Local author releases latest book based on father’s experiences

Janet Love Morrison has been a teacher at the Chief Gabriel Cote Education Complex (CGCEC) for the past three years.

Morrison is a published author, having penned seven published books to date, with her latest, The Hawk and The Hare, being number eight.

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Morrison spoke with the Kamsack Times about her latest work, and also a bit about how she came to be in the Kamsack area, after having travelled the world for 14 years, experiencing many cultures.

The following is an account written by Morrison.

“In 2017, I left my job in downtown Vancouver and moved to Saskatchewan to begin teaching at Chief Gabriel Cote Education Complex, a First Nation reserve school near Kamsack, a small community eighty kilometres from Saltcoats, where both of my parents were born. My first assignment was to teach Grades 8 and 9, and I had no idea what I was in for.

After one year, I discovered a remarkable coincidence. I’d returned to B.C. for the summer break and, while going through a trunk of my mother’s things, found a little black notebook I had never seen before. Going through its pages I realized that it was my father’s from the war. In it he had written the names of some of the men he fought with, and on the second page there it was: F.J. Cote L36956, Kamsack, Sask.

I was stunned and texted my principal, Jonas Cote, right away. Had I actually ended up teaching the descendants of soldiers my father fought with? I had been researching and trying to write the story of Ewen Morrison and the Rileys, but this discovery seemed like destiny. Who needs fiction? I had to believe that what I was doing was some form of karmic payback.

My father never talked about the war to me or my three siblings. Five years after the only occasion he mentioned his wartime First Nations’ friend to us, I travelled with my parents to Scotland. One afternoon in Edinburgh, he set out on his own to find a certain pub and the White family, but both were gone. Again, he didn’t explain.

A trip to Europe in 1985, during which I shared a few days on a tour bus with a group of Canadian veterans who’d been invited back to the Netherlands to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their liberation, made my curiosity about what had happened to my father grow. 

My mother had shared a couple of stories about my father’s war, particularly his scouting and reconnaissance experiences with a First Nations soldier from a reserve in Ontario. It was a miracle that he made it from Normandy to northern Germany; ten month without a wound. My mother implied that my father believed, as do I, that the skills this friend taught him are what helped to keep him alive. She had forgotten the name of the reserve and could not recall the soldier’s name. Even after extensive research, I have been unable to confirm who he was, so in this story I named him Reggie Johnson. I know he died sometime after October 1944 and that he had a brother, another volunteer, who also died in the war. My father told my mother about his friend’s premonition, his vision of his death, and that he had visited his friend’s mother after the war; these incidents are true.

When his time came, my father died from a heart attack. He was a man of love and I believe how he died symbolized his heart broken by the enormous pain of war that he could never release, because he knew it could destroy him as it had so many veterans. My father had to do terrible things as an infantryman and scout on the front line; he killed many men. After he passed in 1996, I was overcome with an intense desire to comprehend his wartime experiences, but I began my research only after my mother died in 2015.

Stan Overy, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry’s regimental archivist, was my first contact. Two weeks after my call, a USB of the Rileys’ complete War Diaries landed on my doormat.

In five years, I have made five trips to Europe: I travelled overland from London to Oldenburg, Germany; I walked on the stones at Dieppe and the sands of Juno; I toured battlefields from Normandy to the Rhineland and visited the museums of Westerbork Concentration Camp and Bergen-Belsen; I went to Caen, L’Abbaye d’Ardenne, Falaise, Y’pres, Arras, Antwerp, Groesbeek, Bergen op Zoom, Woensdrecht, Groningen. In each place, I met people who offered advice and suggested other places to visit and other leads to pursue. It was pure magic.

At Dieppe, after a rainy, stormy walk on the shoreline, I was sitting in a small restaurant. While I waited for the server, I pulled out a black-and-white photo of my father in his uniform from the pages of my journal. The server must have noticed it, because at the end of the meal he brought me an unordered cognac in a crystal glass, ‘On the house,’ he insisted. I tried to decline for this seemed like I was profiting from my father’s war. (Months later, a Swedish friend suggested that I get over it and allow people to give because perhaps it was a part of their healing.)

