard the Queen Mother telling her Lady after the dance, ‘Oh my, that was different.'”
Some years later, Michael found himself expelled with a single word of explanation: incorrigible. This meant he was a disgrace to his family and he was given his choice of three destinations: South Africa, Australia or Canada.
“That changed my life,” he says. “Before arriving, I wrote to the Canadian government and asked them what I should do upon arrival. They told me, and that is how I wound up in Northern Ontario near James Bay. It was a real culture shock for me, going from a home with 14 servants to running a trapline with members of the Cree Nation, but it was good for me. When I came out of the bush, I was a completely different person.”
After becoming a forest ranger, Michael read about the unemployment situation and decided to live as a hobo on the streets, while he researched the topic. He ended up living on the streets of Edmonton and says, “I was not very good at bumming, so I started to fight. I saw a boxing club advertising for sparring partners and paying money. I had not eaten in five days, so when I stepped into the ring against this fighter, I hit him with a sucker punch and ran. When they caught me and discovered how hungry I was, they gave me a room in the basement of the club, while I fought there. Later, when I was living in Timmins, I wrote a series of radio plays based on my adventures there.”
He got to Timmins by buying a Tiger Moth biplane in Terrace with a friend, learning how to fly from a taxi driver, and flying illegally across the country with bailing wire and adhesive tape holding the craft together. Eventually, they crash-landed 14 yards from the Chief’s house at Constance Lake.
“I went off to the hospital in Timmins,” says Michael. “My friend got the plane fixed, flew off, crashed into a lake and drowned. I became the art director of a television studio in Timmins.”
Michael married and started his family in Northern Ontario. When he came across a colour photo spread of Vancouver in the *Toronto Star*, he decided they needed to move to the coast.
Upon arriving in 1965, he started the first theatre school in Vancouver and, by 1967, he moved his family to a home in Ladner. Over the next four plus decades, Michael embarked on a remarkable series of adventures. These included operating and instructing at a sailing school, hosting more than 600 television shows including work on the Alan Thicke show, seven years as curator of the Delta Historical Museum, and nearly four years as director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum where his fundraising efforts led to the expansion of its historic harbour on English Bay.
He’s written at least 16 books, all of which have been published, is an award-winning artist, teaches self-defence, martial arts classes, creative writing and art courses, and volunteering for numerous boards and organizations including countless hours helping the homeless on the downtown east side. As incredible as this list sounds, it doesn't do justice to all that he has accomplished.
Books and artwork Michael has produced for the benefit of various charities have brought in more than one million dollars to help those groups. In 2009, he was recognized for his charitable work with the Delta Heritage Award.
Back in 1993, he was selected by a jury to be one of only four Canadians showcased in the Pacific Rim Wildlife Show, an artwork exhibition held in Tacoma, Washington, and considered to be one of the top two art shows in North America. A book of his drawings was on display and for sale in 68 art galleries across Canada and more than 100 bookstores.
Now, Michael has his work for A-HAA and is only teaching five classes a week in self-defence, creative writing and art - a decline from his previous workload. He also works diligently to support his beloved Ellie and other animals who have suffered abuse.
So, what motivates him to give back to his community? And why would he give away every cent earned from the royalties of all of his books?
“I think I’ve done most of what I’ve done to try to make up for being expelled from school when I was young,” he says.
That he has done in spades.
APRIL 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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