Interview with Bill Shead, Friday June 14, 2013. Interviewer: Claire McCaffrey. –
Tell me about the early history of Selkirk and the surrounding areas [as it affects your history].
Well, if you think of the name Selkirk, everybody thinks it’s named after the Selkirk settlers when they moved into here about 1812, well that in fact is not the case; the town is named after Lord Selkirk who actually brought the Lord Selkirk settlers in and that would have been probably south of us, more towards Winnipeg probably around where Chief Peguis trail and the bridge crosses the Red River. However, the history of the area probably predates it quite a bit. As you know, the area was actually discovered by the Court-de-Bois who came here from Quebec looking for fur-trading areas, and that would’ve been around 1600 sometime.
Can you tell me more about that?
Well, fur trading was the reason Canada was attractive to Europeans. They wanted the furs, and as the pressure in Eastern Canada and demand for furs grew, it became trapped out. So the fur traders pushed further and further west, and the two people we should be concerned with are Radisson and Grosevear who came from Quebec and found a great open space and country with lots of furs! They couldn’t get support to establish the fur trading in this area and they actually went to England and that’s where we have King Charles the second granting the Charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1620 I can’t remember the exact date. That stimulated the influx of fur traders. And as the fur traders moved in, the Brits came into Hudson’s Bay because of course, Quebec was then a French colony. So in any event, for 100 and some odd years, the Northern parts of Canada, particularly the area around Hudson Bay and Northern Manitoba were trapped out over the next, probably 150 years. People started pushing south, and also Aboriginal people from the East part of Canada started moving westward, in support of the fur trade and also to reestablish communities because they were fairly nomadic I guess. The one group that concerns us in this area is a small group of Salteaux or Ojibway from Sault Saint Marie area came in to settle at the junction of the Red and what we now know as Netley Creek. That would’ve been in the late 1700s.
In many respects, they were the first permanent settlers in the area because when they came in, the local tribes had died out. In fat I think the area that Peguis settled, the name for Netley Creek at that time was called “Death River”. Apparently there was an Assiniboine camp where the population was dead; there was nobody there.
This was because of Smallpox, right?
It could’ve been anything. Whatever the reason, there was nobody there. So Peguis and his people settled and they established a community and as I was mentioning earlier with the fur trading and trapping out the area in the Northern area, an awful lot of Cree’s moved south and they also were coming south in support of the fur trade. What they would be doing is they would be coming down here on the York boats with the Hudson Bay Company supplies and taking furs back, etcetera. From my family’s perspective, there was one fellow by the name of Wapesque from Northern Manitoba and he had heard that there was a missionary here. Wapesque was a fairly spiritual person, and traditional. He wanted to come down and settle in with this family IF he [this missionary] was as spiritual as the rumours said. What he did was he left his medicine bottle with a local fellow in the area that he was living in and said, “if things don’t work out I’ll come back and I’d like to get it back from you but if not, it’s yours to keep.” So he and his family travelled south, and included in this family was his daughter and a young baby. The baby grew up to be a woman, and married another individual that moved down from the Norway House area, a fellow by the name of Asham. The two of them married. That person was my great-grandfather’s mother. My great-grandfather was William Asham, and he became Chief of what was then the St. Peter’s Reserve. This would’ve been the late 1800s, 1890 or 92.
However, Peguis by this time had a thriving community. St. Peter’s was a permanent settlement. He supported the Selkirk settlers when they came in here and Lord Selkirk and he entered into a treaty. Now it’s interesting why he entered into this treaty. Lord Selkirk became the majority shareholder of the Hudson’s Bay Company and he was a philanthropist and he wanted to create new opportunities in North America for the people from Scotland who were being displaced from their lands. What he did was gain control of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and then he persuaded, because he had control of the company, to get attractive land, which was called Assiniboia deeded to him. This was a huge area; it really covered all of southern Manitoba and some of Saskatchewan and some of the northern Dakota area as well. So it was a pretty large area. But in order to consolidate his claim, he thought that entering into a treaty with Peguis, who occupied some of the land, that the two would recognize each other’s ownership. Peguis would recognize Lord Selkirk as the owner of Assiniboia and Selkirk would recognize Peguis’s claim over what was then St. Peters, which was basically the land on both the east side and the west side of the river from about the mouth of the Red River south to probably the Selkirk golf course, maybe a little bit further.
I guess over time they had a pretty good arrangement. Selkirk was here to sign this treaty about 1817 or thereabouts. One of the conditions of that treaty that complicated things later on was that Peguis and his people had the right to individually own the land and thereby sell it. So there was an awful lot of land trading going on within the area that was deeded to Peguis so that individual Indians in the St. Peters area could sell land, not only to other Indians but to non-Indians and this created a huge issue later on when Canada purchased, or took over the Hudson’s Bay claim for Northwestern Canada. As a result, we created the province of Manitoba, the province of MB and the government of Canada created the Indian act and we entered into treaties and because of treaties there was no single ownership of land, which created problems. We ended up having not only issues of land claims today but in the late 1800s when there was a need for land for new settlers coming in the people, the government wanted the St. Peters reserve for these new settlers and so they had to settle not only the Indian land claim but the ownerships within the St. Peters reserve. It was a very complex situation. The short story is that in 1907 the St. Peters reserve was surrendered and the people were moved to what is now the Peguis First Nation.
Where is the Peguis First Nation located?
It is on the banks of the Fisher River, just south of the Fisher River where it enters into Lake Winnipeg on the west side.
What else can I say about that, you know that early history led to a protracted land claim process. In fact, the surrender itself, my great-grandfather William Asham argued against the surrender and he and John Prince (one of the other councilors) the two of them were against this land surrender and when the commission was here to try to implement a surrender they had a public meeting and William Asham argued against the surrender and John Prince translated. It was a good partnership. Unfortunately they did lose the vote, but the vote was contested for a number of reasons: there was not proper notice, no proper enumeration, no presentation of the terms of the surrender and all that sort of stuff. Suffice to say, the surrender was contested in court and the Court of the Exchequer ruled against the surrender and said it was illegal; the Government of Canada passed the St. Peter’s bill in 1914 making the surrender legal and then subsequently a succession of chiefs right up until about 3 years ago continued the process of trying to get a settlement on the surrender, which they finally did over a hundred years later.
