There is not a political war story anyone can tell that I cannot trump – not one – with the most remarkable of stories. It was in June of 1997. I had just been through an Alberta election, my first and only one as Liberal Leader, and I was starting to decompress a bit.
I was asked to speak at the biannual reunion of the CanLoan program. That program had been organized to send Canadian officers as volunteers to fight with the British army in WWII because the British had lost so many officers. My father volunteered so he could get back to the war sooner.
He fought with the British Black Watch through France, Belgium and Germany under the command of Field Marshall Montgomery. My father was wounded and decorated in that campaign. In fact, I have a picture of him with Montgomery when he was awarded his Military Cross for bravery.
The reunion that June of ’97 was to be held in Calgary. My father had died many years before, but out of respect for his memory, the organizers invited me, as Leader of the Opposition in the Alberta Legislature, to be the keynote speaker. My mother was invited as well; she lived in the Okanagan Valley at the time. I was moved that the reunion organizers would do this for me and my mother.
Originally 700 Canadian officers fought with the British under the CanLoan program; about 650 returned. Over the years the attendance at the biannual reunions had dwindled and by 1997, fifty-two years after the war, there were only 120 elderly survivors.
I was to be introduced for my speech by Art Smith, my father’s sergeant when he joined the Canadian Black Watch in 1938 in Montréal. Both had gone on to become officers and members of the CanLoan program. Mr. Smith was 80 when I met him briefly for the first time just before the meal. He was a very elegant, patrician man in a grey three-piece suit. He and his wife had been lifelong friends of my parents.
As the meal wound down, Mr. Smith ascended to the stage, stood behind the podium and started to introduce me. He said some kind words about my father and mother. He then turned to me and got three or four words out – at which point he suddenly stiffened, teetered for a moment, dropped over backwards, ramrod straight, and hit the stage floor, bouncing slightly. Mr. Smith lay perfectly still.
The room was paralyzed. It seemed no one could breath. Suddenly two members of the audience, a nurse and RCMP officer, jumped to the stage and began to work on Mr. Smith. The rest of us stared at first, trying to comprehend what was happening. Then bit by bit, people rose and stood by their tables, shuffling uneasily and mumbling to one another. After ten minutes or so, paramedics arrived and attempted what proved to be a futile effort to revive Mr. Smith.
Several more minutes passed. My mother asked me if I thought Mr. Smith was dead. Yes, I replied, given the colour of his complexion and lack of response. Then the elderly master of ceremonies came to me and asked sheepishly if I would mind canceling my speech. Mr. Smith was still on the stage; believing that to be an insurmountable distraction for the crowd no matter how eloquent I might be, I quickly agreed.
Later, my mother and I were standing outside the banquet room with a group of shaken veterans. One turned to me and said it was getting like this: fewer and fewer survivors to make it to the next reunion. “Why,” he said, “two years ago there were 145 veterans of CanLoan; now there are only one hundred twen….I guess, only 119.”
A remarkable soldier had surely died as he would have wished, on his feet in front of soldiers.
(Editor’s note: the author is a now-retired senator from Edmonton, and former Alberta Liberal leader who served twelve years in the legislature.)