George Post: Would you describe your childhood as a happy childhood?Oh yes, I’d have no difficulty answering that, because we were happy at home. We had lots. And when I look back now, we had our little fights I presume and so on, but we got along well. When we got into the car each one of us knew where we were to sit, there was no arguing. Not too much competition.We had one theatre in Haney, or Maple Ridge as it is called now. And we could only go to that with either an elder brother or with one of the parents. But we had sports, played all sorts of games as we called them then. You know, our vocabulary changes with the times. We didn’t have boyfriends like they have now; we had to keep our distance. That was something that you had to be careful about. Not ‘til we were older and out of high school. People go around now; it seems to me the ones in grade schools have their boyfriends and girlfriends and so on, but it was a whole different culture.
George Post: Would there be high school dances and balls and graduations and things like that?
Yes, high school dances and my brother would always have to take me; I wasn’t allowed to go out. And he said, “She should get somebody else’s brother!” I remember him saying that, and Mother said “No, you’re taking her.” They were very protective in a way, I guess. Then there would be the graduation ball. It wasn’t the big affair that they have now, the youngsters when they are graduating now with mortarboards and so on. I imagine in smaller areas around Ottawa and across the river things might be less sophisticated than they are here now. Be more like my growing-up culture.
George Post: Would you describe it as a prosperous community in those days, Maple Ridge?
I really couldn’t judge it any other way, except that the farmers had good fields, and they had good cows, and they went into town. And of course there was the Japanese, they were such hard workers. They had all the strawberries, wonderful. All market gardening, for the Japanese, and they worked so hard, when I look back at it. And they lived in more primitive housing. When war was declared with Japan, my father was Reeve at the time. He had to go out, and they seized everything of the Japanese. My mother said he could never recover from it, because they were his friends, and he had to take their car. He was ordered to do all this stuff. It was a terrible thing, George, when I look back at it.
George Post: The Relocation Program.
Yes, they sent them up to Kamloops, and they had to leave everything behind. And Rose ___was a youngster then. It is very interesting to hear her talk about that time. They just picked them up, and left them in Hope or Kamloops or wherever it was. Well, they did the same thing in the States and I guess they thought it was good reason to do so.
George Post: Would you have been aware of the 1930’s depression in Mission?
Yes, in Maple Ridge, we knew there was a depression. My father was selling Ford cars, I remember that, and for about a year or two there were no sales. Then he went into General Motors. And yes, we were told, I remember our mother saying that things were not very plentiful but somehow we always had lots of food, and went to the movies once a week, and so on. But we didn’t have the elaborate lives that kids have now, with all the other things. It was a very simple life. But I was aware, certainly, sometimes I have a hard time dividing up whether I knew it at the time or knew it later, but certainly I knew there was a depression. But we all were well clothed. My mother sewed and made all our clothes. She sewed beautifully. Sometimes think how lazy I am, I don’t do any of these things.
George Post: She made clothes for all the children?
Yes, she didn’t make coats but she made all our dresses and she didn’t make the boys’ (clothes), she made our dresses.
George Post: Helen, you mentioned the experience of the Japanese people in Vancouver when the war broke out. What other memories do you have of the Japanese community? Would they have youngsters in the school system who would be classmates of yours?
Yes, some of our best friends were Japanese, and very studious. They all went to school, and they picked the berries and that after. I would say at that time, I might be wrong, but certainly a quarter if not more of our schools had Japanese students in them, and they were good friends.
George Post: Now, was there only one high school in Maple Ridge?
Yes, McLean High as they called it, after the Minister of Education. It is now Maple Ridge High. But it is the one for the whole of Maple Ridge. And they had a bus service. We just had about two blocks to walk so we did not use the bus, but there was a good bus service. And you see, the winters there, the weather, the living is easy out there. We didn’t have a problem of going to school in the snow and the cold and so on. It was just like this. This would be winter, in Vancouver.
My next project was to assist World Health Organization (WHO) personnel in developing an evaluation of schools of nursing in the 13 countries of the former British Caribbean territories, later named the Commonwealth Caribbean. My title for this Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) project was “PAHO/WHO Short Term Consultant”.
I was responsible for the development of the entire project under the general direction of the zone nurse, Janet Thomson. The PAHO/WHO project nurse was Nita Barrow. This project -PAHO/WHO Survey of Schools of Nursing in the Caribbean Area –followed the same methodology I had developed for the PPESN in Canada. The first phase, as in Canada, included visits to all countries and territories to interpret the project to ministers of governments, members of board controlling nursing schools, matrons, teaching staff other nursing personnel and, where requested to do so, the local nurses’ associations, general nursing councils and medical associations. During these one-to two-day preliminary visits, we interpreted and distributed a questionnaire designed to obtain some basic information about each school of nursing, prior to the survey. In this initial phase, it was also necessary, as it was in Canada to have an Advisory Committee, a Board of Review, and Regional Visitors. There were three persons intimately involved in the project: The Project Nurse, Nita Barrow, who was recruited from her post as Principal Nursing Officer in Jamaica. Nita Barrow and WHO had tried to convince me to become the project nurse but I was unable to commit myself to working in the Caribbean for two years. Despite pressure to change my mind, I held firm and recommended Nita as having all the necessary qualifications to become Project Nurse. At that time, WHO had a policy that no national could be employed to carry out a project in his/his own country. In the end, we prevailed and, despite the roadblocks, a national, Nita Barrow, was given permission to be a senior member of the WHO team.
The Zone Nurse, Janet Thomson, was a highly competent American WHO nurse stationed in Caracas. The Short-term Consultant was a position I eventually held for almost 10 years. My original assignment was a two-year appointment but I carried on for an additional seven years. For seven weeks in the summer of 1964 and, again, for six weeks in the summer of 1965, I worked on the project. (See p. 16-19 of the report “Survey of Schools of Nursing in the Caribbean Area” and “Spotlight on Nursing
Education: The Report of the PPESN in Canada” p.13-17.)
As noted earlier, preliminary visits were made to 13 countries and 23 schools of nursing. Later, one week surveys of the 23 schools were carried out to collect data for the final evaluation. Air travel to the 13 Caribbean countries, each on its own island~ was a fascinating adventure. We would “take off” across a wonderful, blue, sparkling sea only to land in a very short period of time on another tropical island. This was my very first trip to the tropics but not by any means, my last.
Many memorable events occurred on various stops. One visit, especially, I shall always remember. It is difficult to forget looking for yourself -for almost an hour! Apparently, Nita Barrow had asked a very efficient Chief Nurse in the Public Health Service to look after me, despite the fact that I didn’t feel I needed “looking after.” After she greeted me warmly at the airport, the Chief Nurse asked if I would help her locate a physician from Canada who had been on my plane. Pleased to assist, I recovered my bags and began checking the passports of deplaning passengers. I approached an elegant man with a Canada passport and asked if he was a doctor on a PAHO/WHO assignment. His response, a very rude “No!” I persevered.
Eventually — there were 100 passengers on the plane — I spotted a very business-like person with the appropriate passport and asked, very politely, if he were coming to St. Lucia for an assignment with WHO. He looked suspiciously at me and proceeded to the baggage claim area. In those days, you could move freely through the terminal, so I followed him only to be told that he was NOT with any organization. I reported back to the Chief Nurse who was still chatting with Nita. I suggested that she ask the airport officials to page the doctor over the public address system, lest our Canadian doctor had slipped through our net. Booming over the loudspeaker came the message, “Would Dr. Mussallem from Canada please identify himself to the station manager.” Well! After almost an hour of looking, we had located the missing Canadian doctor!
In the meantime, Nita had been reclaiming her luggage. Unfortunately, her suitcase was a disaster. It was as full of holes as a grate, and was seemingly held together by a few tattered bits of fabric. A young man, carrying a cardboard box, approached us. He told us that he had left Antigua with 12 reptiles and now there were only two in his box. Had we seen any? An airport official wanted to open Nita’s bag there and then but Nita refused. After all, one doesn’t wish to have one’s personal items exposed to public gaze.
Before we began our survey in each country, we attended an elegant reception complete with government officials, clergy, PAHO/WHO personnel, staff, from hospitals, schools of nursing, press, etc. St. Lucia was no exception. This was a very formal occasion with many speeches. After the formalities, the Zone Nurse and Project Nurse spoke outlining the project and, finally, I contributed a few words about my role. I always tried to have “a little special something” in each presentation. On our flight into St. Lucia, I had spotted a rainbow which made a complete circle. Wow! It was so spectacular that I thought it merited waking Nita to see it. (Nita always sat by the window and went into a deep sleep before the plane took off. When we landed, she awoke fresh and rested.) At my prodding, she opened her beautiful, dark eyes and took a good look at the rainbow and then promptly fell into a deep sleep again. I jotted down a few notes thinking that I could use this extraordinary sight in my speech. Eloquently, I likened the rainbow circle to the value of nursing in the Caribbean –encompassing the whole spectrum of society and its commitment to prevention of disease, the maintenance of health, and the education of nurses to meet health goals.
At our welcoming reception, dignitaries spoke, the Zone Nurse spoke, and then Nita spoke. Imagine my surprise when she gave a moving speech based on the circular rainbow she had seen from the plane. There went my speech, although I did manage to scrounge a few snippets out of what I had prepared. Nita Barrow, I should mention, was, and is, one of the most gifted speakers I have ever heard. Although many Caribbeans seem to have a talent for public speaking, Nita is head and shoulders above the rest.
At the time of our surveys, Nita’s brother was Premier of Barbados and one of the most outstanding dignitaries in the entire Caribbean. Nita, however, never took advantage of her illustrious brother’s position.” Well, perhaps on one occasion, and that was when a companion stepped on some sea urchins. Nita asked a police constable to get help and, when he did not obey, she “let him have it”. For such a dignified, calm person, she could “fight like mad” whenthe occasion demanded it.
I recall the extraordinary preparations made for us prior to and during our survey visits. Every effort was made to have all documents and schedules ready and waiting for us. What a wide range of quality and ingenuity we encountered! I remember, with some amusement, the diagrams of the female genitourinary tract presented to us at one school of nursing. Before us were drawings, in color, of all anatomical parts -but with a new twist! Around the uterus, kidneys, bladder, etc. was pasted exquisite lace. Never before or since have I seen those organs looking so festive!
The curriculum in most of the Caribbean schools of nursing was an exact copy of the syllabus in the U.K. These were former British colonies and senior staff were expatriates or recruits from the U.K. Additionally, nurses graduating from Caribbean schools wished to have reciprocity with the U.K. and this could be accomplished only if the U.K. syllabus was followed. When I asked in school after school for a copy of their curriculum, I became very discouraged when all that was produced was a copy of “The Syllabus”. It was music to my ears when I heard, at the 1972 Seminar for Tutors, the Director of one of these schools ask, “When are we going to produce nurses who are qualified to meet the needs of the Caribbean people?”
The one-week survey visit to each school of nursing was an intensive process, usually planned as follows:
Monday was devoted to studying the information provided in the Preliminary Information Schedule and the 21 additional items of written materials describing the program, requested at the time of the survey. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were spent in visiting the school, the hospital and one affiliating agency, and in interviewing individuals and groups directly connected with the educational program. Each evening and all day Friday were spent writing the report, and Saturday morning the report was read back to the faculty and other interested members of the hospital staff. A total of approximately 65 hours was spent by each visitor on the survey and the writing of the report.
Rule No. 1 was that absolutely no evenings were to be spent in other than writing of the report, discussions, etc. related to the relevant survey. One week, when we were in Antigua, the country where the Project Director was headquartered, I noticed some unusual activity. Maids and porters were kept busy delivering small and large packages which Nita put on top of the fridge. By Thursday, I was becoming really suspicious. I said to Nita, “I hope we are not having guests before we finish on Saturday.” No reply. You didn’t push Nita, no matter what your authority. All day Friday, while we were writing the report at Nita’s place in Sugar Hill Flats, activity increased and Nita divided her time between receiving parcels and writing her share of the report. At 7 p.m., I was still busy writing when guests started to arrive. Nita had recruited the assistance of maids and waiters of friends and, together, they whipped up the best party ever–about 60 people came. After putting the report together in my flat next to Nita’s, I joined in the fun. The main focus was a BBQ with a pig’s head rotated on a spit and cooked to a turn. As Nita’s flat became the main venue for the party, one maid, Valentino, was assigned to wash dishes in my flat. Dear Valentino was so pregnant but, as everything was set up for her there, she managed just fine.
Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed the party immensely. Nita had prepared some absolutely luscious Caribbean dishes and her friends and brought others. Rum and other spiritus frumenti were in ample supply but there was no sign of any intoxication. I had consumed very little myself, as I knew I had more work to do that night on the survey report. Food was laid out buffet style but, from somewhere, Nita had recruited two waiters so everyone was well looked after. We were a friendly, happy group which included most of the Island officials and doctors and their wives from all over the island.
When the party ended at about 11 p.m., there were no words of protest from me. Nita knew I had enjoyed the festivities. The waiters cleaned the flat and Valentino was washing dishes in my quarters. When I returned to my flat -the kitchen was the first room you entered –Valentino said something like, “Dotah mam des a moh n yo ba”. Perplexed, I replied, “I can’t understand you Valentino. Please speak more slowly”. Again, I failed to understand her. Not wanting to be insistent but now very curious. I again asked, “Valentino, please speak more slowly –one word at a time”. Still no luck. By this time, I was so tired that all I wanted to do was to get to bed. The report could be finished in the morning. Slowly, she enunciated, “Dotah ma’m des a man in yo bed”. Comprehension slowly dawned but I still thought I must have misunderstood something. By now, I was screeching at poor Valentino who became so frightened that she turned the small garbage pail upside down, sat on it, and began to cry uncontrollably. I proceeded, hesitant1y to my darkened bedroom and, sure enough, there was a man asleep on my bed. I stepped back, yelling at him to get out of my bed and house. Not a move. I shouted louder; still no movement. Creeping closer to the bed, it became obvious that he was completely unconscious from indulging too free1y at OUR party. I dashed over and got Nita but, even with her assistance, it was impossible to rouse our intruder. I returned to Nita’s flat where we argued for a while as she wanted me to sleep in her bed but I won and slept on the couch. As we readied for bed I rehearsed how I was going to severely reprimand that impossible man who had stolen my bed.