That’s sort of the rough history of the area. Aboriginal people who came in from the North and the South settled in into the area. That’s why you have Ojibway and Cree at the St. Peters and eventually at the Peguis reserve and you have people named Prince who were direct descendants of Chief Peguis living sort of in this area and at Scanterbury and other reserves. And you have people named Asham who are good curlers and stompers and everything else scattered all over the area. But, that’s the Aboriginal ((((sounds sort of like cult?? Ask Bill what he thinks he said, don’t think cult is correct)))) And you have to remember too, that we do have a big European influence from the Settlers that were started with Lord Selkirk and eventually all the other people who were brought in by rail in the late 1800s early 1900s and later on. So we have quite a mix of people in this area. We have Aboriginal people, we have Cree, Ojibway descent, and we have Mixed-Bloods, Metis if you want to call them. We have Europeans, people from the UK, Germany, Poland, and Iceland, what a mix!
The other thing you find is that when I was a kid, and this would have been in the 40s and 50s, when we were going to school, my classmates were second generation [Canadians]. They were the children of those immigrants that came in and settled into this area. We were not a majority; there was no majority. There were people there who were Ukrainian and Icelandic and German and, you name it! We all had our traditions, but we all were friends and when you went to your friend’s house, you could be eating a Polish meal one day and if you went to another home you could be eating Icelandic food. It was a glorious time I think, it was a virtual smorgasbord, not only of food and other traditions but it was a time when we had friendly rivalries and a great respect for each other’s culture, probably stemmed from the food.
You told me before that speaking in English was kind of a second language.
Oh that’s true, a lot of my classmates, their parents would speak their mother tongue and many of them were able to speak both. Our common language to talk to one another was English, and we were pretty good English speakers but our language was affected somewhat by our parents’ English. Some of that English was a little fractured because in some of the languages, the old languages from Europe, they use a second person plural. You’re not familiar with the second person plural? Most people aren’t. In French you can say Vous, which is the plural, or you can say Tu, which is the familiar, or the singular of the second person. We used to say “yous guys”, and you still see it used today. But if you go to eastern Canada, particularly in the area around Southern Ontario where the United Empire Loyalists were largely English and speak a very good English or go to the Maritimes, where they also speak a very good English. Their early stock of settlers were largely English speaking so the language is a little purer I guess, and you don’t hear the term used. But in western Canada, yous guys! It’s a common way of speaking, and a common use of the language. So you can see, that our language and our traditions and what have you in this area are a mix, and I think it’s a happy mix.
Can you tell me more about when you were a child, what did you guys do? You spoke French now, did you when you were a child?
No I didn’t. When I was a kid I spoke this bad English; still do! As a child growing up in this area, hell, we didn’t get television till 1954 I think it was, and then it was only one channel and it was fuzzy at that time, black and white small TV set. If you did watch TV it was sort of a family thing that you did because you only had the one channel! Nowadays you pick up your little happy phone, or smart phone and you can watch TV programs and plug in your earphones and you’re pretty isolated.
At the age of 12 I can remember going hunting. I’d get up in the morning, on Saturday morning very early and take a bag of shells, a sandwich, put on hip waders get the shotgun and I’d walk out the door and walk out into the fields and finally out to the south end of Netley Marsh and back home again, I’d be gone pretty well all day. No supervision!
All by yourself with a gun!
And a bag of shells! And in those days too there were an awful lot of hunters, I mean, opening day, you could hear these reports of shotguns, bang bang bang, it sounded like a warzone. You don’t hear that as much today. It was good fun! And, we had boy scouts and sea cadets and girl guides and CGIT Canadian Girls in Training. Young kids, we made our own fun. We didn’t have a swimming pool, we used to swim in the slough at the south end of the slough there right by Selkirk park. They pulled an old barge up on the west shore of the slough, filled it with water, and that was our swimming pool. And as you became a little more proficient, you went out and were able to swim in the slough itself. And again, I don’t think we had a lifeguard! We did have people who taught us swimming in the barge, but no, no lifeguard. Interesting times.
So how often did you see your friends?
Daily! Saw them at school… as a kid, our parents, all of our parents… we were happily, I wouldn’t say poor, because we weren’t starving. All of us had gardens that we fed ourselves with, I know that we kept pigs and chickens and what have you, and we bought food from the farmers, milk and eggs and stuff like that. Kids went out and had jobs; I can remember I used to deliver papers. We lived about a mile north of the school and I would walk home from school after I delivered my papers and in the winter time it would be late, it would be dark because the sun would set rather early and there were very few lights along the route, but the thing was, that without the light you could see the skies, it was just absolutely wonderful to be able to look up on a clear night and see all the constellations and I can remember I was able to identify quite a number of them. I don’t know if I could today; mind you I wouldn’t be able to see them because of all the ambient light from the settlements that we have now. Even when you’re in cottage country there are so many lights from the streets and cottages themselves that it just rounds out the spectacular sight of the sky that I can remember as a kid.
I forgot to tell you that when I was a kid, we basically earned our own money for whatever we wanted to do. If we wanted to buy some decent clothes, and in those days we did buy decent clothes! Kids, we had these “zoot suits” we called them, these drape pants where the knees were wide and the ankles were tight. It was rather interesting. And the guys would actually go out and buy some decent trousers; they were dress trousers and not the stuff that I wear today. In those days, it was a little bit of “sartorial splendor”. But, like I said we earned our own money. I cut grass in the summer, I sold Christmas cards in the winter, I delivered Christmas mail for the post office in Winnipeg. I used to go into Winnipeg for the day, deliver, and come back. I made a bit of money over the Christmas holidays that way. In the summer, I worked on the S.S. Keenora for a couple years as a canteen boy. Very, very interesting time. Probably the most interesting time. Man, I was thirteen years old and I went to sea! My folks must’ve had an awful lot of faith in the system, but there I went! I was gone from Monday until Saturday morning on the Keenora; I did that all summer. It was a great adventure. For a thirteen year old—a thirteen year old wouldn’t be able to do that today! One, I think the regulations wouldn’t allow it, and secondly, I think the parents would not give permission, they would have misgivings.
