Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: September 2019

Citizenship Ceremony

Racism against immigrants is nothing new in Saskatchewan, it just looks a little different

One news organization called it a prank. It was anything but.

Two men — both members of visible minorities — had coffee thrown in their faces in separate incidents this past August in Regina.

First, a young man threw coffee at a student of South Asian descent who was taking a break from his job. Another person filmed the disgusting episode so it could go on social media.

Later that same day there was another assault, again with coffee, against an older black man outside a local store.

Community leaders immediately condemned the acts as racist, insisting that Regina, in the words of the mayor, was “a very open and a friendly city.”

But there is a belief, largely unspoken, that people of colour, especially new immigrants, have no place in Saskatchewan society. To put it less elegantly, it’s a matter of “them” not belonging “here.”

This attitude has echoes in the province’s past. Indeed, the phrase, “Diversity is Canada’s Strength,” would never have been uttered a century ago in this province.

Multiculturalism was never part of the original blueprint for Saskatchewan.

If anything, multiculturalism was actively resisted in the late 19th century and the first third of the 20th. It was only embraced in the last few decades.

Saskatchewan has come a long way.

New land, new opportunities

In the late 19th century, Canada advertised itself as the home of the “last best west.”

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants were actively encouraged to come to Western Canada and turn pioneer homesteads into commercial farms.

Canada advertised in continental Europe and so-called non-traditional sources of immigrants, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which included Ukraine at the time). 

The response was overwhelming. People came for the promise of better lives and greater opportunity. 

They came to escape persecution and oppression. 

They sought to leave behind discrimination and racism.

They wanted to avoid compulsory military service and seek out peace.

So many immigrants were pouring into Western Canada in the early twentieth century that the federal government stepped outside the normal census cycle and sponsored a special census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1906.

Settlement and assimilation

Even with all these new immigrants coming to Saskatchewan, the settlement of the province was not some deliberate attempt to create a multicultural province.

Saskatchewan did not want immigrants of colour and did whatever it could to limit their presence in the province and limit their interaction with the dominant Anglo-Canadian society.

The Saskatchewan government also expected immigrants from continental Europe to accept and embrace the ways and traditions of their new country.

They were to leave their cultural identity behind at the border, like unwanted baggage, and rapidly integrate into the dominant Anglo-Canadian way of life. 

Settlement and assimilation went hand-in-hand. Even then, non-Anglo-Canadians immigrants were never really welcome.

They may have made good farmers, but would they make good citizens with their unpronounceable last names, pauper-like appearance, strange customs and different religious beliefs? It didn’t matter that the number of European settlers was dwarfed by those from Great Britain and the United States.

Central Europeans at the time were popularly associated with poverty, crime, ignorance and immorality. One newspaper likened their immigration to a “grand ’round-up’ of European freaks and hoboes.”

Some suggested that the mere presence of these “foreigners” — as they were called at the best of times — threatened to weaken, perhaps even ruin, the Anglo-Canadian fabric of the province.

Others questioned whether the integration of continental European immigrants into the larger society was even possible, let alone desirable.

‘Foreign element’

By the 1920s, public debate centred around the growing ethnic diversity of Saskatchewan society and the need to end the kind of immigration that made Saskatchewan the third most populous province in Canada.

Future Saskatchewan premier J.T.M. Anderson portrayed the “foreign element” as the greatest threat to the province’s future well-being.

George Exton Lloyd, the Anglican bishop for Saskatchewan, maintained that the country was in danger of becoming a “mongrel nation.”

“The real question at stake,” Lloyd declared almost 100 years ago, “is not whether these people can grow potatoes, but whether you would like your daughter to marry them.”

The issue was even debated by academics.

E.H. Oliver, the first historian appointed at the University of Saskatchewan, reviewed the contribution of continental Europeans to Saskatchewan society in a paper read before the Royal Society of Canada in May 1926.

“We need the artist, the poet, the thinker, the musician, and composer quite as much as the sewer-digger and the track-layer,” he concluded, “It is high time we encouraged these people to bring their best to us. Some of them possess rare genius.”

What Oliver and other commentators did not appreciate was that there were poets, thinkers, and musicians among the people who decided to make the province their home, but they faced outright prejudice and limited opportunity.

Diversity was not seen as Saskatchewan’s strength, but as a force that would cause Saskatchewan’s downfall.

Acceptance fostered by shared hardship

So what changed?

The Great Depression of the 1930s was the great leveller.

Everyone suffered.

