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The many sides of Bill Barlee

Neville Langrell (Bill) Barlee (1932-2012) was one of BC’s best-known popular historians. In 1969, he quit his job as a high school teacher to launch a quarterly magazine, Canada West, which grew from seven subscribers with its debut issue to over 4,000 by the time Barlee sold the publication in 1976.


Barlee was also the author of several best-selling books about BC history, which were not always accurate, but he more than compensated for any mistakes with an evocative writing style. The magazine and books had the same endearing low-budget quality, enhanced by Barlee’s hand-drawn maps and sketches.


But Barlee is perhaps best remembered for his TV series, Gold Trails and Ghost Towns, which ran for 130 episodes on CHBC-TV in the Okanagan from 1986-96. (While VHS copies of a few episodes were made available for sale, CHBC inexplicably failed to issue the entire series on DVD. Most episodes can now be found on YouTube, in varying picture quality.)

Barlee had a special affection for the West Kootenay/Boundary, where he was born and raised, and was particularly fascinated with Sandon, where he bought property in hopes of restoring the town.


He served as MLA for Boundary-Similkameen and Okanagan-Boundary from 1988-96. As tourism minister, he spearheaded the building of several replica buildings in Sandon, a project that stalled after he fell 27 votes short of re-election in 1996.


In 2000, he ran unsuccessfully for federal office, as a Liberal candidate in the riding of Kootenay-Boundary-Okanagan. He was still touting the restoration of Sandon as a potential economic saviour for the region.


Barlee was a renowned collector of BC artifacts. He donated his photographs to the BC Archives and some original documents to UBC Special Collections. Another 275 items were sold in 1997 at an auction aboard the SS Sicamous in Penticton (or at least that was the plan). The present whereabouts of his remaining collection is unknown.


The following transcript, published here for the first time, is condensed from two interviews, one at Barlee’s apartment in Victoria on Jan. 5, 2000 and another over the phone on Dec. 19, 2001. At the time he was working on a book called Nuggets of Gold, Boulders of Silver, Mountains of Copper, the first volume in a projected series that never came to be.


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How and when did you get the “Bill” out of “Neville Langrell”?

All my family has nicknames. My father was Frederick George and he was called Chick. My uncle in Grand Forks was John William and he was called Budge. His brother was called Toddy. So the Barlees have had nicknames for centuries. Just runs in the family. My father didn’t like my given name, so he said I’ll call him Bill. That was it.

Where did your interest in history come from?

I’ve been lucky. Born in Grand Forks in 1932, so I’m 67 now. Brought up in the Boundary country the first few years. Then I moved to Rossland as a kid of about five and stayed there for seven years. Rossland was marvellous. The boardwalks were still there, the old Allan Hotel, the Rossland Miner and Irvin Hotel, all those old buildings. It was marvellous to walk down main street.


I think immediately I was fascinated by the mining scene. My maternal grandfather, R.G. Ritchie, had a general store in Cascade which he kept for almost 50 years — the 1890s to the 1940s. He owned most of the buildings in town. A lot of them were abandoned, and I found that absolutely intriguing to walk through his general store and look at these buildings and look all the merchandise that had been left behind.


That was not unusual when you went through towns like Sandon, right up to the 1940s when a mining engineer’s wife took out two boxcar loads of material. Phoenix was like that. I used to walk up the main street of Phoenix and look in the windows of the abandoned stores, and everything was still there.


So you realized as a kid you were looking at something extraordinary.

Well, yeah. Nine or 10 years old, I was amazed. It was all covered in dust and cobwebs, and I thought God, that’s interesting. You walk up the main street and all you hear is the echo of your footsteps on the boardwalk. It was a unique area. Nobody bothered to break in, nobody was interested in antiques, everyone was scrambling for a living. This is in 1939, 1940, 1941.

I really didn’t start writing until I was about 30 — but in my 20s I started contacting some of the old-timers and talked with some of them. Took some notes. Didn’t take as many as I should’ve. But they were in their late 70s, early 80s, some of them older than that. They were the last of the true miners of the Boundary, the West Kootenay. I found them the most fascinating segment of society. That’s because I was interested, they were interested, they knew I was. So they opened up for me.