So what did you see and do on the Keenora?
Well, as the canteen boy—I’ll just give you a description of a week. Monday, we would embark all our cargo in the morning and everything would be loaded in and the guys would be working flat out all day, they would take a short break for lunch and they would continue loading. Then once they’d got the cargo loaded, they’d then load up coal because we burned coal at that time. Meanwhile, the passengers would start arriving and we used to have an awful lot of American tourists come and make the trip with us, and there were also some people who would come to go to the settlements on the east side of Lake Winnipeg and in the Northern part of Lake Winnipeg and the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. Because in those days, there was no road system past Gimli roughly, and certainly up on the east side of Lake Winnipeg it didn’t go very far and still doesn’t. So, as the canteen boy, I was responsible for helping the passengers get their baggage on board and put them into their cabins. And I also had responsibility for the canteen, and while the crew was loading cargo, I was stocking the canteen. The one thing we did stock was ice cream. So when we went into a port, we sold ice cream, bananas, apples, and all sorts of confectionery. I can’t remember if we sold cigarettes; I don’t think so. Anyways. And pop! But ice cream was the special treat, because this was the only time that these settlements would get ice cream. And what I had to do was, these big galvanized tubs, I would have to put layers of rock salt and ice around about four gallons of ice cream. They came in these big buckets; I could fit four in a tub. I would store them in the cold room, and that would keep the ice cream solid for the whole trip, it was only five days. One trip, I think it was the first or second trip, the ice cream actually melted because the cooling system in the cold room failed and as a result, by the time we got to Berens River the ice cream was liquid. You can’t disappoint the kids, because they all want ice cream. It’s a big thing for them. I said, “I can’t sell you ice cream,” but what I did do, was I put the ice cream into the cones and stuck a straw in it and sold it as malted milk at half the price of an ice cream cone, and I sold it out.
We almost sank on another trip. We hit a storm going from Berens River on our way to Warren’s Landing and we had to go into George’s Island. On the way, the crew was billeted in the lower deck below the galley and the dining room in the Keenora. I can remember we got out of the bunk and stepped into water that’s how much water we took. We took about 5 feet of water in the aft hold. So those of us who were in that lower deck had to go and stay in one of the vacant cabins on the upper deck, which was normally passenger cabins. And it was right forward on the starboard side and I can remember that I felt quite ill and I had to go to the washroom and the only place you could go was aft near the Purser’s cabin! So I got out of the thing and I had to really crawl down the companionway. If you’re on the Keenora, you can imagine crawling right from the forward cabin on the starboard side all the way down to where the Purser’s cabin is right by the stairwell that you go down to the dining room.
The only place I was ever seasick was on Lake Winnipeg, and I ‘ve ben in some pretty serious storms when I was in the Navy. I can remember being in a very very high sea state where you would—well my height de vie was 36 feet above the water when the water is flat and I can remember when you’re going in the trough of the wave I had to look up to see the top of the wave so the waves were about 40 feet high. But in Lake Winnipeg, it’s a much shorter and more vicious chop and the ships are smaller and narrower and they rock like hell. Like I said, that’s why I had to crawl down the companionway because you’d be thrown off your feet so quickly. But we did get into George’s Island, and I saw a blog on the Internet that showed a picture of the Keenora alongside and it was down by its stern, so they did take on some serious water. We finished the trip. And I did start out by telling you that once we loaded up we sailed Monday evening and we went down the river and went into Hecla and Berens River and Warrens Landing, and at Warren’s Landing, some of the passengers would transfer to the Chickama and go up as far as Norway House and then they would come back and we would sail again and we’d go to Grand Rapids. That was before the dam, and there were rapids then and you could see the rapids. Then we worked our way back and we would enter Selkirk Saturday morning. So that was our trip, and then we would repeat it again on Monday after we discharged the passengers Saturday morning, had a day of rest on Sunday, and did the whole thing again.
What would happen if the Keenora got caught in the Rapids?
Oh no, you didn’t, the Keenora would berth downstream from the rapids, so you would have to go up the river to see the rapids themselves. But it was very interesting. And you could really see the effect when we were coming alongside because the water was still flowing quite rapidly.
Maybe we can talk about your time in the navy?
Well, when I was… I’m a child of the war. I was born in 1939 and my earliest memories were of people coming home from the war. I can remember when the war was over; I can remember hearing all of the airplanes that were here flying around with people under training to go overseas. I could see these flights of aircraft taking off in the morning and doing their circuits and training and what have you. Some people will see some of these small air drones that they used to have where people would practice landing. I think there’s one just North of Petersfield on the West side, and of course we had Gimli. Gimli, even after the war was a big air base. It actually flew chits. We used to have Navy people manning the crash boats on Lake Winnipeg, working out of Gimli.
But as a kid, many of us had uncles, parents, and in some cases older brothers that served in the Canadian forces. The population of Canada was about twelve million, and over a million served. So that’s one in twelve, roughly. And when you take into account what we are doing today, we have a population approaching 36 million, and we have less than 100 000 people in uniform. So the awareness of people serving in the military is rather lower today than it was when I was a kid. I can remember returning veterans; when I delivered papers, I used to run into WWI veterans all the time. Older men who had served and were now retired. It was quite different.