I met many wonderful people, who generously shared their stories with me, and they have been the inspiration for a number of characters. After spending time in Europe and learning how civilians survived under Nazi occupation for so many years, I wanted to honour them and those who fought for the Resistance; thus their stories are woven in.

Virry de Vries Robles’ and Micha Schliesser’s accounts of Westerbork Concentration Camp are true. My father’s company, D-Coy, was sent to guard the camp the day Westerbork was liberated. Ewen Morrison, Virry and Micha were all there on that day, but did they actually meet? Probably not and we’ll never know; however, I chose for them to meet. The first time I met Virry and her caregiver Karen at Café Blek in Amsterdam, Virry brought her yellow star. I touched the fabric and questioned if what I was creating was bringing back too much pain to those I needed to speak with. Virry told me I must write; the “Anne” in her story is Anne Frank. Micha has since passed.

I searched for a German soldier who fought against my father’s regiment. A conversation between friends in Sweden led me to meet Heike, Herbert Gatzsmaga’s daughter. His story of growing up as a child in the Nazi era is true, as are his wartime injuries and becoming a PW (prisoner of war). However, he was taken prisoner by the Americans in the Battle of Craigshelm, five hundred kilometres from Groningen. I have taken the liberty of transferring him to the Rileys, so that the two ordinary farm boys could meet. Herbert and Heike brought a wholeness to the story.

Rose was inspired by Rosemary Wilkinson, whom I met at the Military Museum in Calgary after my mother passed. She was my last connection with that generation of women who volunteered to do their bit so the boys could get back home. She passed in 2018.

My mother served in the CWAC (Canadian Women’s Army Corps) in the Netherlands and Germany, part of the Occupation Force. Before she died, Nan told me about a letter she had written for a young Canadian serviceman who had lost both his arms. For all her life, she said, she wondered what choice his Scottish fiancée had made.

Fern L’Hirondelle was inspired by Fernand Morais, a Métis Mi’Kmaq and Acadian from New Brunswick, who loved to fish.

I’d read about the battle of Verrières Ridge in Normandy and wanted to feel the land; there at the Troteval farm, I met Guy Frimout, who was four years old when the Canadians liberated the area.

In Belgium, I met Roland Demuth, who organizes the annual liberation commemoration events in Antwerp. He presented to me, posthumously on behalf of my father, a medal marking the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Belgium. For the past 15 years he had one extra medal to give out and after we met and he heard about Ewen and what I was researching, he chose to give it to me.

I owe so much gratitude to everyone who trusted me with their stories. You have been my teachers. And you provided me with a glimpse into the young lives of a generation of men and women who lived through the tumultuous period of the Second World War.

I would be remiss without making the following acknowledgements:

Dhyan Vimal patiently sat with me in Kuala Lumpur creating the outline and brainstorming themes back in 2015. He inspired me to live the creation from start to finish. Sandra Bijl, a friend from the Netherlands whom I met in Kuala Lumpur, drove me here and there, including Normandy and Verrières, generously helping me with my research. Through Karin Groothedde, another old friend from the Netherlands, I met Ben Wijnhoven, the owner of the Hotel de Wolfsberg in Groesbeek, where I would stay on three more trips. Ben introduced me to Jeanne Melchers, a Second World War historian from Groesbeek, who arranged for us to tour battlefields in her car with the hugely knowledgeable Marco Cillessen, also a historian.

I spent Christmas 2018 in Groesbeek at the hotel, and learned (from Marco) that the de Wolfsberg was in the same area that my father and D-Coy had spent Christmas 1944.

On the morning before I left, Ben and I sat down for a coffee. “Janet, you have made so many trips here and you have paid so much money,” he said. “What do you need? What can I do?”

I got teary-eyed. Then Ben said, “I’ll host a big party for the book!”

On that same trip, I had travelled to Bergen op Zoom and stayed at the Grand Hotel de Draak, where my father had spent Halloween in 1944. The hotel receptionist suggested I contact Paul Versijp, the city’s Head of Cabinet, who invited me to return the following year for their 75th anniversary celebrations to mark their liberation. In turn, Paul introduced me to Robert Catsburg, a local historian who took me through the Rileys’ contribution in the Battle of the Scheldt.