Where else did you spend time?

Fair amount of time in Greenwood. Greenwood is still one of the great undiscovered [cities] in British Columbia. It’s remained relatively intact.


Nelson has a great history too. There are parts of Baker Street that are quite unique. Unfortunately, some of the businesses that moved in destroyed the old buildings on the street. That was a major error. A lot of individuals didn’t have the foresight that they should have had.


Certainly, the Front Street of Kaslo isn’t bad. Parts of Ainsworth are okay. Sandon, we did some restoration work there when I was [in government], so we saved about three buildings there. Didn’t save them in that we had to rebuild them. I owned one of them previously, and owned another that fell down, the old Virginia Block.


I spent a lot of time [in the Lardeau]. Trout Lake City, Ferguson to a degree. Camborne, certainly. Places like Gerrard. I used to drive 40 miles through the Lardeau and never meet a car.

I knew Slocan City quite well. It had 10-12 hotels at one time. They slaughtered Slocan City. Slocan City was just marvelous. There’s one old building there. One or two, that’s it. And right next door was another city called Brandon. People don’t know about it. Then you go through Silverton and New Denver. It was a great experience wandering through that country and seeing the shadows of yesterday.


Of course, I think history is so important because it locks in with the romance of British Columbia. Tourism is the biggest business in the world. So why not use it to your advantage?

How much preparation did you do before launching Canada West?

I just [started it] right out of the blue. There were things wrong with it, but it got better as I went along. The last three years were probably the best. But it was a lot of work. And I was going around the country getting ready for a book as well. I knew when I got the renewal rates that the book, Gold Creeks & Ghost Towns, would sell.


A lot of people are absolutely fascinated with the history of British Columbia. I sold a lot of books in Toronto, for heaven’s sake. It surprised me at the time. I was flabbergasted because I was selling 1,000 copies a week. That was runaway stuff.


When I came out with Gold Creeks & Ghost Towns, there were three brothers from Nelson, the Norcross family. One was in Calgary, one was in Penticton, and one was in Nelson. The guy in Nelson said ‘I better get one of these for each of my brothers.’ The guy in Penticton said ‘I better get one of these for each of my brothers.’ And the guy in Calgary said ‘I better gone of these for each of my brothers.’ So each of the Norcrosses had three copies! [Laughs] Great for an author!


How many has it sold now?

109,000 copies, 26 printings. I mean, I can’t believe it!

How many books have you written?

Seven: Gold Creeks & Ghost Towns of Northeastern Washington; West Kootenay: Ghost Town Country; Gold Creeks & Ghost Towns; Guide to Gold Panning; Lost Mines & Historic Treasures; Similkameen: The Pictograph Country; and I had a little one before that (The Prospectors’ and CollectorsGuide). The real collectors of my stuff, they try to pick that up. They can hardly get it. It was kind of ratty … (There was also an eighth, South Okanagan: The Sagebrush Country.)


What was the last book you put out?

My American one … sold a hell of a lot in the States. Sold 10,000 copies just like that.


When did you start collecting?

Well, my family right back to the 1600s, were collectors. It’s genetic, I guess. I started collecting at about nine years old when I found an arrowhead at Christina Lake on my relative’s property. I thought oh, that’s interesting.


Then when we moved to the Okanagan, after leaving Rossland, my great-great uncle Billy Barlee gave me some very, very good stuff. He was my old conservative uncle. Marvellous guy, lots of charm. I was very fond of him.


My grandmother and grandfather in Cascade City did too. My mother as well. She had a good eye for antiques. So I started collecting, and then fell into the area I was really interested in, which was ghost town stuff.


I’ve collected a lot of material over the years. Paid more than I should have in most cases for artifacts and antiques. Parted with some of them. But I kept the core of my collection intact. I have it stored in warehouses.

I have a vast collection of Chinese gold rush items. The best in the province, I think, nobody can debate that. Just loaned it to the Chinese Cultural Centre for seven years. They’ve had several TV groups from the States and Canada come in. In fact, I turned on the TV the other night and they were showing my collection. And then I have a good Plains Indian collection. I have about 300 or 400 maps, including many old ones, right back to the 1860s. So I have actually 20 different collections.