You looked to that option as a career because you were influenced. The returning veterans, to communities like Selkirk, created so many opportunities for young people. They created and led the sea cadet corps as officers; the Legions had field days and funded an awful lot of community centres like the Selkirk Arena and the Memorial Hall. They had music camps and sports camps in the summer for kids. They really made a huge contribution to rebuilding the country after the war, in the small communities especially. As a result, like I said, it influenced me and it influenced many of my age to look at the military as a career option and of course in those days, the military was also looking to establish a fairly professional military, which we didn’t have, leading up to the second World War. We went in the Navy from a very small Navy to the third largest navy that participated in the Allied side in the Second World War. We had hundreds of ships, and we had achieved a great deal in terms of what we did in the battle of the Atlantic and in the smaller ships in the Mediterranean, and the Romance Run… What we achieved as a small nation of 12 million people in the Second World War in the Navy itself was quite remarkable. My dad and two of his brothers were in the Navy. One of their cousins, Gordon Barrisford was lost when HMC of St. Croix was sunk in September 1943. He was only 19 years old, and his dad was the mayor of this town, William Barrisford. And he was married to a lady by the name of Gladys Shead, and that was a cousin of my Dad’s. Anyways, I got into Sea Cadets and I did well in it, I liked it and the options, so I was looking for things to do as I approached Grade 11 and I saw an advertisement for the Regular Officers Training Plan. I applied, and I was eventually accepted to go to College Militaire Royale a St. John just outside of Montreal. This was in September of 1956. Again, I was just 16 and I had just completed Grade 11 in June of that year, and I served until 1978 and continued on in the Reserves. And I think during my time, well I certainly have been around the world. I’ve been to… I’ve lived in first of all Quebec, then Nova Scotia, Ontario, and British Columbia. I’ve been to every province by sea, with the exception of Saskatchewan and Alberta; you can’t get there by sea! I’ve been to Churchill… I’ve had a pretty good run in the Navy. It was a very enjoyable career.
What did you do when you got home from the Navy?
There are a couple of things I did. The world circumstances changed, and in 1978 I had just completed a very interesting assignment. I had been seconded from the Navy to head up a program for the Federal Government called the Offices of Native Employment in the Public Service Commission of Canada. The role that the Office had was to increase the participation of Aboriginal people in the Government of Canada in Public Service roles. At the time, they had very few people and yet we had huge bureaucracies looking after the needs of Aboriginal people in Canada. My role was to develop a policy for the government by way of what they call a cabinet document. In other words, this thing would go to the Cabinet, the government of Canada and they would adopt it as a policy. So that was my role, to develop this policy. Now, you think that’s easy, you sit down and write it, but that’s not how it works. You had to carry on consultations with agencies and government departments that are serving not only the Aboriginal people but serving Canadians generally. I was there doing this as well, I had to liaise and consult with Aboriginal organizations and leaders of these organizations, go to their conferences, and at the same time, I had a responsibility for establishing other offices outside of Ottawa because we didn’t have a presence in Winnipeg, for example. So in my time there, I worked very closely with a number of Aboriginal leaders, George Manuel being one. I liked George Manuel, a very charismatic leader. That’s another story. But I… to give you an idea of the challenges of doing a cabinet document, we went, by the time I left there we had gone through sixty drafts of the document. Every time we did a draft, you’d circulate it to the people you consulted with and they’d give you back comments and everything and then you’d redraft, and redraft. So like I said we were up to number sixty. The cabinet document was finally developed, and meanwhile I got back to the Navy. But when I went back to the Navy, I had earned a fair reputation from my time in Ottawa and the Minister of National Defense at the time, Barney Danson, suggested that maybe I’d like to run for Parliament. Anyways, that started it all.
Where does that lead?
Well, it got me back here. I did run in the 1979 and 1980 election and didn’t win, thank God. However, I was elected the Mayor of Selkirk in 1980 and I served that term. It was a very interesting term, because it also coincided with the 100th anniversary of Selkirk. We had a very good show, and some interesting events. We had Lord Selkirk come to visit the town! We have a sea cadet corps in Selkirk called Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps Daerwood, but we also have a younger group of youngsters who participate in the Navy League of Canada Cadet Corps, and at the time, Roxy Cook was one of the parents, and she came to me and she said could we get Lord Selkirk to come? Because the Navy League Corps was called The Navy League of Lord Selkirk. So I said I guess there’s no harm in asking, so we did ask, and Lord Selkirk said, “I’d be pleased to come!” So we had to get him over here, and I can remember that I went to Izzy Asper, who was then a member of the Board of Directors of Air Canada, and he said, “I’ll get you a couple of first class tickets for Lord and Lady Selkirk.” So we were able to get them over here, and we didn’t really have proper accommodation for them within the town of Selkirk, the hotel (The Merchant Hotel?) was probably not up to their standards, and we also thought it would be a little more pleasant for them to stay with somebody, and at the time, at the end of my street Keith Axford and his wife Nina had a lovely house and property and they said that they would put them up for their stay. They were here for a week, I think. That’s how people rallied around for those events. You ask questions, because if you don’t ask you don’t get, but ask nicely otherwise you don’t get.
Why don’t you tell me about the Bridge to Nowhere, and the CPR Station?
