Origin of words

Marjorie Doyle

Marjorie Doyle

In the introduction to a book, “A Doyle Reader” by Newfoundlander Marjorie Doyle, CBC Radio host Shelagh Rogers described a get-together between the two longtime friends. Shelagh said, on this particular visit, that she presented Marjorie with a couple of ceramic coffee mugs with the title (of the show Shelagh was then hosting) “Sounds Like Canada” on them.

In accepting the gift, Rogers said Doyle immediately ran to her office, returned with a thick black Magic Marker pen and crossed out the word “Canada” and scribbled in “Newfoundland.”

“Now I can use them,” she told Rogers. “I’m stuck with what I am, who I am,” Doyle recently told a panel discussion I attended in Newfoundland. “On an island, borders are intractable.”

Back in May, The Writers’ Union of Canada gathered its executive, its administrators and several hundred of its members (myself included) in St. John’s for its annual general meeting. Traditionally, TWUC holds workshops on the first day the union meets. Marjorie Doyle appeared on the panel entitled “Writing From My Centre.” She admitted that her home province did not appear in her earliest work as a journalist for the Globe and Mail, the National Post or even on her late night CBC Radio show “That Time of the Night.”

But eventually – perhaps because she often worked away from Newfoundland, in Toronto, Montreal or on Vancouver Island – she realized how much her home island affected her.

“When I was away,” she said, “ I was very aware I wasn’t from that place.” Newfoundland shaped her taste in music, in travel and in language, so she embraced it and celebrated it. I suspect place has a lot to do with the works of many Canadian writers.

Pierre Berton

Pierre Berton

As well as Marjorie Doyle, author Wayne Johnston has always captured the political and social bloodlines of Newfoundland. The writings of Earl Birney, Dorothy Livesay, George Woodcock and P.K. Page have almost always been associated with British Columbia, just as Pierre Berton’s and Farley Mowat’s works of non-fiction are often linked to Yukon and the Northwest Territories respectively. Think of some of this country’s best fiction or poetry with Montreal as a setting and you read Mordecai Richler, Gabrielle Roy or Roch Carrier. Similarly, W.O. Mitchell, Margaret Laurence and Guy Vanderhaeghe are Canadian writers with their feet and creativity firmly planted in the Prairies.

Over the weekend I joined the 18th annual Saskatchewan Festival of Words in Moose Jaw. For a time – back in the 1970s – I lived and worked in Saskatchewan; I have enjoyed a following there and have twice presented at the festival. But a new generation of Prairie writers has emerged in recent years. They too have found their fictional characters, non-fictional stories, plot lines, settings and even their muses in what one character described as “this dry and barren landscape.”

In her adopted home, Regina, Gail Bowen has written 15 books known as “the Joanne Kilbourn mystery series.” Six of her books have been adapted to television movies; she has also written stage plays and radio dramas. Throughout, she has remained in content and in voice a Prairie writer. Nor has Bowen ever shied away from dealing with contemporary Prairie urban issues, such as the poverty, prostitution and low-rental housing in a Regina neighbourhood known as North Central.

“I always try to portray my locations accurately,” she told a writing panel about the Prairie landscape. “When I write about North Central, I write about it warts and all.”

Anthony Budulka

Anthony Budulka

Seated next to Bowen on the panel was celebrated crime writer Anthony Bidulka, known best for his mystery series featuring detective Russell Quant. On his website, Bidulka describes his hero as “a world-travelling, wine-swilling, wise-cracking, gay PI.” He remembered a unique moment when Quant’s origins suddenly emerged as an issue during a Q & A session in the U.S.

“This big Texan got up to the mike and began to speak,” Bidulka said. “He said, ‘I would like to know how you can write a series about a detective who is … from Saskatchewan?’” That’s when Anthony Bidulka realized how powerfully his home in Saskatoon affected his personality and writing. “We’re a fly-over province,” he added, “but I’m driven to write about Saskatchewan.”

Signal Hill just outside St. John's is a reminder of just how rugged this island province can appear.

Signal Hill just outside St. John’s is a reminder of just how rugged this island province can appear.

Similarly, as I pointed out in the beginning, Marjorie Doyle is a proud Newfoundlander. She writes critically about her home. She writes passionately about her home. She has strong feelings about its past and its future. She’s even been known to profess that her island province should eventually secede from Canada and return to Dominion status (as Newfoundland was prior to its joining Confederation in 1949).

However, Marjorie is realistic enough to recognize where she is and from where she writes (at least for now).

“I’m the only member of my family born in Canada,” she said at the St. John’s writers’ conference. “The rest of my family was born in Newfoundland (before 1949). Still, I’m rooted to this place … in all I think and write.”

Custodians of the past


Monument marks the spot where Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was shot.

Monument (just off I-95) marks the spot where Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded.

Travellers whiz along this stretch of the U.S. interstate highway in central Virginia without blinking an eye. Most are driving the few miles on I-95 to shop or dine in Richmond, Virginia, or are commuting the short hour to work in Washington, D.C. Only history buffs realize that near this turnoff, just north of the former capital of the Confederate States of America, stands a monument marking a critical moment in the American Civil War. Paul Van Nest, a Civil War guide from Kingston, Ont., never passes this spot without stopping to remember events here.