My photographs were [collection No.] 21. I just turned [them all] over to the archives of British Columbia and regretted it in some respects, but felt that’s essentially where they should be. They’re better taken care of and some of them are absolutely unique. That includes Yukon material from my grandfather — that’s amazing, isn’t it? You know 1890s, 101 years ago my grandfather was in the Yukon.


I included a lot of very, very fine photographs that I paid a lot of money for, some up to $300 each. Roll out photographs of Phoenix, for instance. They were very pleased to get them. Gave me a reasonable write-off. I could have sold them privately for much, much more. [But] I felt I don’t really want to see them go into private hands, I’d rather see them go into the public realm.


Was it easier to acquire things when you started out?

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, money was the only object. If you had enough money you could have picked up [great stuff]. I remember turning down 24 sterling silver lawmen’s badges for $225. I wasn’t willing to pay $225. I offered $175. It was an old friend of mine, a guy who was in the business in Victoria. He said ‘these are very valuable, it’s the best collection in the world.’ I said ah no, and I went down the street. And I turned and said ‘that’s only $9 a badge, I better go back and get those.’ I walked into the store and said ‘Mr. Newberry, I’ll take those.’ ‘I’m sorry Mr. Barlee,’ he said. ‘I gave you first option, now they go to the Saanich police department.’

Did you pick up some things for next to nothing?

Sometimes you do. It depends on the ethics on the buyer. I have bought stuff and gone back and given [more money]. Generally, I have been pretty generous. Because if I wanted something I said well, it’s probably worth paying for.


What are the items you value the most?

Well, a lot of the lawmen’s stuff. I’ve got Big Jack Kirkup’s original gun and the holster. And a copy of the painting made by Frederick Remington. Not the original painting, but a painting for one of the magazines … I’ve got his gold badge. I’ve got a gold-headed cane given to him as a mark of esteem by the people of Revelstoke. I’ve been offered a lot of money for those items because he was arguably the best lawman in British Columbia. The most well-known. And he was one-of-a-kind.


Do you still collect?

Yeah, selectively. Probably I’m picking up 20 items a year. The price has gone up dramatically, which is probably good. Because those people who practically gave this stuff away now at least will get a reasonable return.


Has the good stuff been picked over?

Yeah, the best stuff. Of course, with the increase in the number of multi-millionaires in the United States, I think more material will flow from Canada. There will be precious little left.


What is your collection valued at?

It’s hard to tell. A lot of my stuff is paper items, maps. Some people say $1 million. I think it’s an exaggeration. I think it’s probably worth close to $700,000. I’ll probably, in consultation with my wife leave the collection to one of the major museums in British Columbia. But I haven’t made that decision.

How much have you invested in it?

Probably close to $300,000. And if I had started putting that in the bank in the 1950s [instead], I’d end up way ahead. But I think it was worth it. A lot of the stuff was going to the States. I like many Americans individually. Collectively, I’m not sure. Or the other way around, perhaps — collectively yes, individually I’m not sure. So I don’t regret that.


With the second issue you stopped selling Canada West in the U.S. You saw personal evidence of theft by Americans?

Oh yes. Especially in Phoenix. And to a lesser extent in Sandon. Those are the two major [ones]. They were the classic ghost towns in British Columbia. Some people say Sandon was better, some people say Phoenix was better. It’s a toss-up between the two. I have a lot of stuff from Sandon, [but] a lot of material went south of the line.


What was the reaction when you notified your American readers? Were there irate letters?

A lot of sorrowful letters. Not irate. I think they liked what I was trying to do. I felt badly about cutting off some Americans, but I couldn’t pick and choose. It had to be a policy. [But] it’s almost impossible to stop the loss of your heritage. I don’t think that really stopped any individuals from going into British Columbia. In one case, they hauled out 10 to 12 big brass slot machines that were in Phoenix and took them across the line. End of story.


Eventually I dropped it [the policy]. I dropped it about ‘82, partly because the damage had been done. So I thought well okay. I didn’t advertise in the States at all. [But] most of the people who are buying Canada West right now are collectors from the States. Isn’t that ironic?

