Lewis Urry was particularly proud of his life’s work at Christmastime.
The Canadian inventor of the modern-day battery powered the consumer electronics revolution that forever changed the holiday shopping season. The alkaline cell he created in 1957 brought portable power to the masses, making batteries a consumer staple used around the world.
The global market for household batteries is worth about $4.5-billion (U.S.) a year. A growing list of products ranging from toys to household appliances run on battery technology inspired by Mr. Urry’s innovation.
“He took special pride around Christmas, when there was a rush for batteries,” his son, Steven Urry, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper after his father’s death in October, 2004. “He didn’t brag on himself. It wasn’t until we got older that we realized what he had done.”
Consumers still gripe about limited battery life, but we live in a paradise of cheap, portable energy compared to the batteries available in 1955, when Union Carbide Corp., owner of the Eveready battery brand, brought the 28-year-old chemical engineer to its Cleveland-area lab from Toronto. There, Mr. Urry joined a team working to address this long-standing drawback of the technology, which dates back more than 200 years.
The very first battery was developed in 1799 by Italian inventor Alessandro Volta. Known as Voltaic piles, those batteries were stacks of different metals separated by brine-soaked paper that generated just enough electricity to operate simple mechanisms.
Just one of Mr. Volta’s batteries could be as big as a modern toaster, but only generate a weak current. Still, they proved that electricity could be generated chemically. Although the technology has evolved over the years, modern-day batteries still function in a similar way. They produce a current when an electrolyte material separates but connects two other materials: a cathode and an anode.
Over the next 150 years, an increasing number of devices were made to exploit the smaller batteries that were being developed by later scientists including Canada’s Mr. Urry.
Born in Pontypool, Ont., a village near the Kawartha Lakes, roughly 100 kilometres northeast of Toronto, Mr. Urry graduated from the University of Toronto in 1950 with a degree in chemical engineering. He had served in the Canadian military from 1946 to 1949, and joined Eveready right after graduation.
Speaking to the Associated Press in 1999, Mr. Urry explained that after moving to Cleveland he quickly abandoned the idea of working with the company’s preferred chemistry. Eveready made carbon-zinc-based power cells. They were stable and safe but had a weak charge that expired after a few minutes use with a motorized toy.
Instead, he followed earlier experiments with alkalines as the electrolyte to see if they could be made commercially viable. Manganese dioxide and solid zinc worked fine with alkaline, but Mr. Urry claimed his eureka moment was when he realized powdered zinc would allow for more surface area. He was testing these materials in a hollowed-out flashlight tube, working on the large D-cell-sized batteries most modern electronics eschew.
To prove that he had developed something special, in 1957 he put on a demonstration for R.L. Glover, Eveready’s vice-president of technology. He bought two electric cars, put his battery in one and a conventional cell in another, pitting them in a head-to-head race.
“Our car went several lengths of this long cafeteria,” Mr. Urry told the Associated Press during his induction to the Smithsonian Hall of Fame in 1999. “But the other car barely moved. Everybody was coming out of their labs to watch. They were all oohing and aahing and cheering.”
Mr. Urry’s prototype battery is housed in the same room at the Smithsonian Institute as Thomas Edison’s light bulb, along with the first commercially produced Eveready alkaline batteries, which went on sale in 1959.
Over the years, the company has wrung up to 40 times more battery life out of Mr. Urry’s design, and went through some dramatic changes of its own. In 1980, Eveready changed its name to Energizer. Years later, it debuted its signature pink bunny mascot.
For his part, Mr. Urry spent 54 years with the company, eventually becoming an American citizen. He collected more than 50 patents, including some on the lithium batteries that dominate digital cameras and make smartphones possible.
After retiring in 2003, he passed away in Cleveland the following year at the age of 77. He kept a low profile, but remains the pride of Pontypool.
“Lewis Urry’s intelligence and determination revolutionized the battery industry 50 years ago,” says Shawn Bhasin, Toronto-based marketing spokesman for Energizer. “We all need to be reminded that with hard work and persistence, anything is possible.”