To stay at the Stad en Wal B&B on a street called Canada Lane and participate in the festivities was one of the great experiences of my life. I spent Halloween at the de Draak, seventy-five years after my father. Paul introduced me to Lisa Helfand, the Canadian Ambassador to the Netherlands, and Colonel Timothy R. Young, Canadian Defence Military Attaché to the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemborg.

In Bergen op Zoom I also met Her Royal Highness Princess Margriet, who was attending one of the ceremonies. In 1940 the Dutch royal family moved to Canada after the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and Princess Margriet was born there. She is very interested in what women did during the war, and it was such an unexpected delight to chat with her.

Colonel Young connected me with Joel Pedersen, a former soldier and Saskatoon police officer who holds the rank of Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) in the Canadian Army Reserves, one of only two First Nations CWOs in the country. Joel generously took the time to critique the manuscript from both a military and First Nation perspective. Candace Lee Lickers, Communications Officer for the Six Nations of the Grand River was sent the manuscript to critique out of respect for choosing the Six Nations Reserve.

Teaching at Chief Gabriel Cote Education Complex has been a gift. Some days it’s been extremely tough to work here as a non-Native, but Jonas always has my back and I’ve learned a great deal about the horror of residential schools from those who endured them, and about the generational trauma that continues today. In writing this book, my intent was to celebrate the friendship between a Native and non-Native soldier. If every non-Native teacher worked in a First Nation school, perhaps it would aid the healing between cultures, because the divide of racism, on both sides, remains deep.

In 2008, Cree elder Phil Mechuskosis L’Hirondelle gave me the spirit name, ‘Standing Tidal Horse Woman.’ It was a humbling experience and I’m still learning and growing and hoping I can live up to the name.

To my nephew Robert Gillespie and his wife D’arcy for their generous contribution to the book launch in the Netherlands, getting me there and financing the plaque and more.

To Lynn Duncan and Kilmeny Jane Denny of Tidewater Press, I owe a massive thank you. I wrote this in the truest voice I could; they are making it heard. As a storyteller I have done my best to weave my father’s journey and those he met within the historical record of the Second World War. They were ordinary people of diverse backgrounds and nationalities, forced to do their best in extraordinary times.

So many people who helped in researching and the creation of this book. To old friends and new friends and to my family far and wide, thank you. This is everyone’s book; it took an army to create,” concluded Morrison’s account.

About The Hawk and the Hare:Based on a true story

It is 1944 and the young Canadians of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry have had enough of drills and night marches and waiting. Private Ewen Morrison is 21 years old when he joins the regiment in Sussex and meets his new platoon, including Reggie Johnson, an indigenous soldier from Ontario’s Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve. His new friend supplements the army’s training with some of his own, helping to prepare Ewen for scouting missions against the enemy. Landing on Juno Beach, the men confront the brutal reality of war as they advance across northern Europe with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. Reggie’s bravery, skill and authority soon earn him a field promotion, but not necessarily the respect of all the men in his platoon.

Based on war diaries and regimental records, The Hawk and the Hare is inspired by the real-life experience of the author’s father. This is not the story of generals and officers, but of the men on the ground and the hardships they endured. Exploring themes of friendship, culture and valour, The Hawk and the Hare honours the young men who fought to liberate Europe in the final months of the Second World War.

This book covers not only the horrors of war that left many men with trauma to deal with, but also the deep friendships that developed which transcend culture.

This May, marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe. To commemorate this occasion, a book launch of The Hawk and the Hare by Janet Love Morrison will be held on May 2 at the Hotel Restaurant De Wolfsberg, Mooksebaan12, Groesbeek NL (www.wolfsberg.nl)

For more information please contact: Marco Cillessen: fam.cillessen@t-mobilethuis.nl, or

Ben Wijnhoven: ben@dewolfsberg.nl. Everyone is invited.

Morrison, author, editor and speaker runs an editorial and consulting service and maintains a blog on the Internet at janetlovemorrison.com.

Her earlier books include: The Lotus Farmer, Radar the Rescue Dog, Canada’s Legendary Ski Team-The Crazy Canucks, That which I can be, a journey with my Master and Whistler Reflections.

For both The Lotus Farmer and Radar the Rescue Dog, Morrison has presented author readings at the Kamsack branch of the Parkland Regional Library.