St. Stephen legion creating learning opportunity with new museum

Robert Fisher photo Paul (Trapper) Cane stands beside a display depicting his final jump as a paratrooper with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The equipment on the mannequin is the equipment he wore on that mission.

ST. STEPHEN – In a speech for King George V when he was touring war graves after World War I, Rudyard Kipling wrote:

“Standing beneath this Cross of Sacrifice, facing the great Stone of Remembrance and compassed by these sternly simple headstones, we remember, and must charge our children to remember, that as our dead were equal in sacrifice, so they are equal in honour, for the greatest and the least of them have proved that sacrifice and honour are no vain things, but truths by which the world lives.”

Paul (Trapper) Cane referenced that charge to children as a debt owed as a society to those who served, both living and dead. It is in that context that the Royal Canadian Legion St. Croix Branch 9 in St. Stephen is working to create a museum to honour those who served, teach current and future generations about the sacrifice of those who returned and who did not made, the sacrifices the families of those who served and continue to serve make, and work to repay that debt referenced by Kipling.

Cane, working with fellow veteran Don Koehler, has assembled and catalogued artifacts dating back to the Fenian raids of 1870 and the Boer War of 1899 to 1902.

The legion hall in St. Stephen has its own story as well, which includes the former Sergeant’s Mess at the RCAF Air Station Pennfield Ridge. The base operated as a training facility from 1941 until its closure in 1950. The mess building was disassembled, put on trucks and moved to St. Stephen where it was reassembled primarily by veterans of WWI, WWII and the Korean War, and serves as the legion hall today.

Soon after the hall was reconstructed, people began contributing artifacts.

“We have an incredible nursing collection,” said Cane.

Those artifacts will form the basis of the stories that will be told in the museum of the military history and contribution of St. Stephen from the Fenian raids to current day.

The idea for the museum came from the core mission of the Royal Canadian Legion to recognize service and remembrance of those who served. Cane noted the long history of the St. Stephen area of military service.

“This area is golden when it comes to the service and sacrifice of generations,” said Cane. Golden meaning simply the rich history of military service from the area.

Both Cane and Koehler have training in curation. Koehler worked as a logistics officer in the Royal Canadian Navy. While serving at the base in Esquimalt, “the museum was just over the hill from where I was,” Koehler explained. He always had an interest in naval history and began volunteering at the base museum. The experience he picked up there is now being put to service creating the museum in St. Stephen.

Cane was injured and forced to retire from active duty. He spent two years and underwent 19 surgeries recovering from injuries he suffered on a jump as a paratrooper in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. While recovering, he spent half-days in physiotherapy and half-days working in the base office. Like Koehler, Cane had always been interested in military history. He began by volunteering while stationed in Esquimalt. Eventually he was asked if he wanted to join the museum and began working his half-days there rather than the base office. Through that work, he was sent on courses to learn about collections and how the military museum system works.

The museum is being constructed in the basement of the building. While plans won’t see it fully complete until 2026, Koehler said the current schedule will see the museum open to the public later this year.

“Our plan, and plans change, is to have this space open on Remembrance Day 2023,” Koehler explained.

Cane explained they want to do the work in stages to make sure it’s done right. They don’t want to just put out a bunch of tables full of artifacts that have no reference to the history associated with them. Their goal is to tell the stories of the people.

“You never finish,” Koehler pointed out, about continuing work to recover the stories of the past and incorporate the stories of today, which will continue to be created.

“You’ve heard of Sisyphus?” he asked, only half-jokingly.

The project began in 2019 and got sidetracked for a couple years due to COVID.

“We carried on doing organizational work,” Koehler said, about that time and continuing to work on plans that could be enacted once the pandemic passed.

Cane spoke of the history and stories that have been lost because the work to preserve it wasn’t done in the past. He spoke of what he referred to as mile-longs – long, narrow panoramic photos of troops and regiments – where local soldiers are pictured but for which they have no names.

“Those stories are gone, but the detective work to try to put something together (continues),” said Cane, almost waxing philosophical. “What we’re doing now is catching up.”

The Doherty family and its contribution to local military history was brought up and Cane spoke of a young soldier named Hazen Doherty who, they’ve learned through their research, loved to race stock cars in St. Stephen before going off to war.

The hope of Koehler and Cane is that people will see the work they are doing and it will twig some memories in other locals who will come forward with stories and history that can be contributed to the museum.

“We’ve had a meeting with the head of the history department at St. Stephen High School,” said Koehler, of the teaching component they want to incorporate into the museum. He went on to suggest it may be possible the museum shares artifacts with the school and, in exchange, the students conduct research for the museum.

The legion would welcome volunteers to help with the construction and work to set up the displays. Those interested can contact the legion for more information.