Backstage

Winning justice for seamen

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 17 1999
Backstage

Winning justice for seamen

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 17 1999

Winning justice for seamen

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

The first thing that people noticed about Gordon Olmstead was how impeccably

he dressed. The flannels, blue blazer and white shirt were always neatly pressed, the white hair perfectly in place, the tie never a centimetre askew. His manner of speech was soft, with long pauses punctuating sentences. A career civil servant, and small-c conservative in his views, Gordon seemed an unlikely warrior on behalf of a longunpopular cause. Even before the pancreatic cancer that weakened and finally took his life on April 24 at age 82, it was hard to believe that such a slight figure had endured a firsthand brush with death at sea, survived 52 months in a Second World War prison camp, and led a largely successful battle against the federal government that lasted more than half a century.

Without Olmstead, the fewer than 2,200 surviving Canadian merchant seamen who manned the cargo ships in the war would probably not have the pension and disability benefits they became eligible to receive in 1992. Nor would they have a Merchant Navy Book of Remembrance in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, honouring their dead from two wars. That was put in place in 1994. “Without Gordon’s tenacity, the merchant navy would probably still be unrecognized,” says retired senator Jack Marshall, a war veteran who pressed Olmstead’s case in the early 1990s. “Even when the odds seemed hopeless, he insisted he would change things.”

One afternoon in 1992, Olmstead spent several hours with a journalist talking about his experiences—including the event that he occasionally relived in nightmares. In March, 1941, the 23-year-old Manitoba native was a radio operator on the merchant navy ship Agnita. As it sailed off the coast of Africa, it was spotted by the German raider Kormoran, which opened fire. Olmstead and other crew members took to lifeboats. At one point, he looked up to the deck of the Kormoran and “could see machine-guns pointing straight at me. I thought it was the end.” The captain took Olmstead and his shipmates prisoner, and torpedoed the Agnita.

Olmstead ended up in a camp in Germany that contained 3,500 prisoners from 34 countries. There, he lived in a small room with 25 other prisoners, and remembered being “always hungry and almost always cold.” But he considered himself well-off: the next compound was filled with East Europeans, fed so little that many starved to death. When Olmstead and Canadian and British colleagues rolled potatoes to them under a fence, guards fired on the prisoners who tried to retrieve them.

When the war ended in 1945, the federal government refused to grant merchant seamen the full range of benefits ac-

corded other veterans, such as pensions and a subsidized university education. “That pushed them back into the merchant navy,” said Foster Griezic, a professor and labour historian who worked with Olmstead for more than a decade. “That suited the government and shipping bosses, because it gave Canada readymade labour at sea that gave it an edge over other countries.” No one officially acknowledged that as the reason. Successive governments—and representatives of leading veterans’ groups—argued that merchant seamen were not “proper” veterans because they didn’t serve the government directly. There were suggestions that their union leaders were covert Communists, and that the seamen, if they cared about Canada, would have joined the “real” armed forces. All that was a blend of fiction and distorted fact. Of 12,000 Canadian merchant seamen then, at least 7,000 sailed through officially described “dangerous waters.” In the Battle of the Atlantic, one out of every four men who sailed died. Winston Churchill said: “The Battle of the Atlantic was won by the courage, fortitude and determination of Allied merchant seamen.”

Olmstead, who became an engineer, began the full-time fight for recognition after his retirement in the 1980s. His weapons included old Hansards, oral histories from other veterans, and documentation of how other Allies— including Britain, the United States, Norway and Australia—recognized veterans. His allies included other vets, his wife, Dorothy, Griezic and Marshall. When Olmstead presented his final brief to a parliamentary committee last Nov. 5, illness had withered him and forced him into a wheelchair. But he told Griezic he would use his sickness “as another weapon”—to make his presentation that much more powerful. When he realized his illness was terminal, he arranged his will and tax return, contacted friends to say goodbye, and gave his file and tapes to Griezic with instructions to turn it into a book.

On March 25, Bill C-61 came into effect, extending the 1992 legislation and granting full recognition and pension benefits to the surviving seamen. A parliamentary committee is considering what—if any—compensation to give surviving vets for benefits previously denied. Olmstead’s estimate was that at least $ 100,000 would be appropriate. Some opposition MPs consider that figure modest. Whatever the amount, the settlement would mark the final chapter of the struggle. By Olmstead’s end, Griezic says, “Gordon was quite angry. He couldn’t understand why it was so hard to get so little for people who did so much.” That question is unanswered. But without Gordon Olmstead, it might never have been raised.