“At this spot,” he described to my tour group this week, “a Federal soldier sees no less than Confederate commander J.E.B. Stuart, aims his revolver and fires a deadly shot that passes right through Stuart’s body.”

The day Stuart died, May 12, 1864, the war between the Union and the Confederacy had raged for more than three years. It would go on for another year, cost a recently revised estimate of 750,000 soldiers’ and civilians’ lives, and take the life of President Abraham Lincoln.

Civil War specialist Paul Van Nest describes the final moments of J.E.B. Stuart's military career.

Civil War specialist Paul Van Nest describes the final moments of J.E.B. Stuart’s military career.

In addition, for guide Paul Van Nest, now 75, Gen. Stuart’s passing was a bleak turning point in the life of the Confederacy. In just a matter of months, he pointed out, Southern commander Robert E. Lee had endured repeated military setbacks in his home state of Virginia and lost upwards of 20,000 casualties, nearly a third of his army. Perhaps most devastating, as tour guide Van Nest saw it, Gen. Lee had sustained a personal loss here.

“Lee felt very close to J.E.B. Stuart,” he said. “Losing him was like losing a son.”

Historian Paul Van Nest, who has led no fewer than 55 different Civil War tours in some 27 years, doesn’t gloss over the equally catastrophic aspects of the U.S. war of secession – state versus federal rights, plantation economy versus industrial economy, and slave versus non-slave proponents. To be sure, discussion among those travelling on this tour has been continuous, constructive and occasionally contentious.

Like so much else in our neighbouring cultures, whenever Americans have experienced upheaval, Canadians have always paid attention. One member of our group even picked up a book entitled “The South Was Right!” by Ronald and Donald Kennedy, who claim most Civil War history is untrue because it was written by the victors. I tend to endorse the sentiment in “Fields of Honor,” a book I picked up by Edwin Bearss, historian emeritus with the U.S. National Park Service.

National Park Service interpreter Richard Champman Jr. remembers his great grandfather, Civil War soldier James Chapman.

National Park Service interpreter Richard Champman Jr. remembers his great grandfather, Civil War soldier James Chapman.

“The enduring interest in America’s Civil War,” Bearss wrote, “comes from the direct connection many people feel with the people who fought in it.”

That’s likely one of the reasons why Richard Chapman Jr., a National Park Service historian, has invested a decade of his life in storytelling around events of the Civil War. His great grandfather James Chapman fought with the 42nd Virginia Volunteer Infantry at such landmark battlefields as Manassas, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. We met Chapman Jr. at a place called Saunders’ Field, where on May 5, 1864, his ancestor had assisted in repulsing a Federal Army attack during what was known as the Battle of the Wilderness. Walking us across what had been a bramble-choked cornfield 150 years ago, Chapman described the slaughter of Union troops as witnessed by attacking Col. George Ryan of a New York regiment.

Richard Chapman Jr. illustrates the ground where Union troops disappeared like "snow flakes."

Richard Chapman Jr. illustrates the ground in Saunders’ field where Union troops were cut down by Confederate infantry.

“I saw my men melt away like snow,” said Chapman quoting Ryan. “Men disappeared as if the earth had swallowed them.”

Chapman, now 62, remembered learning Civil War history as a kid. He even admitted, in a childhood fantasy, writing in his notebook, “the next president of the Confederacy, Richard Chapman Jr.” He went on to earn his master’s degree in history at the University of North Carolina and another degree in communications at James Madison University. He’d even served in the U.S. Army in Germany in the 1970s. But he said merely being a Virginian and knowing all this history had happened in his backyard drew him to telling war history for a living. And Chapman didn’t mind offering his own what-if scenario of Saunders’ Field.

Image of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at the monument marking his last stand.

Image of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at the monument marking his last stand.

“Had the Confederates’ counter-attack not been halted by darkness,” Chapman mused, “that famous quote by [Gen. Ulysses S.] Grant, ‘Some of you think that Lee is all of sudden going to do a somersault and land in our rear on both flanks,’ might actually have come true.”

In America, whether Blue or Grey, they explore, expound and extrapolate their past. Paul Van Nest, our Canadian tour leader, made sure we understood that as we explored the battlefields of southern Virginia. He also shared the burden that all war historians carry. As he stood beside the stone monument that memorialized J.E.B. Stuart’s death at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, tears welled up.

“I feel for both sides,” he said. “Because this story was repeated over and over again. Sometimes, all you can say is, ‘Why?’”


Conscience and conflict


George Weber and I posed in front of his favourite aircraft - the Spitfire - where he spent mot of his WWII career.

At the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, George Weber and I posed in front of his favourite aircraft – the Spitfire – where he spent mot of his WWII career.

He wasn’t wearing his medals when I met George Weber, this week. Had he worn the ribbons and gongs – for his service in the U.K., the Mediterranean and Burma in the Second World War – they’d have no doubt looked pretty impressive. But his blazer with its air force pilot’s brevet and fighter squadron crest offered ample evidence of his wartime service.

Still, one aspect of Weber’s life in the war was not so obvious. He came from a Mennonite home near Kitchener and the Webers, he told me, did not believe in the use of guns. But as it turned out he was able to reconcile his religious beliefs and his loyalty to Canada.