Then, after the Second World War, few of the new immigrants chose to make Saskatchewan their home. Most headed instead to the country’s largest cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

This negligible immigration rate, combined with out-migration from the province beginning in the mid-1930s, changed the demographic character of Saskatchewan.

The percentage of the population born within the province’s boundaries steadily increased, giving Saskatchewan a strong local identity and a distinctly regional outlook.

In the post-war world, immigrant children and their children were widely accepted as part of Saskatchewan society.

Hounjet, Gesiorowski, and Pezer were just as much Saskatchewan names as Caswell or Sutherland. Whereas continental Europeans were once seen as a blight on Saskatchewan, they were an essential part of the province’s future by the middle of the twentieth century.

This acceptance of multiculturalism was confirmed in September 1986, when Saskatchewan formally adopted the provincial motto: “Multis e gentibus vires” (“from many peoples, strength” or “out of many peoples, strength”). 

There’s the irony.

In retrospect, “From Many Peoples, Strength” is not simply a provincial motto for Saskatchewan today. It also represents the distance the province has come in embracing non-British immigrants as part of its identity.

Saskatchewan was home to Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn and Sylvia Fedoruk, chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan and lieutenant governor. That these Canadians of Ukrainian descent would serve in these capacities would have been unthinkable at the start of the twentieth century.

A better tomorrow, together

There is still some distance to go.

What is said today about immigrants, especially refugees, has parallels with Saskatchewan’s past.

They are criticized for dressing differently, for worshipping differently, for having strange cultural traditions, for having too many children, for owing their allegiances elsewhere, and on and on.

These are some of the same complaints that were once levelled against continental Europeans.

Today’s new immigrants are not any different from immigrants a century ago. They have come to Saskatchewan for a better life — if not for themselves, then for their children and their children’s children.

I’ve learned this serving as the presiding official at Canadian citizenship ceremonies. It’s such a momentous event.

The immigrants, accompanied by their extended family, friends and sponsors, often arrive in their best clothes for the ceremony. Some even take the oath of citizenship in their country of origin’s traditional dress.

They smile happily, waving Canadian flags and displaying their citizenship certificates as they are photographed alongside the attending Mountie in his red serge dress uniform.

I come away from the ceremony proud to be a Canadian and proud that Canada has been so welcoming to these people.

I also know that the road to citizenship has not been easy.

Candidates have to pass a citizenship knowledge test, demonstrate proficiency in French or English and live in Canada for three of the past five years.

Then there’s the adjustment to a new culture and, for many, the –30 C temperatures in the winter.

I wish those who speak out against allowing non-white and non-Christian peoples into the country could attend one of these ceremonies and learn why these new citizens have worked so hard to make Canada their new home.

I wish they could speak to sponsors who have helped immigrants make the transition to life in Canada.

If we’re going to build a better Saskatchewan and a better tomorrow, we need to do it together.

This article originally appeared as a CBC Opinion piece.

Photo credit: Steve Hiscock, Saskatoon Blades

Ted Waiser Tank

My father’s war….75 years ago, Hill 111, Battle of Normandy

Seventy-five years ago this week, Canadians were on the verge of helping win the Battle of Normandy.

It was a costly campaign. 

Canadian forces sustained nearly 20,000 casualties (dead and wounded), including 5,021 killed, during the fight to end the Nazi occupation of northwest France. The death rate was 65 men per day over 77 days.

These and other battles that brought an end to the Second World War in Europe are largely forgotten, if even known.

Canadian remembrance is largely restricted to the start of the Normandy campaign — the June 6, 1944, Allied landing more popularly known as D-Day — and rightly honouring the men who died on Juno beach or trying to get ashore that day.

But the breaching of German defences along the coast had to be matched by victories inland if D-Day was going to be a turning point in the war.

My father Ted took part in one of those battles in August 1944. Like many Canadian soldiers, he was lucky to have survived. 

Ted Waiser

Trooper Thaddeus (Ted) Louis Waiser, a member of the 28th Canadian Armoured Regiment (British Columbia Regiment [BCR]), landed near Courseulles-sur-Mer (Juno Beach), Normandy, on July 26, 1944.

He had just turned 31 and was single.

Born in 1913 to immigrant parents in Glennella, Man., he grew up in the southwest corner of the province, in Lyleton, where his father ran a harness shop.

Ted left school after Grade 8 and worked as a hired hand in the district. When depression and drought crippled the farm economy in the early 1930s, he took to the rails and joined hundreds of other single men criss-crossing Western Canada in search of work.

