Sadly, my grandfather died last weekend at the very impressive age of 97 (and a half). He will be remembered and missed for the love, strength and support that he gave his family and friends, for the many great contributions to the Canadian mining industry during his long life, and also for his selfless service in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II.
He had many great loves, including, in no particular order, his beloved wife Jean, golfing, fishing, mining, family, Scotch whiskey, and Queen and country.
Although my Nana died when I was in middle school, I still remember the deep love and devotion that she and Papa had for each other that shone through whenever they were together.
When wintering in Florida, he and Nana rarely missed a day of golf, and he took it upon himself to try to teach each of his grandkids a few tricks of the trade. I remember clearly the day he called (I was around 14) and said, “Karyn, I need you to come over.” He sat me down in his den to watch a video – something like Arnold Palmer’s Guide to the Perfect Swing – and then returned and asked, “So, did you get all that?” (“NO!?”). Then he took me to the backyard, strapped me into a straitjacket-like device that pinned my upper arms to my sides to help me maintain perfect form, and attempted to perfect my golf swing. (It didn’t work.) After a few hours of that, he took me to a mini-golf course (“AHA!” I thought. “Back in my comfort zone!”) where he proceeded thoroughly trounce me.
As a salmon fisherman, he was also untouchable, and enjoyed many trips to salmon rivers around North America.
At 95 he went on his last fishing trip and caught a huge salmon – checking their carefully-kept records (dating back generations), the fishing lodge was able to confirm that he was in fact the oldest person to have caught a salmon of that size.
Papa devoted the majority of his working life to mining, and was a giant of the Canadian mining industry.
Papa was inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame in 2001, and proudly wore his Mining Hall of Fame pin on the lapel of the suit jacket that he invariably wore whenever he left his bedroom. His biography on the Mining Hall of Fame website reads as follows:
A hands-on approach to problem-solving, forged in both war and peace, enabled William Guy Brissenden to master repeated challenges during a lengthy career spent mostly with Noranda. His extraordinary skills surfaced as a member of the management team that successfully developed Gaspé Copper’s mine, mill and smelter at Murdochville, Quebec. He led Noranda’s team when it acquired control of Brunswick Mining and Smelting, and helped it become the major zinc-lead producer in eastern Canada. A champion of safety and technical innovation, Brissenden is particularly noted for initiating the trackless room-and-pillar mining method, as well as the mechanized cut-and-fill system. On the metallurgical front, he convinced Noranda’s Board to invest in new technology that extended the life of the Horne smelter in Quebec.
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Brissenden obtained a B.Sc. degree in mining engineering from McGill University in 1937, followed by an M.Sc. in 1938. As a naval officer during the Second World War, he solved secret technical problems that helped win the Battle of the Atlantic.
Brissenden joined the Noranda group in 1948 as a mine superintendent and was soon noticed for his ability to grasp and evaluate information and recommend action. His first challenge came at Gaspé Copper, which was then wrestling with how to mine its huge, low-grade underground deposits at a profit. After intensive study, a room-and-pillar method was chosen as the method best suited for the tabular, gently dipping orebodies. Brissenden was the chief architect of the method, which proved so successful that engineers came from around the world to study the operation. The mine operated for 44 years, providing much-needed employment and benefits to the Quebec economy.
At Brunswick, he introduced a mechanized cut-and-fill mining system that allowed production to be increased to 7,500 tonnes per day from 4,500 tonnes. He also converted the Imperial smelting furnace at Belledune to a lead smelter, and implemented environmental improvements at all metallurgical plants.
In the early 1970s, researchers developed a unique concept for continuously smelting copper concentrates. Brissenden supported their efforts and convinced Noranda’s Board to invest in a full-scale prototype at the Horne smelter. The technology proved to be remarkably well-suited to the profitable treating of complex and varied custom materials. Thus, Brissenden helped prevent the loss of about 2,000 jobs when, in 1976, the Horne mine finally stopped hoisting ore.
Brissenden went on to enjoy a successful career as a mining executive, entrepreneur and consulting engineer with the Patino organization and its affiliated companies.
His service to the industry resulted in interactions with many political leaders (with whose politics he did not necessarily agree but with whom he would still have acted the gentleman!), including René Lévesque, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Lester B. Pearson, John Diefenbaker, and Kim Campbell.
For his 90th birthday, he received a letter from the Prime Minister, Paul Martin. He was of course sorely disappointed with having to settle for a letter from a Liberal, and his strongly held Conservative leaning led him to attend his first political rally at around the age of 90, joining other Canadians in support of George W. Bush (I certainly admired his devotion to a cause).
Papa was devoted to his family, including his 3 great-grandchildren. When he came to the hospital to visit Ben, a teeny preemie of almost 5 lbs., he marveled at him and then looked at me and said, “Can you even imagine – I have a great-grandchild?”