Pa never had much compassion for the lazy or those who squandered their means and then never had enough for the necessities. But for those who were genuinely in need, his heart was as big as all outdoors. It was from him that I learned the greatest joy in life comes from giving, not from receiving.
It was Christmas Eve 1881. I was fifteen years old and feeling like the world had caved in on me because there just hadn’t been enough money to buy me the rifle that I’d wanted for Christmas. We did the chores early that night for some reason. I just figured Pa wanted a little extra time so we could read in the Bible.
After supper was over I took my boots off and stretched out in front of the fireplace and waited for Pa to get down the old Bible. I was still feeling sorry for myself and, to be honest, I wasn’t in much of a mood to read Scriptures. But Pa didn’t get the Bible, instead he bundled up again and went outside. I couldn’t figure it out because we had already done all the chores. I didn’t worry about it long though, I was too busy wallowing in self-pity. Soon Pa came back in. It was a cold clear night out and there was ice in his beard. “Come on, Matt,” he said. “Bundle up good, it’s cold out tonight.” I was really upset then. Not only wasn’t I getting the rifle for Christmas, now Pa was dragging me out in the cold, and for no earthly reason that I could see. We’d already done all the chores, and I couldn’t think of anything else that needed doing, especially not on a night like this. But I knew Pa was not very patient at one dragging one’s feet when he’d told them to do something, so I got up and put my boots back on and got my cap, coat, and mittens. Ma gave me a mysterious smile as I opened the door to leave the house. Something was up, but I didn’t know what.
Outside, I became even more dismayed. There in front of the house was the work team, already hitched to the big sled. Whatever it was we were going to do wasn’t going to be a short, quick, little job. I could tell. We never hitched up this sled unless we were going to haul a big load. Pa was already up on the seat, reins in hand. I reluctantly climbed up beside him. The cold was already biting at me. I wasn’t happy. When I was on, Pa pulled the sled around the house and stopped in front of the woodshed. He got off and I followed. “I think we’ll put on the high sideboards,” he said. “Here, help me.” The high sideboards! It had been a bigger job than I wanted to do with just the low sideboards on, but whatever it was we were going to do would be a lot bigger with the high side boards on.
After we had exchanged the sideboards, Pa went into the woodshed and came out with an armload of wood – the wood I’d spent all summer hauling down from the mountain, and then all Fall sawing into blocks and splitting. What was he doing? Finally I said something. “Pa,” I asked, “what are you doing?” “You been by the Widow Jensen’s lately?” he asked. The Widow Jensen lived about two miles down the road. Her husband had died a year or so before and left her with three children, the oldest being eight. Sure, I’d been by, but so what? Yeah,” I said, “Why?”
“I rode by just today,” Pa said. “Little Jakey was out digging around in the woodpile trying to find a few chips. They’re out of wood, Matt.” That was all he said and then he turned and went back into the woodshed for another armload of wood. I followed him. We loaded the sled so high that I began to wonder if the horses would be able to pull it. Finally, Pa called a halt to our loading, then we went to the smoke house and Pa took down a big ham and a side of bacon. He handed them to me and told me to put them in the sled and wait. When he returned he was carrying a sack of flour over his right shoulder and a smaller sack of something in his left hand. “What’s in the little sack?” I asked. Shoes, they’re out of shoes. Little Jakey just had gunny sacks wrapped around his feet when he was out in the woodpile this morning. I got the children a little candy too. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a little candy.”
We rode the two miles to Widow Jensen’s pretty much in silence. I tried to think through what Pa was doing. We didn’t have much by worldly standards. Of course, we did have a big woodpile, though most of what was left now was still in the form of logs that I would have to saw into blocks and split before we could use it. We also had meat and flour, so we could spare that, but I knew we didn’t have any money, so why was Pa buying them shoes and candy? Really, why was he doing any of this? Widow Jensen had closer neighbors than us; it shouldn’t have been our concern.
We came in from the blind side of the Jensen house and unloaded the wood as quietly as possible, then we took the meat and flour and shoes to the door. We knocked. The door opened a crack and a timid voice said, “Who is it?” “Lucas Miles, Ma’am, and my son, Matt, could we come in for a bit?”