I woke early and walked outside where I could peer in through my bedroom window. The lifeless figure was still there. I returned at intervals but when he hadn’t awakened by 7 a.m., I rapped on the window waking him with a start. I dashed inside and confronted the dazed man, “telling him off” in no uncertain terms. He tried to get in a word of explanation and, finally, I listened. After showing me his identification, he explained that he was from NASA and had been working steadily for 48 hours on the launch of GEMINI. Full of compassion, I invited him to Nita’s flat for breakfast. Nita looked puzzled as I led him in.
I’m sure she was wondering what had happened to the fierce speech I had prepared. After working so many hours, he explained, when his relief finally arrived, he dragged himself to his room at the Sugar Mill Motel–just down the hill from our flats. Too tired to sleep, he heard the noise and music from our party and walked up the hill to see what was going on. Next thing he knew, someone handed him a drink and he was swept into the party. When lack of sleep and fatigue finally caught up with him, instead of going back to his room, he thought he would rest for a bit in my flat before returning to the party. My bed looked just right for a quick nap and that was the last thing he remembered until I banged on the window. Why Valentino let him into my bedroom is something I still don’t know but I presume she thought he was one of our party.
Unexpectedly, Nita and I found out something about the tracking of satellites and, to this day, when a space ship is launched, I remember –and chuckle.
The Board of Review, composed of eight well-qualified senior nurses from eight of the 23 countries had the onerous responsibility of evaluating, in the light of factual information presented to them, the 23 nursing schools. I recall so well their August 1964 meeting held in the open garage of the Barrymore Hotel. Voting on every aspect of every report was awesome –a soul-searching process. Two of the group stood out head and shoulders above the rest and led the evaluation to a credible conclusion. I reflected back on the PPESN Board of Review meetings in Canada and felt sure that the commitment and quality of the two groups was not that far apart. The process was a Canadian one and I was fascinated to note how readily it was accepted by these exceptional nurses in the Caribbean.
The contrast in the settings of our meetings was remarkable. In Canada, we had a suite at the Chateau Laurier. In Antigua, we met in the open garage. Each time there was a tropical downpour –and there were many –we had to recess the meeting, so loud was the noise from the rain. Despite all this, the quality of both groups was, in my opinion, equal.
It was during this first sitting of the Board of Review in Antigua, while I was accompanying Mrs. Chagas (Chief Nurse, PAHO/WHO, in Washington), that I had an unusual experience. As Nita, and her car, were already engaged, I volunteered to accompany Mrs. Chagas, by taxi, to the meeting at the Barrymore. On arrival, I insisted on paying for the taxi. Much to my chagrin, when I opened my wallet, I didn’t have any BIWI dollars. The night before, I had visited the bar at the Sugar Mill Flats expressly to exchange Canadian travellers cheques for local currency. The bar was full but I managed to complete my transaction and returned immediately to my suite. That night there was a most horrendous storm which I had hoped would relieve the debilitating humidity. There was a ceiling fan in my room but it offered little respite so, as was my custom in the tropics, I lay on top of the bed without my nightdress. When I attempted to pay our taxi fare, I realized that I had been relieved of my BIWI currency, but said nothing. With alacrity, Mrs. Chagas paid the tab. I was disturbed, however. Why were there Canadian travellers cheques and Canadian dollars in my wallet, but no BIWI dollars.
In the midst of our deliberations at the Board of Review meeting, I suddenly realized what had probably happened. During that unbelievably noisy storm, someone had entered my room, opened my purse, and removed my BIWI dollars. Foolishly, I had opened my purse in the bar that night and, presumably, all could see the contents. The next day, after the meetings, I told Nita about my “robbery”. My news so disturbed her that she had what seemed to me to be an asthmatic attack. On our return to Antigua, Nita reported what had happened to the hotel and, believe it or not, I was put in the Honeymoon Suite –three rooms and three locks! In addition, Nita had two police officers on duty outside my room- very reassuring except that the policemen’s voices kept me awake all night.
Another evening that remains indelibly etched in my memory is the night a hurricane was headed for Antigua. That day, we had completed the survey of the Antigua School of Nursing. (This was done in 1964 as a model for the surveys to be carried out in the remaining 22 schools when I was back in Canada.) The hurricane watch was a devastating experience. I know the Matron of the school believed she had a good school of nursing-but that was far from reality.
The survey was conducted according to plan and, on Saturday morning, the report was to be presented to the faculty of the school of nursing and other interested members of the hospital staff. When I arrived in the room where the report was to be read, I realized we had an exceptionally large audience. I took my place at the podium with Nita on one side and the Regional Visitor (a religious sister) on the other. The Matron, despite my urging. chose to sit behind me. By this time, the room was full to overflowing. On one side of the room were about 20 nursing sisters, dressed in white with their blue belts and stiffly-starched veils; on the other side were 15 or more doctors also dressed in white suits. What an imposing sight! I could detect great tension in the room so I started out by saying a few pleasant words, attempting to put the group at ease. The report sat squarely in front of me … but I did not start reading until I told a small, whimsical story which was received with polite laughter. Finally, I opened the report and, as I began to read, a strong gust of wind burst through the window and howled across the room to the windows on the other side taking with it almost all of the report except for the few pages I managed to hold down. Almost all of the doctors– some of whom were cricketers (I found out later) and many of the young nurses dashed outside to rescue my sheets. Nurses and doctors brought back page after page -some pages had gone into the sea and the tall doctors had waded in and rescued them. They handed them proudly to me saying, “I has page 82 and 19 ma’m, and the Chief of Surgery has four sheets.” I collated the tattered report, keeping my hand steadily on the pile which was still being battered by gusts of wind. Nothing could have put the group more at ease than this calamity. When Nita and I completed reading the report, we went back to our Sugar Hill Flats to correct the report and put it in order for the typist.
I spent most of that afternoon working on the report as Nita had to do some other work for PAHO/WHO. When I was satisfied that it was in proper shape, I wondered how it could be protected should the rumoured hurricane become a reality. As I recalled seeing pictures of a hurricane’s aftermath when all that was left was a stove and refrigerator, I wrapped the survey report carefully –it was the only copy in Antigua and these were the days before photocopiers ~-and put it in the oven. About an hour later, Nita asked, “What is that peculiar smell7” I told her that I had put our survey in the oven in case a hurricane struck Sugar Mill Flats. For the first and only, time, Nita screamed at me. “What’s the matter with you!! Don’t you know there is a gas pilot light in the stove???” Rescuing our treasured document, we put the slightly-singed report in the refrigerator.
As the afternoon wore on, the winds grew stronger and the radio kept blasting out reports of thehurricane heading for Antigua. Nita’s friends and relatives came to our flats, high atop the mounds by the sea, and, one after the other, begged Nita to leave our flats and stay with them for the night. Nita refused to go but pleaded with me to leave. Stubbornly, I said, “I won’t go if you are staying.” I did, however, move into Nita’s flat.
We telephoned constantly for hurricane updates until all electricity went out and we were left without communication of any kind. I stretched out on the couch and watched as huge trees bent over to touch the ground in the eerie light that preceded the hurricane. Nita sat up all night trying to make contact – with anyone. Impossible. I have never, in all my years of knowing Nita, seen her so fragile. About 10 p.m., a jeep made it halfway up the hill to our dwelling only to find the road washed out. Junie walked the rest of the way and tried, for the last time, to get Nita and I to leave. We stayed. Finally, at about 6 a.m., there was a beautiful, quiet sky. The devastation was awful but we were fortunate that the hurricane had veered away from Antigua and struck Guadeloupe where it hit very hard. Guadeloupe suffered many deaths and massive destruction so we were fortunate after all.
WHO Expert Study Committee to Advise on the Program for the International School for Advanced Nursing Education (Edinburgh) – 1964
For me personally, and Canadian nursing generally, the three international I projects I completed in 1964 added to the beginning of CNA’s involvement in the world of health and gained for us some stature on the international scene. In addition to my responsibilities as CNA Executive Director, I completed the projects under the auspices of the World Health Organization.
The first assignment was as chairman of the WHO Expert Study Committee advising on the program for the International School of Advanced Nursing Education at the University of Edinburgh. The one-week project began 16 February 1964 and I can, to this day, recall how cold I was when I arrived at my room in the Bruntsfield Hotel in Edinburgh. I thought I would never be able to sleep that first night in my cold, damp room which was 10 feet wide by 24 feet long with a ceiling at least 14 feet high. My bed was a cot fitted with knitted nylon sheets top and bottom, and one comforter. At one end of the room was a very small hot water heater. When I got into bed, the cot was so small and the nylon sheet so tightly drawn that I just kept slipping out. In desperation, I pulled the one heavy chair in the room over to the side of the bed to at least keep me on the bed. The next morning, when I complained that my room was too cold and my bed too small, the management assured me that I had one of their best rooms!
The entire first four days in Edinburgh were spent on curriculum development for the yet to be established WHO International School for Advanced Nursing Education. After the first few days, although I was chair of the meeting, I had to intervene to support the North American model of developing aims and objectives based on philosophy. Miss Stevenson, Director of the School, was adamant in her resistance to our “stupid” proposals. She was of the school of thought where a syllabus was followed. The syllabus had no relation to the school’s philosophy (there was none in writing, but one did exist) and, certainly, aims, objectives and anticipated outcomes were never considered. Our meetings became a tense “we” and “they” struggle which I handled as tactfully as possible. Eventually, most of the University’s faculty “saw the light” and became enthusiastic and supportive. We all became such good friends, in fact, that I was invited out one evening to hear Andy Stewart, a favourite of mine. Due to pressures involved in writing the report each night, I regretfully declined but we did agree that Saturday was possible. We had a wonderful evening. One faculty member was assigned to sit next to me in our box seats “to interpret”. Despite the thick Scottish accent, no interpretation was necessary when he sang, “There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier….”
During my week in Edinburgh, I wrote in my room each night using the day’s discussions to gradually develop the curriculum in readiness for a final presentation. After the first day, Miss Stevenson would absent herself “to attend to pressing duties”. Writing in my room was a chilling challenge. It was so cold, I wrapped myself in my Newfoundland seal coat and wore lined gloves. Writing this way was very awkward so down I went to complain, again, to the hotel manager. I was told there would be more heat –there was none. After another hour of frigid room and cold, slippery bed, I complained again. This time, a maid brought me two hot stone pigs. A little better, but still tricky trying to sleep cuddled around the stone pigs. Despite the large chair I had placed next to the bed to restrain me, I kept slipping off my cot. After another hard day of meetings, I decided that enough was enough. I would not spend another night in my chilly room. Down I went, yet again, to see the manager. “If you don’t do something, I shall take a chill,” I warned. Those must have been magic words because, when I arrived back in my room, a large, electric heater had appeared. What bliss!
The final curriculum outline for the International School was completed Friday evening in readiness for presentation the next day to the Director of the School and others from the clinical setting —from both inside the hospital and from the community (public health nursing). I remember that Saturday morning, seated at the head table in the Conference Room with Miss Stevenson, the Director on one side, and Lyle Creelman, WHO, on the other. I outlined the curriculum –starting with philosophy, aims and objectives as developed by the faculty of the school (minus Miss Stevenson) and the WHO consultants. Just before I commenced our presentation, Miss Stevenson said to me, “I disagree with everything you have done. ‘Noon’ will approve.” Facing a roomful of WHO personnel, staff of the university school, ward sisters in full uniform and public health nurses in their regalia, I started off with a full explanation of the project and how we had developed it. After 15 minutes or so, I began to outline the curriculum and our rationale for it. Then silence. Although Miss Stevenson chose not to speak, all the others were more supportive than I could have ever imagined. The chief public health nurse even said that it was the first time she actually knew what the program was all about. Two of the sisters, in their fetching bonnets agreed. Miss Stevenson, with palpable reluctance, agreed to “try it out”. She did and the program became a great success. Reports still refer to our work on the curriculum “way back in ’64”. It was, in fact, more than the development of a curriculum —it was the establishment of the first English-language WHO nursing education program for post R.N. nurses world-wide: the very first program having been the French-language school for Advanced Nursing Education in Lyon, France.
When our presentation was complete, we were invited to explain our proposal for the School of Advanced Nursing (SAN) to the medical faculty. We proceeded to the faculty’s new and modern building and, although it was winter outside, it was a bright, warm day inside. All of the senior, rather imposing members of the medical faculty were seated at the head table, with Lyle Creelman at one end. I was seated at a side table. After the introductions, I was asked to make the presentation. The room was very warm and, when I was finished speaking, sweat poured down my face. I had worn an attractive, pink wool dress which was appropriate for the occasion but not for the heat in that sun-baked room. I eyed the raised Venetian blinds which were letting in the hot sun and decided to sidle, unobtrusively, to the window and lower the blinds. With everyone’s attention elsewhere, I pulled the cord to release the blinds. Unfortunately, it was the wrong cord and only half the blind released with the most awful clatter. I held on to the cord for dear life. The Dean of Medicine came to my rescue saying, “Steady, lass. Steady. What are you trying to do?” Although I thought my intentions were obvious, I hesitantly explained. Lyle looked away in agony but, with the blinds down, the room was somewhat cooler. All of the members of the medical faculty, except one, were not too impressed with our presentation and listened to us with polite disdain. One member of the faculty, however, spoke with great enthusiasm about our new approach to nursing education. After our presentation, we were invited to the office of the President, known in Scotland as Principal. We were offered sherry but I declined. At the urging of the President, who wanted to toast the completion of the project, I relented and hoped that, on an empty stomach, I would not feel the results too soon. The Principal was a fascinating man who, at that time, was one of the world’s top scientists in the field of space exploration. He asked if we had any questions and, of course, I had one. “Was it necessary,” I asked, “for the head of a university to have been an academic?” I was interested as, in Canada, the physician administrators of our hospitals were being replaced by “lay administrators” who were graduates of hospital or business administration programs. The President paused for about 10 seconds … it seemed forever … and replied in a Scottish brogue, “Yes, it is important to have been a professor in a discipline so that you can speak the language.” I have never forgotten his reply and have used it to advantage over the years.