Well, it is well known around here that at one point Selkirk was going to be a railroad town. The Canadian Pacific Railroad, when it was developing its Trans Canada route had done a survey that would’ve brought its main east-west line across the Red River around Selkirk. The exact location I’m not sure of, I have an idea it was somewhere around where the Marine Museum is or it could be further North. The line would’ve then crossed the Interlake, going Northwest to the Narrows of Manitoba and then continuing on Westward. Now the city of Winnipeg used its power of persuasion to get the CP to change its line and go through Winnipeg, which it did eventually. I think they gave them a gratuity of some amount of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars; they gave them tax-free land to do the routing and everything else. So, we now have Selkirk disappointed again that they didn’t get the railroad, and we ended up with Winnipeg having both railroads going through it. Now, the interesting thing is what has been the impact? Well the impact I think has been twofold. First, if the railroad did go through Selkirk, it would’ve distributed the population of Manitoba quite differently. It would also have populated the Interlake quite differently, because you would have had section gangs and what have you along each line. And so you would have probably have had a population distribution a little bit more along the lines of what you see in Saskatchewan, where you have two major cities, Saskatoon and Regina, and you have your population spread out quite a bit. In Manitoba, we have roughly 2/3 of our population within the city of Winnipeg and its next biggest population centre is West, not North in Brandon. So you go from a population of roughly 700 000 in Winnipeg to the next population of around 50 000 in the city of Brandon. And then you have the rest of a few hundred thousand people, about 400 000 spread around this huge mass of Manitoba. And the populations of places like Winnipeg, Steinbach, Portage La Prairie, and Morden being the largest, I guess, are somewhere in the neighborhood of anywhere from 10-15 000. Not very big centres. However, the big issue is what’s going on in Winnipeg. In Winnipeg, the CPR had a huge passenger service, and the passenger service did two things: it ran east and west and it ran Spur lines up into the Northern and Southern parts of Manitoba and down into the United States eventually. The line of interest to us in Selkirk of course is the line that goes up to Winnipeg Beach and eventually Riverton. We used to have a spur line that came down Eveline to what used to be Hooker’s lumber yard.
The long and short of it is that we didn’t get the railroad, but we developed anyway. My personal experience is that when I joined the Navy, my mom and dad put me on the train at the CP Railroad station. I took the train to Montreal and to the Military College and life in the Navy. While I was there, I had the opportunity to come home a couple times on the train, but after that, it was pretty well air travel, and eventually what happened was that passenger traffic on the CP line ceased, and the Canadian Pacific Railroad Company had a huge infrastructure there to support passenger rail traffic. The first item to go was the Royal Alec Hotel, which was right on the corner of Higgins and Main. And eventually, the train station itself with its associated office building ceased to be needed by the CPR and they put it up for sale. In December 1992, the Aboriginal people in Winnipeg, a group of organizations purchased the building from the CPR for 1.1 million dollars and made a $400 000 deposit. What they were able to do was to get the funding for this down payment on the condition from the Government of Canada that what they would do was renovate the building and use it for their own office space. But more importantly that they would restore the historic significance of the building, which was basically the huge rotunda area, the railroad waiting room and the architectural features of the building. At the time, this was in December 1992, I was on the Board of Directors of the meeting Credit Union and I wanted to meet the general manager to discuss an item with him and I had learned that he was at the Canadian Pacific Railroad Station to witness the closing of the deal to purchase the building by the Aboriginal Community. So I went down, I met him, and I said, what are they going to do? This is a huge building! And I hadn’t been in it since I was in the Navy, 1957. And he says, I don’t know! So we took a walk around and I said, my heavens this is interesting. And I knew the fellow who was the chair of the board of directors, and I said, Wayne, (Wayne Helgason) I might be able to help you. If we can arrange a secondment from, at the time, I was the regional Director General for Veterans Affairs, I’d been in the position for six years and I was looking for another challenge. Long story short, I was seconded to go over there to be their Chief Executive Officer and I was responsible for the restoration and renovation of the building, and I was there for three years as the CEO and then I went onto the Board of Directors and I’ve been there ever since. What an interesting challenge that was. It’s now a thriving community, I was there just Saturday for a ceremony with a group that approached us the first week I was there, probably in June of 1993, the Hindu society of Winnipeg. They wanted to celebrate a very brief visit by one of their spiritual leaders, a fellow by the name of Vivi Konanda. So Vivi Konanda took the train across Canada on his way to Chicago and he stopped briefly in Winnipeg and this group wanted to commemorate that very brief visit, and they’ve done it every year at the Aboriginal Centre. So when we were there, the Aboriginal Community, what we said was Look. Our stewardship responsibility is for us to keep this building and its architectural features and open it up for their use when we can to commemorate events like this. So they were the first group to come in. This past week when they were there they dedicated a bust of Vivi Konanda that’s on display and they had the Indian High Commissioner come and bring greetings as well as two of their swamis, one from India and one from Toronto. They had fairly large groups there, but we have had other things going on in that rotunda; we have had theatre, we’ve had movies made there, we’ve had banquets, dances… but that’s the nature of that rotunda. It’s a memorable space too, because there are so many people who started their lives in Canada from that place. They came by train across the country and they landed in Winnipeg, they were processed out and dispersed to their lands that they were allocated in Western Canada, and many who settled in and around Winnipeg, in fact all Winnipeggers who went up to Lake Winnipeg went there by train until road traffic became more common. When we were kids, car ownership was not as widespread as it is now. Very few families had cars, and they did travel up to Lake Winnipeg by train. As kids, families would go to Lake Winnipeg, to Winnipeg Beach in particular for the annual Sunday School Picnic. It was a big big event. Trains would come and you’d see virtually the whole town, at least all the kids and some of their parents would be going on these trains down to Lake Winnipeg and you’d have a picnic lunch and go swimming and on the rides and.. ugh! Great adventure. The rollercoaster, the ponies, the airplanes, the merry-go-round, the boardwalk, and the swimming. And the big dance halls- that’s the other huge… at least as kids they were huge. But they did look huge. Fond memories.
How many dance halls were there?
As I recall, there were two pavilions. One was sort of a pavilion where they had picnic tables, and you know, because it does rain, and you go there and you could set out your food and eat and everything else. And the other thing I remember was a separate dance hall. And apparently these halls—of course we were too young, we weren’t dancers and what have you. That thing was not important, I mean you know it’s there, you’d walk by and you’d get on the merry-go-round, or further on down you’d go on the bumping cars or whatever the case may be. But the dance hall apparently was something that was very attractive to the adults, they did do a fair amount of dancing. The floor apparently was a very fine floor for dancing and everybody would dance, apparently the floor had to be cushioned in a very special way to make it work properly. They had another dance hall of course on the east side of Lake Winnipeg at Grand Beach, I think the one at Grand Beach burned.
