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Legion Magazine – March/April 2003 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – March/April 2003

Short shrift this time to one of my usual staples—federal politics. There was the most unusual turmoil in my 45 years on Parliament Hill during the six months before this was written. This has made rational comment and predictions a mug’s game.
Yes, I’m referring to what quickly became known as “the long goodbye” of Jean Chrétien. It began last summer and by year’s end the Liberal caucus and the party had riven beyond understanding of those of us who have lived the Liberal myth of loyalty to the leader and constant defence of the party.

Will such out-of-character splutter within our reigning party continue right to its November convention to replace the leader, and then even stretch further until February 2004, which Chrétien has insisted will be his departure date? Who’d dare guess?
The shocking swirl among the Liberals was complemented in less shocking fashion by uncertainties on the political spectrum with NDP and Progressive Conservative leadership conventions.

For me as a watchdog, the most surprising aspect in the Liberal melodrama was not the evidence that Paul Martin, the fired finance minister, had won backing from so many MPs, riding associations and provincial councils of the federal party. This signified both prodigious, organizational toil, and use of much money.
No, what surprised me most has been how high and far Martin’s early stress on democratizing Parliament itself has been taken. Witness the dissenting votes in the House and scornful words from many Liberal backbenchers for Chrétien and some of his ministers.

Martin undertakes that as prime minister he would help devolve much of the authority now centred and exercised in the Prime Minister’s Office back to the cabinet and caucus, in particular the latter. To remedy the “democratic deficit” he would champion plain MPs being in on developing legislation and full access and thorough scrutiny of federal spending programs.

Put in practice such reform would mean a miracle. Why? Because it means abandoning the worn grooves of partisanship on Parliament Hill, a system so often noisy, adolescent, empty, and a blight on joint purpose and fruitful co-operation across party lines. It would be a wrench! We shall see. I hope, and I doubt. Common sense tells me most voters care little about parliamentary reform, compared to issues like medicare and taxes, and they care a lot about having a strong leader—a boss sort—running the show at Ottawa.

So, hoping and worrying, let me turn to praise two new books. Each should interest many Legion Magazine readers, one about a volunteer soldier of WW II, the other the drama of the mid-1960s in which Canada got a flag over the objections of The Royal Canadian Legion.

The memoir, some 250 pages and dotted with clear photos, is titled Peewees On Parade, subtitled Wartime Memories Of A Young (And Small) Soldier. It is by John A. Galipeau, as told to Pattie Whitehouse, and published by Robin Brass Studio, 10 Blantyre Ave., Toronto, ON M1N 2R4, www.rbstudiobooks.com. It is a simply put memoir of a lad from a scrub homestead in the Foothills who spent over five years in the tank group that became the South Alberta Regiment.

Long before finishing Peewees I was reckoning why I was so readily hooked on what are simply clear details of enlistment, “short-arm” inspections, parading, uniforms, boots, rank, fatigues, rumours, odd sods, food (mostly poor), beds, guard duty, gear, weapons, ammunition, vehicles, maps, frequencies, nets, postings, camps, schemes, sergeant-majors, barracks horseplay, passes, leaves, promotions, and modest pride in the troop, the squadron, and the regiment.

From the first gathering of the militia components which went into the South Albertas there was a platoon sorted out of short chaps, from 5’3” to 5’8” or so and labelled the Peewees. The 19-year-old Galipeau was 5’6” and the tag on size stuck, becoming the touchstone for group rowdiness and eternal kibitzing. During the South Albertans’ time on Vancouver Island John met a girl his own age and they married before the long move to Camp Debert in Nova Scotia. A reader knows it was marriage which, as they say, “took” but John respects her and his privacy. He is married, and one knows that shaped his activities, including what he didn’t do, overseas.

At Debert, John and the Albertas came into touch with the 4 Division commander, Major-General Frank Worthington, just as I and my comrades in the Manitoba Dragoons did. Like the Albertas we found “Worthy” a grand leader, always to be remembered, along with bitterness that he was derricked before Normandy and replaced by George Kitching, a nice man but neither inspiring nor Canadian.

As one with much experience that parallelled that of Sergeant Galipeau, I am daunted by his crisp recall of detail and process, most noticeable as he sets out the loony inadequacies of the Ross rifle, the Boys anti-tank rifle, the Sten gun, and the Projector, Infantry Anti-Tank or the pragmatic adaptations in the field which helped make do under gunned and very inflammable Sherman tanks.

More than two-thirds of the story comes before Galipeau, on the road to Falaise, loads his first shell against the Germans. He has kept this prelude interesting with clear, spare noting of such stuff as choosing markers on parade; tying puttees; scrounging in a barracks town for a girl to chat up; the usefulness of Dundurn Camp’s dreary wasteland; the pall of nothing for a trooper to do in Truro, N.S.; and why so many Canadian soldiers took London leave over time in other Brit cities.