Widow Jensen opened the door and let us in. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The children were wrapped in another and were sitting in front of the fireplace by a very small fire that hardly gave off any heat at all. Widow Jensen fumbled with a match and finally lit the lamp.
“We brought you a few things, Ma’am,” Pa said and set down the sack of flour. I put the meat on the table. Then Pa handed her the sack that had the shoes in it. She opened it hesitantly and took the shoes out one pair at a time. There was a pair for her and one for each of the children – sturdy shoes, the best, shoes that would last. I watched her carefully. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling and then tears filled her eyes and started running down her cheeks. She looked up at Pa like she wanted to say something, but it wouldn’t come out.
“We brought a load of wood too, Ma’am,” Pa said. He turned to me and said, “Matt, go bring in enough to last awhile. Let’s get that fire up to size and heat this place up.” I wasn’t the same person when I went back out to bring in the wood. I had a big lump in my throat and as much as I hate to admit it, there were tears in my eyes too. In my mind I kept seeing those three kids huddled around the fireplace and their mother standing there with tears running down her cheeks with so much gratitude in her heart that she couldn’t speak.
My heart swelled within me and a joy that I’d never known before, filled my soul. I had given at Christmas many times before, but never when it had made so much difference. I could see we were literally saving the lives of these people.
I soon had the fire blazing and everyone’s spirits soared. The kids started giggling when Pa handed them each a piece of candy and Widow Jensen looked on with a smile that probably hadn’t crossed her face for a long time. She finally turned to us. “God bless you,” she said. “I know the Lord has sent you. The children and I have been praying that he would send one of his angels to spare us.”
In spite of myself, the lump returned to my throat and the tears welled up in my eyes again. I’d never thought of Pa in those exact terms before, but after Widow Jensen mentioned it I could see that it was probably true. I was sure that a better man than Pa had never walked the earth. I started remembering all the times he had gone out of his way for Ma and me, and many others. The list seemed endless as I thought on it. Pa insisted that everyone try on the shoes before we left. I was amazed when they all fit and I wondered how he had known what sizes to get. Then I guessed that if he was on an errand for the Lord that the Lord would make sure he got the right sizes.
Tears were running down Widow Jensen’s face again when we stood up to leave. Pa took each of the kids in his big arms and gave them a hug. They clung to him and didn’t want us to go. I could see that they missed their Pa, and I was glad that I still had mine. At the door Pa turned to Widow Jensen and said, “The Mrs. wanted me to invite you and the children over for Christmas dinner tomorrow. The turkey will be more than the three of us can eat, and a man can get cantankerous if he has to eat turkey for too many meals. We’ll be by to get you about eleven. It’ll be nice to have some little ones around again. Matt, here, hasn’t been little for quite a spell.” I was the youngest. My two brothers and two sisters had all married and had moved away.
Widow Jensen nodded and said, “Thank you, Brother Miles. I don’t have to say, May the Lord bless you, I know for certain that He will.”
Out on the sled I felt a warmth that came from deep within and I didn’t even notice the cold. When we had gone a ways, Pa turned to me and said, “Matt, I want you to know something. Your ma and me have been tucking a little money away here and there all year so we could buy that rifle for you, but we didn’t have quite enough. Then yesterday a man who owed me a little money from years back came by to make things square. Your ma and me were real excited, thinking that now we could get you that rifle, and I started into town this morning to do just that, but on the way I saw little Jakey out scratching in the woodpile with his feet wrapped in those gunny sacks and I knew what I had to do. Son, I spent the money for shoes and a little candy for those children. I hope you understand.”
I understood, and my eyes became wet with tears again. I understood very well, and I was so glad Pa had done it. Now the rifle seemed very low on my list of priorities. Pa had given me a lot more. He had given me the look on Widow Jensen’s face and the radiant smiles of her three children.
For the rest of my life, whenever I saw any of the Jensens, or split a block of wood, I remembered, and remembering brought back that same joy I felt riding home beside Pa that night. Pa had given me much more than a rifle that night, he had given me the best Christmas of my life.
Thanks to Brainjet for this collection: http://www.brainjet.com
We Canucks have a lot to be proud of. Besides hockey, of course, we have given the world a lot of helpful things that are still very relevant today. Here are 17 more reasons to love our great country!
