Early Nursing Education

George Post: Your parents obviously approved?

Yes, and they wanted me to go to the combined course with the University of B.C. and the Vancouver General Hospital. But all my friends were going to the Vancouver General Hospital so I went there. What was this degree business? I wasn’t going to be bothered. They were a bit snobbish too, the degree people. So I went into Vancouver General Hospital, and then subsequently went on for my degree work, to McGill and what-not.

George Post: What are your strongest recollections about doing that RN course at Vancouver General?

Well, a lot of things. I think that could take an hour or more, at minimum. There were so many things that as a very young girl at 19, when we went in training, I had never seen anyone die. That was quite traumatic. We didn’t have counselling and so on like they have now. People coming into Emergency in Vancouver, the General took them all in. They were all badly dismembered or cut up or so on. And all these things were really, they’re still traumatic. But you know we were not told about, well, we were told there’d be accidents, and you did this to wounds, and so on, but there was no counselling. Like now, if somebody sees a terrible situation, they counsel them a bit. We somehow survived all that.

Helen dressed to go into the VGH Operating room.
Helen dressed to go into the VGH Operating room.

But there were a number of things. I was just listening to the radio this morning, when you saw doctors doing things that were not ethical or not correct.  And I remember at that time there was an anaesthetist that everybody said to watch him, we weren’t allowed in the room. And he would always put the mask on his face first, and have a little whiff of the gas. He was really hazardous, now I look back at it. But nobody reported him, people sort of closed ranks.

But there were a number of things when you are a student nurse, you see so many things. I had never seen anybody born of course; I fainted the first time. (laughing) I wouldn’t have except that the lady that supervised said, “If you are going to faint, faint quietly.”  I just crumpled up against the wall.

There were all sorts of tales that one could tell about training, how we helped each other along. They used to have the Infectious Disease Ward…  The Infectious Disease Ward was one thing, and of course I was a patient there because I got scarlet fever. But they had the Venereal Disease Wards for really very hush-hush…  You see at that time they didn’t have the same medications, and they were all put down in rooms below ground at the Vancouver General. Well, they wanted to keep them out of sight I guess, for one thing, and secondly, I guess there was underneath it all there was sort of an ethic that they had ‘done wrong’ so we were going to put them in these beds. And a lot of gonorrhea with the women, I can remember that so well. And tuberculosis of course was quite prevalent in my training. And two of my classmates died of tuberculosis.

George Post: But they contacted you at the hospital?

Oh yes, yes, oh yes, at the hospital. And everybody had to take these man 2 tests and you could tell whether you were exposed to TB or not. And mine was never positive. Everybody else in the class except me. And I don’t know why, I guess it is the reaction. But tuberculosis was really a hazard. There were a number of hazards that students in training would have.

I have gotten off the track of what you were asking about.

We weren’t coddled but we were watched, and the people there, they had a really ‘way out’ idea that we should be educated rather than trained. Because in other hospitals even today, although it’s not the same system, they were using the students, they were indentured labour. But not at the Vancouver General. It was really well thought out, by and large. When I look back I couldn’t believe it because I didn’t know anything else, except that we thought we were better than St. Paul’s. But that was rivalry in the city.

George Post: Did you ever consider going to medical school rather than to nursing?

It never really appealed to me, I must say. I don’t know why. I think I was always in admiration of what doctors did, and working with the doctors was always a very positive experience. But I never thought of becoming a doctor. I never thought I was really clever enough, to be quite honest.  I never thought I could do it. Because some of the courses and so on, at that time, required a pretty high intelligence. And I was, I have to admit, a rather shy, timid person in many ways, although I didn’t like to show it. And I just thought I just couldn’t do it. Maybe I could have, I don’t know.  Whatever I did I have enjoyed it all and I have never looked back.

George Post: You told me that one of your sisters was also a nurse.

Yes, but after me. She was older than me and when I would come home with these great tales, she wanted to be a nurse then. And I said, “Oh Mary.” Yes, she did. “You sound like you were having a lot of fun.” “Oh,” I said, “it’s hard work too.” But she went in after me.

George Post: To the same hospital?

The same hospital, yes. But I had finished by the time she came in. She had some special permission, because you had to be 19 or 20. If you were 21 you were a bit old, I think she was probably 21, 22. Yes, we both graduated from the same hospital.

George Post: Now your brothers, who went on to school and university,y did that in Vancouver?

Yes, my both brothers went to UBC. My oldest brother didn’t, but they both went to UBC. It was, well, it was the only one; the next one would have been in Edmonton. There weren’t as many colleges or schools, no college system at that time, as we know it today. It was Normal School, but no Junior College system.