“I didn’t shoot people during the war,” he said. “I ended up shooting pictures.”

In 1941, very much against his father’s wishes, a 22-year-old George Weber went to a recruiting office in western Ontario and enlisted in the army. It became evident very quickly that his family’s “conscientious objector” philosophy (a general condemnation of war for the bloodshed involved) conflicted with his basic army training. A cousin assisted his transfer to air force. And for a while, all George had to worry about were his flight controls, navigation skills, takeoffs and landings.

Then, his Elementary Flying Training School was visited by none other than former WWI fighter pilot Billy Bishop, who’d arrived to ensure the young air cadets were up to snuff. Bishop (the instruction inspector) and Weber (the guinea pig student) took off in a two-seater Fleet Finch.

“Bishop took me up to a thousand feet and told me to do a slow roll,” Weber said. “Well, I’d never done any aerobatics … but I ended up doing some unexpected low flying. … and I guess that’s why I ended up doing photo reconnaissance [in an unarmed Spitfire].”

With your understanding of my preoccupation of such things (and since I’ve just come back from D-Day observances overseas) I’ve often wondered how some men and women served in the armed forces, when their religious convictions in life did not align with the demands of their service. In particular, religious groups such as Quakers, Mennonites and Amish (among others) have historically refused to participate in armed service. Generally, such religions have believed they should remain neutral in worldly conflicts, that they had greater respect for humanity as a whole, or that no government had the right to command its citizens to go to war.

“Neither shall [we] learn war anymore,” they might quote from the Bible.

I never asked my father about such things (and I should have), but I sense his service as a medic in the Second World War might well have resulted from a form of conscientious objection. He’d grown up in a non-violent family environment. I know there was never a gun in his mother’s house (as there was never one in the house where my sister and I grew up). And while he went to Greek Orthodox Church most Sundays, my father’s view of war I don’t think was influenced by his religion. Years later, when I came across his attestation (enlistment) papers, I noticed in the “occupation” box he had written “sewing machine operator.”

It never occurred to me until someone made the connection between his occasional piecemeal work sewing furs (like his mother and future mother-in-law) and his wartime role of patching people up, that maybe his needlework had landed him in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, not his anti-war sentiment. Whatever the reason, I sensed my father survived the war very much the way George Weber did, by coping with its realities and putting up with its inconsistencies until clearly the bad guys were put out of action.

As I suggested, RCAF pilot George Weber adhered to his family’s abhorrence of violence and the principles of warfare pretty loyally. On almost every operation – more than 70 photo reconnaissance flights during the war – Warrant Officer Weber never pressed the button on his Spitfire control column with any other intention than to capture images of enemy positions.

He did however admit, in our interview this week, that he carried a 45-callibre pistol on his hip, just in case. And when pressed he said he’d used it once. On one of his flights over Japanese military positions in Burma, he attracted the attention of a Japanese Zero pilot. Weber said he managed to evade the enemy fire. But in an act of frustration – to ward off the enemy pilot – Weber said he was suddenly alongside the Japanese fighter pilot.

“I opened my cockpit cover enough to fire a couple of shots at the guy with my 45 to scare him off,” Weber said. “But my dad never heard about it.”

I guess a few warning shots across the bow of an enemy fighter didn’t violate either his promise to his father or the tenets of his Mennonite faith.

Strike up the band

View from the back of the Agincourt Collegiate Institute band... with music teacher John Rutherford conducting. (May 1967)

View from the back of the Agincourt Collegiate Institute band… with music teacher John Rutherford conducting. (May 1967)

I really had no idea what was going on. I was a long way from being in the front row, or being in the know. As a member of the supporting cast, I didn’t really understand the point of the exercise. But then band leader John Rutherford invited me down to the front where he stood and instead of having me play my instrument, he asked me to listen to everything from where he stood. And after he led the band through the same musical number again, he explained.

“You see, Ted, while you’re going um-pah, um-pah, um-pah, um-pah,” he said imitating my trumpet part, “the rest of us are down here playing Howard Cable’s ‘Newfoundland Rhapsody.’”

I had to admit, sitting in the back row of the third trumpet section of the school band, I had no idea what the rest of the student musicians were playing. I was just reading my part as diligently as possible, making sure I didn’t lose my place in the music and (most important) ensuring I didn’t play any of my “um-pahs” in the wrong place. John Rutherford knew I’d never amount to much of a trumpet player, that I had achieved in brass-instrument performance terms the equivalent of the Peter Principle. More important he understand that, up to that point, the orchestral results of our rehearsal were kind of lost on me. But in that sudden Eureka moment, our band leader and music teacher, Mr. Rutherford, realized if I could see and hear how I was contributing, that I would realize the value of my input, in short, why I mattered.

Memories of Rutherford and our Agincourt Collegiate Institute concert band came rushing back to me this week as I read some rather disturbing statistics about the decline of music in Ontario elementary schools. For example, according to a report on “The Arts in Ontario Schools,” just issued by the People For Education (PFE) lobby group in Toronto, while in 2012 nearly half of all grade schools in the province had a teacher dedicated to instructing music, last year (2013) that number slipped to just above 40 per cent. Is that significant? Sure it is when you consider that in the late 1990s as many as 60 per cent of schools had specialist music teachers such as Mr. Rutherford.

