Tending the Tree of Life

Tending the Tree of Life

a memoir by Irwin Kahan
illustrated by Wendy Winter
edited by Barbara Kahan
limited edition of 200 copies
softcover ~ 112 pages ~ 6" x 9" ~ $25.00
illustrations (watercolour) and photos: black & white
ISBN 978-0-9881229-8-7
released March 2015


How did a Jewish farm boy from Saskatchewan end up participating in LSD experiments and other cutting-edge psychiatric research? In a voice that charms the reader, Irwin Kahan - World War II veteran, champion for people suffering from schizophrenia, father of three - recounts his often dramatic life. He tells his story simply, with an engaging quirkiness that makes his character come fully alive on the page. This memoir illustrates the compassion and dedication of a man who strove, with humour and optimism, to tend the tree of life.

Comments | Media attentionWhy read this book | Excerpts | Conversation points 
Meet the author | Meet the illustrator | Funding | Photo gallery | Buying notes  


  • Janice Rosen (Archives Director, Canadian Jewish Congress CC National Archives)
    This is a lovely book, both readable and interesting; an account that is difficult to put down once one begins. The text is enhanced by simple, distinctive illustrations as well as by relevant archival photographs and documents. 
         The early chapters provide an important addition to existing Jewish prairie narratives, with connections to families and communities that some readers may be familiar with through books written by the author's in-laws, the Hoffer family. The author's recollections of Jewish life in rural Saskatchewan and in the air force during WWII will be useful for historical researchers in these areas.
         From this point on the story takes unexpected turns, especially as Irwin Kahan establishes himself in his career. This section of the book provides substantive insights into psychiatric theories of the 1950s on,  and the development of the Saskatchewan mental health care system. Along the way Kahan also gives the reader a sense of his philosophy of life.
         The last section of the book doubles back on certain facts in order to document the family's history for later generations.
         As I finished reading Tending the Tree of Life I felt that I had had the privilege of sharing in a conversation with a very articulate and pleasant man. I was reluctant to bid farewell to him on the last page.
  • Erika Dyck (Professor, History of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan)
    Tending the Tree of Life offers a genuine set of reflections from a remarkable man who, many might argue, experienced some of the more challenging moments in Saskatchewan's history: growing up in a pioneering family in southern Saskatchewan, belonging to a Jewish community in what was at times an unwelcoming region, working in an overcrowded and dismal provincial mental health system, and ultimately surviving the early death of his wife. Irwin Kahan, however, revisits his past with what appears to be a characteristically optimistic and humane appraisal of it. Kahan's contributions to social work and mental health reform in Saskatchewan were considerable, particularly as he directed the Canadian Mental Health Association (Saskatchewan Division), and during his time with the Saskatchewan Department of Social Welfare when he engaged in social work with children. His reflections on these moments in his life are tender, anecdotal, and draw attention away from his personal achievements to underscore the humanity of the situations he found himself in. This masterful storytelling invites the readers to sympathize with consumers of the mental health system, while learning about the life of one reformer who humbly urges us to kindle our feelings of tolerance and compassion.  
  • Jessica Bickfordfrom her SPG Book Review - Read the full review 
    I learned so much from Irwin's story - from the struggles of pioneering while attempting to keep the Jewish faith, to the difficulties of trying to finish high school by correspondence lessons, and even to what it's like to take LSD (for science, of course)…it is people like Irwin who I thank for starting the line of thinking that people with mental illness shouldn't be stigmatized or medicated into a stupor…the 'Farm Life' section of the memoir would be a fantastic thing for kids learning about pioneer days in Saskatchewan to read because it is a simple account full of funny little stories, but enough information to paint a very clear picture about what life was like… 
  • Rosalie Moscoe (Co-chair, International Schizophrenia Foundation), responding to Jessica Bickford's review:
    My mother and her family also grew up in Saskatchewan and shared those early pioneering days of living on a farm. As Co-chair of the International Schizophrenia Foundation, I commend Irwin Kahan for his work to improve mental health care and his dedication to help others. I look forward to reading Mr. Kahan’s book and also having him inducted into the Orthomolecular Medicine Hall of Fame at our spring, 2015 conference. Congratulations on a beautiful, robust, fruitful life and now this important chronicle of a piece of history through this wonderful memoir, Tending The Tree of Life.
  • Wendy Winter (illustrator of Tending the Tree of Life)
    As an artist I enjoyed finding ways to depict such an interesting and conscientious life, and as a human being I was moved by Irwin's sense of justice and his desire to treat vulnerable individuals fairly and respectfully. 
  • Lisa Brownstone (community builder)
    Tending the Tree of Life is a lovely memoir that gives glimpses of Irwin Kahan's life. Reading it is like receiving a series of postcards. You get a snapshot of a moment in his life, told with gentle optimism, even when describing challenging times. Kahan allows us to glimpse life on a Jewish farm near Lipton Saskatchewan in the early 20th century, attending a one-room country schoolhouse, his experience of the second world war, falling in love, finding a vocation (helping others), the approach to mental health in the 1950s-1980s in Saskatchewan, organizing for the CCF-NDP, raising a family, the LSD experiments in the 1950s-1960s, and his advocacy work. Kahan's voice has a gentle strength, and you can feel the joy with which he approaches life. For Irwin Kahan, life is a planting of seeds, nurturing them, celebrating the growth and building towards tomorrow.