Lebanon -May 1964
After intensive work at CNA following the project in Edinburgh, I was invited, by WHO, to conduct a survey of schools of nursing in Lebanon. I was also asked to give one major speech and to be a member of a panel discussion at the First Middle East Nurses Assembly to be held in Beirut, Lebanon. The CNA President approved these field trips saying that probably no one would notice that I was gone. I was excited to be visiting the land of my ancestors. When the initial correspondence came early in 1963, I shared it with my father. He was so pleased but, sadly, he died in June 1963 and never heard the great stories I could have told him about my visit. Although Dad rejected the land of his birth –he wanted to be a real Canadian and do his best for Canada –he was interested in Lebanon and so pleased that his daughter would see “the old land”.
Although there was a long lead time prior to my departure for Lebanon, communications were very poor. It was difficult to receive WHO authorization for my flight and to be informed about hotel reservations in Beirut. I did put together notes for my speech and preliminary plans for the survey of schools of nursing but the information I received was so slim that I felt ill-prepared. Despite telegrams, I did not even know the name of my hotel in Lebanon —but I decided to go anyway.
The flight was long -Ottawa/Montreal/London, England -with a long wait for a connection to Beirut, via Frankfurt. The planes were slow so I slept most of the time after leaving London. I woke at one point and saw snow-covered mountains. For a moment, I thought I was crossing the Rockies on my way home to Vancouver. Then, I started to worry about how to find accommodation for the first night as we were arriving after dark. When the aircraft stairs were lowered, I was first off the plane. As I walked across the tarmac, I felt very lonely. Unexpectedly, I heard a faint, “Dr. Moo sell um” –the Arabic pronunciation of my name. Relieved, I approached the lady and gentleman and said, ”I’m Dr. Mussallem, from Canada.” A swarm of at least 20 men with flash cameras came out of the darkness and the night turned into a great, white flash of light. An elegant man approached and bowed from the waist saying, “Welcome to Lebanon, land of your father.” He was the Lebanon Minister of Tourism. Next came the Minister of External affairs, then Mme. Sultan, Director of the Red Cross School, and then other government officials. I was whisked into the VIP Lounge where arak and other liqueurs and wines were offered. My passport and luggage tags were handed over to airport officials while I sat with the welcoming delegation and talked, and talked. The Lounge was very warm and I had, as usual, travelled in a woollen suit. Eventually, a baggage handler appeared to announce that my luggage was not on the plane. “Find it!” shouted the ministers, clapping their hands in the typical Middle East clap command. We waited and waited but no luggage arrived. Finally, I was escorted to my hotel, The Orient Prince. A kindly nurse from the American University generously offered to lend me a night dress and slippers. Although she was about twice my size, I didn’t care. I slept soundly. In the morning, I was awakened by the sound of a jet overhead and then heard prayers from the Mosque, followed by the voices of vendors far below my window loudly extolling the virtues of their attractive1y-arranged carts.
At 6 a.m., a waiter, in fez, arrived with my breakfast. He knocked and, at my invitation, opened the door and stood there with my tray, screamed, put my breakfast on the floor — and ran. His startled eyes were as large as billiard halls. When I sat up, I did not realize that my night dress, miles too big, had slipped completely off.
My first day in Beirut was a busy one. Dressed in my now perspiration soaked suit (my luggage arrived two days later), I met with senior officials in the health department. Immediately after each introduction, the official would ask, “Are you Christian or Moslem?” In Lebanon, for every senior position in the entire government, there was always an equally ranking person of the other religion. I was also introduced to my national counterparts. The one that accompanied me everywhere was Christian but, when we went on distant trips to Tripoli and Tyre, my Moslem counterpart came along as well. Her English was limited as was my Arabic. My driver was Moslem. I recall so clearly the exciting ride back from Tripoli along the beautiful coast of Lebanon. There were no guardrails along the road despite the sheer drop into the Mediterranean on one side. I was especially frightened when the driver and my Christian guide got into a heated argument and several times, in his anger, the driver almost drove over the cliff.
There were many things my guides did in the name of my father. We visited the Cedars of Lebanon. “We take you there in the name of your father,” my guides said. On the drive to the coast, we visited the tomb of Kalil Gibran. At that stop, a Lebanese lady was asked to prepare chicken for us. She had just killed the chickens by wringing their necks and spices were rubbed into the meat with her bare hands. When we were ready to eat, I noted that the chicken was not well cooked and I feared that all the bacteria had not been killed. My counterparts and the driver, however, ate their portions – and mine, as I was “not hungry”.
I recall returning to my hotel that afternoon (work began at 8 a.m. and ended at 2 p.m.), to find the lobby filled with men in Arab headdress. The hotel manager said all of these men were relatives –all Mussallems.
My arrival had been reported, in English, French and Arabic, in the 30 daily newspapers. My “relatives” had read of my arrival and had come down from the mountains to welcome me. The oldest man spoke no English but, through an interpreter who accompanied him, told me how he was related to my father. I had no way of verifying this information but I thanked him, graciously, for coming. Likewise, when I was in Zahle, my counterpart called “a cousin” who took me to her home. In less than half an hour, every room in the house was filled with Mussallems or Moussallems (as it is spelled in French). They all claimed to be relatives. Mussallem, in Lebanon, is as common a name as Smith or Jones is in Canada.
The main reason for my visit to Lebanon was to conduct a survey of schools of nursing and hospitals as I had done in Canada for the PPESN. I started with the three main schools and hospitals in Beirut —the Red Cross School of Nursing, The School of Nursing at AUB, and the Moslem School of Nursing –an Arabic School and Hospital. The entire survey process and techniques used were modified from those of the PPESN (see Report, p.94-137).
We then proceeded to Tyre, Sidon and Tripoli. In all, 11 schools of nursing were surveyed. Almost half of the schools were privately run by doctors and standards were very low. Survey results revealed that only two of the schools –AUB and Red Cross –met the desirable standards.
During our travels outside Beirut, tensions were mounting and there was a real threat of war. I remember, so vividly, sitting in the back of our car, alone, traveling to Beirut. My counterpart sat in the front with the driver. Six soldiers stopped the car and –three on each side –pointed their bayonets at us. Tremulously, I volunteered, “I have my Canadian passport.” “Shaddap!” said my companion. I understood Arabic well enough to surmise that my companions were attempting to explain our trip and tell the soldiers that we were all government officials. Apparently satisfied, the soldiers shoved a bayonet into the car as though to push us on –and off we sped.
There were, however, many pleasures in Beirut: looking out over the Mediterranean; sampling the best of Lebanese food; taking pleasure trips on Sunday to remote villages or casinos; and eating strawberries at the St. George’s Hotel patio. (As WHO personnel, I was forbidden to eat the strawberries but I did –only three times. They were worth dying for.) Many quaint items were sold on the streets of Beirut but I was particularly intrigued by the never-ending boxes of Chiclets offered for sale by grown boys. One night, at dusk, a very large boy approached me brandishing his Chiclets. I said “La” (no) but he kept following me, shoving the gum in my face. In desperation, I yelled “Rhou min hown”, the equivalent of “Get to h— away.” He really ran. I suppose he had never expected such language from a lady in European dress.
Leaving Beirut was another sad, if memorable, experience. We left the hotel at 3 a.m. to allow time for all the required clearances. On the way to the airport, we were again stopped by armed soldiers. They made us get out of our car, opened our suitcases and picked through everything — especially the negligees. We could do nothing but keep quiet and watch the charade. Later, as we approached the airport, the sun rose and bathed the beautiful hills of Lebanon with glorious light. Such a contrast from my noisy welcome: men dancing the Dabke in the streets; record players and radios blaring out music; and hordes of people lining the streets –some in Arabic costume, some in European.
After the Lebanon survey, I participated in the First Middle East Nurses Assembly where I presented a major address on Research in Nursing, chaired a panel, and gave many press interviews. These were unique events as they were conducted in three languages, English, French and Arabic, with volunteer interpreters. The equipment was rather primitive but, somehow we managed.
ICN in Frankfurt 1965
I arrived back from St. Stephens N.B., on Saturday, 5 June 1965, just in time to prepare to travel to Frankfurt for ICN meetings 10 June to 1July. What a flurry of activity! Meetings with staff, the Canadian Council on Nutrition, CNF Selection Committee, etc. Also important, of course, was assembling my wardrobe for the many working and entertainment functions. I certainly remember the hat I wore for the trip to Frankfurt as were taken as Isobel MacLeod and I boarded the plane. It was an extremely large black hat –about 12 inches high –with massive black flowers adorning the crown. There was plenty of room for a bullet to pass through the crown of that hat without it touching a hair on my head.
On arrival, we began on Saturday with ICN briefings. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, there were meetings of the Board of Directors. As was often the case, we strategized with our U.K. and U.S. colleagues. At the Board meeting, the CNA President issued an invitation to hold the 1969 ICN Congress in Canada. Mexico had lobbied hard for the Congress and, I must confess, I was hopeful that they would be successful. The invitations were, of course, put before the Grand Council.
At the opening ceremony in Frankfurt, after each speech by a dignitary, a grand symphony orchestra would play a beautiful rendition. It was magnificent. The music breaks also gave one a chance to catch ones breath amongst all the pomp and ceremony.
A number of critical international issues were discussed at this meeting. These are well documented in Sheila Quinn’s ICN publication.
One of the highlights for Canada, at the Grand Council, was the election of Alice Girard as the first Canadian ICN President. Even though she was the only nominee, it was necessary to follow the elaborate ICN voting procedure where each country, one by one, approached the podium to have their credentials checked. They were then handed a ballot and voted. The whole process took almost two hours. When ballots were tallied, Alice Girard was proclaimed President. It was then my duty to dash over to the communications center and first telephone, then cable, the news to Canada. That took another one and one-half hours as there was some confusion finding the country code as Canada was, of course, spelled Kanada in Switzerland. The next day, the vote was taken on the site for the 1969 Congress. Canada won by a wide margin. Then and there, the CNA president asked that I remain on staff until after the Congress.
I agreed and, later, my appointment was confirmed by the CNA Board.
The next week (20-26 June) was chock full of plenary sessions with many relaxing activities running concurrently. One great day was Sunday, 20 June, when we went sailing on the Rhine. The Canadian delegates were in the lead ship with the Federal Republic of Germany’s President, Ruth Elster. Three other ships followed carrying Congress registrants –about 8,000 nurses in all! What a glorious day. When we reached the Lorelei, I was deeply moved. All during our stay, we had watched the boats sailing up and down the Rhine, with entire families on board hanging out washing, etc. It was a real “working river”.
On Monday, 28 June, 200 Board of Directors and council members were urged to accept the invitation of the West German government to visit Berlin. We were airlifted to Berlin where a very full program of activities had been arranged. It was very political. In Berlin, we were loaded into a bus and, after a short ride; we stood facing a high wall and armed soldiers. It was THE Berlin Wall. Afterwards, we were taken to see a church in the center of Berlin “The Wilhelm” which, except for its stained glass windows, had been completely destroyed by “the enemy”. The enemy was us, we were told frequently by the East Germans. They were both sad and belligerent. Then it was on to the great new hospital where we were told that a special musical concert had been prepared for us. I looked so forward to hearing Mahler, Bach etc, but, when we arrived and the choir of two rows of “interestingly uniformed” nurses began to sing, guess what? Their selection was not Mahler or Bach but “Vot shall ve do mit a dronken sailor?” That was the choir’s only English song, for which I was very grateful.
Following the concert, a tour of the hospital began. Isobel and I decided to skip the tour and found our way to a side door in the hopes of finding a cab to take us back to our hotel. We had hardly left the hospital when a young nurse came after us. She understood no English. Over and over. I tried to explain what we wanted to do but to no avail. She insisted on returning us to the hospital –and I kept saying “nein”. She won the argument.
On my return to CNA, the month of July was a hectic time of trying to catch up on the backlog of work, meeting with staff: meeting with the architect regarding our new headquarters and getting my life in order to be ready to travel to Antigua 28 days later to continue the Caribbean project.
Commonwealth Medical Conference – Edinburgh, 1-14 October, 1965
The day Dr. B. Layton telephoned to ask if I would become a member of the Canadian Government delegation to the First Commonwealth Medical Conference was a pleasant interlude in a continuous, intensive round of work as CNA Executive Director. I was invited to participate because of one item on the agenda –“Nursing Education in the Commonwealth”.
What an exciting professional and personal assignment! I worked long and hard to complete CNA assignments and be ready for this long, overseas project. When finally on my way, I was overjoyed to be seated in a quiet First Class seat –alone. I ate well and sampled many different spiritus frumenti offered. After dinner, I was given blankets and pillows and quickly dropped off into a deep sleep. During my slumber, I could occasionally discern incomprehensible conversation in the aisle but paid no attention. Next thing I knew, I woke alone in a foreign land.
It was frightening! The airplane was on the tarmac, away from the air terminal, and not one other passenger remained on board, Bravely, I rose from my seat and went to the flight deck. The captain said that we had to remain until he could get “some juice” to start the plane. Less fearful but still perplexed, I realized that I was so very thirsty. The Captain asked me to return to my seat and, presently, he brought me some wilted grapes –which tasted like ambrosia. In response to my query, I was advised that we were at Shannon Airport.
Eventually, we got “some juice” and taxied to the terminal where we were cheered by some passengers, although most were still occupied in buying duty-free items. Then, it was on to London — late. At long last, I caught my connecting flight to Edinburgh. On arrival — very late — two gentlemen greeted me at the foot of the aircraft stairs. They wore morning suits -wow!