The study goes on to say that those of us in the Greater Toronto Area may have it better than in rural Ontario. It points out that about six in 10 GTA schools have some kind of music instruction going on. In northern Ontario learning about bass and treble clefs, key signatures, melody and harmony is restricted to just over a quarter of all schools. And while the study is designed to sound an alarm about how music training has declined, Annie Kidder, a spokeswoman for PFE, warns that a fading music curriculum may also have an economic impact on society.

“When you talk to people in business now,” she told Canadian Press, “they feel that capacity to think creatively, to innovate, is a core part of being an entrepreneur – being able to lead a change in a knowledge economy.” In other words, Kidder says music gives kids 21st vocational century skills.

I wholehearted agree. Anybody who can read music charts, pick up tempo, translate that to a motor skill and make the results come to a musical conclusion, must have an arithmetic capacity. And that can’t hurt when it comes to deductive reasoning or motivational capacity either. Good musicians can certainly make successful business leaders.

But I think the value of music goes beyond quarter notes and time signatures. Music, some say, also heals. I know a dozen years ago, when my own father suffered a series of strokes in the last year of his life, resulting in aphasia and limiting our ability to communicate with him, that music helped us get through to him. If we played a bit of Jean Sibelius or Benny Goodman into his headset, that music almost always brought a smile to his face and a sense of calm to his demeanor.

Occasionally, a student musician got a chance to substitute conduct. That certainly built a kid's self-esteem!

Occasionally, a student musician got a chance to substitute conduct. That certainly built a kid’s self-esteem!

Just this week, Toronto played host to a conference on music and health research. Dr. Jane Edwards, who works with neuro-scientists in Europe, told CBC Radio that her members are exploring ways in which music is used as a standard treatment against depression and even as means of assisting young people to fight cancer.

“Teenagers in music therapy have an increased resilience against the disease,” she said. “Doing such things as music videos during traditional cancer treatment, helps them get back to school and get on with their lives.”

Whatever other tangible things music delivers, as a young person, I will never forget how maestro John Rutherford and his music teachings gave me a sense of self-esteem and belonging that sitting in the back row of the trumpet section had always escaped me.

Service in all its forms

Rick Askew, from Oshawa, joined me in Normandy to pay tribute to service.

Rick Askew, from Oshawa, joined me in Normandy to pay tribute to wartime service.

When he was a kid at school, he dreaded show-and-tell days more than just about anything. Especially around Remembrance Day. When it came time to tell the class what his dad did in the war, sometimes he’d invent a fighter pilot dad. Other times, a bomber pilot dad. But just last week when he reconsidered his father’s wartime career, Rick Askew’s attitude about his dad had changed.

“I had him winning the war all by himself,” he told me. “In truth, he never fired a gun once in the war.”

Last week, Rick Askew, a semi-retired cosmetics salesman from Oshawa, travelled with me (and a larger Merit Travel group) in northwestern France. We toured key locations in Normandy where Allied armies had gained a critical toehold against the Nazi occupation of Europe beginning on June 6, 1944. I took him and the tour group to Juno Beach, Pegasus Bridge, Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, where the men of our fathers’ generation had turned the tide of the Second World War. But unlike the history books, I explained to Askew and my other travel guests that it wasn’t the generals and politicians who’d achieved these objectives. It was the average citizen soldiers, such as his father and mine.

To emphasize the point, I offered a story I’d been told by friend Braunda Bodger. A dozen years ago, she’d informed me that her father, a stationery worker in Regina before the war, had come ashore in France in the clerical section of Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. I was curious about the role a clerk might have played during the Allied advance. And when I spoke to the man himself – Wally Filbrandt – my view of the entire Allied invasion of Normandy turned on a dime.

“There were reinforcement companies, battalions and brigades all ready to jump into action,” Filbrandt told me. “We would simply receive casualty reports and then assign reinforcements where they were needed.”

In other words, he kept the invasion army functioning in fact the way it was supposed to on paper. It was a remarkable turnabout for me as a documentarian of the war. In those minutes spent with Filbrandt, I’d come to realize that sometimes the least visible acts of service were among the most influential contributors to winning the war. Filbrandt’s dispatching the right replacement ultimately meant the difference between victory and defeat.

Like Filbrandt, Bill Askew (Rick’s father) had served King and country not with a gun, but with a behind-the-lines skill. Askew Sr. had played brass instruments in the RCAF band stationed at Goose Bay, Labrador (then technically “overseas” because Newfoundland and Labrador didn’t join Canada until 1949). He and his 30 fellow bandsmen had played for parades, dances and ceremonies; they were the sound foundation to every official event on base.

“I had him winning the war,” Rick Askew said. “It took me 50 years to figure out he was just as much a veteran as anybody.”

Bill Opitz (left), D-Day vet from Canadian minesweeper Bayfield, receives Rick Askew's commemorative flag at Juno Beach on June 6, 2014.

Bill Opitz (left), D-Day vet from Canadian minesweeper Bayfield, receives Rick Askew’s commemorative flag at Juno Beach, on June 6, 2014.