The rest of the world hasn’t really jumped on the poutine train yet, but that’s their problem? The delicious cheese curd and gravy-topped french fries snack can be found all across Canada in most fast food chains. All Canucks should praise Quebec for creating this food masterpiece.
If you played with walkie-talkies as a kid, you have Canadian inventor Donald Hings to thanks. When created in the 1930s, they were originally known as a “Packset.” But, walkie-talkie sounds ballin’.
3. Tim Hortons
We have Ontario, Tim Horton, and Jim Charade to thank for those double doubles that keep us going during the day.
4. The Snowmobile
Basically any invention that deals with snow should automatically be attributed to Canada. The snowmobile is no exception. It was invented in 1925 by Joseph-Armand Bombardier. How did people get by without it?
5. The Goalie Mask
Like snow inventions, we pretty much own hockey and everything related to it. In 1959, Jacques Plante was the first goaltender to create a practical mask. His was made out of contoured fiberglass and it has evolved into the caged helmet we know today.
Movies come to life thanks to IMAX. The new film format was invented by filmmakers Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroiter and Robert Kerr in 1967.
7. The Cardiac Pacemaker
After a lifetime of eating poutine, you might need a pacemaker, another Canadian invention. It was invented by John Hopps, “the father of biomedical engineering in Canada.”
8. The Wonderbra
The world should give us a big ol’ Canadian thank you for one of the most popular push-up bras. The Canadian Lady Corset Company in Montreal first trademarked “wonder-bra” in 1939. The company later changed its name to Wonderbra in 1961.
9. Paint Roller
The paint roller was for sure invented by Canadian Norman Breakey in 1940. But American inventor Richards Adams added a few small changes and filed the patent first. What a snake!
10. Peanut Butter
What would your PB&J sandwich be without the PB, eh? Americans like to lay claim to bringing peanut butter to the masses, but it was Montreal native Marcellus Gilmore Edson who first patented the treat in 1884.
11. The BlackBerry
The door to the smartphone world was opened by Canadian Mike Lazaridis when he invented the BlackBerry wireless device. Due to the success of the phone, Lazaridis is ranked as the 17th wealthiest Canadian.
Insulin is probably one of the most important inventions to come out of Canada (besides hockey of course). The diabetes treatment was invented by Dr. Frederick Banting in 1922.
It’s a bird, it’s Air Canada, no, it’s Superman! The famous superhero was created by American writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian-born artist Joe Shuster in 1932. So we get half credit, eh?
14. Trivial Pursuit
A question from the orange category — What famous board game was invented by Canadians and is now enjoyed worldwide? Yes, Trivial Pursuit! It was created by Montreal Sports editor Scott Abbott and Chris Haney in 1979 when they couldn’t find all the tiles for Scrabble.
15. Instant Replay
Can you imagine what hockey (heck, any sport) would be like without instant replay? Brutal, eh? The first ever instant replay was created using a kinescope during CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada.
16. McIntosh Apples
Without McIntosh apples would Macintosh computers even exist? Probably not. With that logic, we have farmer John McIntish to thank for both when he grafted a wild apple tree in 1811.
17. Garbage Bags
Glad garbage bags has Harry Wasylyk to thank for their success. With help from Larry Hansen, he created a disposable polyethylene stretchy bag that was intended for hospital use, but quickly became a household staple.
It was an opportunity. It was slavery. Some believe indentured servitude provided passage to the New World. It’s been referred to as white slavery as well as simply a business opportunity. Whether it was a form of welfare or a chance to pay off debt depends on the situation and whom you ask.
In the beginning, settlement of British North America was not the goal. Early traders had a lucrative business going with the natives and there was concern that settlers might interfere. In time though Britain came to realize the best way to protect this piece of prime real estate was to populate it. That proved easier said than done. It was costly to cross the Atlantic, and those who could afford passage were not really the class of people needed.
Strong men were needed willing to swing an axe all day, consider oxen their best friends and survive winters on little food. Women who would tolerate such men, not be opposed to swinging an axe and befriending oxen, would also be welcome.