He spent the winter of 1933-34 in the Hope relief camp in British Columbia. My dad liked to joke that he was a guest of Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.

Ted was working on a Canadian Pacific Railway section crew when war broke out in September 1939.  He enlisted three years later, in October 1942, in Winnipeg and trained as a gunner-operator and crew commander with the Canadian Armoured Corps. 

According to his attestation form, he wanted to see action.

Sent overseas in June 1943, my dad practised and drilled for the next year in Great Britain in anticipation of the Allied invasion of western Europe. 

This preparation included becoming familiar with the new Sherman tank, which replaced the Ram tank as standard Canadian equipment. 

The Sherman might have not had the firepower or protective armour of the German Tiger and Panther tanks, but it was more manoeuvrable and dependable on the battlefield.

Allied attacks

By the time my father’s BCR regiment [B Squadron], under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Worthington, landed in Normandy the last week of July 1944, Allied forces had consolidated their position along the coast and were taking the war to the Nazis.

The Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, was a shell of its former self. Allied fighters and bombers were able to carry out concentrated attacks against the enemy ahead of ground troops.

By June 10, just four days after D-Day, it was safe enough for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to travel across the English channel and meet with British General Bernard Montgomery at his temporary headquarters in a French chateau.

But moving inland through the French countryside still meant heavy combat.

Allied air strikes may have weakened Nazi fighting effectiveness, but the bombing was erratic and left military targets intact in places. The enemy defences were formidable — in heavily armed layers, occupying strategic positions that gave them a tactical edge.

German Führer Adolph Hitler had also ordered that there be no retreat or surrender — a command that only stiffened Nazi resolve.

It consequently took Anglo-Canadian forces several weeks and repeated attacks to capture the medieval French city of Caen, only fifteen kilometres from the coast.

Dislodging the enemy from the Verrières Ridge south of Caen also met with fierce resistance, including German counter attacks.

If there was one consolation, it was that the Nazis were fighting a losing battle.

There was only so much repeated pounding they could take.

And in trying to blunt the Anglo-Canadian advance around Caen, the German defenders left other areas vulnerable to attack.

That’s why the long-delayed American breakout from the Normandy coast in late July 1944 enjoyed spectacular success. The American 1st and 3rd Armies smashed through German positions to south and west and left the battleground littered with the dead and destroyed equipment.

This breakthrough raised the prospect of encircling the German Fifth and Seventh Panzer armies, who were hemmed in from the south, west, and north — effectively in a kind of collapsing “pocket.”

If Anglo-Canadian forces could close the “gap” by driving south past Falaise to meet up with their American counterparts, then the battle of Normandy would be over.

Operation Totalize

“Operation Totalize” was devised to inflict a crippling blow on the Nazis forces south of Caen and open the way to Falaise.

The two-stage battle plan called for a concentrated frontal assault, spearheaded by the Canadian Armoured Corps, deep into the heart of Nazi-held territory. It was an audacious undertaking by any measure, but even more so because tanks would see action during the night.

The first phase of Totalize was a success. 

By the early morning of Aug. 8, the Canadians had punched through the German anti-tank screen and advanced several kilometres in closing the gap.  Verrières Ridge was finally taken, as were several villages south of Caen that had been stubbornly held by the Germans.

One combatant later recalled that the enemy was both to the front and behind.

But the surprise attack stalled at Cintheaux while Allied bombers pummeled the next series of enemy targets. This delay—until the afternoon of Aug. 8—allowed the fanatical German 12th SS Panzer division, with its formidable Tiger tanks and dreaded 88 mm guns, to block the Caen-Falaise road and blunt phase two of Totalize.

Undeterred and anxious to maintain the day’s momentum, the Canadian command hurriedly launched a countermove during the night of Aug. 9.

Under the cover of darkness, Halpenny Force (consisting of Canadian Grenadier Guards and the Lake Superior Regiment) would move forward to capture Bretteville-le-Rabet. At the same time, Worthington Force (the pairing of the British Columbia Regiment with the infantry of the Algonquin Regiment) was ordered to take up a position on the strategically important Hill 195 in the Quesnay Wood.

My father had yet to have his baptism of fire. The BCRs and their Sherman tanks had seen limited combat since their arrival in France–even during the big armoured push on Aug. 8 – and were still relatively green. 

Hill 195

But that changed when Worthington Force was instructed to take the hill that been one of Totalize’s first-day objectives.

Around 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 9, the BCR tanks left their “harbour” north of Cintheaux and proceeded south towards Bretteville-le-Rabet. 