I was escorted to the VIP Lounge where counters on four sides were loaded with every type of food and drink imaginable – including real caviar! My escorts begged me to at least have some shortbread or haggis –or a scotch or? I simply could not rise to the occasion.
Without a doubt, the Commonwealth Medical Conference was one of the most elaborate and elegant international conferences I ever attended –and well organized too. Our working environment was always bedecked with the most fantastic floral arrangements. The committee room, which seated about 50 persons around a square table arrangement, did not have a gaping, vacant area in the centre of the room. That space was always filled to the limit with huge masses of oversized chrysanthemums, orchids, roses and other exotic blooms.
Our delegation head was Judy LaMarsh – replaced after day two by Dr. John Crawford. Dr. Crawford was 6 foot 4 inches in height and a gentleman of the old school. The other members of our delegation were three doctors who brought their wives along (the wives did not like me) and three others who were not accompanied: Dr. Jack McCreary; Dr. Basil Layton (who had proposed my name as the conference was to discuss the education of nurses); and myself.
Canada was assigned a meeting room at the Conference. The six of us gathered there the first morning and chatted a bit. Dr. Crawford had been assigned, by Dr. Layton, to look after our delegation. He handed us a list of events and told us we could attend whichever meetings we wished -except that I must attend those relating to nursing education. In all of the delegations, there were only two nurses in attendance -Dossieh Kisseh of Ghana and me. Also in the meeting room each morning were our invitations for the day. Wow! There were six to eight receptions held each evening and our great decision of the day was how many receptions we would attend before dinner and how many after dinner.
The three of us (Dr. McCreary, Dr. Layton and I) usually went to the receptions together and thus used only one car and driver. As a matter of courtesy, these social events were compulsory and, after almost 10 days, one became rather exhausted by the social round – not to mention gorged with food!
Dr. Layton, as head of the Canadian delegation, was required to attend meetings to draft the final communiqué. He asked me to attend with him, as an advisor. I was seated directly behind him and was, I believe, very helpful on some matters.
The second morning of the conference, most members of our “working” delegation were absent and not to be found. I was irritated when I learned that they had each taken their cars and drivers that day and had gone sightseeing or shopping with their wives. Other delegations were holding planning meetings each morning to ensure that all important conference sessions were covered. I suggested to Dr. Layton that Canada should get organized as well. To my surprise, he left the organization of our delegation to me! I wrote notes to the Canadian delegates advising that they should meet in the Canada briefing room at 9 A.M. daily to receive instructions. Each morning, I met with Dr. Layton before 9 A.M. to make assignments. So, each day, as each delegate arrived, I handed out their assignment and asked for a brief note on their daily findings. They complied –almost like small boys –and were diligent with their assignments.
Our last meeting in that room is a precious memory. Someone had bought a pseudo medal from a “five and dime” store and attached to the “medal” was a citation for the “Medal of the Order of the Eager Beaver”, I was deeply touched. I kept that medal for many years and have given it, along with my service medals, to the CNA Archives.
The entertainment and social events for the entire Commonwealth group was spectacular. I had seen Edinburgh Castle before but never with all the accoutrements — Highland dancing, haggis, music and all the other facets of Scottish hospitality. When it was time for the Canadian delegates to leave, we would spot Dr. Crawford, whose six feet four inches made him tower above the crowd. Together, we would wait at the gate for our cars to arrive. It was stirring to hear “Canada” shouted out as a limousine, with Canadian flag flying, stopped for us. I did like all of that.
On Sunday, a glorious, sunny day, we were taken, by bus, all the way to Stirling Castle. What a sight! We were greeted, again, with food, flowers and entertainment. What glorious scenery … what great days!
The day before, Saturday, we had had the afternoon free and three of us were taken, via the Canadian limousine, for a four-hour tour of the Scottish countryside. I remember so well the Firth of Forth Bridge and I recited, with great glee, the poem about the Inchcape Rock.
Perhaps the most memorable reception I attended was the one at Holyrood Castle. Our Conference was the very first in the history of Holyrood to use the Castle without the presence of a member of the Royal Family. I saved my fanciest and fluffiest gown – a pale jade chiffon –to wear that night and it looked great. I remember feeling uneasy going down to the hotel lobby that evening, as I had been receiving notes from a man in one of the Commonwealth delegations who wanted to meet me. He did not identify himself in the notes so I showed to notes to Dr. Layton, and he and Dr. McCreary said they would keep an eye on me that night. As I left the hotel, the “three Canadian wives”, who were seated in the lobby, glared at me. One of them had used my car and driver that afternoon and, when Dr. Layton told her she did not have the authority to use the car for shopping she told him that she had as much right as Dr. Mussallem. I suppose Dr Layton straightened her out but, even on our return to Canada, we never warmed up to each other. Oh well.
Our entrance into Holyrood Castle was memorable. Our limousine, flag flying, was opened by a man of the Black Watch –dressed in 16th Century garb. His white gloved hand assisted me in exiting the limousine. Highland music piped us in as we walked through hall after hall of the historic castle and dined as the ladies and knights of old did — but with all the conveniences of modern living. The Scottish entertainment was spine tingling. All in all, an evening I shall never forget.
Reality returned on the trip back to Canada. We were delayed in leaving Edinburgh so we knew our connection to Ottawa would be lost. Dr. Layton, however, knew all the immigration and customs officials at Dorval Airport and he cabled them. Never have I been whisked through an airport more expeditiously.
George Post:Helen, it’s a pleasure to talk to you, to share some of your memories about your childhood and how you grew up and things like that. Why don’t we start by my asking you to tell me where you were born and a bit about your family?Very good. Well, I was born in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and we lived there until I was either two or three years old. I can remember so well being carried on to the boat; there were just planks in those days, and my father carried me on. So I was probably about two years old, and we came down to Vancouver.We lived in Vancouver for only about one year. My father was trying to learn mechanics and how to repair cars and so on, and things apparently didn’t go very well; I didn’t realize that as a child. We didn’t know any of the problems of our parents; they always seemed very happy. We had lots of friends, lots of food, lots of companionship. But later on I found out that some of the things were not as good.So we lived in Vancouver very shortly and then we moved out to Maple Ridge, or my father did. He wanted to find some place where he could bring up the family, and where they would have a lot of freedom and a pleasant environment. So he chose Maple Ridge. At that time it was a very small community and we moved there, and indeed it was a wonderful place to grow up in. My father eventually became mayor for 23 years in Maple Ridge. So those are my best memories of my childhood, being around Maple Ridge.George Post: Did you have siblings? Tell me about the family.Oh yes, there were six of us in the family. Well, I should say that my father’s mother lived with us both in Prince Rupert and in Maple Ridge, in Vancouver and Maple Ridge, and she was a very elderly lady. She was probably about the same age as I am now, but I thought she was very elderly. She was the only one I knew of my grandparents.
In the six of us in the family, my eldest brother is George Mussallem, and he is sort of the patriarch of the family. He is 93 now, will be 93 in January, and he was a member of the Legislative Assembly. He was in politics too. My next brother down was a Judge, Judge Nicholas Mussallem. Many of the young lawyers know him. He subsequently died, as my sister, who was next to him in line. She was a nurse, and I was a nurse, and my young brother Peter is very much alive and well, and he is a professional engineer and the head of the engineers’ Iron Ring Society. And my youngest sister is Lily Harper, and she is, I was going to say an actress, but she really was a professional teacher and she got into acting, and still dabbles in it. And she has two wonderful girls, and one of them, Lynette, is the one that, as my mother used to say, ‘that poor child doesn’t know which one is her mother,’ because she was born when I was living in her upstairs apartment, and so I brought her up from Day 1 and she is very special. She is 44 now, so that’s some time ago.
George Post: Now the older children would have been born in Prince Rupert as you were?
George was born in Winnipeg, Nick was born in Prince Rupert, Mary, and all the rest of us except my youngest sister Lil, she was born in Maple Ridge.
George Post:And what family stories took your father to Prince Rupert?
Well actually he came from Winnipeg because it was not very prosperous. At that time he told us there was this great sentiment, ‘Go West Young Man, Go West.’ And so he decided to go west, and he went to Prince Rupert which wasn’t the best place to go, because Prince Rupert went downhill at that time, roughly.
George Post:Tell me a little bit more about your father. What kind of trade or profession, training did he have?
My father was born in Lebanon in Qaraoun. We were there, my young niece and I. He was born there and he escaped from Lebanon at the time that the Turks were persecuting the Christians; and he was a Christian. He got on this ship that they didn’t know where it was going, the three of them. It tells about it in his book (Solomon Mussallem: A biography by H.B.King, 1955). And they found out the boat was headed for Montreal, and that’s how we got here. So he came as, I say refugee now, I don’t know what they were called in those days. He was very adventuresome, very bright.
George Post:That would be around the time of the First World War?
Oh, no, much before. Well, he was born in 1881. It would be around the turn of the century.
George Post:And your mother? Where did they meet?
Well, my mother was born in Kfar Mishki, which isn’t far from Qaraoun in Lebanon. And they met at the home of her uncle. She was living with her uncle. Her father had died; her mother had come to Canada with Annie, as she was called, Annie Besytt. She was living there when Dad met her and he decided that he wanted to be married, when she was about 17 or 18. And they eloped, and my father had the police after them and so on, quite a great beginning I gather. And I noticed in their Marriage Certificate they were married in the States, just across the border, Burlington or one of the neighbouring cities in the States.
George Post:You mentioned that you grew up with only one of your grandparents, a grandmother. That was your father’s mother?
Yes, my father’s mother, his father died when he was quite young. My mother’s parents I didn’t know; they stayed in Lebanon, so we didn’t know them.
George Post:And your father’s mother would speak English as well as…
She would speak Arabic mostly, and she wanted us to speak Arabic, and my father said “They are going to be brought up as Canadians, don’t you dare teach them Arabic.” But she would teach us a few words. I can still count in Arabic and I can converse a bit. When they weren’t looking. When he said we were going to be brought up as Canadians, we weren’t having accents. Because he had an accent and he didn’t want us to be handicapped in that way. So he would not allow us to stay with her very long, and so on. There weren’t babysitters so much in that generation because Mother didn’t go out to work, that sort of thing.
George Post:And what sort of apprenticeship or training did your father have?
Well, he wanted, he decided he would go into the car business… But I should back up. In Prince Rupert they had a store, which was not very successful, and they left there for Winnipeg. He had a business that wasn’t very successful then in Prince Rupert, and you know, by this time he had five children. Life must have been pretty rough; I never thought of it that way.
So he actually decided when he went farther south that Vancouver looked good, but he wanted to look out for someplace where he could really build something worthwhile. But we were in Vancouver briefly and he decided that mechanics, automobile mechanics, there was a great future there. So he actually went out and worked for a garage first, an apprenticeship we’d call it now, and I gather did quite well. And so all his life he was in the automobile business. Besides politics.
George Post:And your brothers are also mechanically inclined, and interested in working with their hands?
No, nobody followed except George, my oldest brother. My brother that became a judge, he was a lawyer first; he couldn’t stand the smell of grease. Dad wanted us all to work in the garage because he then was expanding across the Fraser Valley, and she didn’t like it there. Well, I went in training and I never got back, in Vancouver. So none of us, really.
My younger brother is interested because he is a professional engineer, But he’s a professional mechanical engineer; there are all different classifications. And he works out at UBC now, with students at UBC.
George Post:You mentioned that your father was concerned that you grow up with a Canadian accent. They must have valued education very highly to have seen all their children so well educated.
They did, absolutely everything was put aside so that we could have the best education possible. And when we went to grade school and secondary school in Maple Ridge, some of the children had to work and so on. But my mother and father were determined that we had time to study when we were at home.
Education was the primary objective for us and for them. They’d want all of us to be well educated, and that is not, I’ve been doing some reading, not too uncommon in that generation, for the children of that generation. Their parents wanted them to grow up as Canadians. There was a judge that was just appointed in Ontario, and he tells the same story of how his parents gave up so much, so he could be a lawyer and then a judge.
George Post:What is your first memory as a little girl? Do you remember Prince Rupert?
Yes, I remember it! I was so young. But I can remember between our house and the main sidewalk… Because Prince Rupert was so wet, it just absolutely rained 13 months out of the year, as they said. So the roads were not paved at that time of course. They were just slats of wood that were put across; I don’t know what they did, they put them across. And we would have a sidewalk leading up to it.
One of my first memories was going on my tricycle, I guess I must have been about 3, onto the road, and they’d just resurfaced it. It was that high. So I fell on my bum, I fell about a thousand feet, I guess it was just about 10 feet, and I remember that so well. I guess it was traumatic. And I can remember having fun with my brothers, playing and making tents and tunnels, and all the kinds of things that kids do. We didn’t have the sophisticated kind of toys and other things that children have now, but we had fun.
We really enjoyed each other. When I look back I think we were very fortunate because we didn’t have a lot of conflict from outside. It was your home life, your school, there was the church, and so on.
George Post:Well, tell me a bit about that community life. Either there, or in other towns where you moved. Was your family part of a larger network? Did you have uncles or aunts or cousins to associate with?
No, my father moved west, and left. The rest of the family were still in Toronto, Carlton Place. Carlton Place was just a word to me ‘til I moved here (Ottawa). No, we didn’t have any. He went west, first to Winnipeg, then to Prince Rupert, then to Vancouver, but cut off entirely from relatives. He was not a person to associate frequently with relatives.
It’s rather interesting that one of my second cousins came to visit me; she was sitting right here, and she said “You know, everybody knows your father didn’t communicate with the rest of the family.” And I said, “No, he didn’t; he wanted to be out on his own, be a Canadian.” He didn’t like the idea of being in the Lebanese community, or whatever it was. It was called ‘Syrian’ then, I noticed in the book. But when Lebanon became a country of its own, they were called Lebanese.
George Post:So, your networks of friends were people you met at high school, or people you met in church?