Working for the Victorian Order of Nurses
Mowat, ? , Helen Mussallem about to go their rounds for the V.O.N.
Miss King and the School Nurse, VGH


Post Graduate work and Career Reflections

George Post:  And you decided then to move right in to the University?

We had a choice, they called them Veteran’s Points.  You could have furniture for your house, or you could have land, or you could go to University. So I chose University, and I went to McGill to finish up. I had gone to the University of Washington before; I had some credits there, because it was close to Vancouver. Then I went to McGill, and came back to the Vancouver General to teach, because I was really on leave of absence.

And I taught for two years, then I decided I would like to have my Masters. One other nurse was talking about it. So anyway, down I went to Columbia, and I was the first Canadian down there, and I got through my Masters. Well then you have a taste of what you’d want, for your Doctorate. So I was the first nurse with an earned Doctoral degree, brag brag brag. There are many now, over 80, I’m not sure of the numbers.

Director, VGH School of Nursing, with instructor Ruth (Cochrane) Mann, photographed in the 1950s
Director, VGH School of Nursing, with instructor Ruth (Cochrane) Mann, in the 1950s (photo courtesy Sally Thorne, Ph.D., UBC School of Nursing)

George Post: That post war education program that the Canadian government mounted and offered to service people was an incredible thing. The number of people who came back and really launched quite different careers than they might have if they had not had that education available to them.

I think it was absolutely brilliant and outstanding. People would never have gone on for education. Many of the young boys went on, some of them in medical schools, and so on.  It was a wonderful program. Education is the answer. It’s certainly the opportunity. That’s so wonderful that they had that program.

George Post: Was McGill University quite crowded in those years when you came back there?

Yes, I can remember sitting on the steps. All universities were I think, but the only place where I could finish my degree and get credits for what I had was at McGill, and I was glad I went there. Oh yes, you were lucky if you got a chair in those days, and you sat on the steps, but that was ok.

McGill University.
McGill Graduate.

George Post: Well you’ve become a world traveller over the course of your life. Was it this original military service that gave you an interest in travel and exploration?

Nurses travelling to Hawaii 1954
Nurses travelling to Hawaii 1954

Well, I can’t say it was. I know that Lyle Creelman was the Chief Nurse in the World Health Organization, and there were many countries wanting expertise.  They wanted somebody desperately to carry out a survey of the Caribbean, the twelve Caribbean schools on the twelve islands, the same way as the one that was carried out in Canada. So I was sent down to do that, I got leave of absence with the CNA. And that led on to another one, then they wanted another one done in Europe, and then another one. The next was Africa, they wanted to set up a West African College of Nurses and get them together. So it all started through the World Health Organization. And the countries at that time would not accept a consultant that didn’t have a PhD or a doctorate, and that is why I got on all these ones. There were very few Canadians. I was the only one at the time. So I really was at the right place at the right time.

George Post: So it didn’t go back to some childhood experience of being keenly interested in geography, or loving maps, or something like that?

No. It was just that they wanted the survey done in the Caribbean the same as it was done (in Canada). And I said, “I don’t know if the CNA will let me go, what will happen”.  But they said yes, that I could go down, and I followed up for a couple of years, and that led on. I have done projects in 38 countries.  I have just listed them. They were not all surveys, some were different assignments. But there were 38 countries altogether that I visited and worked in. Mostly in nursing education that was my (specialty). Yes, it was great. I’ve been fortunate. Now there aren’t the opportunities, because there are so many more people who are well prepared to go. But then I was the only one that went popping around. And it had its difficulties too, you know, because I’d have the job in Ottawa and then I’d have to come back and pick up where I left off, you know what that’s like.

George Post: You clearly have enjoyed and made a great success of your career in nursing. Was there something that was particularly formative back at the Vancouver hospital, or your service in the military, that tipped you towards a determination to improve nursing, or improve nursing schools? Where did you get this sense of mission about the nursing profession?

Well, when I did this survey of schools of nursing across Canada, I got into that quite by accident too. But that started in 1957, to survey the 25 schools of nursing.  I didn’t want to do it, I was on the committee and I said, “No, no, no” I didn’t want to leave home, mother and dad weren’t well and so on…. Eventually you get worn down, and I said yes, I’d try. So that started in 1957, and it ended up in 1960 with the Pilot Project. It was the first survey that had been done of schools of nursing, and the hospitals where they got their training since the Weir Survey, the famous Weir Survey, in 1930. He was an educated scholar and he wrote this great report. I couldn’t do that kind of writing, but I just got to it and we did the survey, we had a committee. They sent me down to the United States to observe how the surveys of schools of nursing were done there, and that was key to my learning about it. I really would not have had the skills nor the vision of how to do it.

George Post: Had you already finished your courses at Columbia at this time? This was after your graduation in ’57?

Let’s see, in 62 I got my doctorate, and I did these things in between, I didn’t do it all at once. Yes.

