New Zealand's wizard says time spent in Canada in 1952 was 'a great lesson'

Long before he became The Wizard of New Zealand, Ian Brackenbury Channell spent a year training as a Royal Air Force navigator in Manitoba learning lessons that he says gave him the wisdom to become a wizard.

Channell, who was born in England but became a New Zealand citizen in the 1970s, was officially appointed the country's wizard in 1990 by the prime minister, allowing him to wear the regalia and conduct jobs such as casting out evil spirits and cheering the population.

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He said his journey to becoming a wizard began in 1952 during his time in Portage la Prairie, Man.

As the 87-year-old gets ready to pass on his staff to his apprentice, he recalled his time in Canada and the "craziness" of navigating without a radar over the tundra.

"This is so crazy," he said with a laugh in a recent telephone interview from New Zealand.

"I'm trying to navigate using a sextant, a bubble sextant, flying over territory which there are no maps because it's tundra and the floods change the shape of the lakes. ... It was absolutely ridiculous. But I loved doing it. I think it was a great lesson."

As New Zealand's official wizard, he said he navigates people's thinking by opening their minds to different points of view with an element of fun.

He gets an annual honorarium of C$14,000 from the Christchurch city council.

He gives speeches in the city's Cathedral Square using an approach that he said is similar to Cicero's oratory style in ancient Rome on subjects ranging from free speech in universities to patriarchy.

"I never claimed what I'm saying is true or false. Do you enjoy the speech? Do you enjoy what I'm saying? Do you enjoy thinking of these things, playing with words?"

He described himself as more like Gandalf from "The Lord of the Rings" or the "very famous" English wizard John Dee from the Elizabethan period than Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books.

He loves magic.

"Magic is not religion. It's not science. It's a mixture of all sorts of things."

Channell, who also goes by Jack but prefers to be called The Wizard, landed in Canada because of his surname.

His instructors announced that the top 20 names on a list were going to Canada to be navigators. He was near the top of the alphabetical list because his name was Channell.

After the Second World War, England had strict rationing because of food shortages, but there was plenty to eat in Manitoba, where he found the climate "very strange."

"Extremely cold and extremely hot. Just the snow and the snow and the snow. And mosquitoes in the summer."

There was also a group of sailors from the French navy sharing the barracks.

"Now you can't get further from the sea than in Winnipeg," he said between fits of laughter.

"So the fact that they were there was very strange."

In Portage la Prairie, he remembers visiting record shops.

"I'm very fond of classical music," he said. "It was pretty good. For a young man of 19 it was pretty exciting."

What also stands out was an "absolutely stunning" train journey from London, Ont., to Winnipeg.

"I can never forget that incredible journey with all that snow. Unbelievable."

The Wizard's adventures also included hitchhiking by air across North America, with stops in Edmonton and Florida before arriving in California.

Some of the flights he took as he hitchhiked his way across the continent were "enormous" cargo planes with just him in the hold.

"It was like time travelling or like Dr. Who or one of those things in this time machine."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 15, 2020.

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