Yes, our church was the United Church, and we associated a great deal with the children of the minister. And CGIT, Canadian Girls in Training it was called, and Girl Guides. Those were our two main activities. And in a smaller community, I guess in miles it would be about 25 miles outside of Vancouver, we associated primarily with people in the school and in the church. And the United Church was very active in the small community, as were the others, the Anglican and certainly the Catholic church. My father was very broadminded about religion, because he had grown up in the Syrian Orthodox Church, and he wasn’t having any of this United Church stuff. He went to the Anglican Church, which was closer to the Syrian Orthodox. So our family rotated primarily around people we knew at school and people we knew at church.
Back then, a big expedition was getting into the car and going into Vancouver. It was about, as I say, 25 miles away, which took about an hour and a half, and now it takes about 20 minutes driving with the new highways. Things have changed considerably. And the whole culture changes too, doesn’t it?
George Post:Tell me about some of your memories of your mother; you mentioned that she did not go out to work. Did she have a lot of social, or craft interests, or…? What do you remember of her?
Well, with six children she had a big time. I guess we weren’t all as obedient as we should be. What she did for the church and so on was crocheting, and I can remember her crocheting so many things, things that she did with her hands. She was cooking, they had bake sales and so on. But her primary contribution was crocheting; I still have some of it. And there were other things in the church, and the Women’s Institute was very big at that time.
George Post: Did she have quite a wide circle of friends?
Yes, because especially when my father was in politics, our house was always full of people coming and going. And this is an aside, my mother didn’t like these people drinking in front of the children, so she made Dad fix up a room in the basement that they called ‘the snake room’ and all the men that came for a drink had to go to the basement. She would not have people drinking in front of the children. She was very strict about that. Every time I have a glass of wine now I often think of that. She was very, very strict. My father always had open house, as it were, as a politician. And she was very right to do that, because they were coming and going. They were other politicians, businessmen and so on, but she didn’t feel it was very appropriate.
George Post: How old would you have been when your father went into politics? You’d remember it.
I remember it very well, because when he went into politics I can remember I was in high school and somebody said, “Now your Pa is in politics, don’t be stuck up,” or something like that. So I remember it well, yes. The whole family was involved in a small community. It wouldn’t have been the same in Vancouver; but yes. And it was really something, because he was an immigrant at that time, and the press corps was very Anglo, and very discriminatory, and yet he seemed to make his way through that somehow. But people would always bring it up, occasionally, that he was an immigrant. He just went on.
George Post: Perhaps you don’t want to talk about it, but did you feel this kind of discrimination in your school, or in church groups or things like that?
Well I am glad to talk about it, because we never did feel it. None of my brothers and sisters, except my eldest brother. And I don’t know why that was, because he was sort of at the forefront. I remember at school there was, we were invited to the same things and went to CGIT. We did things all the same, and I don’t remember anything discriminatory, that I saw. There were many Japanese at that time on the West Coast, this was long before Pearl Harbour, and if there was discrimination it was against the Japanese, rather than other small invisible groups.
George Post: Your family obviously had made a major effort to be integrated into the community and local churches and so on.
Yes, they did. They did. They made an effort, you put it correctly.
George Post: Tell me about the rituals of the season. Was Christmas or Easter, or things like that, major events in your family?
Yes. Christmas of course was a big event for all of us, and birthdays were always celebrated. Except my brother and I, who were born early in the new year, and we kind of lost out on things. But yes, there were celebrations, there were cakes, there were friends. We could have friends if we wanted to. Yes, we celebrated all. Easter was a great celebration for the Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, or Greek Orthodox, but they never followed that. They wanted to follow what was Canadian.
George Post: And did your parents take a vacation, or go on a trip during school holidays, or were they staying close to work?
Well, they stayed close to home when we were growing up, and I think it was probably financial as well, but as soon as we… I remember when I was in high school and the others, some of them older and some younger, they went off to Hawaii. And we had a lady that came and stayed and she bossed us around, we didn’t like it. So they did go off, but not frequently as people do now, maybe once every two or three years. But I remember Hawaii because I was so excited, it was the first real holiday I remember them going on.
George Post: What are your memories of your own summer vacation, when school would close at the end of June, and you would have the summer free? What did you do to fill your summers?
Well, we had lots of outdoor activities. I remember we had the mountains behind Maple Ridge, the Golden Ears, that are quite well known now, and we always wanted to go climbing there. Alouette Lake was there, and we did a lot of swimming and fishing and so on, and then we wanted to climb up. But at that time, would you believe it George, they didn’t have slacks for women; we had to get our brothers’ and fathers’ pants and wear them to go up the mountain, because it was quite difficult. And we didn’t have proper shoes, climbing shoes they have for women now. But we would climb up the mountains, we did a lot of fishing, swimming in Alouette Lake, sports at the high school. The high school always had a lot of sports.
George Post: Did your family have a cottage on this lake?
No, it wasn’t that far, and it was easier to drive. It would only be about a 30 minute drive. And people didn’t have cottages. Actually, on the west coast it has only been in recent years that people have had cottages. Here(in Ottawa) I have noticed quite a difference, that everybody has a cottage someplace. But there on the west coast, because the climate is so temperate, you don’t really have to escape. They had shooting lodges, and whiskey lodges as they called them, and all these other kinds of things, but not for people who were brought up the way I was.
George Post: Do you have any recollections of having any summer jobs when you were in school?
My father would never allow us to work. He said, “If you need money, I will give it to you.” And I can remember we would serve, the United Church would have a lunchon and we were serving. And the people all got money but we weren’t allowed to take it. He didn’t want us to work for money. We could do whatever we wanted, but he was very much against that. I think he was probably remembering his own childhood, when he had to work for money.
George Post: Would that be for your brothers as well?
Oh yes, yes. They might have worked but they didn’t work for money. Now my eldest brother George didn’t quite finish his last year of high school; I never knew why, nor did he tell me, because he started work in the garage. And Dad would have liked us all to have worked in the garage, but as I said before, we didn’t fancy doing that. And we weren’t forced into doing it.
George Post: So you weren’t expected to sell gas or work at the cash register or things like that?
No. Well, my eldest sister went to Vancouver and took a course in accounting, and she did the books for a while. My brother that became a judge later on did some managing, but nobody was going to. Dad would have liked us all to have been there, and have built up a great empire in the garage, but it didn’t work out that way.
George Post: You mentioned sports. What are your recollections of school sports? Were you active?
Well, not as active as the youngsters are today. But we had the races, we always had competitive races. I can remember a tug-of-war, it was always the boys against the girls, and that was a great thing. They had more. We had the agricultural hall; all sorts of people brought in their cattle and they had judging for the best cows and chickens and so on. I never took to that too much, although I…
George Post: This would be an annual fair?
Yes, an annual fair, the Agricultural Fair in Maple Ridge. It was quite well known. There was one in Vancouver and one in Maple Ridge, and one up in Chilliwack, and ours was a big one. I remember my father, he was a real businessman, he decided one time at the fair that he was going to get a cow and barbecue it.
We thought he was out of his mind but he went ahead and really quite successfully. We had the barbecue right there, and he invited all his customers and everybody to come. You know, he was really quite clever for his time and generation in doing that. Everybody thought it was wonderful to have somebody there slicing the animal. It was really, really fun.
George Post: Now he was an automobile dealer? He sold new cars in Maple Ridge?
Yes, he was General Motors, and I still drive General Motors, and he not only had the one in Maple Ridge, but he expanded to Mission, and then to Chilliwack, and then was going further west towards Vancouver, but that wasn’t very successful. And he was a dealer. He got all these plaques, I don’t know what happened to them, where he was awarded the Top Salesman of the Year for General Motors, or whatever it was, you know, they had these great shields. And he was very smart in doing that. When I look back now; I didn’t think it was so great then, but now I realize how good it was.
George Post: I think I interrupted you when you were talking about sports. You obviously learned to swim.
I taught myself to swim. We didn’t have swimming instructors in those days. What we did, we went to the Alouette River and we got a log, and we’d paddle on it, and then we’d paddle til it was a little over our depth, and we taught ourselves to swim. And as a result I am still not a good swimmer, because I didn’t learn the proper techniques when I started. But we have our pool downstairs, and we paddle away. Yes, I liked that very much.
George Post: What about ball games? Were you into softball?
Oh yes, we had hardball. In Maple Ridge, my father had a team and they all had Mussallem Motors jackets and we had all the community around. It was a great competition. Yes, we had a lot of ball games.
George Post: In winter, was there an ice rink or curling rink?
Of course, it was very mild. We rarely, that’s why I still can’t skate well to this day. Rarely did it freeze, and once it froze over the Fraser River and my brother and I decided we’d go over. We shouldn’t have, because we didn’t know how it was, but anyway we went to Langley over the ice. But it is a very mild climate in the west, of course. But now with all the skating rinks and so on, and Whistler. There was no Whistler, there was Grouse Mountain, that was as high as anything went in my day, so there wasn’t the opportunity for winter sports at all. I don’t know of anybody that would be skating at that time, no, I don’t think so.
George Post: So, it would be indoor sports. Basketball or other indoor games?
Yes, basketball, what’s the racket one that we had, badminton, and a lot of indoor sports. I must say I didn’t excel at sports. I enjoyed them but I didn’t excel. I don’t know why one should have to, but there were always so many people that were a lot better than me, but I made the odd team.
George Post: What did interest you particularly in school? History, languages, sciences?
Well, I think I would have to say that I was most interested in languages. We had a French teacher and now I realize that she wasn’t very good, but I thought this was kind of fun, learning another language, and so I took that. You could, at that time in Maple Ridge High, you either took science or languages, and so I decided to take languages. My brother took sciences and he said it was much better but I enjoyed the French. Now it’s not very useful to me but I liked it. And then we took Latin. I took Latin. Everybody had to take Latin or something else. Rather interesting, we spent a lot of time learning Latin, because it was going to help us with our English. But I must say that must be debated now.
George Post: Do you remember in school particular teachers who you thought of as models or mentors?
Yes, we had an excellent French teacher. I remember her very well, and I saw her many, many years later. The Latin teacher actually was our principal, and we thought he was good. And the science teacher; we had to take one science course, and they were good. They all came out from Vancouver. None of them were local. Oh no, nobody had grown up in Maple Ridge and attained that level of competence, to be able to be a teacher. And they went to Normal Schools in those days, they called them. I think some of them may be graduates of the University, I don’t know. But when I look back I think that they were excellent teachers, and very interested in us as people. And they’d always drop the odd thing about my father being Reeve, you know, just to try to spur me on. And I never knew why but I guess they wanted me maybe to be a greater achiever, and I got through quite well I think.
George Post: When you look back on those years, would you say there is any particular individual who was a dominant influence on your life or your later career?
I can’t really immediately recall that. I think my family more than the people in the school system. I can’t think of… The teachers as I said were all excellent. A Mr. Miller who taught us languages as well, I met just a couple of years ago when I was in Vancouver. But nobody that really, what shall I say, was a role model.
I guess we were very family oriented. I hadn’t thought of it til now. But I think we thought of our family more than we thought of other people. But we really worked hard. We had to commit ourselves to our school work, and Mother would say, “Go up and do your homework. I’ll do the dishes,” you know. This is the way it was. She put a great value on it.
George Post: Did you have pets in your household?
Yes, we always had a black cat. Yes, I remember that, they were always called Jinx. I guess one followed the other. Yes, that was all we had, was a cat. And in those days, out in the country, the cats were useful in catching mice and so on.
George Post: Did you always live in the same home in Maple Ridge or did you progress through a series of homes as the family…
We progressed through a series. We were down in the hills, to start with, and then my father decided that we had to have a big, impressive home, so he bought this home, the best home, right in the lovely part of Maple Ridge. It was very prestigious and had a great big lawn, we could play tennis on the front lawn. We did that. You see, everything was… we never had the ice sports there.
And then from that one, he decided because we knew he had Parkinson’s. and we knew that he was having more and more difficulty with mobility, and so we built the new home, which is still there to this day. We built it wide enough for the wheelchairs and so on, so he could be looked after at home. And as I say it is still there.
He built it well. He was right there every day. He would never submit himself to a wheelchair, although he should have, and we built it wide enough. He would have people help him or carry him. It was his pride. He thought a wheelchair, that was… it’s not the same mentality as today. A wheelchair is not a disgrace. But then it was almost looked upon, you should fight it … I don’t know what the rationale would be. He wouldn’t ever have a wheelchair.
We did have a chair with little wheels on. Sometimes we moved him from the bedroom to the living room, and he was always so good and so grateful. And we’d help him into the chair. He was always so polite and so grateful for everything we did! Even when we were grown up in our forties and fifties, he was still appreciative, and he’d never expect things. He always had, as he got ill, they had these people, they were mostly housekeepers. Dad fortunately worked hard and he had sufficient money to be able to do the things that were needed to be done for him. So we had these, they were not really trained nurses, but they were there all the time.
George Post: Did this illness come on at an early stage in his life? How old …?
He would have been about mid-seventies then, I guess, early or mid-seventies when it came on.
George Post: Oh well, that’s fairly…
Yes, for Parkinson’s it’smaybe late sixties, but he was older and we saw that… Now I would know because he had this pen rolling symptom. I would know the symptoms immediately. But we knew he couldn’t walk as well. We thought he was lazy. He had all sorts of equipment he bought to keep up his exercise and so on. Parkinson’s is a very insidious disease, it creeps up. Do you know F____, by any chance? Yes, she has that problem. She’s such a great lady too.
George Post: What age was your father when he died?
He died when he was, let me think of the year that he died. He would have been 81. My mother was, I think, 85. She said, “I’m going to live longer than your Dad,” she was determined. Yes, they were both in their 80s when they died.
George Post: And did your mother have reasonably good health all her life?