Actually, Rick Askew had joined my Normandy trip for a number of reasons. Initially, a few months ago, he’d decided to get his buddies at a club in Oshawa to autograph of Canadian Maple Leaf flag. It would be up to Rick to find the right veteran attending D-Day ceremonies in France to receive the autographed flag as a symbol of gratitude and remembrance. As we awaited the ceremony last week at Juno Beach, Askew suddenly ran up to me.

“I found him,” he told me excitedly.

“Who?” I asked, not remembering his plan.

“The vet to receive our autographed flag.”

He led me through the maze of vets awaiting the 70th anniversary ceremony in front of the Juno Beach Centre and introduced me to Bill Opitz, who’d served as a stoker aboard the Royal Canadian Navy minesweeper HMCS Bayfield on D-Day. Ultimately, that proved only half of Rick Askew’s quest in France. During most mornings, when he smoked a cigarette out on the balcony of our hotel in Normandy, he began to realize the diversity of service that Canadians had delivered that spring back in 1944, had actually included his father.

With the story of Filbrandt in his thoughts and with his autographed flag delivered to an ordinary navy stoker, Rick Askew perhaps sensed his father’s role as a bandsman had been more important than a son had given his father credit. As a bandsman, the elder Askew had given tempo to military parades, melody to receptions and often the correct somber atmosphere to station memorials. He’d learned that service in such a desperate time had come in all shapes, sizes, and contributions.

“This trip has changed my life,” Rick Askew told me on the last day of our tour. “I’m really proud of what my father did now.”

He’ll never be afraid of show and tell again.

Great Escape wins Libris Award

LIBRIS_OFFICIAL_PHOTO_LORES_EOn June 2, 2014, the Retail Council of Canada hosted the annual Libris Awards, at a gala in the Toronto Congress Centre. Having voted on their choices for the best in Canadian literature for the year, Canadian booksellers within the RCC handed out the Libris Awards in a variety of categories. Among the awards presented, The Great Escape: A Canadian Story received the 2014 Libris Best Non-Fiction Book Award (sharing the award, because judges declared a tie in the category, with Chris Hadfield for his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.)
In announcing the award, author Terry Fallis, the host of the evening, said this as the envelope was about to be opened: “At its best, non-fiction helps us to explore the believable and the unbelievable, to question and to find meaning – not what do think, but how to think. The award for non-fiction book of the year goes to a Canadian work of non-fiction published in 2013 that made a lasting impression on the Canadian book selling industry, through wide media attention, increased traffic to bookstores and strong sales… And the winner is… We have a tie. The Libris Award for Best Non-Fiction Book of 2013 goes to The Great Escape: A Canadian Story (published by Dundurn) by Ted Barris … and to An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth (published by Random House Canada) by Chris Hadfield.”
Here are a few thoughts Ted Barris offered on receiving the recognition: “Through nearly 40 years as a professional writer and 17 books, I have received applause and praise from the Canadians whose lives and accomplishments I’ve tried to capture in print. Thanks to this Libris Award, now the acclaim comes to the word-pictures I’ve created, their accuracy and their style. I am humbled and proud at the same time.”

For a thousand D-Days


British and Canadian troops took the bridges east of the invasion beaches before daybreak June 6, 1944.

British and Canadian troops took the bridges east of the invasion beaches before daybreak June 6, 1944.

The day seemed rushed and complicated. People and vehicles rushed in every direction. Time flew more quickly than anyone wanted. There seemed no room, but to hurry through the day. It was D-Day, 2014, and we had tried desperately to get to an appointment with history – a commemorative ceremony at Bavent, in Normandy, France. In fact, when we arrived, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion padre, who had already conducted the scheduled ceremony, realized our predicament.

“I know you weren’t late 70 years ago,” he said. “However, traffic jams and road blocks notwithstanding, you’ve made it.”

1st Can Para vets Sullivan and XXX salute at Bavent memorial.

1st Can Para vets Sullivan and Jones salute comrades killed in action or deceased since the war, at Bavent memorial.

Two veteran members of the original Canadian Paras – Mervin Jones, 91, from Quebec, and Robert Sullivan, 91, originally from Oregon – and Joanne de Vries representing her late husband, paratrooper and Legion of Honour recipient Jan de Vries of Toronto, had rushed in to the Bavent memorial location at the last moment.

“And it would be a shame not to mark this occasion with your comrades and your successors today,” the padre noted.

And so, the young clergyman conducted a second, smaller commemoration to fallen members of the battalion. On that very day – June 5 – 70 years before, Jones, Sullivan and Jan de Vries had parachuted from transport aircraft into the night to protect the flanks of the invasion beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – not knowing if they might succeed or die in an attempt to dislodge the Nazis from occupied Europe.

On this 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion, I and 48 other Canadians (who had travelled to France for D-Day commemorations and were also late for the original tribute) were relieved that Joanne de Vries would be allowed to join the veteran Paras placing a wreath of poppies at the foot of their regiment’s Bavent memorial.

“They were young,” the padre said before the minute’s silence. “Strong of limb, true of eye. Staunch to the end against odds uncounted.”

By the middle of the D-Day morning, June 6, 1944, about the time 150,000 assault troops were establishing the Normandy beachhead behind them, survivors of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had achieved all the objectives assigned them in Operation Overlord. They had captured a vital German battery, made impassable all the bridges on the eastern flank of the D-Day landings, and they had isolated potential German counter-attacks.

