Saturday, January 22, 2011

Canoe River BC

In November 1950 a troop train transporting Canadian Army troops for embarkation to Korea was in a collision with a passenger Continental eastbound. 21 people died in that collision, mostly troops of No.1 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery from Shilo, Manitoba and four railway employees. The collision occurred at Canoe River BC in the Rocky Mountains. The army and railway eventually charged a 22 year old telegrapher with manslaughter on the alleged basis of failure to transmit accurate orders. I remember the crisis in our family at that time because my dad had copied orders on that same troop train earlier the day before and it was not clear at that time where the fault lay! Remember at that time orders were telegraph orders. They were transmitted to the engineer on a paper slip attached to a hoop from the station as the train passed through, slowing down at the yellow light which indicated new orders, for which meet, and which siding to take. There was always the potential for disaster! The dispatcher in Winnipeg phoned my dad and said to seal his copy of the order for safe keeping. He was subject to immediate assessment by the railway inspectors. To the relief of all of us my dad's orders were alright! This tragedy was subject to a trial in BC and John G Diefenbaker assumed the defense of Jack Atherton, the young telegrapher,gratis, at the request of Mr.Diefenbaker's dying wife. Mr. Diefenbaker paid 1500 dollars in order to become a member of the BC bar for this occasion, and went through the bar examination where it was said the only question asked was to define a tort. John Diefenbaker succeeded in defense of the client whom he portrayed as a scapegoat for the prosecution. The death of so many was an incredible tragedy but he succeeded in laying the fault on the systems rather than the employee! In our family, at that time and after he became Prime Minister, no one could be considered greater than the man who served the sort of persons like us, the ordinary Canadians. When Mr. Diefenbaker died the people in our towns along the main line lined up for hours to salute the passenger funeral train as it passed by. The common touch is what distinguished him, and the things we valued!

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