As for action itself, Galipeau has little about particular geographic objectives or campaign plans or linear excerpts from the regiment’s war diaries. He admired his squadron commander and cogently explains why, but he gives only a few, blunt sentences to his satisfaction with the colonel of the Albertas. He dwells on what each crew member had to do or should do, what each tank in a troop might or should do, and how a troop fitted with infantry or the guns, notably in ferreting an enemy tank or anti-tank gun. His terse account of an ambush his regiment rolled into near Wesel on the Rhine, losing many tanks, is a model explanation of stupid leadership at “the sharp edge.”
For several years I’ve been telling younger people who want to know what being in battle is really like to read that instant classic by Canadian George G. Blackburn, The Guns Of Normandy. Now I shall tell them if they want to know what one did while spending years as a private or non-commissioned officer in a fighting regiment in WW II, from enlistment to discharge, Peewees On Parade is hard to beat.

To go from Galipeau’s memoir to I Stand For Canada: The Story Of The Maple Leaf Flag by Rick Archbold, published by Macfarlane, Walter & Ross, is like jumping from kitchen fatigue to a gala with fireworks and music at Rideau Hall, orchestrated by Her Excellency.

The binding of this attractive book, the paper, the broad three-column layout through 190 pages, the sharp, rich colour reproductions of photos and art work from our past and present times, is matched by a clear, thorough narrative. As one in the House of Commons in 1965 who took part in the long, contentious and sometimes humorous flag debate, I see this as an accurate, knowing account of the prime persons involved, from Lester Pearson to John Diefenbaker, to the likes of historian George Stanley, heraldry artist Allan Beddoe, and MP John Matheson, persistent pluggers for the new flag.
There is good sense in the appraisals of the parliamentary scene—the bills, the motions, the speeches, the flag committee, and the last hurrahs from the Chief. For what was happening across the land from the time Pearson made his intentions explicit at the 20th dominion convention of The Royal Canadian Legion in Winnipeg is done thoroughly and succinctly, the prose well-served by the illustrations.

On the Legion’s part in it all, author Archbold seems fair to me. There is no crowing about a triumph of a younger generation over elders bent on clinging to symbols of empire and Commonwealth no longer relevant.

The ethnic composition of my own riding in the ‘60s was an even split between those with British roots and those from other European countries. During the flag debate’s hot summer I toured my riding, holding formal meetings in its many Legion halls. After such canvassing I felt a slight majority of electors wanted a new flag. Roughly put, most WW I veterans were stronger for the Red Ensign; most WW II veterans were readier for the Maple Leaf flag; non-veterans were rather evenly split, reflecting those with British roots and those with roots in Italy, Scandinavia, Finland, the Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Greece.

Although the Red Ensign appealed more to me as a design and in what it signified to me than the Maple Leaf, I chose to vote for Pearson’s flag. It wasn’t so much a reasoned decision as a response to the nationalist impulses I had found so widespread that summer. There was a hunger for a common national banner; or so I felt, and the Maple Leaf was far from alien. There is a lucid chapter with anecdotes and illustrations which demonstrate the maple leaf—”our emblem dear” as the song goes—was a much-used symbol of Canadians from early in the 19th century. I recall, however, that one of the toughest, snarky letters I got after the flag vote came from Conn Smythe, the militant owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Remember how he came home wounded from France in 1944 to sound the alarm that a shortage of reinforcements was destroying our combat regiments.

How could I be such a traitor? Smythe asked. I wondered but never asked what he’d written to Mike Pearson, a man with whom he had shared running a university hockey team in the early 1920s.

The generous appraisal in the book of the Order of Canada and its acceptance since the innovation found less favour with me. I think as I did when objecting to a national civilian award system as undemocratic in the late 1950s when Diefenbaker was considering one. The three-tiered system of the Order in recognizing outstanding Canadians is not democratic as I see it. Too much notice is given to wealth, inheritance, and attaining high rank in business or government bureaucracies or brief, high glory in sport or the performing arts. I do know that the decision to have an Order of Canada was very much Pearson’s doing because he pushed it past at a cabinet meeting where the gist of the matter was against the system, expressed by the most powerful ministers there.

The last paragraph in Rick Archbold’s work is given to a former teacher of mine whose worth I cherish, Arthur Lower. He had paddled the length of Ontario’s Albany River to Hudson Bay in 1913, commanded a torpedo boat in Channel forays in the Great War, and wrote a gripping history of Canada, From Colony To Nation. The paragraph goes: “Today few would argue with Arthur Lower’s words from 1967: ‘Since the adoption of the new flag, something very interesting has happened to the Canadian psyche … Each time that the average citizen looks at the new flag, he unconsciously says to himself: “That’s me!”