The rollercoaster at Winnipeg Beach was further away from the dance hall, right at the south end of what is now Winnipeg Beach near the water tower. The dance hall was almost at the north end, right at the north end was that pavilion hall that I was telling you about where you had the picnic tables and then you had the dance hall next to it.
Tell me about your role in the recovery of Tommy Prince’s medals, maybe first start with a little bit of background on Tommy Prince.
Well, where do you start… Let’s start with a general overview of Aboriginal participation in the Military. In this part of the country, we did have an awful lot of people serve in the Military: army, navy, and the air force. And that included Aboriginal participation. In the First World War, we had a huge participation, same in the second world war, and in Korea. However, it even goes back further than that. In 1882, the Brits wanted to send a relief column to General Gordon at Karthoum in Africa. And the fellow who was given charge of it was General Wolseley. Now Wolseley had led a Military Column here to put down the Red River Rebellion of 1870. Wolseley was back in the UK and he was given this responsibility. His plan was to go down the Nile by boat in this relief column. And he remembered from his experience here in Canada the skill of the boatmen who brought his troops through the river systems to Western Canada. Because at that time there was no railroad. And he said, “Well I’ll recruit some of these people.” And we did have a number of people from this part of the area who served on the Nile, with Wolseley’s column. You in fact can see their graves (of some of them) around the old stone church at St. Peters. There’s two Cockrans, right at the south end of the graveyard, and very close to the church itself you can see the grave of a Pratt. The three of them were identified on their gravestone as having served on the Nile, they call them boatmen. And not only did they have people serving as boatmen, they had people serving as what they called foremen. And one of them was John Prince, one of the former chiefs. I can’t remember all of the details, but if anyone’s interested all they have to do is get a copy of C.P. Stacey’s book “On the Nile”. He gives a great deal of detail about it and the sad thing is that for all of their efforts to relieve Karthoum, they got there too late. Gordon and Karthoum was overrun by the whirling dervish and it was all for naught. But you have to wonder, why would people from this area go over there on this… Was it for adventure, was it because of friendship? Who knows. But there were others who served in the first world war and second world war, and if you walk around the Graveyard in St. Clements you can see all of these graves of soldiers, sailors and airmen. Many of them passed on as returning veterans, they were senior citizens and came to a natural end of their life. But there are others, you can see grave markers there but there’s no person there buried, it just commemorates the death of an individual who was killed overseas. Tehre’s a couple from the Sanderson Family just in front of the church doors going down towards the river. A couple of them, I can remember one who was noted as having been killed in action in Ortona in the Second World War. There’s an awful lot of history just walking around the graveyard seeing how many people had actually served, and an awful lot of them were St. Peter’s people, Aboriginal people. One of the most interesting, just as an aside, is right outside the door you’ll see an enclosure, a family plot, and it’s for the Muckle family. One of the people identified there was the aunt of Lord Perry, who built the Titanic. It’s interesting to see—the connections that we have around the world you know the Nile, the Titanic, all of the people who served in the second world war and first world war, the places they’ve been… and when their final resting place is there you can walk around and collect the history. Just a casual Sunday afternoon or what have you.
But one of the more interesting people is not buried at St. Peters, although he does have a connection, and that’s Tommy Prince. Tommy would’ve been about the same age as my mother, if he was alive today he would be 97. Unfortunately he died when he was about 66. He went to the Elkhorn Residential School about the same time my Mother did, he served in the cadets while there and he enlisted in the second world war quite early and he went to England and while he was in England there was a callout to serve as a paratrooper. At the time, he enlisted as an engineer, and he did go off and get his paratrooper’s training, and as he was completing this training there was a call to form a special unit of Canadians and Americans, which became the first special services force. Many people have probably seen the movie “The Devil’s Brigade”, and that is the story of the first special services force. They were called the Devil’s Brigade because the Germans…..
Technical difficulty- Bill, maybe we can finish that sentence off? It didn’t cut off much but it’d be good to finish that off.
So you were talking about Tommy Prince.
Anyways, like I said, he signed up to join the first special services force and they did their training in Montana, and eventually they took part in landings in the Illutions, and went into the Mediterranean. In Italy, they fought their way through Italy and Southern France and they were disbanded. During his time with the first special services force Tom won two medals for gallantry: the first medal he won was the Military Medal, which was a Canadian/British award, Commonwealth Award, for gallantry. The episode around his gallantry related to his role as an artillery spotter. He was deployed up to the forward lines to report the follow shot from the artillery and would tell them where to direct their shots to the guns that were located well behind him. He was pretty close to the German lines. What happened during the course of his time, he was in a deserted farmhouse and sometime during the course of the battle, the phone lines were cut by an artillery shell, counter bombardment from the Germans. And he dressed up as a farmer, and started working his field. Found the telephone line that linked him with the gun battery and followed the line down, and when he found the break, he bent over as if to tie his shoes. All the time that he was doing this, he would shake his fist at the German lines, and curse the Germans, and he’d shake his fist at the Allied lines, and call them buggers as well, pretending he was just a normal farmer, pissed off with both sides for disturbing his work as a farmer. And he managed to repair the line, and continue reporting back to the Allied gun positions, and he did quite well. So for that he was awarded the Military medal. The next episode that he was involved in was in Southern France. And he was sent on a patrol to find German lines. He went out and found the Germans, and was on his way to come back and he and his patrol came across a partisan group of Frenchmen who were fighting a small group of Germans and he helped them, and then they continued on back. Tom made his report, and then he led the brigade back to where he found the German encampment and joined in the battle. For that he was awarded the American Silver Star. The interesting thing about these two awards is that they were both presented to him by King George the sixth at Buckingham Palace, so the actual medals that he got you can say were actually presented to him by the King. The next episode in his life in the Military after the Second World War he was discharged and immobilized but he reenlisted to fight in Korea, and he took part in two deployments to Korea. First one, he took part in the battle for Campion, where the Princess Patricia light infantry received a presidential citation for that battle. So the man received 13 medals altogether. He received a number for his service in the Second World War, three medals for his service in Korea, and he received two gallantry medals. He is reputed to be the most decorated Aboriginal soldier. I mean, there are some other claims that a fellow by the name of Pegnakabo from Ontario is more decorated, because he won the Military Medal three times for his experience in the first world war, he was a sniper. In Tom’s case, I think his military record is somewhat more that of a warrior, because he was engaged in combat in a number of different theatres. In the Illutian islands, in Italy, and in Southern France and in Korea a couple times. And most of the times he was in service, he was in combat, he was not sitting behind enemy lines. So… arguments on both sides. But the man was a real soldier, and he really had a hard time in civilian life after he came back from Korea.
