by Peter C. Conrad
As the war drew to an end, fewer aircrew were required. The result was the closing of air training schools as the BCATP curtailed operations. With the closing of the school at Estevan and the transfer of the personnel, The Estevan Mercury published a farewell article in February 1944:
“… as friends bid adieu to some 460 members of the RAF who left on a special train at 8:10 from the CNR depot, Estevan, on the first lap of the journey that will eventually take them home to the United Kingdom. The night was cold and shivering couples and groups stood in the dimness saying their good byes in the hope that peacetime would bring reunions. … As each transport arrived the men were handed a gift of cigarettes, fruit and a copy of “The Mercury” which officially bid them farewell with many messages expressing regret at their departure. Mayor H. Nicholson and H. A. Westergaard canvassed the town to raise the necessary funds to pay for the gifts, which, were handed out by a ladies’ committee. In addition, magazines were placed on the train.
“The Estevan Band under the direction of Bandmaster Johnston played in the depot waiting room, extreme cold preventing it from performing outside. Extra lights had been strung along to help illuminate the long string of fourteen cars, which, made up the train. On the outside of the centre was stretched a long streamer with the words ‘Bundles for Britain (priority).’
“In spite of the extreme cold a crowd estimated at 500 thronged the full length of the train, and with cars honking, good-byes being shouted and people waving, the train pulled out into the darkness with its tail lights gradually dimming until they had disappeared in the murk of the RAF.”1
The fact that there was much enthusiasm among the civilian population for the airmen and airwomen who were leaving demonstrated that there were generally good relations between the air stations and the nearby communities. The warm relations resulted from a patriotic sentiment and a feeling of good will among British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, Free French, Czechoslovakian, Norwegian, Polish, Belgian, Dutch, and Canadian airmen as well as the local residents.
Yet, newspapers across the West showed no signs of grieving at the closing of the schools. The reaction was to look to the future and make plans to consolidate the gains made during the war. Many of the air training facilities were to be reconstructed for civilian use. The North Battleford Optimist published a typical report about the local airport and it’s promising future if the population did not become complacent:
“By indifference to its great importance it can peter out into a mere subsidiary of the transcontinental airlines, which will crisscross the country. By concerted and aggressive action it cannot only be incorporated into the national and international air services but it can be developed into a primary base for northern air routes, which are at present in their infancy.
“What aviation has achieved in this war is something barely understood by the general public. Improved types of airplanes, radar control, radio beams, and broadened meteorological services spanning wide areas and distances, are but a few of the wonderful developments of the past few years.
“Some idea of these scientific improvements can be gained from one reference—Atlantic crossings. Before the war, the Atlantic was never flown during winter. Now crossings, which began in 1940 are only part of a vast Atlantic service of a routine character, carrying passengers, mail and cargo. By May, 1944, 15,000 trans-Atlantic crossings had been made with the loss of under half of one percent, and that in spite of an enforced radio silence to avoid interception by the enemy.”2
Although this was a common overstatement, the airports in many communities were used after the war. Even though the numbers of aircraft in the skies of the Prairies decreased dramatically, the main airfields became important for civilian purposes. Some of these airports acted as links in transcontinental air travel as it spread across the country immediately after the war. Later, when jet aircraft services were established, the importance of the many smaller air links was lost.3
The final parade in 1945 brings to a close the BCATP at Portage la Prairie. (PAM, Gingias, Charles J. 105)
The New Industry of the Air
In the West, there was respect for air travel before the war because aircraft serviced isolated communities across the Prairies and in the North. Many cities and towns had benefited from carriers like Canadian Airlines, Athabaska Airlines, and Prairie Airways. Even the smaller companies such as M. and C. of Prince Albert had played a role in aviation.
An important outcome of the war was the creation of Canadian Pacific Airways from ten smaller companies that had managed the air observer schools in 1942. The largest national airline, Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA) also had expanded as a result of the war. The number of passengers traveling on TCA had increased substantially. In 1939, the airline carried 21,569 passengers. This figure increased in 1945 to 183,121. This kind of increase was seen in the number of miles flown, with three million miles flown in 1939 and over 11.5 million in 1945. In the same period, the number of employees increased from 497 to 3,272. In addition, there was vigorous competition to establish routine flights in the Pacific. Domestically, Wardair was founded in 1946.4
In the postwar era, the exploitation of natural resources in western Canada helped to continue the economic growth that had begun in 1938, but it was the achievement of the Air Training Plan that brought about the maturity of the region.
End of Alienation
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan gave the western provinces many new facilities and a new confidence. It was, in fact, the contribution that the West made to the national war effort through the Plan that ushered in a new era of declining western alienation. Western alienation was an expressed feeling of being isolated from and exploited by the rest of the nation. This led to a sense of helplessness across the Prairies during the Depression. With the important contribution it had made to the Air Training Plan and its improved economy, the West no longer felt helpless. The Prairies had won a position in the Plan equal to that of any other region. It came out of the Second World War as an equal partner in Canada, a position it had been calling for since Confederation.
A Canadian Pacific Airlines aircraft is loaded in September 1949. (NMST 5583)
Further, the very nature of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan brought the Prairies out of its isolation. With the arrival of the trainees from many parts of Canada and from many different countries, residents of the western provinces were made more aware of the world around them. At the same time, the development of airports across the region brought improved air transportation. The airplanes were more effective than the trains the Prairies had previously depended on. Ottawa, which had been days away, only a few years earlier, was now only hours away.
With an end to the isolation of the Prairies and the new confidence that the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan had brought, the West was now far from the state of alienation it had been in before the war.
Notes for Chapter 14
The Plan’s Aviation Legacy
1. The Estevan Mercury, Feb. 17, 1944.
2. The North Battleford Optimist, March 22, 1945.
3. Greenhous and Hillmer, p. 143.
4. Philip Smith, It Seems Like Only Yesterday: Air Canada, the First 50 Years (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986), p. 83.