Because the village had yet to be cleared of the enemy, the Canadians came under intense fire. 

Knowing that his force had to be entrenched on Point 195 at first light, Lieutenant-Colonel Worthington ordered the column to swing east around the village to avoid the German guns.

It was a fateful decision.

A fog hung over the ground in the early morning hours. The dust raised by the tanks only made visibility worse.

But instead of stopping and ascertaining their position, Worthington Force kept moving as rapidly as it could, trying to avoid detection by German defenders in the area.

They were lost. But they didn’t know it.

They mistook the road they were following for the Caen-Falaise highway.

And when a hill came into view just before sunrise, they assumed it to be Point 195.

It wasn’t.

It was actually Point 140–about six kilometres northeast of their objective.

Upon reaching what was believed to be Hill 195, Lieutenant-Colonel Worthington informed Brigade headquarters of his position.

He also deployed the tanks and infantry in a defensive position, atop a nearby height of land (Hill 111), in a rectangular field surrounded by trees on three sides.

The BCRs and Algonquins expected a fight.

The rear of the column had been badly mauled—at the cost of several casualties and knocked-out tanks—as it passed near Estrées-la-Campagne.

Little did they realize, though, that they had squatted along the new German defensive line north of the Laison River.

The leader of the 12th SS Panzer division, SS-Uberführer Kurt Meyer, immediately ordered nearby Tiger and Panther tanks to converge on the Canadians once he learned of their presence.  Meyer would later gain notoriety for the cold-blooded execution of Canadian soldiers captured during the Normandy campaign.

First attack

The first German attack, in the form of mortar fire, came around 8 a.m. Worthington asked for artillery support, but the coordinates were wrong for their location.

Brigade headquarters soon realized that the battle group was not at Hill 195. But where? How could the force go missing?

The confusion over the column’s location left it vulnerable to friendly fire.

Two Typhoon fighter planes strafed the encampment — believing that it was a German formation — before the Canadians were able to identify themselves. 

Why the Allied pilots failed to report the incident is a mystery. Relief support could have been sent.

A Polish tank group, moving into the area from the north, also mistook the Canadians for the enemy and fired on their position before coming under attack itself and being forced to withdraw.

The entrenched Canadians successfully fought back several German attempts to overrun their position through the day. 

The constant bombardment by mortar and armour-piercing shells created a horrific scene atop Point 111.  Dozens of men, indiscriminately killed or wounded, lay about the cratered battlefield, while exploding tanks “brewed up” in flames, shrouding the hill in acrid smoke.     

The hopelessness of the situation was driven home when Worthington was felled by a mortar shell in the late afternoon.

As darkness descended, enemy soldiers, using tanks as shields, attacked the camp from two sides.  Several Canadians were taken prisoner, while others made a mad dash for freedom.

Ted Waiser survived

Somehow my father survived. Somehow he got away. Even though he had shrapnel in both thighs, he eluded capture and found his way back to Allied lines.

Worthington Force, though, had been gutted. In their first day of combat, the BCRs lost 40 men killed and 47 tanks. The casualty rate for the Algonquin infantry was equally grim. 

The irony was that Hill 195 was captured the next day, largely because the Germans had focused their firepower on Worthington Force on Point 111. 

It took another 12 days, until Aug. 21, 1944, for the Falaise gap to be closed and the Battle of Normandy brought to a decisive end.

I secured a copy of my dad’s personnel record from Library and Archives Canada only weeks before his death in 1995 at age 82. The file was mostly medical material. 

By then, it was too late to ask him questions. I’ve had to search for answers elsewhere.

This past April, 75 years after our father landed at Normandy, I travelled to Juno Beach with my wife Marley, my sister Gail, my brother Tom and his wife Irene.

We also made a special trip to Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, just north of the village of Cintheaux. It was late morning and two French groundskeepers had just finished tending the flower beds lining the rows of headstones.

The cemetery contains nearly 3,000 Canadian soldiers who died during the latter stages of the Battle of Normandy. We solemnly walked along row after row of Maple Leaf headstones and found several of the BCRs and Algonquins who died on Hill 111 on Aug. 9, 1944.

The grave of Lieutenant-Colonel Worthington lies in the first row, near the cemetery entrance. I took a stone out of my coat pocket that I had picked up on the Normandy beach and put it on top of his headstone. 

We then quietly slipped away, deep in thought, knowing that dad was fortunate to have lived…fortunate to have served with such brave men.    

This column originally appeared as a CBC Point of View piece.