What happened to him?
Between the Second World War and Korea, he’d gone to Ottawa and some delegations and spoke very well, and he’d had a business back home, which he started and left in the care of somebody. But when he came home, he found out that the fellow who he left in charge ran the business to the ground and it was no longer there. Towards the end of his military career in Korea, he had had some injuries and when he left the service it was largely because of injuries he incurred while serving. He fell on hard times and eventually died at the age of 66 in 1981. At some point in time, the PPCLI was having a regimental parade of some sort and they wanted to honour Tommy and they asked him to wear his medals. He said, I lost my medals in a fire. Now, at the time there was a fire, a house fire, and he did lose his medals (so the story goes). The fellow said ok, we will get you another set, so what they did was got him another set they had it properly mounted and that’s what he wore on that particular parade. When he passed away, those medals were given back to the regiment and are on display in the Museum of the Regiments in Calgary. At the time as well, the PPCLI had its attachment here in Winnipeg in Fort Osbourne Barracks and the Sergeants Mess, because Tom was a Sergeant, had a set of Specimen Medals, which were displayed in the mess, and those now I guess are with the Sergeant’s Mess in their new location in Shiloh, MB. The interesting thing about the original set of medals is that around 2000 a coin dealer by the name of Lang said he had the original set of medals and he wanted to sell them. Well, at that time, we said how could he have an original set when they were destroyed in the fire? I know I went down and I examined the medals, they looked authentic but I know enough about medals that there are some extremely good fakes out there. Because of the fact that these medals, the story was that they were destroyed in the fire, you could not put credence to it. The other thing is that you knew that Prince probably wouldn’t make an affidavit saying he lost his medals in a fire and got a replacement set. Here’s the interesting thing about medals: you can have an original set of medals, if you do lose your medals, you can have them replaced- you can get a replacement set. You can apply for them, and you have to make an affidavit saying, “I swear that I have lost my medals” or “they were destroyed in a fire” or “they were stolen” or whatever the case may be, and you’ll get a replacement set. When Tom went to that parade with the PPCLI and he had a new set of medals, we were of the understanding that Prince had made that affidavit that he said that he’d lost them and he’d signed that document and these were an official set of replacement medals. So we couldn’t put any credence to this claim that these were the original set of medals and we argued back and forth about how much for the medals and couldn’t come to an agreement so Lang put them up for auction and they were sold at auction in Toronto for $17000 to a dealer/collector in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. A few years later, they went on sale again in auction, this time in _______ (missed this word). So when they came up for sale, we had been doing some research and we found out a couple things. The first thing that we did find out was, Prince did from time to time give his medals as collateral to an individual for a loan. He said if you hold my medals, I’ll pay you back, and he usually did. The second thing was, that we found out that the set of medals given to him for that parade was not an official replacement set. What the PPCLI or the people associated with that particular even did was they contacted their buddies and they used the old voyage network to get a set produced and the set of medals that were produced were court-mounted. Now there’s two ways that you can wear medals: one is that you just suspend it on a clip by the ribbon and if you have a number of them they wobble back and forth and they clink and what have you. Nothing wrong with it, it’s perfectly acceptable. The other way is to court-mount them, which basically means that you take the medal and you mount the ribbon on a piece of cardboard, really, which is flexible, then the medal is over top of the ribbon, again suspended by the ribbon. So if you look at it, let’s see if I’ve got mine, here I’ll show you. So on the court mounting, what you end up with is the ribbon suspending the medal, with another part of the ribbon extending down onto the cardboard. So now the medals don’t flop everywhere, and they’re easier to mount and you put them on quite easily. That’s the way that they had mounted Prince’s medals. And you’ve got to remember that Prince had 13 medals, I guess at the time he only had 11 medals. He would’ve had the Defense Medal, the War Medal, the Volunteer medal, and two stars is five– he would’ve had 11 medals. The way he was issued his medals and the way he wore them was just on a long pin and they were not court-mounted. So when we found out that the court-mounted set that the PPCLI gave him and are now currently on display were not an official replacement set, we said oh, they could be real. So in the end we participated in the auction, we had the successful bid and we ended up with taxes and everything else paying about $90,000 for them. They’re now currently on display in the Manitoba Museum, the original set. The original set of medals are absolutely unique, and when we purchased them for auction we had them examined by some experts and as near as possible they can say these are the originals. The silver star has a serial number on it that is from the appropriate time era. It’s not after the Second World War, so it dates it from the engravings on the name medals and there are three of them that are named, one is the Military Medal, is the correct engraving, and similarly for the Korean Medal, and I think that’s the only one that’s named, I’m not so sure of the United Nations Medal. So everything else… you’re not worried about all those other medals, because the uniqueness of the originals is the fact that the two gallantry medals were presented by King George the sixth. Anything else is, you know. And the fact that Tommy Prince wore them, and they were his and everything else, that’s important. Whereas all other succeeding sets no matter how many there are, and there are many now, because what happened after the two sets were created, the court-mounted set, and the set that the sergeant mess had, we ended up making two more sets. We would often send out the originals on display to museums, and we actually have a second set of medals for display at the museum when the originals are out on display elsewhere. We also had a set made up for the community, so the community also has a set of medals that are on display at the Southeast Tribal Council Offices. And then, another individual by the name of Don Mackie has created 3 sets: one he gave to the war museum in Ottawa, one he gave to the Tommy Prince Cadet Corps, and I think he has another one which he uses when he goes out talking. So you can see there’s all sorts of medals, but the only thing that was really important was that original gallantry medal, that’s what makes it all unique and historically important.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
These are actually the miniature set of Prince’s medals. There’s the military medal, and there’s the American Silver Star. These are the three stars for the theatres of service in the Second World War. This is the Defence medal, basically for his service when he was in the United Kingdom. This medal is called the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal, and this one here is the War Medal, this is the Commonwealth Medal for Korea, and this is the Canadian Volunteer Medal for Korea, and this is the United Nations Medal for Korea.