Media Attention

  • Bill Robertson, in the Star-Phoenix, April 11, 2015 - Read the full review (click on page 2).
    Irwin Kahan's memoir, Tending the Tree of Life, though fraught with its unfortunate share of racial and religious hatreds, is mostly a story of family love and eventual success...Kahan closes his book with some profound reflections on the value and believability of religion and looks at his own ability to live in the world and respond to its many challenges. His memoir, outlining his sturdy grounding in family, culture and religion, allowed him a full and productive life from which to meditate on these subjects. 


  • Read the Regina Leader-Post article and view the video by reporter Ashley Martin, February 28, 2015: Kahan's life of advocacy told in memoir. Photo is from the article.
  • This same photo, by Don Healey, was also used to advertise the Vertigo Series season finale in the Regina Leader-Post's QC magazine on June 224, 2015.



















  • The essay above, by Tending the Tree of Life author Irwin Kahan, was published posthumously in QC and Bridges magazines on July 29, 2015. It can also be read online.
  • The article below, about Tending the Tree of Life author Irwin Kahan was published in The Globe and Mail, August 7, 2015. It can also be read online


  • The article "Wild Sage Reading Draws Crowd" by Robyn Tocker, published in the Fort Times on September 3, 2015, can be read online (scroll down to second story on page). Tending the Tree of Life was one of the books featured at the event, which took place in Fort Qu'Appelle on August 29, 2015.


Why read this book

First and foremost - delve into this book if you enjoy a good read with the occasional chuckleTending the Tree of Life provides an entertaining overview of nearly a century of history from someone who lived through it. Want to know what life was like for Jewish pioneers who homesteaded in Saskatchewan? Curious about the experiences of a farm boy who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II? Intrigued about the cutting-edge psychiatric research conducted in Saskatchewan in the 1950s? If you're looking for an academic discussion, this memoir is not for you. Do read this memoir, however, if you want to settle down with the simply told but lively story of a vibrant character who in his modest and optimistic way succeeded in helping many people. 


from the chapter School 

At school I latched onto Uncle Max, my mother’s brother, who was nine years older than me. He was a favourite of mine. 
I looked up to him and wanted him to pay attention to me. I started to follow him one time when I was in Grade 1. He said, “Go home,” and on the way home I stopped to play in the wheat. I was a little guy and the wheat was taller than me. I played castles — the wheat stalks were the walls. My parents didn’t know what had happened to me and went looking for me; the dog found me. I loved that dog. He was a medium-sized brown mutt. I started playing with him and then my parents came, yelling at me, saying not to do that ever again. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong.

illustration by Wendy Winter

 from the chapter Social Work

When I was with the CMHA we submitted many briefs, and I met Tommy Douglas that way and at some political meetings. A few times we were across the aisle from him at football games. One time in Weyburn I was on the same platform with him, when we were opening a rehabilitation centre there. Weyburn was in Douglas's constituency and he was guest speaker. 

As we were waiting for the proceedings to start, I told him, "I'm nervous, following a good speaker like you." 

He said, "Don't think about that, just think about the message. If you do that, you'll be successful." 

That was his advice, and it worked. That's one of the highlights of my life, being on the same platform with Douglas.

illustration by Wendy Winter


Conversation points

If you are a member of a book club, like to discuss what you read with family and friends, or enjoy interior dialogues with yourself, a few questions follow to get the conversational ball rolling. 

