JULY 15, 1946 By Pierre Beemans (Article)


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Pierre Beemans

July 15, 1946. That was the date on the yellowed pages of Maclean’s Magazine that I tugged out of a blocked-up space in our foundation wall a few months ago, along with the Friday, May 20, 1949 edition of The Ottawa Journal. I had pulled down a section of drywall in the basement to check the insulation and spotted what appeared to be an old vent hole. Someone, many years ago, had packed the exit in the outside wall with cement, and simply plugged the inside cavity with old paper.

It was a veritable time capsule. Insulating the foundation wall could wait; I brewed up a pot of coffee and sat down to learn how much life had changed since the days when I wore short pants or britches. Quite a bit, as it turned out, and at the same time, not so much.

The inside cover was a full-page ad for the new 1947 Studebaker shortly to be on the market and the back cover invited us to stop for gas at the sign of the White Rose. Inside, the editorial condemned the secrecy with which C.D. Howe had surrounded the Atomic Energy Control Board and the goings-on at Chalk River, to the point where “the people’s representatives aren’t allowed to enquire what’s being done with a capital investment of $20,000,000 and an annual outlay of $3,500,00 of the people’s money”. It didn’t sound like Canada’s entry into the atomic age had cost us very much, until I looked at the front cover and saw that the price of the magazine at the time was ten cents.

With WW II less than a year behind us, international affairs were still a prominent interest. The lead article was a lengthy review of Clement Attlee’s first year in office as successor to Winston Churchill, and of the dramatic changes introduced as the Labour government transformed Britain into a socialist society. Some of the names still echo today: Aneurin Bevin and Sir Stafford Cripps, while other giants of the day like Hugh Dalton and Herbert Morrison would trigger recognition in only the occasional historian.

Maclean’s European correspondent wrote a fascinating account of his visit to Turkey in June, 1946, as the country engaged in a diplomatic war of nerves with Russia. How many of us recall that the Soviet Union, fresh from its victory in the War and with the largest standing army in the world, had issued Turkey with an ultimatum to hand over three eastern border provinces and allow it to construct a naval fortress on the Dardanelles? Turkey moved quickly to strengthen its ties to the United States, which sent the battleship Missouri to fly the flag in Istanbul. The correspondent noted, “Turkey is the world’s no. 1 trouble spot. Iran, Iraq, Korea, the Balkans are also troublespots; each may have its moment at centre stage in the world’s theatre of postwar confusion.” Well, that certainly sounds familiar 60 years later.

That sense of ‘reverse déjà vu’ persisted when I read the article by the London correspondent, Beverley Baxter, about his trip to Ulster to cover some by-elections. The first question he was asked on being met in Belfast was, “You’re not a Papist, are you?” He noted the fierce and unwavering conviction of the Protestant Ulstermen that they would remain part and parcel of the United Kingdom and the equally fierce determination of the IRA prisoners on hunger strike in Belfast, and closed by wondering whether “a country thus divided by war, religious differences, and a thousand memories ” could ever become united. He would still be wondering that today.

On the domestic side, the circumstances were much different but some of the concerns sound quite familiar. An article on the War Assets Corporation (now Crown Assets Disposal, I believe) excoriated its management for its secretiveness, red tape, inefficiency, arbitrariness, wastefulness and slipshoddiness. The government took a hammering for its unwillingness or inability to do anything to correct the situation. Sounds just like Sheila Fraser. “Backstage at Ottawa” reported on the Canadian-American talks on joint defense arrangements, with some concern about whether “Americans would, perhaps unconsciously, override Canadian sovereignty”. It is doubtful whether a Canadian journalist today would put the question quite so tactfully.

Politics aside, Maclean’s affirmed its national character with a lyrical account of a trip through the Gaspesie by its travel writer. It is a delightful picture of a world that no longer exists, although the geography is still much the same: barefoot women in the fields, oxen on the country roads, outdoor ovens, crowded churches and $1 a night cabins. A Toronto geophysicist hoped to prove that prospecting by helicopter could really replace the traditional man on foot in the bush. In Winnipeg, three thousand people gathered for the funeral of Dr. Louis Slotin, a 35-year old physicist who died of radiation poisoning at the US atomic bomb laboratory in Los Alamos when he threw himself between his colleagues and a pile of fissionable material that had got out of control. In Montreal, police prompted by Church authorities opened a “purity campaign” against billboards and posters portraying women in bathing suits and undergarments. In British Colombia, the federal government abandoned yet another attempt to blow up the notorious Ripple Rock reef in the Seymour Narrows between Vancouver Island and the mainland (it was finally destroyed in 1958, in the biggest non-nuclear explosion in the world to that time).

