A Path of Martial Training

I was born, in 1959, into a caring family. My father was from a modern Mennonite background and my mother from a city family. The big things in New Hamburg, Ontario, the small Canadian town where I grew up, were baseball, hockey and, to a lesser degree, lacrosse. I was not a sports-oriented kid, so these things didn’t interest me. My father, on the other hand, loved sports and enrolled me in all of these activites. He was disappointed that I did not excel in nor enjoy any of  them. In early high school, he bribed me to take football, saying he would buy me a snowmobile. I took the bait and lasted all of two weeks. He finally let things be and we learned to love to fish together.

With visions of Bruce Lee dancing in his head, Peter Zehr wanted to do karate from a young age. Here he is practising a side kick in his family living room, in 1985.

I always enjoyed watching spy movies, such as In Like Flint and James Bond. The fancy moves they used to incapacitate the bad guys intrigued me and I wanted to see more. In the early 1970s, Bruce Lee was really making it big. I watched The Green Hornet and was fascinated by anything that I took to be karate. I became a fanatical fan of the TV show Kung Fu and watched every move that Kwai Chang Caine made. I recall once asking my sister to punch at me and trying out some of what I had seen.

I pleaded with my parents to let me take karate. My dad thought it was sissy stuff. My mom was a little kinder and when we visited Kitchener, Ont., she let me check out the dojo in the mall. For some reason – I suspect it was the price and the 20-minute drive – they didn’t let me enroll in the club.Even so, I was always fascinated by the way one person could disarm, control and take out one or more assailants. This fascination never left me and today, working as an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer, I realize from my experience dealing with criminals how effective the moves can really be.

The Journey Begins

Despite my interest, I was not able to take karate for a long time. Our family moved to the small farming town of Chesley. As a teenager, I met my future wife, Doreen. We were married in 1979, in our early 20s, and the next year Doreen took a fitness instructor course at the YMCA in Owen Sound. One day she brought home a course catalogue, with karate in it. I convinced her to take the course with me and she stayed for three weeks – I have never quit.

This 1988 picture shows Peter Zehr (far left) and brother, Paul (far right), standing with Chito-Ryu leaders: Shane Higashi, William Dometrich, Yasuhiro Chitose and David Akutagawa.

My first Instructor was Sandy Henderson. He studied something called Chito-Ryu karate. Henderson-Sensei was an excellent basics instructor and I soaked up information like a sponge. But the karate moves were something I had to work at; they didn’t seem natural to me at first. I would practise whenever I had a chance. Many of my friends and family made fun of my new interest, though a few were impressed by how seriously I practised. I studied under Henderson-Sensei until I was a brown belt and he had to quit due to back injuries.

When Henderson-Sensei injured himself, he turned the Owen Sound YMCA dojo over to me and another student, Wally Illman. To continue our training, we decided that we had to start visiting the Toronto dojo of Shane Higashi, the head of the Canadian Chito-Ryu Karate-Do Association.

Wally found all this travel and responsibility too much of a burden and quit. But I carried on learning from books and my many trips to Toronto. Higashi-Sensei taught me that what I had learned was not really Chito-Ryu karate but a form of Shotokan. He put me on probation for a year and said I could challenge for my black belt after this period, if I was ready.Well, the time flew by and I attemped the black belt test. With the post-test critique, I was certain that I had failed. However, Higashi-Sensei told me to call him the next Tuesday. I knew that you usually had to wait for months to find out black belt test results, so I was sure he was trying to find a way to let me down easily. But when I called, Higashi Sensei told me if I had a black belt I could put it on. Dumbstruck, I phoned Henderson-Sensei with the news and he told me I could wear one of his spare black belts. I had cleared my first hurdle. Now my real journey could begin.

Looking for Real Karate

Earlier, when I was a brown belt, my brother, who was nine years my junior, took up training under me. Paul was a natural. He earned a senior black belt in Chito-Ryu karate and now has a senior ranking in Ryukyu Kobujutsu.

In the early to mid-1980s, karate was much in demand. So I was approached by the community recreation director in Chesley to teach a class for adults and children. I decided to lead this class in my town and turned over the Y class in Owen Sound to another instructor. Unfortunately, things did not work out with the new instructor and the original YMCA class closed down.

As a policeman, Peter has always looked for a real, self-defence-based karate, as opposed to a sport. He found that the approach of Sakamoto-Sensei suits him best.

