Sixty years. That’s how long it’s been since our family made the Atlantic crossing into Canada. It was quite a journey that brought us to St. Jean, Quebec, on August 10th 1957.
We had been living in the small English town of Egham since 1948 when we moved down from Glasgow. It was a quiet town, about 20 miles from the centre of London, five miles from Heathrow Airport and six miles from Windsor Castle. It is most notable for being the site of Runnymede, the meadow where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. Egham had some council houses, built after the war for people who worked at the airport, as my dad did. Our mother was a school teacher, but stayed home while the children were small.
Moving across the Atlantic was not an easy thing. At least, not for the parents. For us boys, it was an exciting adventure. I was second of the four sons. Our ages, at the time of the move, ranged from 12 down to five. Ron, one of my younger brothers, turned nine on the Atlantic Ocean. The youngest, James, had been five for three months by the time we sailed. My older brother, Ed, and I had our birthdays within a couple of months of arriving.
We were never consulted about the move, or asked for an opinion. Kids weren’t in those days. We were just told about it, and instructed to stand still whenever we queued up at Canada House or waited for things like passport photos. Beyond that, we were left to our own imaginations about what the future held.
The BBC did a fine job of letting us know what to expect. We could watch programs like The Lone Ranger, Wells Fargo, Rin Tin Tin and other shows that took our imagined Canada and melded it into the American wild west. On Saturday mornings we would go to the Savoy Cinema on High Street for the latest episode of a serial movie. We’d watch tales of Tarzan, or Zorro, or Buffalo Bill. The world outside Britain was all foreign lands and strange people. We knew then and there that Canada was alive with cowboys and Indians, and we couldn’t wait to be a part of it.
While we were excited for the future, our parents were worried. It didn’t mean much to us at the time, but Britain had just been through the Suez Crisis. The second world war was still fresh in the collective memory, and British and French troops were in Egypt trying to take the Suez Canal back. The Egyptian government nationalized it in 1956. The only bit of the crisis to hit me was seeing my dad use his ration book when he needed to fill his car with petrol.
The Suez business happened around the same time as my dad applied for a job with Aircraft Industries in St. Jean. He got the job, and started getting all the ducks in a row to move away from England to a new life he had never thought would be his. But it would, and it would be ours as well. That was when we started lining up outside Canada House, across the street from Trafalgar Square, with greater purpose in my parents’ eyes. The queues were long, with lots of families thinking the future was brighter on the other side of the pond.
My dad left England to take up his new job in March 1957, crossing on the Saxonia, part of the Cunard Line fleet. He sailed from Liverpool and landed in Halifax. The rest of us waited for the school year to end, followed by a summer holiday at my grandparents in Glasgow. We left Greenock on the Skaubryn, a Greek Line passenger ship, on August 3 and docked in Quebec City on the tenth.
Two days into the journey, Ron had his birthday. The ship’s chef presented us with a magnificent nine-layer chocolate cake. Unfortunately, this was the day when the rolling waves of the ocean brought us all down with sea sickness. The last anyone ever saw of the cake was when my mother threw it overboard.
The next few days and several months were a revelation to a 10-year-old boy. My dad met us at the dock and drove us to our new home in St. Jean. The highway ran parallel to a railway track and generally followed the bed of the St. Lawrence River. We had marvelled at the width of the river as the Skaubryn approached Quebec City. Now we were amazed at its length and majesty.
The BBC had been close in its depiction of where we were going, except there were no wagon trains, horses, cowboys or Indians anywhere in sight. There were wide open spaces. The largest fields we’d ever seen; the straightest roads; the biggest and bluest skies; and a much warmer sun than we ever felt in England.
St. Jean was a small city on the edge of the Richelieu River, across from Iberville. It was home to an Air Force base, the Collège militaire royal du Canada and several industries, mostly American or European owned. We spent four years there, and I learned not to play baseball and hockey. I learned I wasn’t cut out to work as a golf course caddy, and I learned about the deep language divide that cleaved through Quebec society.
They were all valuable lessons that helped a young British lad get through sixty years in Canada.