The Vancouver Sun, July 31, 1971


You didn’t do anything to discourage the collector’s market for your magazines and books.

I wouldn’t recommend [readers] lending them out, even to their relatives. Especially Vol. 1, No. 1 and No 3. No. 3 because some were destroyed in a car crash. A guy hit me head on. So they’re in short supply. Vol. 1, No. 3, with the totem pole on it is the scarcest. And the next one, probably the most wanted, is Vol. 1, No. 1, which is Sandon.


You got a lot of calls to reprint issues. Why didn’t you?

I felt it was unfair to my own subscribers who had backed me. I started with seven subscribers and ended up with marginally over 4,000. They had been faithful … Some [readers] even left the magazine in their wills to nephews and nieces and sons and daughters that they thought were interested in history. So I thought, ‘Well, do I want to do that [make reprints] for a few bucks? Yeah, I could make a lot more money, that’s true, but ah, to heck with it.’ So I decided not to, and never did.


But there were a couple of ‘Best of’ collections.

Garnet [Basque] did those. When he bought the magazine he asked if he could do that, and I said sure. Because that doesn’t bother me.


When did you sell Canada West to Garnet?

Let’s see, started in ‘69. Sold it in ‘75. Then I bought it back in ‘81. Garnet and I knew each other. So it was no problem. I felt Garnet would take pretty good care of things, and generally he did. He had some economic troubles, but he was a good guy. He died about six, seven years ago. He was only in his 40s.


Did you find you were able to stick to the quarterly schedule?

Pretty well. I was sometimes a month and a half late, seven weeks late, but always got the four issues out. That’s part of the cost of operating on a shoestring. But I don’t think ever had a cancellation. I just thought of that now. I don’t think I ever had anybody say ‘Please drop my subscription, I don’t want this magazine.’


I sent out one renewal notice and that was it. Nobody got more than that. It was lots of work. Did all the work myself with my wife. She helped with the typing of the address labels, and putting it together.

Barlee (left) is seen with Grand Forks historians Alice and Jim Glanville at the BC Historical Federation conference in Nelson in 1997. (Courtesy Ron Welwood)


How did your TV show, Ghost Towns & Ghost Trails, come to be?

Well, I knew [co-host] Mike Roberts. Mike is a very interesting guy. He’s the straight man on the program. Extremely well read. Very fine interviewer. Old friend of mine, I’ve known him for 25 years. So we get along like we’re brothers — and I’m the older brother.


We tried a program in 1972. We went out to Granite City and were having a heck of a time. It wasn’t working. So then we waited until 1986 [and I thought] ‘I’ll go and see CHBC-TV.’ I knew the general manager, Ron Evans, and I said [to him] ‘Do you want to try a few programs? ‘Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure.’ I said: ‘Well, try three. Free.’


We built our set for $300. It lasted 10 years. The first program we had 3,000 viewers. The next program we had 11,000 viewers. The next program we had 17,000 viewers … Some people who did see it were very, very loyal. They just didn’t miss it. So as a result it stretched from three programs to 130. Ten years, 13 programs a year. I couldn’t handle more than that because I was cabinet minister then, and that was keeping me very busy.


Finally I said ‘I don’t think I can go any further.’ Probably could have gone another year. I think I had maybe seven programs out of 13. So I thought, no. Then I went to PBS in the States and almost sold them 13 one-hour programs, which would have included Montana, British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska. That was cancelled by an individual in Los Angeles who was the last stop.


It was a great experience. It was a real eye-opener for me. Especially [how] people were so loyal to the program. I like the idea of a TV program, [although] It doesn’t have the longevity of a book.

How did you come up with each show?

I did all the research and I said ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ We would go out there and shoot it and hope it turned out okay. Well, it did. Mostly. Some were good, some were bad.


Did you knock off a few episodes in a day?

Sometimes two a day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. You know, by the time you get set up, get the artifacts out there, and take the artifacts away. So usually one a day, sometimes two. Sometimes we’d do 10 programs in 14 days.


Was it stop and start, or were you able to go straight through?

We had a marvelous editor, Ken Marty, and he was an understated genius. He would patch together the program. Ken insisted on 15 to 20 photographs. He’d choose them.