Joanne de Vries and daughter Andrea stand where Jan de Vries dug in on D-Day 1944.

Joanne de Vries and daughter Andrea stand where Jan de Vries dug in with the Can Paras on D-Day 1944.

“In fact, Jan had landed miles from his intended objective,” Joanne de Vries told us this week in France. Then, following the wreath-laying ceremony at the Paras’ memorial, she walked us up the road to where her husband, Jan, had dug a slit trench on the evening of June 6, 1944, and defended this spot unrelieved for almost two months.

I have always admired Joanne de Vries’ support for her husband’s post-war campaign raising the profile of veterans. When Jan de Vries co-founded the Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer, when he led the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Association, and when he spearheaded the effort to keep fellow Para Fred Topham’s VC medal in Canada, Joanne de Vries was there at his side. Now she does it in his memory.

A few kilometres away from the Canadian Paras’ site at Bavent, another of the women who joined the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorative tour I’m hosting this year, paid tribute to her father’s Normandy campaign story. On June 6, last Friday morning, we visited Beny-sur-Mer, home of Canada’s D-Day cemetery.

Pat Rusciolelli stands at grave of her father's comrade-in-arms - A.A. Starfield - in Beny-sur-Mer cemetery.

Pat Rusciolelli stands at grave of her father’s comrade-in-arms – K.G. Starfield – in Beny-sur-Mer cemetery.

Pat Rusciolelli checked the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site directory and then walked to the grave of trooper K.G. Starfield. She stood at behind his marker and explained to me what had happened. In early July, Starfield and Pat’s father, T.A. Bullock, were travelling in a Bren-gun carrier. At that time, their regiment, the 14th Canadian Hussars, was supporting the Allied liberation of Caen in an area known as Louvigny. A German mortar shell landed in the carrier, and severely wounded both men. Starfield died on July 15. Pat’s father nearly died.

“A piece of shrapnel lodged beside my dad’s spine,” she said. “He was paralyzed. They came to him and asked if he was OK. But the concussion had twisted his legs backwards, so he didn’t think he was.”

Pat went on to explain that her father thought he’d lost both his legs because he couldn’t feel them. Bullock was shipped home to Canada, where he eventually learned to walk again living a relatively normal life. As she stood there expressing how privileged she felt to attend Starfield’s grave at Beny-sur-Mer, Pat Rusciolleli was on the verge of tears. She pointed out her father was alive and well back home in Canada acknowledging an important moment.

“My father is 92 today,” she said. “Happy Birthday, Dad.”

Of course, wreaths and graveside visits – even on coincidental birthdays – don’t keep the memory of veterans alive. It’s the act of revisiting their achievements. If we continue to tell and retell the stories of their service, they live on.

Juno in his life

JUNO_RCN_LC_EIn many more ways than one, Juno is always close by. Fred Barnard’s been counting down the days, reminding his daughter, Donna, that the anniversary is coming up. At 93, he’s not as agile as the day he first became acquainted with Juno Beach. That day – June 6, 1944 – he waded ashore in Normandy as part of the greatest amphibious landing in military history. He helped the liberation of Europe gain a toehold in France as part of the D-Day landings.

“He remembers it all,” she said. “Whenever it’s close to the anniversary, it’s always on his mind.”

Well, D-Day is almost as often on my mind as it is on Fred’s, but especially with the 70th anniversary tomorrow. Some of you may remember how Fred Barnard and I came to know each other. Eleven years ago, I was standing in line at the CIBC in town waiting to pay my credit card bill. Ahead of me were an older man and, at the head of the line, a friend of mine. My friend asked what I was doing these days.

“Writing a book about Canadians on D-Day,” I said.

“Big anniversary next year,” my friend said.

“Yes. The 60th.”

Fred Barnard as a young QOR soldier.

Fred Barnard as a young QOR soldier.

Then it was my friend’s turn for service at the teller’s wicket. That left only the older fellow and me. As we moved up the queue, he turned to me.

“I was there,” he said quietly.

“A veteran, are you?”

“I was there,” he repeated and then continued, “on D-Day.”

What followed was an exchange of phone numbers, an invitation to visit and an interview that changed me, and it changed the book I was writing. Fred Barnard related to me his D-Day experience of coming ashore in Normandy that June day in 1944 with his younger brother Donald in the same landing craft.

Donald Barnard, Fred's younger brother, also in the QOR.

Donald Barnard, Fred’s younger brother, also in the QOR.

But Fred’s younger brother never made it off the beach; a single bullet through the chest felled Donald before he reached dry land. Until that day in 2003, Fred Barnard rarely if ever talked about it. I felt honoured to hear the Barnard brothers’ story.

Fred and I have carried on a friendly acquaintance ever since. Phone calls, visits to the house and the occasional chance meeting downtown have allowed me to learn more about my coincidental friend. As often as we’ve chatted, however, Fred remains a quiet and modest man. His Second World War service in France after D-Day proved to be equally remarkable. His Queen’s Own unit continued to spearhead the liberation of France and Fred was wounded by shrapnel in mid-August 1944.