He had a soft spot in his heart for Ian, which Ian attributes to their first meeting, when Papa fixed him with his trademark flinty stare and said, “Now why on earth would you do an ARTS degree?” and Ian took a sip of his water, met his eye, and said, “Well sir, the way I see it, any idiot can be an engineer. It takes brains to go into Arts.” What could Papa do but clap him on the shoulder and burst out laughing?
They continued to bond after that, sharing confidences like the time when, while chatting at a family gathering, Papa leaned in close to Ian and said, “You’re going to have to speak up. I can’t find the batteries for my hearing aids, but these people make such a damn fuss when I don’t wear them that I just put the damn things on anyway and came downstairs.”
Papa’s dry sense of humour never did fail him, even when he suffered a stroke a few years ago. When we visited him in the hospital shortly afterwards, he leaned in close to me and said, sounding slightly confused, “I had a stroke, you know.” I replied, “Yes, I heard that too,” and his eyes narrowed and he said, “I don’t recommend it.”
For a little while after that, he found himself being cared for in a nursing residence before he could go home again, and he took that experience in stride, turning his gentlemanly charm to his advantage. When I asked him how he liked it, he said, “Well, it’s not great. But I did figure out that if you give one of those girls $3, she’ll bring you a Scotch.”
Finally, as we approach Remembrance Day, and as we bid farewell to yet another veteran of the Second World War, it is especially important to note Papa’s devotion to Queen and country and service in the Royal Canadian Navy, and I can think of no better way to describe his service than in his own words in a speech delivered to my cousin’s high school a few years ago.
Good morning and thank you for your kind invitation to share with you this Remembrance Day, my 61st since the end of World War II.
What this day means to me, I will leave until later because first I want to share my World War II experiences with you. I just hope that these experiences may help motivate each and every one of you towards getting the best possible education that you can, because only by doing so will you be able to make, in civilian life or in military life, should that regretfully ever become necessary again, your maximum contribution to society and your country.
When World War II started in the fall of 1939, I was 24 years old and had graduated from university a year earlier with my Masters Degree in Engineering. I joined the Royal Canadian Navy in October 1940 as a Sub Lieutenant. By this time in the war, the navy had found itself entering fields that were largely or totally unfamiliar. The navy was compelled to employ specialists in many fields that were not immediately related to seamanship. Most of these specialists were entered into a special branch as I was.
One of the critical challenges facing the Canadian, British and later American navies was to keep the sea lanes open from North America to England. With out the men and material that were sent by ship from North America to England and Europe, it is very possible that the Allied nations would not have won the war against Nazi Germany. In order for the supply ships to make it to England, the Allied navies had to defeat the threat of German submarines or U-Boats as they were known. This battle against the German U-Boats became known as the Battle of the Atlantic.
Early in the war, the tactics and technology that eventually defeated the German U-Boats was in its infancy. After my initial training at the Anti Submarine Warfare School, I was assigned to devise and build the Anti Submarine Fixed Defenses at the entrance to Halifax Harbour. There were virtually no textbooks to learn from, most of the technology was unfamiliar to the navy and the project had to be completed as soon as possible. It was to become a colossal undertaking. As a boy living in Halifax during World War I, I lived through the famous Halifax Explosion, so I knew full well what a catastrophe it would be if a U-Boat managed to get into the harbour and attack the shipping there.
I was very fortunate to have a good team working with me and the system that we designed and built was fully operational by November 1941. As a result, the Port of Halifax became the safe haven it was meant to be for transatlantic shipping. Convoys on their way to and from Great Britain regularly formed in its inner harbour with supplies of all kinds, such as food, munitions and other Canadian and American material and of course troops. Halifax also became the major repair base for Canadian warships.
During the rest of the war, I continued to help develop and build anti submarine defenses for other harbours in Canada and England and after transfer to Naval Service Headquarters helped co-ordinate the development of advanced anti submarine detection devices. As the war continued we were able to improve our anti submarine tactics and technology to a point that the submarine threat was significantly reduced and ultimately the Battle of the Atlantic was won.
On a more personal level, Remembrance Day brings back memories of loved ones. I like most Canadians at that time faced the loss of family members and close friends. One of my brothers and one of my wife’s brothers did not return from the war. Friends with whom I had worked before the war also made the ultimate sacrifice. Over the past 61 years I look at what a wonderful country Canada has become and often think of the debt of honour all of us owe to these heroes that never returned home.
I retired from the navy at the end of the war as a Lieutenant Commander. It was a privilege serving my country and I was glad I did, but I was thankful that it was over. I was very proud that my education allowed me the opportunity to serve with so many special people and to make a significant contribution to the war effort. I hope that my experience will encourage you to pursue your education, not only for your own benefit, but also for the benefit of our society and our country.
As Ben put it, “Mommy, our family is just not going to be the same without Papa, is it?” and no, it isn’t, but he has been a role model in so many ways to so many people that his legacy will live on, and I’m glad that he has moved peacefully onto the next stage of his journey.