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We Were Technically Challenged by T. E. (Buck) Arbuckle

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. 

Ernie 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. TeletypeÔ 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. 

Jim 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. 






I, 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 opportunities. 

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.

Austin 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.

André 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 Department.

Sid 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. Lockhart. 

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 telecommunications. 

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

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© 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.