In Chesley, my first children’s class had at least 50 students and only one instructor – me. It seemed as if people in this rural area were looking for something different than the usual sports fare of hockey, baseball and soccer. So my classes started large, with many adults as well. The numbers trailed off as people realized how much work and discipline karate entailed.As I grew in my own training, I realized that I needed to make my karate more real. It had to be approached as something that could, in an instant, resolve a life-or-death situation. I could see how popular tournament competition was – the sport aspect of karate. However, I found that this approach to doing karate often gave students a false sense of confidence. Scoring points in a tournament is not the same as dealing with a real self-defence situation. So in my training and teaching I focused on basics, kata, bunkai, breakfalls and weaponry (kobudo). I trained for the one moment that would decide whether I would live or die.

Developing the Next Generation

As I studied, my brother, Paul, proved a wonderful training partner. We continually pushed, forcing each other out of our comfort zones. I also continued to travel to Toronto for training as the ’80s turned into the ’90s.

At the same time, I would invite Toronto instructors, such as Earl Robertson and Peter Giffen, to teach clinics in Chesley. Giffen-Sensei visited regularly and over the years we became friends, as did our families. He became my primary instructor and shared many of my ideas regarding “real” karate training.

Clockwise from top left: Peter and Paul training with senior instructor Isamu Kato, circa 1989. Future Grey-Bruce instructor Matt Mannerow at age 10, in 1987. Peter presents his son Derek with his shodan, in 2003.

As my training progressed, my life’s journey hit some major bumps. I lost a good friend, my grandparents, my father and then my business. On the plus side of the ledger, I  was blessed with three wonderful sons, a daughter-in-law, a granddaughter and a wife who has been supremely understanding about my commitment to training. I found strength through my family, my faith in Jesus Christ and my training in karate.

The club in Chesley was well established. Little did I know that one of the seven-year-old kids in the class would go on to become my right arm. When my family business expired, I had to find work some 130 killometres away. So I had to turn the dojo over to two blue belts, Matt Mannerow and Steve McGillivary. Matt, now a young man, wound up being the one to take over the reins and become the primary instructor while I was away.

I trained with Matt whenever I could, sometimes early in the morning before I drove to New Hamburg for work. I trained myself and Matt at the same time, so we would grow together. By sharing my training methods and goals, I helped Matt to develop his own. This approach is important, because if you and your direct student do not share goals and priorities, then the training will ultimately fail.

Ryusei and the Road Ahead

As a decade passed, Matt’s goals became more aligned with mine, and he became such an integral part of Zehr Chito-ryu Karate that we changed the dojo name, in 2002, to Grey-Bruce Ryusei Karate. You see, as I researched my karate, it took on a different feeling from what I was originally taught. And then, in 2000, when Peter Giffen left Chito-Ryu to join Ryusei Karate-Do, I looked at what this sister style entailed. Matt was able to attend a seminar in Toronto with Sakamoto-Sensei and was highly impressed by his technique and skill. Matt recommended that we consider changing styles to Ryusei, since he believed that Sakamoto’s teaching methods were similar to ours (though much more advanced, of course).

Some of the Grey-Bruce Ryusei black belts Top: Adelle DeLong, Matt Mannerow, Peter Zehr and Derek Zehr. Bottom: Karl McConnell, Peter, Matt, Evan Bray and Merv Holmes.

After much soul-searching, I concluded that we should make the change to Ryusei, as the best path for the continued advancement of our technique and understanding. After making the switch, it soon became apparent that the choice we made was the right one, and so we forged ahead.

We run two dojo now, one in Chesley and the other in Wiarton. In recent years, we have promoted some new black belts in the dojo and anticipate adding more yudansha in the years to come. Currently, due to my shift work as a police officer, Matt is the  chief instructor for the Grey-Bruce Ryusei Karate dojo, ensuring that the classes are taught properly while I work. I am the technical head of the dojo, making sure that the development of our students continues on the correct course. We hope to eventually encourage other of our yudansha to teach and open new dojo. 

I will continue my own training, improving and correcting myself as my aging body permits. I hope one day to be the old guy in the corner who looks half-crippled when he walks, but becomes as smooth as a panther when he performs karate.

One of the highlights of my training was my trip to Japan, in 2007, where I tested for and passed my fifth dan examination, in front of Sakamoto-Sensei. The experience has inspired and energized me so that I am looking forward to my next 25 years in karate.

This has been my journey so far. My advice to beginners and senior students alike is to take from karate what you need and then pass it on.
—Peter Zehr
Grey-Bruce Ryusei Karate