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Chubby's Air Force

The Royal Canadian Air Force celebrates its 75th anniversary this month, eerily coinciding with the NATO operation in Yugoslavia, the most dangerous action Canadian pilots and crews have seen since the Second World War.

The picky military historian will quickly point out that the RCAF actually ceased to exist in 1968, with the Trudeau government's armed forces unification program - "eunuchfication" to the satirists of the period.

That split hair aside, it's been 75 years since King George V gave his regal blessing to Canada's own air force, which was basically the re-organized remnants of the heroic, rag-tag bunch that flew for the Brits in the First World War.

Some 1700 Canadian fly-boys gave their lives for that cause, which, among a tangle of other nationalist feuds, had something to do with the Balkans, although in that conflict, Canadians were on the side of the Serbs. Looking back on the glorious past of the RCAF (and ignoring the nasty spat over Bomber Harris, the Valour and the Horror and the bombardment of Germany,) certain people come to mind who made a particularly significant contribution to the power and prestige of the service. Names like "Billy" Bishop, "Buzz" Beurling and "Chubby" Power.

Trivia buffs will easily get Bishop, Canada's top dog-fight ace in the First World War, with a reputed 72 kills. George Beurling might give others trouble. He was the Westmount, Quebec, native who almost single-handedly kept Malta out of Axis hands in 1942 with his fighter pilot heroics.

Chubby Power, though he never piloted an aircraft, had as much to do with the glory of Canada's air force as any one pilot. He is the man probably most responsible for turning Canada's air force into a credible, modern, and independent organization - and it all began with a controversial idea during the Second World War called Canadianization.

Charles Gavan Power, born of a prominent Irish family in Sillery, Quebec, was a wounded and decorated First World War veteran, bon vivant, natural born politician (his frank memoirs is titled A Party Politician), and, despite the tee-totaling Mackenzie King's reservations, the Minister of National Defense for Air (1939-44.)

It was Power who pushed through, despite the objections of the British and from within certain quarters of the Canadian military establishment, the creation of separate Canadian air squadrons. Prior to that bold act, most Canadian pilots and crew were trained in Canada and then farmed out to serve with RAF units around the planet.

Power, a passionate Canadian nationalist of the Wilfrid Laurier school, and a harsh critic of British military pomposity, was determined that Canadian pilots would have their own commanders, crews and squadrons. Much of the Canadianization of the air force was a matter of pride and independence, but there was also the very delicate matter of providing adequate information to anxious family members back home.

In his memoirs, Power mentions a letter sent to King in which he describes how the parents of a Montreal flier had received a cable from the RAF that their son had been killed. A formal notice followed from the Canadian government that the allowance the boy's mother was entitled to would be cut off. This kind of indignity, brought about by the confused channels of communication, prompted Power to stick to his guns with the British to secure greater control of Canadian forces.

By war's end, Canada had established a sizable network of air squadrons under Canadian command, serving in many theatres of the war. Thanks in large part to Power's perseverance Canada emerged from the war with the world's fourth largest air force.

The name Chubby Power can't be raised without a mention of what he did in late 1942. Outraged at the King government's decision to pursue conscription, he resigned from cabinet. Showing a keen understanding of French-Canadian sentiments, Power explained his resignation on the principle that conscription would create long-term resentment in Quebec, while to not pursue it would have little repercussions down the road in English-speaking Canada.

He wrote that conscription would produce in his home province "a Quebec bloc, wallowing in grievances and gloating in non-co-operation, a distrust of the other provinces, and a hate of Confederation."

CBC logo Peter Black is a writer living in Quebec City, where he is the producer of Quebec A.M. -- CBC Radio's popular English-language morning show (91.7 FM, 6-9, Mon.-Fri).

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