Farmers, blacksmiths, and innkeepers all needed apprentices, people that would learn their skills and carry them on. At the same time England, Ireland and Scotland had swarms of unemployed due to the Industrial Revolution. Their streets, poor houses, orphanages and prisons were overflowing with homeless people. What to do with them was an ongoing debate. Shipping them to the colonies was a solution for both sides of the ocean.
Indentured labour was a form of contract employment usually with a three- to seven-year time frame. A person became an indentured servant by agreeing to work off a debt during a specified term. “Debt slaves” is another phrase to describe the arrangement, especially in the case of prisoners and youth who had no choice and no other opportunity to repay the debt.
Supporting a family was not only difficult in the United Kingdom, it remained a challenge in the New World. Since Ontario did not have “Poor Laws” (legal obligation for municipalities to care for the local poor) couples with a large number of offspring might make arrangements for a child to be indentured.
A farmer unable to provide farms for all his children might arrange to have one or more of them indentured to a large local land owner. The agreement might include land for a young man who worked to the completion of his term, or domestic service for a daughter.
One estimate claims half of the white settlers of North America were indentured servants. Destitute, they agreed to work for the purchaser of the indenture upon arrival in this foreign land. Jim Struthers, chairman of the Canadian Studies Department at Trent University, says that employers in Upper Canada used indentured servitude as a means of maintaining a labour force. It was a legal contract that held people to a particular employment, to a place, at least long enough to pay back the initial cost of the passage. Some contracts were similar to apprenticeships while the terms of others were harsh. Some felt indentured servants were treated worse than slaves. They only needed to keep the worker alive for the term of the contract; if they died shortly after, it was not their loss. Contracts varied from situation to situation with no standard form. Permanent employment, a learned skill, the promise of land, tools, any and all of these might be promised for those who stayed for the duration of their contract.
While women were in great demand in Upper Canada, the only category open to a single woman who wished to travel to Canada was domestic servant. Jane Ralston arrived in Upper Canada in the 1850s at the age of sixteen. As the daughter of parents too poor to care for her in a village that offered no employment opportunities, she had been indentured to a master in St. Thomas. Unhappy with her treatment in his household, she ran away. Fugitive notices for runaway “white slaves” were not uncommon; however, Europeans did not stand out in a crowd, as did African slaves, and it was easy for them to simply disappear. Jane made her way to Niagara Falls and married Samuel Hall, a black fugitive slave from the American south. Together they operated a hotel in the Niagara Falls district and provided carriage transportation for tourists.
“It was a way to provide for children,” says Larry Hall, descendant of Samuel and Jane. He says while they know little of how arrangements were made, they do know that both Jane’s family and her master’s family in St. Thomas had originated from the same village in Scotland.
“It was a widely used device in Great Britain. They had a number of ways for getting rid of surplus.”
Eventually Upper Canada’s population grew and businesses expanded, creating job opportunities, reducing the need for indenture to ensure a work force. People came as indentured servants, they stayed and their stories are woven into the fabric of our history, our legends, our lives.
This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 50, Summer 2005. Copyright June Payne Flath.
Amid the blasting bombs, lifeless bodies, and muddy trenches of the Great War, bright red poppies flourished in Flanders Fields, Belgium. This sight inspired a poem that moved the British Empire. Now, each Remembrance Day, many people wear the blood-red flower (albeit artificial ones) to honour those who died at war. Here’s how the poppy became an enduring symbol.
Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was serving as medical officer in Belgium when he wrote “In Flanders Fields.” A friend had just died from wounds sustained on the battlefield, and, in May 1915, as he awaited the wounded from nearby Ypres, he drew inspiration from the blood-red poppies that grew in the region. London magazine Punch published McCrae’s work in December 1915 and it quickly became one of the most popular war poems.
Two days before the Armistice, American humanitarian and academic Moina Michael read McCrae’s poem while on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters in New York. Servicemen would go there to say goodbye to family and friends before heading overseas. Inspired by McCrae’s poem, Michael wrote her own called, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” in which she vows to wear the poppy to remember the war dead: “And now the torch and poppy red, we wear in honor of our dead.”
