Two P.E.I. Second World War veterans left their mark on the Senate

After crossing paths as air cadets and then aircrew in the Second World War, a pair of P.E.I. veterans later became Canadian Senators

Mary MacKay
Published on November 9, 2013
Retired Senator Archie Johnstone of Kensington looks back fondly at the many times he and the late Senator Orville Phillips crossed path.
Guardian photo by Mary MacKay

More than 70 years ago, two Prince Edward Islanders crossed paths at Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown.

It was a pattern that would be repeated many times over as their lives continued upon separate but sometimes very similar journeys through the Second World War and later when the two veterans were reunited in the common cause of their comrades when they were members of the Canadian Senate.

"We crisscrossed paths a lot," retired Island senator Archie Johnstone says of the late Orville Phillips.

Although both native Islanders - Phillips from O'Leary and Johnstone from Burlington -- the two were strangers to one another until the 1940s when they attended Prince Of Wales and spent two years in the same No. 60 Charlottetown air cadet squadron.

"Orville and I knew we had to do our part (for the Second World War so) the second year at Prince of Wales we went down to join up for the Royal Canadian Air Force, but I failed the medical so he got ahead of me by about four (months)," says Johnstone, who subsequently tried to enlist for the army and the reserve army but in both cases was turned down.

"So about four months out of Prince of Wales, I went to the recruiting office in Moncton where they accepted me and designated me for aircrew. Of course we all wanted to be pilots but because of my astigmatism the doctor said, ‘You'd land an aircraft 10 feet in the air or 10 feet underground,' so it was not thought that anybody would want to fly with me," he adds with a smile.

Johnstone became a Royal Air Force tail gunner in a four-engine Halifax bomber and upon arriving at Bomber Command in Yorkshire, England, Phillips was already flying there with a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber squadron.

Both Islanders knew that odds were against them and that one or perhaps both of them would not see home again.

"On arriving at the No. 76 RAF Squadron, our pilot called the crew together - all seven of us - and he said, ‘I have something to tell you, our chances of survival to the end of our tour are about 24 per cent. . . .' There was no use worrying, if orders were to go you went," Johnstone says.

"Orville and I were survivors, fortunately. We got back to Canada and were among the fortunate ones."

Phillips became a dentist and practiced for a time in Alberton, Summerside and then in Ottawa, Ont.

He was elected to the House of Commons numerous times and then summoned to the Senate in 1963 where he served for more than 30 years. His total period of parliamentary service was a record 41 years, nine months and 15 days.

As a senator Phillips championed a bill to support the fixed link to the mainland, lobbied for the $40 million GST centre in Summerside and worked diligently in support of the development in Slemon Park after the closure of Canadian Forces Base Summerside.

Meanwhile, Johnstone worked with his father to develop Woodleigh Replicas in Burlington and was president of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture and director of the Island Tourism Association.

He originated Rainbow Valley in 1963 and was also involved in wholesaling, heavy construction, road and boat building and other business ventures. He sold his interests in Woodleigh and Rainbow Valley in 1978 and 1979, respectively.

His final tourism venture was the Kensington Towers and Water Gardens, which he and his son Ronald started in the early 1990s. The three attractions combined hosted approximately seven million visitors during their periods of operation.

In March 1998, Johnstone was summoned to the Senate by then Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, where he was one of four representing P.E.I.

"When I walked into the Senate, there was Orville on the other side of the red carpet waving at me. I knew by the look on his face there was trouble coming," he chuckles.

"So the next day he took it onto himself to introduce me to the Senate. ‘Honorable Senators, I thought you should know that Senator Johnstone, who joined us in the House yesterday, and I both served in Bomber Command during World War Two. Johnstone served in the Royal Air Force, and I served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Johnstone wasn't good enough to serve with us.' "

With all the good-natured ribbing aside, it wasn't long before Phillips approached Johnstone with the proposal that he become deputy chair of the Senate sub-committee of Veterans Affairs of which Phillips was chair.

"Can you imagine how privileged we were? Here we were, both Second World War survivors, both in the Senate and privileged to be chair and deputy chair of the Senate sub-committee of Veterans Affairs," Johnston says.

The two veterans struck out to hear the neglected voices of institutionalized Canadian veterans across Canada to examine the quality of their facilities and care they were receiving.

"We started crisscrossing Canada, not for days, not for weeks, but for months. Senator Phillips and I, with our committee, by the end visited more than 70 per cent of all the institutionalized veterans in all of Canada," Johnstone says.

"When we got there we'd be seated around a big table and the wheelchairs would be circled around, occupied by veterans with (missing limbs) and the scars of war. Ever since the war ended they'd been there, for decades and decades, in these institutions, some dark and dreary. We would try to find out what we could do for them."

This was no easy task because the veterans refused to complain but with patience and persistence the two P.E.I. senators finally discovered that scores of things were either wrong or missing from the fellow veterans' care.

"They resisted at first. The thought was ‘Two senators coming down from Ottawa, what do they know about war? What do they care about us?' However, when we were introduced the atmosphere changed. ‘Oh, you were over there with us,' they said and they just crowded around us," Johnstone remembers.

"They were the greatest, most wonderful people you could have ever met. They had a right to be bitter but if they were they didn't reveal it to us."

In Feburary 1999 Senators Phillips and Johnstone, who would retire from the Senate in June of that year, released their report entitled Raising the Bar: Creating a New Standard in Veterans' Health Care.

It included 68 recommendations on the care of veterans, focusing on key areas such as the inclusion of veterans' facilities under regional health boards, the necessity of guaranteeing the availability of priority beds for the then 250,000 veterans of the Second World War and Korean War, and public misconceptions regarding veterans' pensions.

Approximately 95 per cent of the report's recommendations were implemented before Senator Phillips died on April 24, 2009 at the age of 85, dramatically changing the lives of institutionalized veterans.

"Orville Phillips was a fighter. He permitted no one to say as much as one word against veterans. He would lay it down and they'd listen," Johnstone says.

"Veterans had an excellent champion in Senator Orville Phillips."