Yes, she did. She did, and we thought looking after Dad was going to kill her. We were working in town, so we came out and were determined that she should have help. And so she was in reasonably good health. And then she sort of took to her bed, and she wanted to die like her mother did, in her sleep. And she had just a gradual disintegration. I sent to the doctor a number of times, “What is the problem?” He said, “We’ll discuss it some time.” When she died I sat down with him asked what it was, and he said “Just a general deterioration of the brain and the organs and so on. Nothing specific.” I still can’t imagine it. I guess the body just got worn out. Seems to me there should have been some diagnosis. I don’t know what he put on the Death Certificate; I think he put something like ‘old age.’ It was something non-specific, I can remember that. I was kind of emotional at the time so I didn’t say, ‘That’s not good enough.’
George Post: Do you remember when your father’s mother had died? Was that a particularly shocking or sad period for you?
Yes. Well, I was at training as a student at the Vancouver General and she died. I remember they had the minister, Mr. Henderson, wanted to see me and I couldn’t imagine what it was. And it happened that the head of our school was a friend of Mr. Henderson’s, so I was allowed a half hour to have a discussion with my minister. And he came to tell me that my grandmother had died. And it wasn’t… I was sad, but it wasn’t a great shock, because I thought she was awfully old. You know, she’d be about my age (now), and I thought she was very ancient. So I wasn’t shocked. It was interesting, just the other day we were having problems about the gravesite, because Dad was very, very emotional about it all as he would be, and there was enough for the six children and the two parents. But he decided that his mother should be buried there, and then my eldest brother’s wife died, and she should be buried there, and so we we’re going to have to do some rearranging. It isn’t very funny but when you get to my age you just have to face it, you know, this is coming down the road.
George Post: Did your father and mother ever make a trip back to Lebanon?
No, no. They travelled to Cuba the first time. Interesting. He wrote that in his book. He travelled across the country from Maple Ridge, and he made all the stops at Carlton Place and so on, to see the relatives. They flew; they were amongst the first people that flew. They had to go from Vancouver to Regina, Regina to Winnipeg. You couldn’t make a cross-country tour. They were very adventuresome. They went to Seattle, to the States, to Hawaii, I can’t remember other vacations they took because they liked Hawaii very much. It’s very close to Vancouver.
George Post: But never to the Middle East?
No, oh no, no. “Why would they go there?” he’d say. I thought it was fabulous and fascinating though. He turned his back on that, and I guess when he had a rough time… I don’t know , he didn’t have any desire, never expressed it.
Oh, that’s an easy one. At CGIT, Canadian Girls in Training. There were two nurses that lived together in our community, and they did private duty. We didn’t have a hospital at that time. And they would come to CGIT meetings and show us how to mitre the corner of the bed. And then they would give us another lesson on how you washed an ill patient… and I was just absolutely fascinated, and that is what I was going to be.
George Post: How old would have been then?
I would have been about 12, 13, yes. 14.
George Post: And you never had any second thoughts or… That resolve remained with you right through until you went into training?
Yes. No, I didn’t have any thoughts. That’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a nurse and I was…
George Post: When the war broke out, was this a major calamity in the community? Do you remember a lot of young men joining up to the war effort?
Well, I was a graduate and working in the Operating Room at the time. My sister phoned me up, and said they’d dropped a bomb on Pearl Harbour. I said “Oh,” I didn’t get the impact of it at the time. I was quite grown up, and working in the Operating Room at the Vancouver General. When it first broke out, I just remember this now, we had to paint all the windows black in the operating theatres where we were, and we had to stay there the first night. It was absolute folly when I think of it. If they dropped a bomb, all those windows would have shattered us and cut us all to pieces. But we had to stay on duty and sleep there. People were in a bit of a panic. Everybody was on duty all night, for two nights we did that.
George Post: The outbreak of war with Japan then, had a lot more impact in Vancouver than did the outbreak of war in Europe?
Yes, excuse me, I thought you were referring to that. No, the outbreak of war in Europe didn’t have the same impact. I’m sorry, I misunderstood. No, when the war broke out we knew; there were the reserves, and the people went marching off, and so on. And my father as Reeve was very involved in raising money for the war effort, and so on. No, that was really quite different. It seemed quite remote at that time, didn’t it. Although people who had been in the Reserves, of course, became active and went over. I joined up ’43, the war started in ’39, so it wasn’t until some time after that we got involved, of course.
George Post: Did you have brothers who had been in Cadets and were in the military?
Yes, my second eldest brother that was the lawyer. We used to play soldier, that was another one of the games we played, and I was a Red Cross nurse. Yes, I remember that now. He signed up right away and he was in Vancouver at the Headquarters. He had a bright mind, a good organizer. He told me when I was going overseas, because it came through his desk. He kept on wanting to get overseas, so they sent him to Ottawa, and he never got overseas. And he never forgave me. He said, “You got overseas and I didn’t.” And of course he was good, at Headquarters. And I said, “That’s your problem.” He was a Captain. He would have had hisMajor, I guess, if he had stayed longer.
George Post: Tell me about your own decision to join up. What brought that about?
Well, it was actually the supervisor in the Operating Room where I was working, she called me in one day. Miss Jamieson, a great big imposing lady, she scared the bejeezus out of the doctors. She’s the only person that ever could do that. She really controlled that, that was her operating room. And she called me in one day and she said something about, “You must go down and sign up to go.” She said, “I didn’t sign up to go overseas during World War I, and I missed something. I want you to do it, and think about it.” And that was Miss Jamieson. And so I thought about it, and thought about it, and then I didn’t tell my parents or anybody, but I thought, “Gee it is exciting”. Everybody is doing it, so I went down and signed up.
George Post: All of your classmates volunteered?
Yes, I think. It was the Royal Canadian Medical Corps that we were in, and there were a number of them. Last night I was at the Defence Medical Officers that went overseas, we have this dinner thing, with their wives and so on, every so often. The nurse, Hallie Sloan, that was in my class, we’ve kind of stuck together, and she was there last night. There was no shortage of volunteers, and the people that were disappointed were the ones that never got overseas.
It was a great experience, when I look back on it. The whole experience, from the time we signed up, and then we went to Victoria to be trained in how to salute. I have to laugh…
George Post: You were given some military training then?
Oh yes, not all the provinces or commands. But we were given,how to salute, how to march, and then we shipped from Victoria. I was posted to Number 19, and left to Sussex New Brunswick. And we trained for eight hours a day, during an eight hour period, walking, marching, carrying full backpacks, 40 pounds on our back,
George Post: Would you be given rifle training?
We did rifle training in Victoria. We weren’t supposed to, but the Chief Medical Officer decided that we should know how to shoot. So we had both rifle practice and pistol practice. Yes, I don’t know of any other commands, I must ask the nurses, that were given that training. And he told us that we had to remember that if our patients were in danger from an enemy we had to shoot, whoever it was that was threatening them. Obviously Germans. And I just thought, and wondered if I could. I really often worried that I wouldn’t be able to shoot, and I kept saying, “I wish it would happen and then I’ll know what to do.” But that seemed to me like an awful thing to do, and I always forgot where the pistol was. They were always supposed to have one that was within range, and then we had to lock it up. It was kind of complicated, but it worked out.
George Post: You mentioned early the train trip across Canada from Victoria to Halifax, or to Sussex first. Was that the first time you had been east from British Columbia?
Yes it was. Because I remember when we were on the train, our first stop was Jasper. It was lovely, we were in uniform, and this dear elderly couple sat with us at the breakfast table. Those were the days when they had the white table cloths, and we went to breakfast with all the silver and so on, and you were assigned. I don’t know if they do that now or not, but there was an elderly couple and they were assigned us, and after about the second day we became very good friends and we would talk together and so on. I remember they always ordered a steak, and I thought, I guess they liked steak. And then when we got to Winnipeg, they said that there were photographers waiting out there. So we got all our buttons polished, and we were just great, so we were allowed off first in Winnipeg for the stop. And the cameras were still there. And when this dear couple got off the cameras flashed all over, and the reporters rushed up, and it was Pierre Monteux and his wife. They were coming from San Francisco back to Philadelphia, and they wanted to come through Canada to see the Rockies and to eat some good food. They didn’t have steaks like we have back in the States apparently. So we didn’t know that. I remember them telling me, that the pips that you wear on your shoulders, “When the war is over you must make those into earrings.” They were lovely people. And we had some good conversations. I didn’t know who it was until we got to Montreal, or to Winnipeg rather, and it was too late. And they stopped in Winnipeg, I think they did something, had a concert or two there.
George Post: The travel during the war of course would have been an amazing opportunity, quite apart from the military service. But I suppose it was the first opportunity many young people had to leave their home towns, and a shame it was under such sad circumstances.
Yes, it was a real experience. I would never have gone. Of course they were so crowded too, until we got to Winnipeg we had to sleep two in a bunk, that was kind of hard, because in war time that was all they had. At Winnipeg some got off, so we had more room. But it was a wonderful opportunity for the kids that came from the little towns all over the country, went off to war, and they saw things that they never would have seen otherwise.
George Post: Have you retained lifelong friends who you met in military service?
I have, they were the ones from Vancouver, that’s where I joined up. Each May and in November we have reunions of the nursing sisters, and we also have them here (Ottawa) but all the ones that I went overseas are in Vancouver. In my own unit, I think there are about six or seven of us that are still able to get about, and some that came as reinforcements are also there, but the original ones we still have this Nursing Sisters dinner in May. We have it about the same time in Ottawa, so I have to rush from the one to the other, take them both in.
George Post: Varied career. I’d like to pursue this a little bit further.
Well, we went to Sussex New Brunswick and we were treated like ordinary soldiers. Our one unit was the hospital unit. There were three other units, and we drilled for eight hours a day, standing at attention, saluting, marching, marching, saluting, standing at attention. And we lived in H-huts which were very primitive. There were 36 of us in each hut. We ate the rations with the other ranks, and they just said we were soldiers like the others. Well, no one was going to treat anybody any differently, we didn’t expect it, but it was pretty basic and pretty crude. And then one day, well the people in the village knew the shoemaker. We had to have double leather on our shoes doing all the marching. And the shoemaker said, “You are going to be going overseas on Monday.” And we said, he doesn’t know, but we went overseas, and we marched to the ships in Sussex New Brunswick. We were taken by train to Halifax, and we were left off on the siding in Halifax, and our ships were in the harbour.
Our Colonel made us march with our 40 pounds, it must have been about four or five miles, to the ship. And going past us, in trucks, were the infantry corps. All the men who were going on the same ships with us were put into trucks, and here he had us marching!
I remember my friend Sally, who still lives in Vancouver, she fell down beside me. It was rough gravel, and I bent to pick her up, and he said, “Stop it, as you were!” and I wasn’t allowed to touch her. People had to just walk around her body until the First Aid people came and picked her up, and on we marched. And then we were on the ship for five days and five nights. And there were 8000 troops on the ship. There were 80 women and the rest were men.
It was the Empress of Scotland. It was only supposed to take, I don’t know how many. We went without convoy because we went over in ’43. The earlier ships had convoys but they didn’t have enough ships for that, and they had determined, or they told us, that it’s better to go alone because you can zigzag all the way across. And we zigzagged all the way across.
But there was 17 of us in one little cabin that was for two people when the ship was in its glory. There were 17 of us. We were stacked up like this, and if I wanted to turn over, I’d have to poke the sister above me and say, “Turn over, Muggly!” and she’d turn over and we both turned over together. So we were really treated like troops. We only had breakfast and dinner, two meals a day, and if you lost your breakfast that was it for the day. And it was a good thing we were young in those days, we could take it quite well, we complained a lot.
Then we found out that some of the officers knew how to bribe the people in the kitchen, and they would take things off the table and sell it. We would put little rolls or muffins in our uniforms, and they would say, “Take that out, Sister!” They could see them, because it just bulged out. We wanted to save it for the rest of the day.
So we zigzagged. We were one day out when a German plane came down, you could see the crosses on the wing. Swooped over, and they gave the whistle that we were to run down. We were sitting there, looking at this airplane thinking it was so nice; it was making all those loops, because that is the salute that we had when we went out.
It was a German plane. Oh, the OC troops was very, very cross with us. Sally had left her lifejacket below, and I didn’t have mine on. Oh, we disgraced the whole thing. Because there were just 80 women and the men were able to move faster. But nothing happened, they didn’t strafe the ship. He said, “If they had opened their guns there would have been a hundred of you lying there dead.”
When we got to Liverpool, at the docks in Liverpool, they started to play ‘O Canada.” Oh, that was so emotional after five days at sea. And then the men, they were on our ship, the other ranks, were tossing chocolate bars out at the girls, with little notes on. And the girls somehow were getting messages back to them with their numbers. They were early at business, and then, this was written up in the book someplace, then suddenly there was this barrage of balloons and I said, “Whoo, we don’t even have balloons in Canada!” Well, the officer that was with me just grabbed me and took me round to the other side of the ship. They were condoms that were going up, and I didn’t know. I was a bit naïve. (Laughter) Guess they were all issued condoms and they had them all blown up, a great barrage of condoms. Really! And to think that I didn’t know, we were much more naïve in those days, I’m sure.
And then we got onto the trains in Liverpool, just tiny little trains to the ones in Canada, and then we went to Marsden Green. We took over from one hospital that was going overseas to France, and we took over from them at Marsden Green. And that was a good experience.
George Post: Had you been given training in Canada about running a field hospital?
No, not really any more than we had. There were always the people were there ahead of you, and you learned from them. There was always somebody. I actually learned a lot from the Sergeant Majors and the other ranks, they were usually there, and as officers we would move on. The greatest difficulty, I remember, was getting enough sterile supplies. When we were in Marsden Green in England we could autoclave them, then sometimes you would run out when you were in the field. It was a good experience, but it was a sad experience. To see these young men coming back all broken up. It really was sad. These bright young men.
George Post: Was Marsden Green a large hospital?
