Michael Duncan has had a remarkable life.
The 82 year-old has danced for the Queen of England. He’s been a forest ranger in Northern Ontario. He’s lived homeless on the streets to research unemployment issues for a book – one of over 16 he has written and published. He’s crashed a biplane. He’s started a theatre school. He’s curated museums. He’s an award-winning artist who has owned seven art galleries. He’s taught both martial arts – he actually had a martial arts television show back in the 1970s – and creative writing courses and he’s always volunteered for numerous boards of directors and charitable organizations.
Duncan’s story – this telling of it, anyway – begins in northern Scotland.
“My family has six miles of sandy beach along the northern tip of Scotland,” he says, “overlooking the Orkney Islands. Prince Phillip designated my home as a Scottish National Site.”
Their castle – yes, they obviously have a castle – was once the site of a druid monastery (which later became the family’s wine cellar) and the estate had over 400 people working on the property in its prime.
The estate was the home of a flagstone quarry and because all that rock had to be shipped, it is the only castle property in Scotland with its own harbour, Duncan says.
“So when you live in a family like that, there are certain things expected of you, and being expelled from school is not one of those things,” he says with a laugh.
It wasn’t just any ordinary school he was expelled from, as you can surely imagine, coming from that kind of family.
That school was Gordonstoun.
Gordonstoun, for those who have never heard of it, is a private boarding school on a 150-acre estate in Moray, Scotland. It has educated three generations of British royalty, including Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales.
Upon being expelled from such a school, “I became a disgrace to my family,” Duncan says, and he was given a choice between Australia, South Africa or Canada for where he would be shipped off to.
“So I came to Canada – to Northern Ontario – and lived in the bush with the Cree, which was the most wonderful time of my life,” Duncan says. “I loved the hardships. I loved the desolation. And I was treated with great friendliness.”
That experience would be the beginning of his life-long love of First Nations peoples and cultures.
He would relocate to Northern B.C. for a while, and then he and a friend bought a Tiger Moth biplane in Terrace, hoping it would take them back to the East Coast somewhere, “but we never quite made it,” he says.
“We ended up crashing in Northern Ontario, and I was hurt but managed to hitch a lift with a logging truck into Timmons to get to the hospital.”
That may have been one of his best decisions ever, as his friend took off again and ended up crashing again in Lake Timiskaming – which sits on the border between Ontario and Quebec – and drowned.
Duncan became the art director of a television studio in Timmons – where he met his future wife – and started his family.
In 1965, however, they relocated back to B.C. and took up residence in the Lower Mainland, where Duncan started the region’s first theatre school.
He went on to curate museums, operate sailing and martial arts schools, write his over 16 books – many on First Nations art and culture – and exhibit his art.
One of his roles during this period of his life was helping out at soup kitchens and housing facilities for the underprivileged people of Vancouver.
“When I was working for the Salvation Army in Vancouver, I asked them one time, ‘what about the people who can’t walk into this place, who also need food and shelter?’ and I was told they couldn’t talk anybody into going out into the alleys, so for three years, four nights a week from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m., I patrolled the alleys of Vancouver alone at night.”
He says he specifically worked to protect First Nations people, “because they were the most vulnerable. Bouncers didn’t like them, because they were racist, so they would pick them out of the bar and take them outside – and they had steel-toed boots – and they would put their head down like a rugby ball, and kick the hell out of their face. That’s what I had to go into and take care of.”
But what he’s most proud of, in some ways, is the work he’s undertaken in the past decade or so, doing what he can for abused animals and organizations who help them.
You see, 16 years ago when he lost his wife of 30 years, Duncan found himself lost, as well. He admits, looking back on it, that he didn’t cope well with his grief.
But as fate would have it, a saviour arrived in his life just when he needed one.
One of his students in the martial arts class he was teaching two years after his wife passed, was a veterinarian. The student had an Australian cattle dog named Ellie for whom he was looking to find a home. Ellie had been beaten and found dying in a field surrounded by her eight already-dead pups.
“And I was so shattered by the loss of my wife, I didn’t want to have anything to do with anything,” he says, “but I said ‘I’ll make you a little deal. I’ll come down to your parking lot, outside of your office, and open my hatchback and stand there, not saying a word, and we’ll see what happens,’ and Ellie ran over and jumped in my car. And that was that.”
He had a new best friend and partner for many years.
Ellie has now passed from the world as well, but Duncan keeps her memory alive. He has formed a fund called Artists Helping Abused Animals (A-HAA) to help the people who help abused animals and has been creating pen and ink drawings of British Columbian heritage scenes and landscapes, donating the entire proceeds to various charities who need the help.
It’s been going well on the Lower Mainland, so since relocating to Campbell River to retire, he’s decided to start the same thing here.
“I’ve realized, in my short time here, that Campbell River really loves its pets,” Duncan says. “So I want to do my part to help them here, too.”
So he’s mirroring his past efforts in Langley, where he has raised thousands of dollars for animal causes, and has begun selling his original, unframed pen and ink drawings in both Pier Street Gallery and Awatin Aboriginal Arts for $200 apiece with all the proceeds going to various local charities and non-profits, whether it’s the SPCA or another cause the buyer would like to support.
“I went to a very unusual school where – it sounds strange in this modern era – where we were taught that you should be like an ancient knight,” he says by way of explanation. That school was Gordonstoun, a boarding school in Northern Scotland which just so happens to also be where three generations of British royalty have been educated, including Prince Charles and Prince Philip. “We were taught that you look after those who can’t look after themselves. You protect women and you protect animals. So all of the money from my books, I give away – I’ve given away over $1 million from the sale of my books – and all of the money from my art, I give away in memory of my dog, Ellie.”
Eventually, he says, he’d like to develop a fund to help prosecute people who abuse animals, as well.
“I’d like to be able to say, ‘Oh, the SPCA doesn’t have the money to prosecute that person, well, here you go. Go get ‘em.’”
When he’s not toiling away making art for abused animals, Duncan is out enjoying this beautiful part of the world he now calls home, getting inspiration for more work, but he says he can’t venture very far.
“I’m partially crippled, because 50 years as a martial arts instructor has done me in,” he says, laughing light-heartedly again as he groans slightly standing from his chair.
So if you are met by a nice older gentleman along the side of the Seawalk who asks if he can “say hello to your dog,” that’s probably him.