All of that might seem just another veteran’s tale from a war so long ago, fading and nearly forgotten. However, several years ago, back in 2007, I accompanied Fred Barnard to a ceremony at the Moss Park Armoury in Toronto. At that event he received the French Legion of Honour.

“I was no patriot or hero,” Fred told me back in 2003. “I was just doing my job as a volunteer soldier.”

For the record, the Legion of Honour was created by French general Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. It was and still is the highest award given by the French Republic for outstanding service to France, regardless of social status or nationality. It is the French equivalent of the British Victoria Cross and George Cross combined. Critics of Napoleon’s award once suggested that such “baubles on men’s chests were mere children’s toys.”

Baubles or not, I for one have the greatest respect for what young volunteers Fred and Donald Barnard accomplished that precarious June morning 70 years ago. In simple terms, were it not for them, I wouldn’t have the freedom to write these words today.

Fred remains a modest veteran. His daughter Donna allowed that Fred doesn’t get out much. The frailties of age and diminished hearing, particularly in larger gatherings, such as he used to attend at the Legion and veterans’ events, make meeting people awkward for him. Nevertheless, the victory of landing Canadian troops on Juno Beach 70 years ago tomorrow is very much on his mind. Even more so these days, his daughter said. Fred has been looking forward to seeing the way the TV stations commemorate the anniversary – he’s been watching documentaries and will watch D-Day coverage on Friday.

But D-Day will be close by in another way this year. Donna and Fred just recently got a golden retriever puppy (five months old) to be a companion to their older golden, Chloe.

“Of course, you know what we named the new puppy, don’t you?” Donna said. “Juno.”

While memories of the loss of his brother Donald Barnard on D-Day always come back to him this time of year, now Fred has something more pleasant to think of each June 6 – the new life in his life. Something worth remembering everyday, as we do a veteran’s service to his brother, his regiment and his country.

A peace-time image - Juno Beach in summertime.

A peace-time image – Juno Beach in summertime.

His microphone as witness


Knowlton Nash addressed journalism and broadcasting students at Centennial in 2001.

Knowlton Nash addressed journalism and broadcasting students at Centennial in 2001.

In his time, the man reported on the Mau Mau uprising in Africa, race riots in the southern U.S., and a near nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis. He interviewed popes, presidents and just plain people. In the middle of times of upheaval and change – the 1960s – he met and reported on Che Guevara, James Meredith, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Finally, in 1978, he won the battle for the most coveted seat in broadcasting – the host’s chair at “The National” at CBC TV – and stayed there a decade. But Knowlton Nash was perhaps most drawn to reporting on a war in his very own backyard.

“Nowhere in the world has the battle over the kind of broadcasting we hear and see been fought with more ferocity than in Canada,” he told one my journalism classes in October 2001.

I have been proud to use as textbooks some of Knowlton Nash’s published writings about broadcasting, including “The Microphone Wars: A History of Triumph and Betrayal at the CBC” and “The Swashbucklers: The Story of Canada’s Battling Broadcasters.” Indeed, in 2001 he addressed my students at Centennial College about his research and writing of history versus his work on air.

“Writing books about broadcasting,” he told us, “is more challenging, more demanding (but) more satisfying.”

Knowlton Nash started writing his own newspaper at age 10, sold stories about collegiate football to the Globe and Mail as a teenager, thrived as a Washington correspondent, and then shaped the flagship nightly newscast at CBC TV through one of its most critical times – the 1980s. Under his guidance as anchor and senior correspondent, Nash helped to move the broadcast from 11 to 10 p.m. each night. And in so doing, he earned the trust and adoration of the Canadian public; often his viewers referred to Nash as “Uncle Knowlty.” Then, in retirement he turned to documenting Canada’s broadcasting roots – the birth of both private and public radio. He had completed nearly a dozen books when he died of complications from Parkinson’s disease last weekend at age 86.

As a fellow broadcaster I watched his more than smooth delivery from behind those over-sized glasses each night at 10. I admired his command of the historical context of the times, seeming to have at his fingertips every milestone relevant to the day’s news. I applauded his calm demeanor, though all the world seemed half-crazed and running in circles.

think Knowlton Nash’s even greater contribution to the airwaves came after his celebrity on The National, when he wrote about the earliest days of broadcasting, when he said for example, “radio became the poor man’s theatre… a God-send during the Depression.” In his book about the CBC, he worshipped the two co-founders of the Canadian Radio League – Alan Plaunt and Graham Spry – attempting to move the Depression-era governments of Mackenzie King and R. B. Bennett to create a public broadcasting network, while the private-enterprise radio station owners of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters lobbied to prevent it.

“The idealists (Plaunt and Spry) wanted to use the airwaves primarily to educate and … strengthen Canadian unity,” Nash explained to my students, “while the Swashbucklers (private radio interests) wanted primarily to provide entertainment that was popular and most of all profitable.”

Knowlton captured the essence of those cut-throat battles both on and off the air. He showed us how the CAB called public broadcasting “international conspiracy… communistic and promoted by intellectual snobs.” But equally critical of the public interests, he showed that they plotted to “strong-arm the federal government” into establishing a public radio system in Canada. Typical of Knowlton Nash’s sense of balance and fairness in the telling of a story, he said, “I hasten to say that the Swashbucklers were not all avaricious philistines … nor were the idealists all ivory tower dreamers.”

