BY ROBIN OAKLEY
Shunpiking Magazine May 2000 No 33
On March 20 - the first day of spring - a wonderful person passed away. His name was Ernest Grundy and he lived in Halifax for most of his adult life. I was fortunate to have known Ernie for over 15 years. I thought it would be of interest to the readers of shunpiking to learn a bit about Ernie's life, for he was an outstanding and cultured human being in his own right, who lived life to the full.
Born in Montreal, Ernie joined the Merchant Marine at age 11. Canada's Merchant Navy ferried supplies and personnel all around the world from ports in Sydney and Halifax. Seafarers manned over 450 Canadian ships during the war and, travelling over submarine-infested waters, braved many attacks. They suffered the highest death rate in the Canadian Service with 72 ships lost. Yet for decades they were not included in Remembrance Day Ceremonies; they were considered a civilian service. For over fifty years they have been persistently fighting to be treated in the same way as uniformed veterans.
Ernie's experiences during his tenure in the Merchant Navy constituted the staple of his stories. He first worked as a mess boy, "...a second steward, I only had one stripe." As he grew older, he worked in different capacities, from the engine room onto deck as an "able-bodied seaman," with time also as a Quarter Master, the person who supplies the light houses: "They sent us in small boats, sent someone ashore to fix the lighthouse so that they wouldn't have to man the light house."
Many of his journeys were between Halifax and England: "We took food to the soldiers during the war." He survived several dangerous incidents; in the Pacific he was stranded on a dingy for thirty days. He was captured: "I was a prisoner on a pocket battleship." After it was sunk, he and his mates were rescued by a group of British ships such as the Ajax, Achilles and Exeter. "That was a bad war. I saw ships go down and men burning to death in the sea."
He sailed on the treacherous Mur-mansk Run (developed after Hitler invaded Russia) and was hospitalised in Leningrad after injuries at sea. He had a chance to travel to Kiev, Dmelensk, Moscow and the Black Sea area in Turkey and Sebastopol. He loved the then-Soviet Union and its people and stayed with families who showed him enormous hospitality. So enchanted with Russia did he become that he tried to get a job in the Northern salt mines. But the sea called, and he went back to the Merchant Marine, carrying food and supplies to ports in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. He travelled to Borneo, Mozambique, South Africa, Egypt and Bombay, Calcutta and Madras in India.
So his experiences in the Merchant Marines were really significant for his identity. Ernest Grundy was awarded several service medals such as the Canadian Volunteer Service medal, the Victory Medal and the 3945 Star.
Most importantly, by interacting with so many people from different lands, he learned to be a social person, one who lives in the company of others and who puts oneself in the service of making a contribution to improving and advancing society.
Like many of his peers, when the government privatized the fleet after the war, he found himself unemployed, without the benefits other "regular" veterans received: low-income loans for home and business purchases, land grants, civil service jobs, free university education or on-the-job-training. Ernie moved through many different jobs, enduring the hardships of life. His wife and mother passed away on the same day. He worked as an unskilled labour, as a cleaner at the Halifax Law Courts for six years, and for the National Reefs as a cleaner for four years. In 1949 he earned 90 cents an hour working for Brookfield Construction, and later at Foundation Quarry earned $2.75 per hour, "the highest I ever got as a labourer in Halifax." Still he had no bitter or hard feelings about this world, except as concerns injustice, ignorance and man's exploitation of man.
The struggle of mariners to get the same benefits as veterans was an issue that Ernie involved himself in as much as he could, given his failing health. He actively attended the meetings of the Merchant Marine Association and followed the events of the organisation. He attended the unveiling of a monument on the Halifax waterfront to commemorate the contribution of the Mercant Marines. It was a proud day.
In 1992, after years of pressure and lobbying, they were granted full benefits. It was a pyrrhic victory. The government refused to compensate them for what they had lost over five decades. And many potential recipients were elderly and in ill health.
Ernie was very proud when his Merchant Navy peers - Ossie Maclean, Ward Duke and Randolph Hope - were forced to go on a hunger strike on Parliament Hill in 1998. They aimed to shame the Canadian Government, to underscore the fact that time was running out for the wrong to be set right. They said that the government was purposefully and coldbloodedly delaying payment so that the "problem" would be solved through attrition.
This February 1, George Baker, Minister of Veterans Affairs, announced a tax-free package payable to Merchant Marines (2,300 members) and their surviving spouses (about 7,300 individuals in total). The maximum package was a mere $20,000 for war-related service of more than 24 months. Yet Ernie expressed excitement in early March that he and his peers would be finally getting compensation, funds he hoped to use in order to improve his living conditions. Alas, it was too late.
There are many in downtown Halifax who would remember my friend. He woke up early in the morning and walked along Barrington to Scotia Square where he met many of his friends to engage in conversation and companionship. He lived for many years at Winnie's Lodge on Inglis Street and later on Sackville Street where he remained for the rest of his life. He lived in a tiny room, where he cooked with a microwave oven. He wasn't allowed to use a hot plate because the landlord was afraid of fire. He loved to sing, and played music in the afternoons and evenings. His favourites were Wilf Carter and Tex Ritter. On Sunday mornings he liked to go to the United Church for a breakfast; he enjoyed the sermons which, he said, focused on important social issues. He was very active at the Seaman's Mission, where he volunteered for many decades, making contributions of both money and labour to fishers and seafarers in need. In the fall of 1998 - at the age of 75 - he joined pickets at the Halifax Court to demand justice for the hook-and-line fishermen from Cape Sable Island. In his last years, he relied on help from his friends to manage while living all alone in his room. Some of them brought him food and supplies on a daily basis, others took him on outings, or spent time with him over a coffee or a meal.
His work and deeds in life were mirrored in those who attended his funeral; a large group of Merchant Navy people, numerous people from different churches he had worked with, not to mention many friends.
Although he was to turn 77 years old on May 18, he was a young man at heart. He learned Russian, Spanish and German during his travels, and loved to tell stories in all of them! He said to me recently, "I can tell you a lot of stories can't I? Do you ever get tired of me telling you these stories?"
But it was his words coupled with self-sacrificing deeds of compassion and humanity and an internationalist conscience which made Ernest Grundy a remarkable person who will be remembered fondly by all who knew him.
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