The telecommunications family tree in
External Affairs comprised two main branches; the “operational” section that
processed message traffic and operated the diplomatic courier service, and the
“technical” section that maintained the equipment and systems that were
gradually introduced as the volume of messages increased beyond the capacity of
book cipher. These two sections were never in competition but rather
complemented and assisted each other.
The earliest cipher machines were
solidly built electro-mechanical devices that found their way into our larger
embassies. But they required frequent maintenance. Because the information being
processed then, as now, was sensitive, the shipment, installation, maintenance
and use of the equipment was entrusted only to Canadians.
Some of the earliest technicians
recruited by the department were Ernie Tierney, Jimmy Fairnie, Alf Thorne and
Buck Arbuckle: a diverse lot if ever there was one.
Tierney was more of a machinist than a technician. In due course he
established a machine shop in the basement of Postal Station B on the corner of
Sparks and Elgin Streets. He had a much greater capability than the demands of
our equipment for which we carried a full slate of spare replacement parts. It
seemed incongruous that the department installed in his workshop an overhead
track with chain hoists probably capable of lifting and moving an 18-wheeler.
machines were not that heavy. But “Ernie’s Shop” fell victim to the move
to more modern accommodation in the L.B. Pearson Building in 1973. The lathes,
milling machines, welders, sheet metal benders, drill presses and band saws were
eventually passed on to other departments and agencies when the machine shop was
closed following Ernie’s retirement.
Jimmy Fairnie was a little guy with his eyes set on broader horizons. In appearance he seemed more like a jockey but he joined us from the navy bringing extensive shipboard experience in all manner of communications.
After a posting to London he transferred to another department as a technical officer. But, when Jim first arrived in London he decided to get a British drivers license. He scheduled the road test and borrowed the administrative officer’s new Thunderbird with all the new American smarts. As the story goes, he failed the test. When he signaled a turn that silly little arm didn’t stick out the side of the car as it did with most British cars, and he didn’t change gears even once during the whole test. I understand Canada House had to intervene and explain blinking turn signals and automatic transmissions to the tester.
lived in Stittsville Ontario and he died in February 2010..
Alf Thorne was a wartime machinist with the Ottawa Car and Aircraft
factory on Albert Street, made parts for wartime aircraft. He was essentially a
radio man, an active amateur radio operator who built much of his own equipment.
He pursued his hobby through liaison with other radio amateurs and by actively
studying technical literature.
Thurlough E. (Buck) Arbuckle, arrived on the External Affairs scene from the Air Force with experience in
amateur radio, radar and the operation of airborne radio equipment. One of my
ancestors fought his way deep into Russia with Napoleon’s army but was
subsequently chased out. Unfortunately this foray was not done to advance Canada’s
diplomatic policies so I will not discuss it further.
Such was the nucleus upon which the
department’s technical capabilities were built. But missions such as London,
Paris and Washington necessitated continuing recruitment of technicians so
personnel could be rotated through the overseas assignments. And more embassies
were demanding better communications which created even more
Some of the now famous personalities to
show up later and make lasting contributions were Charlie Plante, Don Culley,
Eric Carter, Austin Clarke, Andre Thivierge, Sid Woodham and Joe Belanger.
Charlie Plante was one-of-a-kind and competent in his job looking after
the maintenance of all NOREEN machines. Always venturesome, he served as a
waiter in a Hull bar, bought into a downtown hotel and eventually bought a
commanding interest in an optical lens polishing company, all while working at
External Affairs. The story goes that Charlie and a friend were asked by another
friend to pick up a beautiful new cruise boat in Hamilton and sail it to Ottawa.
Out in the middle of Lake Ontario a storm arose and all hell broke loose. The
boat sank and Charlie and his friend barely survived the night until the Coast
Guard rescued them from the water the following morning. Undeterred, he bought
his own beautiful cruiser and used it to commute from his home in Quebec to the
base of the Rideau Locks in Ottawa. Wishing to show off his acquisition he
invited the news media to his boat for a cocktail party to show how some civil
servants spent their lunch hour. I doubt that in doing so he contributed much to
the good reputation of public servants.
Clarke was another early bird. Born into a deeply religious family,
Austin was the son of a minister and suffered many good-natured taunts. Often in
a language the clergy didn’t know, we tried to convince him how dull his
adolescent dating might have been. But Austin was a friendly, knowledgeable,
dependable and very valuable employee. Upon retirement he went on a “lecture
tour” describing his experiences traveling with the department.
Thivierge was a technical guru, and keen skier who kept his colleagues
and management alert to the bilingual aims and obligations of the department. A
keen audiophile, he could repair the most complicated and sophisticated
electronic equipment used by the Department. It is alleged that Andre installed
a humongous bass loudspeaker in the fireplace of his home. His son, Marc-André
has followed in his fathers steps and is also pursuing a career with the
Woodham joined the department from a technical job with an airline in
Brazil. After a posting to Paris he established a technical training school in
the basement of the Langevin Block at the corner of Elgin and Wellington
Streets. He also established a “stores” section for Teletype and cipher
equipment parts and became the purchasing officer for telecommunications
division. Sid loved a good game of Hearts and established a lunchtime ritual
where some technicians joined him. He extracted five cents from each player each
day which was kept in a “money box” which was available on the honor system
to techs who needed a couple of dollars for a late night taxi home or to tide
them over until payday.
Fresh from the navy, Joe Belanger (above
left) preceded Col. W. W. (Bill) Lockhart (above right) at the helm of the
department’s telecommunication division. Although Joe was the de facto director
for some years, the actual “Director” title was first bestowed upon Col.
These thumbnail sketches describe a few
of the very earliest technical staff and are by no means complete. However they
describe the wide variety of the talents, personalities and backgrounds that
triggered the new ideas developed during Col. Lockhart’s term as director of
Technical skills and contributions
aside, these early technicians and many of their successors can be proud of a
little known social initiative: They were determined that the new recruits
become well informed of the expectations of the job and of the department. This
was achieved on their own initiative, and at their own expense by treating
newcomers and their spouses to “cocktail” parties where they were
enthusiastically welcomed and indoctrinated. Few other groups of employees in
the department could today claim such a long-standing tradition.
Photo Credits: Raymond Fortin
Another two articles by Buck reside on Jerry Proc's website as Canadian Communication Centers and at Communications Rooms
© OFARTS Canada 2006 Old Foreign Affairs Retired Technicians, Canada The opinions expressed here are those of the contributors. Accuracy of facts has not been verified in all cases.