There was the Oval, and about forty tents… About 400, 500, 600, I think we were considered medium sized. There was a whole oval, and all the huts came off around the side. I was in charge of the operating room there. Well, I was told when we were on the ship, the matron called me and said, “You will be in charge of the Operating Room when we land in England.” And I said, “Matron, no… I’ve know operating room work well in Canada, but not to be in charge.” You just simply go and do these things and the greatest problem as I said was with supplies. It wasn’t with the teams that were doing operating rooms. The men, the other ranks, do the scrubbing, and the sisters did the waiting on them. And they would come in wave after wave. We were only there about three days when the first convoy came in, And they said there would be first the walking wounded, then the wounded, then the seriously wounded, whatever it was. But I didn’t know what they were all talking about. The sergeant shouted this stuff at us. So they just brought them in on stretchers, and the seriously wounded ones would come into the operating room.
George Post: You would have whole shifts of surgeons that would come in around the clock?
Well they did, but sometimes there was so much to do that they would keep working for 16, 18 hours to get it cleaned up, and then they would rest off. We were supposed to work 12 hours on and 12 hours off. But I was in charge of the operating room, and I didn’t want to leave when the operating was going on. It sounds like you’re being sacrificial, but you weren’t. You were all there together, you were there with friends, and you are working hard. It wasn’t something that we were being very brave about, it was just the work was there to be done. Just as you would here in Ottawa if there is a job to be done, you get on with it and do it.
George Post: And how long did you stay at that hospital in England?
Well, I was there for 18 months. No, I wasn’t there for 18 months, I was there for 10 months, and then the other part, was when I was overseas. But they have this story that they had written up too in the same little book, that was about the man who was in Marsden Green. Every once in a while the chief of the whole surgical division overseas would come and inspect the hospitals. Brigadier MacFarland, I remember, was the Brigadier that came to watch our surgeons operating and to give them what help he could, and advice. And there was one man, they wanted to amputate his leg, he was in the corridor ready to go in. He said, “Sister, sister don’t let them operate, don’t let them take off my leg, I’ll die, I can’t face my wife without my leg.” I said, “Well I can’t promise anything, we’ll just see what is going to happen.” He said, “Please tell them!” and I said, “Well, they’ll do what’s best.” I couldn’t promise him anything. When they took him at the operating room, and scrubbed him up, the other ranks would do this, and expose his leg, and Brigadier MacFarland said, “Oh”, just looked at it. I said, “Brigadier MacFarland, this boy told me that if you took off his leg he’d die.” And he said, “What, what did you say Sister?” He was very gruff. I said “He told me that if you took off his leg he would die, he couldn’t go back to Canada and face his wife.” And Brigadier MacFarland listened to me, first time a Brigadier listened to me, he was a surgeon of course, one of the highest surgeons in that whole area. He said, “Put a pad on it, put him in a plaster cast, send him priority to Canada.” And when I got back, I didn’t think he knew my name or anything. When we landed on the way back, we were going to the Far East, and we got off the ship in Halifax. Then we went to Montreal and then we had to change in Montreal and I heard this man in this dark night station in Montreal saying, “Sister, sister,” and nobody knew so finally he shouted louder and louder and this man came on crutches over, and he said “I made it back to Canada.” Now I don’t know how he knew my name, how he knew what ship I was on, or what train I was on, and I said “You made it back.” And he said “Yes, and with two legs.” I don’t know if they were ever saved. But wasn’t that amazing? I didn’t have the sense to ask him how he knew my name, and how he was there. But they have quite a network, don’t they.
George Post: Did you ever go to France? Serve in France?
Yes, we went overseas to France, we went all the way up to Nijmegen in Germany, and then we were sent to the Far East forces. I got up to Nijmegen.
George Post: In Nijmegen you would be right at the front with the field hospital at Nijmegen?
Yes, that was the furthest I got. That was the last one, that was all the way up, the furthest east that the Canadian troops, in Oldenburg. And then I was sent back with the Far East Forces. But we got to Vancouver and they dropped the atomic bomb, so that was the end of that. And then I was sent to Prince Rupert – where I was born!
George Post: So you came back from Europe just shortly after the European war ended?
George Post: And did you come back with a shipload of injured people?
No, we came back, I keep forgetting, you know, now we would fly back. No, we came back on trains. There were injured people there, but that was not our assignment on our train. We just went back.
George Post: That must have been very, very hard work, the work in field hospitals.
Well, it was very emotional you know, overseas. I think in some ways it was just as hard when we were in England. The first time we were there we were sent on a course to London. How they ever sent us, I could never figure it out. And we were going along to Sunday morning, we were going with some officers, we were the two Canadians, and the church was bombed, just at that minute, yards from us. And the whole side of the walls of the church collapsed. And of course then you are not allowed to stand and stare if you were a civilian, you had to move on. They just moved so quickly, just bringing bodies out, just like cords of wood. And there was a friend of mine, Kate Freek, that was in London at the time, she was British. She remembered that well, it was one of the great tragedies. Whole families were wiped out. And I couldn’t believe it, here they were picking up people just like cords of wood. I guess there would be 4 or 5 hundred people in that church, and every one was killed except the Minister. He had the canopy above him, and so he was saved. So you see, there was death all over, wasn’t there. Terrible.
Sometimes I say I feel a greater impact, when I talk about it at this period in time, than when you were there. Because when you are there you are working, you are doing something, you have a goal. When you reflect on it you realize how serious it is sometimes.
George Post: Were the nursing sisters in danger themselves? Were some of these hospitals struck with shells or bombs?
Oh yes, some were. I think there were only six or ten Canadian nurses that were killed in the Second World War, and there were some more in the First World War. Some of them due to illness. I think there were two nurses on one of the ships that were torpedoed just off of Newfoundland, and they died. I think there was six or eight.
But they were in the same danger as all the others. Except not the combat soldiers that were at the front lines. The nurses were always behind the front lines. Or of course on a ship, everybody was there together.
George Post: Well we all think, from having seen the television series MASH, that we know about field hospitals, but I’m sure that the Second World War was a lot different than that.
Well, there were many similarities. Of course that was all glamorized with people coming in. But it was the same, people being brought in, in convoys. We didn’t have helicopters wherever I was, but they were brought in, in convoys. I didn’t watch it a lot, because it brought back too many memories. But the people there were all trained to look after the people, they dramatized it very well, all the ones I saw.
I don’t know whether you saw, there was a recent one (TV program) that Halley Sloan was in that talked about it, and then Angels of Mercy, the one that I was in. Have you seen that one? Oh, I have a tape if you ever want to see it. We talked then about our experiences, and they were both well done.
We were so fortunate that so many people asked us to recount our experiences and especially the war ones now, I think I have done two or three of them. And the Angels of Mercy, I would say that the best one was at the end, Leonard Cohen sang ‘Angels of Mercy’ and I like his voice very much.
George Post: You were saying that you would come back to Canada expecting to go to the Far East and then ended up in Prince Rupert. Were you still in the service in Prince Rupert?
Yes, I was sent. I was in the hospital, which was so interesting because I was born there. Half the hospital was military, the other half was civilian, and I only had about two or three patients there, I remember it was so easy. It was not a difficult assignment. I guess I was there for four or five months, I can’t remember how long. But oh, it does rain in Prince Rupert, and it was such a hard life to adjust to after the excitement and the movements of being overseas. And then comes the little Prince Rupert with a civilian hospital, with only two or three patients. It was a big adjustment you know, and as I say now they’d have counsellors all around, But not many mental breakdowns I know of in the sisterhood, but there were some. I remember they passed through our unit, but not many. But it is a big adjustment to make.
George Post: And when did you leave the service?
I left the service, I went to McGill. The war ended in ’45, and I was back home on leave when the war ended, and I thought “Oh darn, I’m not going to Japan.” Isn’t that awful. So I left the service. We were all demobilized, I think in the period of probably six months. I went to Prince Rupert, and I think that’s probably all. It’s a great process, of being demobilized. I might be wrong on the length of time, it is a little hard to always remember exactly.
Freetown & Sierra Leone – Written by Helen Mussallem.
Until 1981, Sierra Leone was, to me, just a name on the map of West Africa. I had met the country’s senior nursing officer and her assistant in nursing education many times at ICN Congresses. The latter person was afflicted with sickle cell anaemia –the first case I had ever encountered. I soon learned that this hereditary condition was common in many families in West Africa.
My hotel at Manny Lo was luxurious but far out of Freetown. I should note here that Freetown is reached by a ferry which runs on an erratic schedule from the airport. While travelling on the ferry and enjoying the warm sea breeze, I was delighted to note that the matron and the two accompanying nurses were in full uniform. Despite the winds and surf, they somehow managed to stay starchily stiff.
The hospital and the school of nursing were unlike those of other developing countries. The school was rather bare, with a minimum of teaching tools. Likewise, the hospital was barely furnished –but clean. Wards consisted of rows of beds in a large, open room and the “utility rooms” and equipment was in rather poor shape. I could sense from conversations with the Matron and her assistant, however, that the “caring” for patients was paramount even though the curriculum was disease oriented. In essence, it followed the U.K. pattern for the preparation of nurses.
As planned, I delivered three speeches on “primary health care” to the nursing staff, to the entire hospital staff and one which was open to the “general public”. Everyone listened politely, laughed at the appropriate times and applauded enthusiastically. I shall never know if my enthusiasm for the WHO goal of “Health for all by the year 2000” was understood by any member of the audience. I often heard those words repeated but I was never sure if they really understood the concept and how it might be implemented in their own country. Would the students see the vision of this new approach to health care and internalize it? Not likely if the rigid curriculum, as I viewed it, was followed.
The chief nurse recognized my enthusiasm for primary health care and arranged for me to see a primary health setting several kilometres inland. We set out on a hot, hot day. I was in the front of the car with the driver and the matron and her assistant –again in full uniform –sat in the back. About one hour out of Freetown, we heard and saw a loud explosion of steam from the radiator. The car stopped suddenly. For a while, the driver just sat but eventually, he opened the hood –still spurting steam. Having driven a car since the age of 10 and having been loaned a second hand car during my student days, I had some, scant knowledge of auto mechanics. I had even had a similar experience with a burst radiator hose in a huge Essex. This seemed similar but, unwilling to interfere, I sat quietly with my companions until the driver announced we were stuck as he had absolutely no equipment for repairs. Ready for action, I got out of the car and asked to see the problem –a broken radiator hose alright and all the water was gone.
Looking around, I spotted a small stream way down in a gully and asked the driver to fetch some water. He refused saying he had no container. We did have our water rations for the day but how was I to fix the burst hose with no tape of any kind. I had an idea. While the matron kept the driver from following me, I went to the back of the car and removed my pantyhose. Triumphantly, I returned to the front where the hood stood open and instructed the driver on how he was to repair the burst hose. His eyes got bigger and bigger. He simply could not understand what I was talking about but, together, we wrapped the burst hose with the pantyhose. I then used all our precious water –about three to four litres –for the radiator. Thankfully, the car started and we managed to drive the five or six miles to the next village. There, a temporary patch was applied and my handiwork discussed to the amusement of the villagers.
Prior to reaching our destination, we stopped to pick up the public health nurse for the region. When we finally arrived, I emerged from the car to the sound of many women singing around large pots. The pots, to my amusement, reminded me of the ones in Sunday school books that showed the natives boiling the missionaries. The public health nurse explained that these women were midwives whom she was teaching to sterilize the blades, knives and cord, etc. used for deliveries. I asked what they were singing and was told that it was a song of thanks “to my mother for having brought this wonderful woman into the world” (me). I was especially touched as it was 14 March (1981) –my mother’s birthday.
Glancing to one corner of the clearing, I saw the elders seated around a rustic table discussing plans for health care. Nearby a group of young men was being taught by a “trained health teacher”. He was teaching them how to carry vaccines, packed in dry ice, and administer them to villagers in the remote areas of the country. The teacher asked me to address the group and he would translate. I started off by telling them about the WHO goal of health for all and noted that my home was far away and that it was covered with snow and ice. The translator stopped and, when I asked if there was a problem, answered, “Yes, we don’t have words for ice and snow”. Ever inventive, I suggested he tell them that the temperature in my country was cold like the dry ice in their vaccination kits. They all laughed hysterically. I was then asked to come and see their new project — a compost heap with boards on four sides! This was a new and exciting venture in this part of Sierra Leone.
“Could I go out to the little huts I could see from the compound,” I asked. They discouraged me as there were “biting snakes” in the area and I would have to wear high leather boots. I went! Along the path, mothers held their children out in front of them. When they saw me, they pinched their children’s cheeks and said something — always the same-sounding phrase. Curious, I asked for a translation but my guides were reluctant to interpret saying it was a bad word. “What bad word,” I asked. “White woman, white woman”. That was a bad word! That was me!
Arrival at the airport in Ghana was almost as spectacular as arriving in Nigeria. After the strenuous lectureship in Nigeria, covering cities and villages, I returned to the Government House residence for VIPs with a serious flu-like condition with fever and a hacking cough. The “government nurse”, who came at my request, confirmed that I was ill and should not travel the next day. I had to travel, however, so tight was the schedule for visits to the seven countries –Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia (not Commonwealth but squeezed in by the Secretariat), Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Malta and Cyprus.
I was transported to the airport in great style but the trip took hours through the city’s congested traffic –possibly the world’s worst. Peddlers approached our car continuously hawking all types of wares. The most amusing were young girls with radio/stereo/recorders on their heads –the music going full blast. I coughed continuously. At the airport, I left the first class lounge and boarded the Royal Dutch Airlines jet, again first class. I leaned back ready to soak in the calm of this luxurious style of travel. The aircraft was cool and clean and special gifts of Dutch chocolates and mementos were offered. En route, we stopped only at Abuja(?). It was an all too short hour of luxury.
When we landed I peered from the plane and saw dozens of immaculately dressed nurses in starched aprons, bibs and frill caps. The other first class passengers were asking the hostess what was going on but I said nothing. As I disembarked, the 30-nurse guard of honour stood with military precision. What a thrill! Then I was presented with the customary bouquet. I felt like royalty! Unfortunately, my beautiful bouquet was full of ants which crawled all over my front as I posed for pictures.