Where did it air?

CHBC, CHEK. Now in Vancouver it comes on every day. It aired in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge as well. It’s what they call an evergreen, where you can turn it on, sometimes at 5 o’clock in the morning. If you’ve got insomnia you can watch it. Might put you back to sleep.


Did anything change about the program over the course of its run?

Not really, except that for the early programs, I picked the best [topics]: Rossland, Sandon, Dawson City. So they were the best ones.


Were you able to keep everything in your head, or did you have to refer to notes?

No, most of the stuff I’m pretty familiar with. I think that was obvious on TV. We had a scratch sheet, but didn’t use it very much. So I’m pretty good at that. I’m not always dead on, but I’m usually pretty close. I think out of the 130 programs we made probably three errors that I regretted.


You always make mistakes. You think you don’t, but you do. But they should not be gargantuan. I remember in [the book] Gold Creeks & Ghost Towns I said ‘this is the stagecoach leaving Camborne.’ The old stage coach driver jumped all over me! He said ‘I was on that, I wasn’t leaving Camborne, I was going to Camborne.’ Damn fool, he said! [Laughs] He wasn’t so vicious as that, but he had read it and said ‘wrong, wrong.’


What about the museums you ran in Cloverdale and Penticton?

Steady money-losers. Penticton cost me about $20,000 a year just to keep the doors open. People are funny. They’ll buy your books. But they won’t spend $1.50 to go to the museum. After five years, I said ‘hold it here, that’s cost me perilously close to $100,000, so I think I’ll just close the doors.’ I thought the collection was worthwhile showing, but I didn’t do the advertising. And you had to be there all the time, and that isn’t my style. I’d rather be out in the high country somewhere.

Will we get an autobiography out of you?

I doubt it. I’ve had a number of people ask me that.

I imagine it would be part political and part historical.

Well, it would be mostly historical. I’m disillusioned with politics.


When did you join the CCF?

1949.


What appealed to you about the party?

I felt they were egalitarian to a degree and that they represented a lot of people who hadn’t been given a break, and couldn’t win. And I was absolutely fascinated by a speaker called [Bert] Herridge. Very gifted. He had a vocabulary of 30,000 to 40,000 words and was able to call upon them anytime he so wished.


How many times have you run for office? 

I ran in ‘69 in the Okanagan. Ran in ‘72 and was fairly narrowly defeated. And then won handily in 1988. And again handily in 1991. In 1996, I was partway through the campaign and I listened to [NDP leader] Glen Clark on the radio. And he kept saying “I” and “me” and forgot to mention the magic word “we.”


But you supported his leadership campaign.

Yes, with some misgivings. I told him to his face he [would be] one of the best premiers this province has ever seen, or one of the worst. But after I’d heard that program … People say I threw the election. It’s probably true. If I’d knocked on another 50 doors …

Although he was a longtime provincial New Democrat, Barlee’s last bid for office was as a federal Liberal in the riding of Kootenay-Boundary-Okanagan in 2000.

You keep homes in both Victoria and Osoyoos?

I spend most of my time in Victoria. Our daughters and only granddaughter are there. But this place [in Osoyoos] is just right for a writer. I look across and see the desert country. There’s nobody bloody well over there. I’ve got vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. Everything I need. But the other call is pretty strong, and Victoria’s a nice town anyway.


If you could go back in time, what year would you want to go to?

[Long pause] Probably the 1890s, when the mining era was at its height.


Where would you go?

It’s a toss-up between Rossland, the discovery of the LeRoi and the Silver Star and War Eagle, the Virginia by Moris and Bourgeois in 1895. Or the discovery of the Silver King, American Flag and all those marvellous points on Toad Mountain discovered by the Hall brothers and their party. Or the discovery of the Sullivan mine in Kimberley.


Who would you want to meet?

Well, I met some of them. I met Herbert Hagan, who was a mining engineer in Rossland, who took me under his wing, he and his wife. She died seven years ago. He told me a lot of stories. He had a marvelous memory. He eventually died in rather difficult circumstances. He had a severe stroke and was never able to speak again. But he had been all over the southern interior, knew every town, knew virtually everyone, and told me all about it. What a marvelous man.