In 1920, Anna Guérin, a French woman, was inspired by Michael’s idea to make poppies a memorial flower. Soon after, Guérin made red silk poppies and sold them in Britain to raise money for the Earl Haig Fund in support of former soldiers and the families of those who died during the war. The newly formed British Legion sold nine million of the poppies on November 11 of that year, raising more than 106,000 British pounds.
Guérin convinced the Great War Veterans Association of Canada to use the poppy as a symbol of remembrance while fundraising, which it first did on July 5, 1921.
By 1922, poppies distributed in Canada were made by disabled veterans, via the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment.
On Remembrance Day in 1933, the Co-operative Women’s Guild — an organization in Great Britain that encourages and educates women — distributed the first white poppies to challenge the continuing push for war. A year later, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) started distributing the white poppies and still does today. Although the PPU says the white poppies aren’t meant to insult the war dead, many view them as disrespectful.
From 1980 to 2002, poppy centres were green. The colour reverted to black to better represent the colour of the poppies in Flanders. Over the years poppies have been made from different materials. In the United Kingdom, early poppies were made from silk but now are made from paper, whereas in the United States wearing fake flowers on Remembrance Day never took off. In Canada, our weather makes plastic a better medium.
Today, the Royal Canadian Legion holds its Poppy Campaign from the last Friday in October to Remembrance Day. The money raised from this campaign provides financial assistance to veterans, funding medical equipment, research, home services, long-term facilities, and more. The campaign raises about $14 million annually from donations.
In the wee hours of Friday morning, October 7, 1859, when all the good residents of Charlottetown should still be sleeping in their beds, a deep bell tone was heard from the bell tower in St. James Church. The somber sound rang out over the rooftops, waking many with the unexpectedness of its doom-laden ring. Then a second toll rang slowly overhead, followed by a third.
Bewildered by the unexpected tolling of the bell, two neighbors who lived near the church hurriedly joined forces in the road outside their homes and went to investigate. Above them, the bell tolled for the fourth time, and again for the fifth time.
As they entered the church yard, the bell tolled for the sixth time, and the front doors of the church swung open with a windy blast. Framed in the doorway were three glowing women dressed all in white. The men gasped, unsure if they were seeing real women, or angels. Overhead, the bell tolled for a seventh time and the doors slammed shut as quickly as they had opened. The men raced to the doors and tugged on the handles, but they were firmly locked. When they peered through the windows, the men saw a glowing woman in white ascending the stairs to the belfry.
The minister and the sexton arrived at that moment, demanding to know what the disturbance was about. The neighbors told the new arrivals what they had seen, and the minister unlocked the door to the church. As they entered the vestibule, they saw no sign of the women the neighbors had seen in the doorway. A quick glance through the church revealed not a living soul.
As the men ascended toward the belfry, the bell tolled for the eighth time. They ran up the stairs, determined to confront the culprit and demand and explanation. When they reached the top, they found the belfry empty and the bell rope tied firmly in place, though the metal of the church bell was still vibrating slightly.
Puzzled and frightened, the minister and his companions searched the church from top to bottom, but it was completely empty. As the bell gave no further sign of tolling, the men left the church, mystified by what had happened.
That evening, the local passenger steamer between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island – called the Fairie Queene – failed to arrive. The people of Charlottetown learned a few days later that the ship had sunk, killing the eight passengers who had boarded her that day. It is said that the bell of Saint James Church tolled eight times on the day of the disaster, thus foretelling the doom of the five men and three women who would board the Fairie Queene later that day.
Coming Soon, November 2016
A teenager’s unique coming of age tale on an epic 1,500-mile cattle drive through the vast primordial wilderness of 19th-century British Columbia
LOOSELY based on an actual cattle drive from Hanceville, British Columbia, to Canada’s remote Yukon Territory, this fictional tale pits 17-year-old Cory Twilingate against the 19th-century wilderness in order to save his father’s cash-strapped ranch.
Accompanying him on this epic adventure is the ranch foreman, “Reb” Coltrane, a ruggedly handsome cowpoke from down Texas way, and together they form a bond that is both steadfast and enduring.