Maclean’s was a much different publication in 1946: a large 11”x14” format, three short stories -- all romantic, with titles like ‘Wayward Woman’ and ‘Fresh View from Grizzly Hill’, but the most noticeable difference from today’s version lies in the length and quality of the news writing. The journalism articles, clear, thoughtful, balanced, without ‘human interest’ quotes every second paragraph, read more like pieces from the Atlantic Monthly than excerpts from People magazine. Alas, that style of writing now seems to be as dated as the ice-boxes advertised on p. 50.

Unfortunately, whoever stuffed the Ottawa Journal into the cavity in the foundation wall only used two sections, pp. 13-24 and 37-48: no front pages and international news, no business section or financial pages. The City section for May 20, 1949 opens with a lengthy article on Ottawa’s newest suburb: Manotick, population 450. “Each day at least 30 commuters catch the bus to Ottawa”, and “G.E. McLean, building contractor and garage proprietor, has put up 10 new houses and a gasoline station in the last six years, and has three more houses building with more to come”. The boom was underway.

Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent outlined the Liberal election platform to the people and promised a “vigorous housing policy”, a bill to replace the British Privy Council by the Supreme Court of Canada as the final court of appeal, a start to the long-delayed St. Lawrence Seaway and a Trans-Canada Highway. He asked for a mandate “ to continue to work for peace and security, for trade and prosperity, for full employment and social security, for complete recognition of Canadian nationhood and the development of all aspects of our national life”. Political platforms haven’t changed all that much.

C.D. Howe said that the election was a battle between Liberalism and Toryism, and anyone voting for the CCF would be giving a vote to the Conservatives. For his part, the Conservative leader, George Drew, promised that - if elected - his government would abolish the $2.50 radio licence fee and accused the CBC of being a propaganda vehicle for the Liberal government and unfair competition for the private radio stations. Speaking to the Hull Rotary Club, Lt.Gen. Charles Foulkes “stressed the importance of a well-trained and well-equipped ground army”. Change the names and we could be listening to Jack Layton, Stephen Harper, and Gen. Rick Hillier.

With summer in full swing, Ogilvy’s was advertising men’s tropical worsted suits for $39.50, wool slacks for $17.50 and sports coats from $24.50. Murphy-Gamble department store had women’s Irish linen suits for $35, a cotton 3-way Bolero Sun Frock on special for $2.98, and a washable shantung frock for $10.95. Robertson, Pingle and Tilley’s had reduced the price of a new 58” Mason & Risch upright piano to $237 and Caplan’s had a four-piece sectional living room suite for $169. A group of stores in the Glebe and Ottawa South had joined to fill a full page with business notices: of the 23 businesses, not one is still going today. Broder Electric, on Bank between Second and Third Ave. and Tallmire’s Ladies’ Wear in Ottawa South just below Sunnyside were the last to go, in the late 80’s, although Howe’s Drug Store on Bank and Second could be said to have had several reincarnations and survive today as Innis Pharmacy.

Technician machinists were being offered annual salaries of $2,580-2,880 by the federal government, and Excise tax Auditors were wanted at $3,180-3,780. An experienced public school teacher in Prescott could pull in $1,500-2,000 a year, but a “qualified Protestant teacher” for Perkins, Que. would only get $1,100. A five-bedroom double house in the Glebe was going for $11,500, but a six-room home facing Rideau Hall was on offer for $8,000 (mind you, it was described as “compact”). If you preferred to rent, a “spacious, very modern two-bedroom apartment” on Daly Ave. near Charlotte in Sandy Hill was asking $115 a month, and a six-room flat on Friel St. near Rideau, with two balconies, was going for $85 a month. You could get around in a new Hillman Minx for $1,875 or pick up a one-year old 1948 Pontiac Special for $1,595 and drive up to Wakefield to buy a fully equipped “attractive log cabin with separate guest house and two boats” in Wakefield for $4,000.

It sounded attractive, but all I wanted was to relax, sip my coffee and read the comics. So I spent the next quarter-hour perusing Terry and the Pirates, Steve Roper, Buzz Sawyer, Mary Worth, Steve Canyon, Rex Morgan M.D., and of course, Dagwood and Blondie. And that, at last, brought me back to familiar surroundings in 2007. I finished my coffee and got down to putting in the insulation and replacing the drywall.

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