  • In what ways did the memoir change your understanding of topics such as:
    -- the early Jewish immigrant experience in Canada
    -- life in the Air Force
    -- the role of politics in affecting health policy
  • How is your view of schizophrenia and other mental illness similar or different to the author's?
  • How would you sum up the author's character? Which qualities of his do you share? Why is he or isn't he someone you would like to meet?
  • A strong motivation for the author's life choices was his desire to make the world a better place. How common a motivating factor do you think this is for people? Why is it or isn't it common?
  • What are the different ways that a passion to help people expresses itself? In what ways do you see yourself helping people?
  • The author mentions a number of different kinds of challenges he faced in life, such as having to complete his high school degree by correspondence, the death of his wife, loss of friends and family during the war, a psychiatric establishment resistant to change, health issues. Which challenges have you faced that are similar or different to the author's? Based on the author's experiences and your own, what is the best way to approach challenges?
  • What was your favourite part of the book? What part did you find the most surprising? moving? the funniest? Why?
  • If you were to write your own memoir, in what ways would your approach differ from the author's, for example regarding writing style, content, and underlying themes?

Meet the author

Irwin Kahan was born in 1919 in a Jewish farming community near Lipton, Saskatchewan. After serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, he received his social work degree from Montreal's McGill University in 1950. His first job was working in adoptions and child welfare in North Battleford, Saskatchewan area. He later moved to Regina, where he soon joined the team which was responsible for a dynamic period of the Saskatchewan government's psychiatric research program. During this era, the popularly called "megavitamin therapy" for schizophrenia was developed and LSD experiments took place.

Irwin worked with the Saskatchewan Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association for many years and then became founding General Director of the Canadian Schizophrenia Foundation (now the International Schizophrenia Foundation). Throughout his career, Irwin was a fierce advocate for the rights of and better treatment for people with schizophrenia and their families

A driving force of Irwin's life was to help people as much as he could and make the world a better place. Even after he moved to a retirement home in his mid-80s his concern was for the welfare of his fellow residents. 

In 1950 Irwin married Fannie Hoffer, who died in 1978. Their three children are Barbara, Meldon and Sharon. Irwin has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Irwin died on April 9, 2015, at age 96 in Toronto. Below are a few "in memorium" comments.

  • Dan Kahan: I always thought he was a very sweet man, kind, caring and very intelligent. I loved our discussions... I really enjoyed when we'd visit my parents in Nanaimo and Uncle Irwin was there. We'd go for some great walks and talks.
  • Dorothy Banka and Jerome Bechard: We will always remember the twinkle in his eye, his bright smile, patience and positive attitude and of course the bridge games. 
  • Jim and Lois Griffin: He was a very gentle man who devoted his life to family and to searching for answers to problems that the rest of society wasn't aware of - as we look back.
  • John Hoffer: Irwin had a good life, and bore up to all of its challenges with exemplary good will. I will never forget his bedtime stories.
  • Mark Kahan: Uncle Irwin to me was a great Uncle. I have fond memories of my him having me stare at a colored square then him pushing my arm down with ease. I was amazed!!! I know my Dad loved him a lot and always, always spoke so highly of him. 
  • Rosalie Moscoe: He's left a beautiful legacy for … those whom he touched in his life. Helping to establish the ISF [International Schizophrenia Foundation, formerly the Canadian Schizophrenia Foundation] and being there to help and comfort those struggling with schizophrenia will always be remembered. 
  • Shelley Kasman: [Irwin] visited us a lot in Winnipeg when he had meetings for the Schizophrenia Fdn. He was always sweet and very kind. He was very close to my mother and she always had very high regard for him. She always remembered that he bought her a dress in order to get her first job as she had no work clothes. 
  • Susan, Fred, Andrea and Adam Kraft: [Irwin] was a wonderful man and we will treasure our memories of him. We admired him very much…
  • Trevor Roberts: He was such a great man who made a real difference in the lives of so many people… From his role as a key founder of the ISF all the way through to his final years engaging the residents of Pine Villa and improving their quality of life. Few people can claim such a legacy and I feel privileged to have met him.
  • Orthomolecular Health (in message about blog posted October 1, 2015): "An Important Man In Orthomolecular History: In memory of Irwin Kahan, who passed away in April 2015 at age 96 - He was a dedicated and compassionate man who did many great things for orthomolecular medicine." The blog can be read online 

Meet the illustrator

 Accomplished artist Wendy Winter attended art school in Calgary. Her career as an art museum educator provided rich inspiration for all of her creative endeavors and allowed her to share her passion for the arts with children and youth. She has received the Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award for Arts and Learning. She is the mother of two sons, Michael and Mark, and greatly enjoys spending time with her granddaughter, Kaira. Wendy lives in Regina. 