As far as the individuals of the past: John Morgan Harris. He was from Virginia, where he had an aristocratic family. Discovered the Reco mine in Sandon. Made himself a million dollars. Turned back home. Restored his family’s mansion. Very chequered career, very interesting guy, highly educated, articulate. I missed him. Didn’t have to.


I would have liked to meet Kirkup, the gargantuan policeman of Revelstoke, Rossland, Phoenix and other towns along the way.


If you could save an artifact or building that didn’t survive, what would it be?

Certainly first on that list would be the Newmarket [Hotel] in New Denver. Second would be the Hunter Kendrick brick store in Greenwood which was torn down for the bricks. Thirdly, probably the Irvin Hotel rather than the Allan Hotel in Rossland, owned by old Sam Irvin. Those are three buildings, and I could add 30 more to the list. I could add the Spokane Hotel in Midway, owned by an ex-American outlaw Lou Salter. I could add, certainly, Hunter Brothers store in Rossland. I could add the Kootenay Hotel in Trail. I could add a number of buildings in Nelson.

The Newmarket Hotel in New Denver is seen not long before its destruction by fire in October 1973.


Is there one part of BC that you find most interesting of all?

It’s very hard to [say]. British Columbia has such a fascinating history. You can look at the West Kootenay, the Boundary, the Similkameen, the Cariboo, Atlin … the whole province is really quite riveting. But if I had to be restricted, if they said you only have one choice, Bill, this is it, I would say West Kootenay.


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Canada West’s Corporate History


March 1969

First issue (spring) of Bill Barlee’s quarterly Canada West magazine appears.


Early 1970s

Garnet Basque starts Canadian Frontier magazine, followed soon after by Canadian Treasure. He later sells Canadian Frontier and discontinues Canadian Treasure. He and Tom W. Paterson start Canadian Illustrated News.


Fall 1973

Barlee launches Canada Illustrated, a colour magazine on glossy paper which replaces Canada West. However, it folds after the second issue. Barlee resumes Canada West with the Winter 1974 edition.

Winter 1976

First issue of Canada West after Barlee sells the magazine to Paterson and Basque for $2,000. They amalgamate it with Canadian Illustrated News and makes typesetting improvements.


1982

Basque changes the title to History of the Canadian West and begins publishing in book format. Barlee re-acquires the rights to the name Canada West and starts his old magazine up again. He picks up the numbering where he left off — consequently there are two editions of Canada West Vol. 7, No. 1, one dated Spring 1977, the other Spring 1982. Barlee gets out three issues out before falling behind. The fourth and final issue is dated Fall 1983.


Early 1985

Basque decides to go back to a magazine format and change the name again. Since Barlee owns Canada West, he shortens History of the Canadian West to just Canadian West.


November 1985

Canada West merges with Canadian West under Basque’s ownership.


Summer 1994

Final issue of Canadian West before Garnet Basque dies suddenly.


There were a total of 28 issues of Bill Barlee’s Canada West published 1969-72, 1974-76, and 1982-83 plus two issues of Canada Illustrated, 1973-74.


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Further reading


The incredible life of Bill Barlee: A profile by Mark Brett that appeared in the Penticton Herald in 2007, including an interview with Barlee’s wife Kathleen.


Historian Barlee turned others on to the past: A tribute I wrote for the Nelson Star following Barlee’s death.


Victoria Times Colonist obituary: See the many comments and scroll down for a nice assortment of photos.

Updating Bill Barlee, from The Ormsby Review: A critical reassessment of Barlee’s work by Harold Rhenisch. The comments are worth reading too.


Corrected on Aug. 8, 2020: the general manager of CHBC-TV was Ron Evans, not Adams.

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Greg Nesteroff
Greg Nesteroff
Jan 30, 2021

Yes. I am not sure if Bill misspoke, or if it was my typo.

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Shouldn't that read "Centre Star" instead of "Silver Star" in the "Where would you go paragraph?"

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An excellent read! The history of popular historical writing and publishing, heritage preservation, history on TV, and various types of 'collecting' really deserve more attention. Thanks so much.

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