About a month ago, a CBC television reporter from Nova Scotia emailed me with a request. Being sufficiently old-fashioned about these things, I decided to phone him to offer a verbal (rather than texted) answer. He said he and a camera operator had just returned from an assignment in downtown Halifax. He said they had just shot video of the demolition of the Discovery Centre. I didn’t immediately get it.
“You’d more likely remember it as the Zellers store,” Dave Irish said. “It’s a building with much history. … I’m hoping to speak to you about Ms. (Ronnie) Egan saving it.”
Rodine Doris Mary Buckley-Beevers Egan was for nearly 30 years my next-door neighbour in Uxbridge, Ont. Ronnie – as she was known – lived life to the full. But she rarely took; she most often gave, whether to her family, her friends or her community.
That began over 70 years ago, during the Second World War, when she enlisted in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. The Navy posted her to Halifax, where at the time there were 50,000 citizens and as many as 60,000 naval personnel. But the CBC reporter knew all that. He’d just shot video of the Zellers store (a.k.a. Discovery Centre) coming down and he wanted to know how Ronnie Egan was connected to it.
“It’s an interesting coincidence that the city should be tearing down that building now,” I told Irish. “It’s coming up to the 72nd anniversary of Ronnie’s heroics on that very spot.”
It happened on May 7, 1945. The next day, Victory-in-Europe Day, VE Day, German generals would sign an unconditional surrender and the Second World War in Europe would be over. But the rumour of Victory in Europe had spread very quickly to Canada and to Halifax. As it turned out, despite the good news from Europe, May 7 was not a good day in Halifax. Bad relations between Canadian naval personnel and the citizens of Halifax boiled over and there were riots in downtown Halifax.
Chief Petty Officer Egan’s final obligation that day was to make sure at the end of her watch, that all 300 women in that Navy barracks were safely accounted for and in their rooms away from the riots in the streets. But by the evening of May 7, with her day’s responsibilities met, Ronnie had to leave the barracks. Because she was married to Canadian army chauffeur Willis Egan, she had to cross town to their modest apartment for the night.
On her way along Barrington Street, through downtown Halifax, Ronnie saw many strange sights that night – streetcars overturned and burning, breweries broken into and booze flowing in the streets, civilians and servicemen looting stores, and both criminal and comical behaviour everywhere.
“Sailors (were) running around with mannequins they’d stolen in their arms,” she said. “Some had them over their shoulders. Others put them down on the cobblestones, and used them like toboggans to slide down the street.”
Oddly, even though most Halifax merchants had closed their doors, Egan and a WREN friend found the Zellers store open. They went in to shop. But as they emerged from the store, Ronnie explained to me, they were confronted in the doorway by a couple of drunken sailors carrying burning torches. Ronnie blocked their path.
“And exactly what do you think you’re doing?” she challenged.
“We’re going to torch this place,” they said.
Ronnie remembered that she braced herself in the doorway and with hands on hips said defiantly, “Oh no you’re not.” There was a tension-filled pause, as two equally determined forces met head-on. But the crisis ended as quickly as it began. The drunken sailors figured there’d be easier targets for their frustration somewhere else and disappeared into the crowds.
In the stacks of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, lies a nearly forgotten file holding the documents of Supreme Court Justice R.L. Kellock, who led a Royal Commission to investigate the VE Day riots in Halifax. Kellock reported that 564 businesses had been damaged by the riots, more than 2,500 windows smashed, and more than 200 business premises looted. Estimates of damage ranged from $3 million to $5 million. The Commission blamed Leonard Murray, rear admiral in the Royal Canadian Navy, for losing control of his personnel.
Kellock’s files also contained photographs taken during and after the riots; one by coincidence depicted an inebriated sailor sitting on a cobblestone street, and in the background of the photo one can plainly see the Zellers storefront. It’s the same building CPO Ronnie Egan successfully saved from being torched on VE day.
Which was why CBC reporter Dave Irish had called. If Ronnie Egan (who died in January 2016) hadn’t stepped up that day 72 years ago, later there would never have been a Discovery Centre building. Nor a wartime façade to demolish in 2017. Nor a moment in Halifax’s history to remember. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/CBCNovaScotia/videos/10155483841436842/