The route to my lodgings was interesting. We passed through many guarded gates and finally reached my luxurious quarters –built for use by President Nkrumah. He was a large man so the bed was double, double size. At night when I coughed constantly the whole, massive bed shook.
After completing my lectures on “Continuing Education, An Essential to Nursing Strategy and Networks in Primary Health Care” in Lagon, I was scheduled for appearances in various cities and villages in Ghana. To my delight, I found I was to travel by private, government plane with Capt. Reynolds as pilot and accompanied by the chief nursing officer. For each trip, my companion and I boarded the plane and were settled into our special seats. Only then were the other Ghanaian passengers allowed on with all their goods and chattels. Before takeoff, Capt. Reynolds would come back to ensure that we were comfortable and to give us instructions about seat belts, etc. I was very impressed with his decorum and his concern for us.
At one stop in Northern Ghana, I gave my lecture in a large school packed with students, villagers, etc. I had difficulty being heard as the large yard was filled with innumerable guinea hens, which made such a loud racket that I had to shout to be heard. I was told the hens came only once a year and brought good luck. After shouting for about 30 minutes, I thought I would lose my voice. I did take time out for coughing.
When we returned to the airport, we could see that here was a problem. A young man had taken photos with his camera and immediately the military police pounced on him and seized his camera. Neither the young man, nor we two, had realized that we were in a restricted zone. The young man pleaded for his camera –without success. We boarded the plane and I asked my companion to seek Captain Reynolds’ help. When she refused, I boldly walked up to Captain Reynolds when he boarded the plane and relayed the whole story. He sprinted from the plane, talked with the military police and returned with the camera, giving it to the young man. Only the film was removed. My reward was the boy’s most appreciative ear-to-ear grin.
The day after our return to Lagon was a national holiday and we, and other dignitaries, had special seats for the festivities. I was fascinated by the huge umbrellas carried by aides and used to shield the tribal chiefs from the hot sun. The parade started and who was the smart, slim, air force officer leading the entire parade? Our Captain Reynolds.
Later, after my return to Canada, I heard that he had been elected President, an office which he has held to the present day.
George Post: Where did you get these amazing qualities, Helen? From your Dad, from your Mom, is it genertic, is it learned?Which qualities?George Post: The quality of being able to write clearly, the determination to work hard, get the job done…
Well, I think some of them are selfish objectives. I like to play, so I know if you work hard, you can get your job done and then you play later. My mother always said to us, “You work hard, and you do your job, and you play later.” But I never got around to play later very much. She was wrong on that account, because if you worked hard it all went on to something else. So I would say, probably many of these things you learn, when you really analyze it, it’s the atmosphere in the home that you grew up in, and some people that inspired you. But it’s interesting that you should ask who really was a role model who inspired me. I couldn’t really think of anybody special, I guess it was a number of people.
George Post: Would you regard your mother as a very determined person? Was she a major support to your father in his business, and his success?
Oh yes. She was tremendous, but she was very quiet about it. You wouldn’t say that she was a very aggressive person, far from it. But she quietly went around, and she quietly got things done, and she quietly told people what they were to do and so on. And you know in my generation people were strapped and spanked, but we never were. We were always told very clearly if anything was wrong. And she was a real model of a person that could bring up six children, all of whom were reasonably successful.
George Post: What do you know about her family, her dad and mother, and her ancestors?
Well, she, as I said, was born in Kfar Mishki. She came over when she was three years old, with her mother. Her father had died. And she lived at her uncle’s home, Kalil. He was a very well-to-do businessman, I think making suits or something was his business, and so she grew up there. But she didn’t know the luxuries. From what she said they made her work very hard, because she was there living off them. Well, her brother was very good, Kalil, but his wife made her work very hard, from what she said. So it wasn’t a very happy upbringing and that was why, when she had an opportunity to elope with my father I think she wanted to get out of it.
George Post: Would she have gone through high school?
No, no she didn’t. I don’t think she finished grade school. No.
George Post: And was brought up with the expectation that she would be a housewife.
That’s right. And that was not uncommon. There was no compulsory education. And it’s too bad. But she was so determined to learn, and she really was self taught, what she knew of her reading and writing skills and so on.
George Post: And clearly wanted her girls to have an education and a professional training. You mother wouldn’t have resisted the idea of you going into nursing school.
No, and it was my father as well, because he felt that we all had the opportunity. And in his will, I am jumping a bit but he had, “share and share alike.” And you know, many of the Arab men brought up would have the boys would have two thirds and so on. But, he put the same emphasis, we had the same opportunities as our brothers did. There was no distinction. And that was very good for somebody who was brought up in his culture, although he was just 16 or 17 when he escaped. But he learned quickly, he had a bright mind. I didn’t think he was so bright when I was small, but I look back now and I realize that he was very bright.
George Post: And I don’t know whether I asked you if he had finished high school or not?
No, no he hadn’t. I don’t know how much. Oh, in Lebanon, he left at 16 but he apparently had gone into a religious school and had learned to read and write Arabic, and also he had learned some of the basics of English. So very often when we asked him something that he couldn’t answer right away, because he translated from Arabic to English in his head, you could almost watch him doing this, it was something that required thought. Because I remember when the Fraser Valley flooded over, the Great Flood, and we came home. We were talking, and I remember saying to him, “When was the last flood for the Fraser River?” and he paused for a minute, you could almost see it going on, he added it in Arabic and then he translated it into English for us. And Arabic is a rather difficult language. I can write my name, that’s about all, and I can speak a very little bit, but the writing is difficult. It is all symbols going from left to right.
George Post: Would you describe your father and mother as literate people? Was there a lot of literature, books, magazines, newspapers in your home when you were young?
There were, of course, because my father was in politics, and he got all the newspapers. He always had a set, just one set of Arabic books, that’s all. He enjoyed reading although he didn’t do a lot, but he was an action person. In their later years of course there was television, they really liked that. But I would say that they were not highly literate, although they could have been if they were given the opportunity.
George Post: And your mother, did she read and write quite easily in English?
Yes, not too easily. She could read easily, but writing was more difficult for her, I don’t know why that would be. But you know, both my father and mother, when they wrote they wrote their English in sort of the script of the Arabic. I meant to ask the Ambassador when I saw him, we have a new Ambassador to Lebanon, to ask him why that was. He would probably know. Because their English letters seemed to take the shape of Arabic letters, which is rather interesting.
George Post: It probably has something to do with the patterns that are laid down in the brain very early on.
Yes, because one goes from right to left and the other is left to right.
George Post: And your grandmother who lived with you, did she read and write in English, or just in Arabic?
She could speak English, but she didn’t to my knowledge write in English or read English. And she wore one of these scarves that the ladies of the Middle East wore. Mother and Dad kept trying to get her to take it off. And every time she took it off she got a cold. I think she did it on purpose. It really looked quite elegant I thought. I will show you the pictures of the family that are up on the wall in the other room, so you can place them.
George Post: It certainly sounds like a most interesting and dynamic family, because when you think of the change that both your father and mother would have gone through from their own earliest childhood, which was quite traditional, to creating a successful family in the new land. Quite amazing.
Yes, and you see there was nobody to talk with, they were the only family out there (in Maple Ridge) that I know. For example if you came here (Ottawa) from Lebanon, there’s a little Lebanese community, but they had no one out there, which I suppose in a way was good because they had to be integrated into the culture. But they had no close friends. Now, occasionally, relatives would come from the east.
George Post: Everybody has mentors and role models, it would be interesting to know who the people were, who would have influenced your father as a young man, to do the various things he did.
Well, he speaks in his book of a Mr. Haddad, that he said helped them a great deal, but I don’t know any more than what I have read in his books, what he wrote. He was amazing, well it was the Deputy Superintendent for Education that wrote his life. I still feel that he didn’t capture as much of Dad as he could have, it was very bland what he wrote down. One can be critical, I don’t think I could have done any better.
George Post: Was he a bland man, your father? Or was he an emotional man?
Oh no, just the opposite. He spoke with great authority and he was just the opposite of bland. He even walked straight. When he gave speeches, whether it was at a convention or a political gathering or whatever, he spoke with great determination. He always prepared himself well though, I must say. He would always go to his room at night, and now I realize what he was doing, making little notes. But he often wrote them in Arabic, you know. We found all these little notes after. Somebody has thrown them all away. It is too bad the things that are thrown away.
George Post: Was music an important part of your family? Were there any of your parents or siblings who played instruments?
Mother decided that Mary, my sister, and I should have a piano, and have piano lessons. She told Dad one day when he had a little too much to drink, she told me. She made him promise. I would never see him in that state. She sent him to the bedroom or downstairs. And he promised, and so we got a piano, and my sister and I both took lessons. Neither of us were really talented, but my younger sister Lil is really very accomplished, and she has got a musical ear. And we would be practicing our scales, one after the other, and then this little sister would come along. And she would pick up a tune like O Canada or God Save the King, or whatever it was that came in those days, she would just play it. She had this musical ear. And I don’t. I just have to work hard at it. I appreciate music and love concerts and going to them, and I think we are so lucky in Ottawa with what we have, so close at hand.
George Post: Your father, was he musically inclined?
He used to sing, when he felt like singing. Usually, as I said, he was in a state when he’d had a glass or two of wine, that’s when he loosened up. And he had a very good voice, and he could also dance some of these traditional Arabic dances. He used to show us, and he wanted to teach me, and mother saw him teach me and she said, “Don’t you teach her those dances.” She thought we mustn’t do anything of the old land. Since then I can see now why she was so, she just had this goal of bringing us up as Canadians, as my father did too, and really passionate about it.
George Post: What has happened to the younger generation. I‘m sure that there are nieces and nephews; do they share these passionate interests in education and community improvement?
Well, I don’t know. My oldest brother has two sons and a daughter, and the one son as taken over the business, Mussallem Motors, so that’s where he’s put his energy. My brother Nick had a son, the one who was a judge, a brilliant mind, too brilliant to stay at anything. He was one of the Company of Young Canadians. And that really put him off. And he is so bright that he is always getting into trouble, even to this day. He is bright, bright, bright, bright.
Mary’s boys are very down to earth, one of them is an inspector of water or something in Vancouver, and of course Lil, my sister. I brought up Lyn (her daughter) and she is very special. And she is four months from completing her doctorate. She’s got through all this time, and she’s very good, she’s a wonderful personality.
George Post: In what field, Helen?
Well, what she is doing her doctoral work on is participatory evaluation. But then she is also one of Vancouver’s best belly dancers. Someone said ballet and I said “No, belly.” She decided when she was a youngster she wanted to do the belly dancing, and she has become quite well known for it. I think that’s quite an accomplishment.
George Post: Your mother might not approve?
She might not, I don’t know. But she was awfully good with children. I remember when I used to take Lyn home every weekend, when I was off Saturday and Sunday, and we’d stay overnight. And Lil loved it because she had a rest her. She was just full of mischief, and I spoiled her and I loved it.
George Post: But her doctorate is in political science? Psychology?
Psychology is the area that she is in, yes. And I keep trying to remember, when people ask me what she is doing it in, I have to think. I guess many of the ideas, they have to think of something new now, don’t they, the youngsters with their doctoral work. And she’s been at it for four years, and four months to go. I whizzed through in a year and a half. Well, altogether over the period, but well, they take their time, it’s more scholarly. I said “Well what are you going to do, Lynn, when you are all finished this?” and she said, “I think I’ll go to Europe and see what’s going on over there.”
And she’s married, but they’re not having any children. They decided not to. But she’s a great gal. She’s been one of the greatest influences on my life. I had brought her up, you know, and watching her grow, I never lost contact with her. And as mother said, “That poor child, she doesn’t know which one is her mother.” We were very close, and still are very close. She’s a great gal.
George Post: Have you kept close touch with a lot of the students and younger nurses that you have yourself been a mentor to? Would you count yourself as having a large following of disciples or students?
(Laughing) Well, I communicate by letter and the gatherings and so on. You would know Ken Dye, the Auditor General, it’s just come to mind, his wife was one of my students. And there’s a whole group in Ottawa, and there are whole groups all over, and at Christmastime I hear from all over the world from students, they still keep in touch. Or they read something in the paper, or see something, and write to me. Soit’s not a planned program, but I do keep in touch with a lot of them. And especially in Vancouver, because that’s where most of them were when I was teaching, and most of my students have grown up, but there’s the odd one like the Dyes and so on that are here. Well, we have a VGA, Vancouver General Alumni, in Ottawa, and the last time there were about twenty that came. Oh, and I walked into the room and they all stood up. Gee it was funny. I just walked in. And they all stood up. (Laughing) That’s what they did in the old days, when anybody came in, and I guess they thought we were still back then. But they still get together, they are quite active here.
George Post: And you feel that you have inspired some of these women to continue the notion of change and improvement and dedication, that you’ve obviously felt in your life?
Well, that’s a hard one, because how do you know, George, if you’ve inspired anybody?
George Post: I guess they tell you.
Well, people tell me wonderful things, you’d think I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But it’s not true. I get far too much credit for what other people have done too, because all the things that I have done have always been projects where other people were involved. Oh yes, I get far too much credit for the things that other people participated in.
George Post: I am coming to the end of the tape here, and I want to thank you for being so frank, and sharing so many stories here. It’s clear that you came from an amazing family.
Well, that’s very kind, George. I’ve enjoyed it too.
On Remembrance Day 2009, Dr. Mussallem chatted with her niece Lynette about her experiences in World War II. To view three short videos of their chat, click on links to view video. SigningUp HalifaxLiverpool MarsdenGreen
In 1994 Dr. H. K. Mussallem received an honorary doctorate from the University of British Columbia. She addressed a congregation of students from the Health Sciences.
Many members of Helen’s family attended the evening reception. Front row left to right: Her elder brother George Mussallem, Helen, and younger sister Lily Harper. Back row left to right: George’s wife Grace, Kevin Potvin (Janis’s partner), nieces Janis Harper and Lyn Harper, and brother Peter Mussallem.