Photo by Kaira Barabonoff Lund


Questions and Answers with Wendy

What made you decide on the "tree" theme for your illustrations? 
Certainly influenced by working title of book. After reading memoir and trying to figure out ways to illustrate chapters, the idea of using symbolic trees became attractive. I imagined Irwin's parents planting the sapling and the tree growing and maturing with the boy, then the man. I tried different ways of including relevant symbols and changing the emotional charge of each illustration.

Why did you a choose a bird to go on the front cover image? 
I had finished most of the illustrations. In researching trees I found an image of a lone bird on a winter tree. Barbara already had a cover image in mind, but I really liked the bird, so I brought the concept to Barbara and the designer. They both liked it but wanted a warmer depiction, so I painted the cover with warm colours and leaves.

Why a Gray Jay?
Honestly, I just went through one of my books on local birds and looked for a bird I thought would be suitable. I also read the bird description and found that the Gray Jay is curious and bold. They are also likeable and mild-mannered.

Was it easy to come up with the images? 
Some of the image ideas came easily. These included parents planting sapling, boy sitting under tree of knowledge, stark tree in time of war, tree shaped like the inner workings of the mind. Some images were influenced by conversations with Barbara: turkey in illustration with the boy on the farm, Irwin enjoying retirement paintbrush in hand. Some images took longer to envision such as father and daughter talking long distance.

Did the memoir "speak" to you, as an artist or otherwise? 
As an artist I enjoyed finding ways to depict such an interesting and conscientious life, and as a human being I was moved by Irwin's sense of justice and his desire to treat vulnerable individuals fairly and respectfully.


Publishing made possible with the support of Creative Saskatchewan.

Huge thanks to Creative Saskatchewan for their financial contribution! Also huge thanks to Meldon Kahan for his generous donation in support of publishing Tending the Tree of Life.

Photo Gallery






Irwin mid-1930s             in the Air Force            
 university graduation       McGill days


wedding day -
marrying Fannie Hoffer 


back to Saskatchewan





children Barbara, Sharon and Meldon 1961



 Fannie, Meldon, Irwin, 
son-in-law Evan, Regina 1976

in NY City
when attending
conference 1977


speaking on mental health 1980s












hiking in Avonlea area Saskatchewan 1993                                        with Sharon, Anglin Lake SK 2003





with colleague and brother-in-law Abram Hoffer





with grandson 
London ON 2008



with Meldon,
Toronto 2010









with Barbara, Toronto 2014


with granddaughter Tara, Toronto 2014


Irwin's acrylic painting
Miracle Tree




New Year's resolution,
Toronto, January 2015


 Wendy Winter with book illustrations, 
Regina 2014

Designer Larry Mader 
with illustrator Wendy Winter after design meeting, in front of Wendy's bus, 
Regina 2014


Author Irwin Kahan reviewing proofs with publisher Barbara Kahan




admiring the
published book



reading newspaper
article about the book





daughter Sharon Kahan
reading a chapter at the
launch, March 2, 2015,
at Pine Villa retirement
home in Toronto

left: with Pine Villa director of recreation
Hayley Steward at the launch
below: book signing at the launch









Daniel Parr shelving TTL
at SaskBooks, March 2015


Trevor Roberts, e.d. of International Schizophrenia Foundation, presenting Irwin Kahan with inscribed crystal, Toronto, March 2015 - for Irwin's upcoming induction into the Orthomolecular Medicine Hall of Fame - in honour of Irwin's "pioneering work for those with schizophrenia and other
mental illness, as an advocate and
educator in Orthomolecular Medicine,
and in establishing and growing the
Canadian Schizophrenia Foundation."



Barbara Kahan, at June 29 Vertigo Series, where she read from TTL. Photo by Evan Morris.





left: TTL at Traditions (Regina) - middle row  

left: Barbara Kahan, reading from TTL in Fort Qu'Appelle, August 29, 2015. For more about the event, visit the Events' page
below: Barbara Kahan at Beth Jacob event in Regina, April 10, 2016, where she read from TTL. 







Wild Sage Highlights