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Winston Churchill’s 1929 visit to British Columbia

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Mark Milke on the future British prime minister’s western Canadian tour, and the lasting impression it left on him.

As we head towards November 11th—Remembrance Day where we all honour the sacrifices of soldiers and others who perished in past wars—let us remember the historical figures who helped ensure victory over tyrannical regimes, including their connections to Canada.

The most obvious figure to recall is Winston Churchill, prime minister of the United Kingdom for much of the Second World War, who served between 1940 and 1945, taking over from Neville Chamberlain (and later again between 1951 and 1953).

Chamberlain, let us remember, was reflective of much public opinion in Great Britain in the 1930s (and perhaps even in Canada) that was, understandably given the bloodshed in the First World War, reluctant to consider another war with Germany.

However, Chamberlain—naïve as he was—continually gave Adolf Hitler opportunity after opportunity to expand Germany’s “footprint” in Europe. Chamberlain did so in the mistaken belief that Germany’s Nazis would stop, if only they were appeased one more time. In contrast, Churchill early on always grasped the innate issue with Hitler: that he was a wolf, who would roam and kill until he and his war machine were stopped dead.

That much about Churchill is, at least to previous generations, widely known.

He also came to the good parts of the country.

What may not be known is Winston Churchill’s connection to Western Canada and his fondness for the country we all call home.

A terrific book that outlines his connection to Canada was published six years ago by Bradley Tolppannen, entitled Churchill in North America, 1929. The book details the then politically-out-of-favour British Member of Parliament’s three-month visit to the United States and Canada.

After first stopping in central and eastern Canada, Churchill fished, gave speeches and painted his way through Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia in August and September 1929. The spots he stopped at are still familiar today.

For example, ponder Churchill’s 1929 time in Vancouver and Victoria during the first week of September. Churchill and his son Randolph made their way west on a luxurious Canadian Pacific Railway car, the Mount Royal (the same car he would again ride on from Halifax to Quebec City in 1943, during the war, to meet Franklin Roosevelt).

In British Columbia, as they travelled beside the Fraser River. While writing a letter to his wife, Clementine, Churchill described the river as a “pretty torrent of clear green water rolling like us down to the Pacific Ocean.”  When the Churchills reached Vancouver that evening (September 1), he would describe the Pacific coast as “beautiful and luxuriant.”

Churchill and his son stayed at the Hotel Vancouver. Apparently, even though Prohibition was no longer in force in British Columbia (a law against drinking was rescinded in 1921), it was apparently still difficult to find decent drink. The Chief Constable of the Vancouver police, William James Bingham, was also a British expat. Although he diligently enforced liquor laws, that responsibility nevertheless did not “prevent him from ensuring the Churchills were well-provided with liquor,” is how Tolppanen describes the chief inspector’s help with Churchill’s well-known fondness for pleasant drink.

While in Vancouver and environs, Churchill visited the 60th provincial exhibition underway in New Westminster – even though some seven exhibition buildings had only recently burnt down. (Much of the exhibition was instead hosted in tents.) Churchill gave a speech to 20,000 people – up to that point, it was the largest crowd he had addressed anywhere.

Churchill could attract such crowds because he was already known for his service in the Boer war (as a journalist) and his political and military positions during the Great War as well as for his books—twelve were already published by 1929, including one of his late father.

Churchill’s New Westminster speech touched on a theme that he would demonstrate throughout his life: perseverance. He complimented British Columbians for hosting a fair of such magnitude despite the recent fires.

Perseverance was a quality that his son, Randolph, demonstrated in Victoria a few days later when both father and son fished off Dallas Shore in Victoria. Alas, Randolph kept losing the fish he hooked, which allowed Winston to offer up another part of his character and for which he would become famous: his sense of humour.

Winston quipped, ‘Tis better to have hooked and lost, than never hooked at all.’ On Victoria in general, and unsurprisingly for a city named after the late Queen, and revealing self-deprecating humour about his homeland, Churchill proclaimed Victoria “English with a splendid climate thrown in.”

Churchill’s visit to Western Canada demonstrated not only his oratorical abilities and wit but also his love of nature and art—and also his uncanny sense of future possibilities.

At Grouse Mountain, Churchill jumped out of his car in a rush so he could start painting; he was impressed with the scenery. He was also late to a dinner that night, apologizing to the hosts but offering that he was delayed by his painting. “I was afraid I might lose that light and colour. I wanted to get that exact colouring before it disappeared.” Churchill said his method was to “just put on essentials and fill it in afterwards.” He pronounced the view from Grouse Mountain to be the “most beautiful he had ever seen.”

The previous week Churchill painted multiple canvases at Banff, Lake Louise, and Emerald Lake. (One painting from the latter location was purchased in 2018 by a Calgary art dealer, for $87,000, despite some damage to the canvas.)

As for his ability to spot opportunities, when Churchill toured southern Alberta, he also stopped in to visit the then nascent Turner Valley oil fields. Impressed as he was with the potential—then mostly ignored by financiers in eastern Canada and in London—he wrote to Clementine of how he wanted to buy shares in oil companies. In British Columbia, he also toured a logging site near Haney (Maple Ridge) and while he grasped the economic potential for forestry, he did confess that he was sad to see “the devastation of those beautiful trees.”

In Victoria, in his speech at the Empress Hotel, Churchill saw the importance of trade with the Pacific Rim, touting Canada’s relationship with Japan. A few days earlier at the Vancouver Theatre, he remarked that, “Vancouver, with the gathering forces of a continent behind it, could not fail to find ‘greatness.’”

He said the same of Canada in general—it was destined to become a great country—which he believed was just then finding its way as a maturing nation. Churchill remarked that the further West he went, the more “interesting” he found Canada to be, perhaps a nod to its newer cities and also the West’s stark beauty.

Back in Britain, Winston told Clementine that if Chamberlain ever became prime minister that he would move to Canada – specifically to Alberta – and become a rancher.

We are all perhaps fortunate that Winston Churchill stayed in London to become prime minister to beat Hitler instead of tending cows.

Mark Milke, a regular contributor to The Orca, wears many hats and one is of the president of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary. They are soliciting donations for a Calgary statue of Churchill to commemorate his 1929 visit to Western Canada. You can find more out at www.churchillcalgary.ca.

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