Artifacts, you know, it’s all pretty interesting from the point of view of the military history of individuals in your area. In Prince’s case, he is sort of a tragic figure. The thing was, how he was used in war… I’m going to give you two comparisons. Here was a fellow that had tremendous skill working behind enemy lines and working under some pressure all the time, the whole time he was in service—in Korea, and in the Second World War, he was on patrol behind enemy lines, and that’s pretty intense. To do that for extended periods of time, he was a hero of some note. He must’ve really suffered some of what we call today Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. To give you another example of a hero who was I wouldn’t say treated differently but had a different life, was Smokey Smith. Smokey Smith won the Victoria Cross for service in the Second World War. He was an absolute hero. He fought off huge numbers of Germans with a Tommy Gun, but when he won the Victoria Cross, he was immediately withdrawn from combat, and he was never put back into the lines. He was used to promote because he was a hero and he had a Victoria Cross. Valuable service—they didn’t want to lose him. And when I say “they” I’m talking about the Military and the Government. A Victoria Cross winner was quite a unique individual, and in his case, he went on promotion tours and what have you, and all of his life, he was, he used to say he never had to buy himself a drink!
What is the Victoria Cross? What do you get that for?
The Victoria Cross, they call it the highest gallantry medal. You have to be in the face of the enemy, and it has to be something pretty significant. It’s a reward that’s rarely given. When it is awarded, it’s for some extreme gallantry. I think the last Victoria Cross winner was a Naval Officer by the name of Hampton Grey, and he was the pilot of an aircraft and he pressed home his attack of a Japanese ship and died doing it and so he was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. That’s the sort of thing that you get it for. For incredible bravery.
So why do you think Tommy Prince wasn’t taken immediately out of combat like this other person?
One, because he was extremely valuable as a scout, going out on these patrols and he was willing to do it, and he could do it. When you do it, you know you’re all pumped up and ready to go and you come back and decompress and it’ll hit you. And I don’t know, he probably has killed some people too, you know during his time in combat and that would probably come back and haunt him. You know, I don’t envy any soldier who’s gone through that sort of trauma, that sort of experience. The trauma that they must’ve experienced would just be incredible.
Now when you were in the Navy, you never actually went to war, did you?
Oh God no. Thank God we didn’t, that’s probably the greatest success of my time in the service is the fact that we didn’t go to war, because the things that we were practicing for were quite horrible to think about. We’re talking about atomic warfare, bombs that can obliterate cities and all sorts of funny things like that.
How long were you in the Navy for?
I was in the regular force from ’56 to ’78, and I was in the reserves from ‘;78 till ’96. Perhaps too long.
Anyways, my time in the regular force was quite different than in wartime, because in wartime your training is compressed very quickly, and your service is quite intense and also compressed. During peace time, you had the leisure to train and be trained with much more depth. To give you an example, if you are involved in anti-submarine warfare, in wartime they train people very quickly how to use the equipment. During peacetime, you have the opportunity to do research as to how to improve the systems and the procedures and you generally do things in a number of areas: one, you probably do a lot more simulation and you had a lot more criticisms, you know, people coming in and they critique everything that’s going on to see how they can fine-tune it and make it better. You don’t have time to do that in war. Everything is improvised. Or done based on your training and then improvised on top of that if something goes wrong. Whereas in peacetime, you have the leisure of saying, well we did this wrong, I wonder if we did this, okay that didn’t work, let’s try this. Then you create an intense professionalism that builds on things for the future, a future that you hope never happens. When you’re contemplating things like nuclear war, you go through these nuclear defenses. I can remember one of the things we used to practice was going through fallout, nuclear fallout, because if you were in a ship and you had to go from A to B and you had to go through an area that was already bombed, and there was nuclear stuff in the air, how do you transit and keep safe? We used to do a thing called pre-wetting, where we would rig sprays on the ship to spray down the upper deck and what have you. But somebody had to be on the pilotage to be able to steer the ship, and everybody else would be in what they called “deep shelter stations” which would be lower down in the ship, protected by the hull of the ship and by the water, when you’re below water. But like I said, somebody had to be on the upper deck. Generally it was the most junior guy, we used to call him the expendable.
But those were the sorts of things that you would practice, and somebody would be always saying, how can we improve this? How can we improve the ship design? How can we improve the weapons systems? And those are the sorts of things that went on in our thinking in peacetime, and when you study it and do the research and you do the practices and everything else you realize the futility of it all. One of the things I can remember we did an exercise called “Armageddon” where we discussed nuclear war fighting. And if bombs were dropped… What you’d do is you simulate, okay we know what this bomb can do, and we know how accurately it can be dropped, etc. etc. and then you do an assessment as to would you attack? And generally the conclusion is no you wouldn’t, because you don’t have enough accuracy and you don’t have enough bombs to assure that you’re going to win. So in the days when you watch movies like Dr. Strangelove, have you ever watched Dr. Strangelove? Great movie. It’s one of the best anti-war movies there are about the nuclear age. As kids, you used to practice standing under your desk for a nuclear bomb, you don’t do now that do you! Thank God we didn’t go to war, because that was the insane thinking we had! We did practice that.
If you were in the military, and you were thinking war, you were not thinking bang bang, you were thinking boom boom boom, and BIG booms.