George Post: It was coincident with your working on your doctorate.

Yes, right. What I was able to do for my doctorate, because it fits right in to that, is I was so interested in getting started. Once I had finished the survey of the schools of nursing in Canada in February, the meeting wasn’t until June and they had no money to pay me.  I didn’t want to go all the way home and have to come back, so I decided I’d go down to Columbia, because I’d been there before for my Master’s. Then I decided in 1960, when they accepted the report, that I’d go back and finish my doctorate. I didn’t have very much money, I knew how to make a choice between buying the book or a good meal, but you do it when you are young and it worked out quite well. So, the one survey then led on to all these other surveys, because people saw them and said, oh, that’s what we want in our country, and so on. It seems strange today in the year 2000, almost 2001, talking about it.  But we are now referring to the times when there was very little work going on, very few people that were prepared to do it, or people that had the skills to do it. We learned at University, of course, and at other places. I was just at the right place at the right time I guess.

George Post: But you must also have had a sense that there were changes to be made, or that the system did need to be upgraded and improved.and You’ve obviously absorbed, somewhere along your education and experience, some ability to be dissatisfied with poor standards.

Well, that’s interesting. Have you read that book that just came out called Critical Care by Andre Picard, who writes for the Globe and Mail? Well, he quoted me in there; I said “When I was writing the report of the survey of the schools of nursing across Canada, there were sparks coming out of my pen.” I had no idea that places that called themselves schools of nursing were just, well it was indentured labour, I’ve already used that. They just used the students to staff the hospital with. There was such little regard for their education, and they were housed in some of the poorest of circumstances. Not so in the west, but when you got to the Atlantic provinces and going into some little place in Quebec and so on, it was almost unbelievable. And no one could have done those surveys without being as, furious I guess is the word, as I was. That people would say they were educating nurses, and they were just tossing them on the ward to pick up the education they could. And a good Head Nurse was fined, and so on. Oh, it was very primitive, and I really did write with fire coming out of my pen. I couldn’t believe it. And that report really had an impact, because the documentation was all there, everything we saw was well documented, and we had teams of people in different places. And that did make a change. I always hate to admit it. But I wasn’t alone, it was all the people that worked on those surveys that made the change. And it was really quite dramatic when I look back at it, because we could still be struggling through these miserable hospital schools.

(Laughing) I was persecuted by the Hospital Association because they didn’t want to lose their schools. One, prestige, two, cheap labour. I went to one of their meetings, they’d always invite me to their meetings.  And at one meeting they talked about this woman that was going around preaching all this stuff about how terrible the hospital schools were, and she should be put in their place. And oh, they were going on. They didn’t even know I was sitting in the back. But they didn’t like me at all, the hospitals. Some of those administrators, for years after, never forgave me. It wasn’t just me, but I was a good target.

George Post: But that’s the sense of mission that is required for change to be brought about.

Oh, I almost could say I was passionate about it. It was so unbelievable what they were trying…   Now, some very good nurses came out of it, but that is because they were good intellectual people, or came from homes where there was a good intellectual atmosphere and so on. But certainly the educational system was poor by any standards and they got away with it. Until this project came up and revealed it all. And it was written in such a simple form; I look back on it now, I really couldn’t have made it simpler. I had my Master’s then, but I am really not a scholarly writer, I can write factually and I can do that reasonably well. But, well, the evidence was so clear. Anyone else could have done it but it just happened that I was selected and I was there. And one thing, I don’t have many strengths but if I have something to do, I put all my energy into getting it done, and then I rest back. Some people can take little rest pauses and so on, but I have to get it done.

At McGill University, in the late 1940’s, an active social life.

Maple Ridge

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.

Helen (the Wizard cat) and Jinx
Helen dressed as Wizard cat for a school play.
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.

Dr. Mussallem talks about her parents and siblings.

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.

Annie and Solomon Mussallem at the front of their house in Maple Ridge.
Annie and Solomon Mussallem at the front of their house in Maple Ridge.

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.

Mussallem store in Prince Rupert BC
Mussallem store in Prince Rupert BC

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?

Annie Mussallem in the garden.
Annie Mussallem in the garden.

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.

Solomon Mussallem
Solomon Mussallem business man and Reeve/Mayor of Maple Ridge for 18 years.

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.

Canadian Girls in Training CGIT float in a Maple Ridge Parade.

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…

World War II

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.

 Relaxing on the deck of the troop ship "The Empress of Scotland
Relaxing on the deck of the troop ship “The Empress of Scotland

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?

That’s right.

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.

Qualities of Leadership

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.

Solomon smoking the pipe of peace in front of the municipal hall.
Solomon smoking the pipe of peace in front of the municipal hall.

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.

Younger generations of the family

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.