Shiwak would impress all as an exceptional scout and marksman. One officer would call him the best sniper in the British army.
John Shiwak (Sikoak), Inuit hunter, trapper, and soldier; b. February or March 1889 in Rigolet, Labrador, eldest son of John Shiwak and Sarah Susanna —; d. unmarried 20 or 21 Nov. 1917 near Masnières, France.
A doctor with the Grenfell Mission in Labrador, Harry Locke Paddon, apparently changed the Shiwaks’ surname arbitrarily from Sikoak, which means “relating to thin ice.” The Shiwak family lived at Cul-de-Sac, near Rigolet, at the narrows to Lake Melville. Little is known of the early years of John Shiwak Jr, but it may be assumed that, like his male peers, he learned the practical skills required for northern living, including use of the boat, dog-team, and rifle, and perfected his competence by hunting, fishing, and trapping. Swatching, or shooting seals in open water as they briefly exposed their heads to breathe, provided unparalleled training for a future military sharpshooter.
Information on Shiwak’s life comes largely from the accounts of novelist William Lacey Amy, who met Shiwak in August 1911 on the coastal steamer from St John’s to Rigolet. Shiwak had left home in 1901 to seek his fortune. He may have worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which operated a fur and salmon factory at Rigolet and seasonally employed many local workers, including John’s younger brothers Wilfred and William. Amy noted that John worked during the summer for a doctor (most likely Paddon) and that, for several winters prior to enlisting, he trapped. One year Shiwak trapped on the thirds, that is, he leased a trapline – the Groves Point trapline on Goose Bay from prominent settler-trapper John Groves – in exchange for one-third of the catch. His trapping during the winter of 1910–11 financed the trip on which he encountered Amy.
Following their meeting, the two corresponded regularly and Amy came to characterize the self-taught Shiwak as a natural artist and writer. According to Amy, Shiwak mentioned in his letters his desire to be a soldier. This ambition may have been kindled by his excursion (or excursions) to St John’s, by Harry Paddon’s patriotic zeal, or by his involvement with the Grand River or Mud Lake branches of the Legion of Frontiersmen, a British paramilitary corps founded in 1904 and established in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1911. After the outbreak of World War I, Shiwak’s enthusiasm enabled him to persuade two other local Inuit and a white man to enlist. Altogether, more than 60 Labrador men would serve in the war; Shiwak was one of five from the Lake Melville area to be killed.
Slight of build – he was five feet five inches in height and weighed 132 pounds – Shiwak enlisted on 24 July 1915 in St John’s in the Newfoundland Regiment. Following training in Scotland, he reached the front in France on 24 July 1916, three weeks after the regiment’s devastating losses at Beaumont-Hamel (Beaumont). During the next 15 months of hellish trench warfare, Shiwak would impress all as an exceptional scout and marksman. One officer would call him the best sniper in the British army; Shiwak’s actions in this difficult business earned him promotion to lance-corporal on 16 April 1917. In his letters, however, he confessed that he could not understand the steady killing. At least one card was sent from France to “My Dear Louisa,” of whom Shiwak thought “every Day even when I am in the line.” The recipient was almost certainly Louisa Flowers of Valley Bight on Lake Melville, whose mother opposed her engagement to Shiwak.
Shiwak’s background may explain his initial shyness with other soldiers. Eventually, however, he made friends, among them Newfoundlander Howard L. Morry, whose unpublished memoirs describe their relationship in France. Morry remembered “Johnny Shirvack” as “a sniper and a good one. He was shy and lonely but I got to be quite friendly with him by talking of seal hunting, etc. We’d talk for hours and often he’d say will it ever be over. He sure was a great shot and had a lot of notches on his rifle. He said sniping was like swatching seals.”
Shiwak’s final months were shrouded in despondency and loneliness, emotions that increased following the death of a close friend and former trapping companion, possibly William McKenzie of Rigolet. On 20 Nov. 1917 – one witness later recorded the 21st – Shiwak and six others were killed by an exploding shell during an attack on the village of Masnières, in the battle of Cambrai. Buried in the village, Shiwak received the British War and Victory medals.