Knowlton Nash and Barris at Centennial in 2001.

Knowlton Nash and Barris at Centennial in 2001.

In the end of his analysis of the birth of broadcasting in Canada, Knowlton Nash recognized – like so much else in this country – there had to be a great Canadian compromise. He said that Canadian broadcast pioneers forced a “demassification” of media in Canada and “a tornado of change” that allowed a blend of both private and public cultures in order for Canada’s listeners’ needs to be met.

After Knowlton Nash delivered his broadcast history talk to my students, back in 2001, I asked him privately if he’d have preferred to broadcast in those pioneer years. He smiled at the notion, but then recognized that his career had been the best any broadcaster could ask for. Just what you’d expect a trustworthy TV anchor to say.

How to sell history

Calgary school administrator joins me on floor of St. Marys High School gym following my keynote on experiential learning.

Calgary school administrator joins me on floor of St. Marys High School gym following my keynote on experiential learning.

Maybe it’s the distance they have to travel from the centre of the country to where they live. It might be that they joined Canada (in 1905) later than did the original constituencies of Upper and Lower Canada. Or, quite possibly, it’s something in the air they breathe or the water they drink out there. But last week, when I asked a young Calgary woman how she felt about Canada, here’s what she said:

“My sense of Canada,” she said, “is that a lot more needs to be taught for the country to be understood by its people.”

On Friday morning, I delivered a kind of keynote address to the Calgary Catholic school board on the subject of experiential learning. I offered about 100 high-school teachers some insights about how to help history come alive. And indeed, the teacher I mentioned was absolutely right. Canadians aren’t taught enough about Canada these days. Ironically, the conditions under which I delivered my talk were not the most conducive to learning either; the teachers in my audience sat in bleachers in a basketball gymnasium at St. Mary’s High School in southwest Calgary.

“My job,” I told them last Friday morning, “is to help you forget that you’re sitting on hard, wooden bleachers in a high school gym.”

But I went on to suggest that my challenge was not unlike the job they faced every day – getting students figuratively out of their classroom chairs and literally excited about history, in particular, Canadian history. As many of you know, I can get pretty animated when I talk about people who’ve witnessed historical events – these days the Canadian participants in the Hollywood myth known as “The Great Escape.” And when I offered the story of one of their own, a Calgarian named Barry Davidson, that seemed to seal the deal.

Barry Davidson earned his private pilot's licence in the 1930s, joined the RAF, but was shot down and turned his air force skills to scrounging inside Stalag Luft III.

Barry Davidson earned his private pilot’s licence in the 1930s, joined the RAF, but was shot down and turned his air force skills to scrounging inside Stalag Luft III.

“He learned to fly with a one-hangar flying club at the Calgary airport in 1937,” I explained. “And when he got his private pilot’s licence, he immediately offered his services to Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, who was looking for pilots to defend Nationalist China. But the general turned him down. So instead, Davidson joined the RAF and was shot down over occupied Europe in 1940, instantly becoming a prisoner of war for the rest of the war.”

I’m a firm believer in putting a face on history. If teachers can make a historical figure come alive in the classroom – with an artifact, a letter, photograph or a well-researched yarn, they give students a way to connect. I also believe such work should be mandatory; in other words, I would make Canadian history as much a core subject as math, science and English literature. In Canada, we may be separated inextricably by geography, but we can help our history shrink the distances and bind young minds and hearts to the stories of their towns, their forefathers and their heroes, if curriculum and school managers give teachers ample opportunity to deliver Canadian history right between the eyes of every kid in the country.

Ironically, I think Alberta is one of only three education jurisdictions where history curriculum is mandatory. In other words, I was preaching to the converted last Friday in Calgary. Part of the additional problem is the means of delivering the history too. Today, most young people have too much information at their disposal – thanks to social media and the internet. They’re also quite frankly too wrapped up in the world of “me,” whether it’s YouTube, their following on Twitter and Facebook or shooting “selfies” at every opportunity. On one hand I think most teachers would encourage such self-expression. On the other, always pointing the world’s cameras and attention inward might make even the most altruistic Canadians far too preoccupied with themselves to realize there’s more to the country than what’s happened in the lifetime of a 16-year-old.

When he was still a teenager in 1940, Calgarian Barry Davidson had joined the Royal Air Force, become a pilot officer and first combat operations over occupied France. On July 6, on just his second flight with an RAF bomber squadron, Davidson’s Blenheim aircraft was shot down. From his POW prison cell in Germany he sent a first letter home to his parents.

“Looks like I am in cold storage for the duration,” he wrote.

Only for Davidson, the adventure of his wartime experience – as the famous “scrounger” at the famous Stalag Luft III “Great Escape” camp – was just beginning. And as I offered Davidson’s story to the history faculty in Calgary last week, I asked the women teachers in the audience who Pilot Officer Davidson reminded them of.

“Why Brad Pitt, of course!” one blurted out.

Then, it hit me. Maybe that’s what we’ve been missing in the presentation of Canadian history to young people – selling the sizzle of our heroes as much as the substance. Maybe Hollywood has it right after all.