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The Real Canadian Love Story of the Titanic

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That's right. Forget about Rose and Jack. According to Alan Hustak, the author of Titanic: The Canadian Story, upon which this CBC documentary is based, "there was a real love story aboard Titanic - in which the truth is even more incredible than any fiction that any screenwriter could imagine."

Titanic: The Canadian Story (which airs on Tonight, April 15th at 10pm on CBC News Network) will delve into the untold stories of Canadian and Canada-bound passengers on the ill-fated Titanic, which sank on April 15, 1912, one hundred years ago tody. 

We spoke with Alan Hustak about the making of the much-anticipated documentary. 

What can we expect from the Titanic: The Canadian Story that we haven't already seen?

Alan Hustak: Well, you know, there are people who say that there is nothing new to be learned about Titanic. In the making of this documentary I was surprised at how many new elements of the story have come to the fore. The documentary creates and brings a whole new dimension to the canon of Titanic. It really is remarkable. Just when you think you know everything about this ship, other things emerge.

Can you give us a teaser - any romance?

AH: You want to forget about Rose and Jack if you've seen the Cameron movie. There was a real love story aboard Titanic, in which the truth is even more incredible than any fiction that any screenwriter could imagine. It's the story of a young Montreal hockey player called Quigg Baxter who was in first class with his mother and sister. Unknown to them, he was bringing back his girlfriend from Europe, a cabaret singer that he had met in Belgium called Berthe Mayné. This story - their love story - has really never been told in a meaningful way, certainly not on television. In making this documentary, we tracked down Berthe's relatives in Belgium. It's a whole new perspective and a whole new dimension. It offers new insight in to real flesh and blood people that were aboard this ship.

Were Baxter and Mayné together on the ship or was she in steerage, à la Jack and Rose?

AH: Well... no. He was a very rich and very noble hockey player. He booked a cabin for her in first class but one deck below his. But certainly, in social standing, she was not of his class.

Did you get to meet some of the direct relatives?

AH: Yes. That is what's remarkable about the documentary. Many of the people that take part in it are descendants of the people who sailed on Titanic. We have a nephew, for example, of Major Arthur Peuchen who was from Toronto. There are a number of people who are directly related and that was the criteria for the making of the documentary; you have to have to have been related to someone who was on Titanic.

Any other exciting stories?

AH: The principle tale that we're trying to tell is overlooked in most of the official histories of the Titanic... the Canadian element. Very few people know, for example, that Lord Pirrie - who built the Titanic - came from Quebec City. This is the story of the 130 people aboard the ship that were bound for Canada and have been overlooked in the major histories written by Americans and Brits. What we've done is put under the microscope those people who are of specific interest to Canada. I have to be very careful here. The purists will tell me that there were no Canadians on board, because Canadian citizenship - as such - did not come in to place until 1947, believe it or not. All of these passengers were British subjects, a number of whom were born in Canada if you want to be absolutely precise. The largest contingent was - incredible as it sounds - from Manitoba and there was a large group from Montreal.

Are we going to find out anything more about the sinking of the ship - the actual cause?

AH: It's not really a scientific exploration. National Geographic's latest issue explores why the Titanic really sunk and like most scientific studies it still doesn't provide an answer. It provides a theory. Our documentary is certainly not going in to the mechanics or into the science of the sinking. For the most part it deals with the human aspect of the story. The human stories of people who sailed Titanic and who died on Titanic and, in a way, how those deaths affected our country.

Charles Hays - who was the president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway - lost his life on Titanic. Had he lived, we could speculate that he was going to make Prince Rupert the principal terminal on the west coast. You could argue that had he lived Prince Rupert would today be a larger city than Vancouver. The documentary explores what life was like in Canada in 1912, and how the sinking might have changed the Canada that we now know today.

It could have fundamentally changed the landscape of the country. Do you think that's one of the reasons the story of the Titanic still resonates so much?

AH: You know, each generation makes Titanic their own. I think it is an epic tale - if you look at it from pure theatrical point of view. What we have here is a drama - like a play - that lasts for two hours and twenty minutes. It has a cast of 2,000 people, is a great epic and each of those people has a story. You are sucked away and it's like a telescope. You keep looking at it and discovering different facets of the same story. It is a timeless story, which is why it endures.


(L-R) Quigg Baxter, Berthe Mayné, Charles Hays and Major Arthur Peuchen

Would you say that's there's one story that touched you more than others?

AH: Certainly Quigg Baxter. Only because I personally discovered that story and contributed it to the canon. As a Montrealer, I'm very proud of the fact that I discovered this story that other Titanic enthusiasts overlooked. There's a very simple reason for that; in spite of the name Baxter he was a Francophone. Secondly, his father had disgraced the family so he really wasn't part of Montreal's social scene but was very big in Europe.

What was it in the first place that appealed to you so much about Titanic?

AH: It's actually a fun story - back in the '70s I was living in Calgary and I was a journalist. I used to play Trivial Pursuit with a friend of mine who always won. I always thought that he'd memorised all of the questions. I got so frustrated with the fact that he kept winning! One day, I made up a question - "who from Calgary was aboard the Titanic?" Without batting an eyelash, he looked at me and said, "why, Bert and Vera Dick, of course." I thought he twigged to the fact that I'd made up a question and he'd made up an answer. In fact, Bert and Vera Dick from Calgary were aboard Titanic. That got my wheels spinning. As a journalist, I said, "if somebody from Calgary was aboard Titanic, who from Toronto or Montreal or Moosejaw or Vancouver was aboard?" This was 30 years ago... I made it a hobby. I was a national television correspondant and spent an awful lot of time in hotel rooms in strange cities. In the days before Google I did the research that turned in to Titanic: The Canadian Story. That book was published 15 or 16 years ago and I'm very lucky. This was all done in the days before Google and instant communication. I'm very lucky that I've had the opportunity to rewrite the book, update it and make it relevant... very few authors get a chance to go back to their work and correct the mistakes either of omission or commission, and I've been able to do that and I'm very happy about that.

Did you discover anything new that wasn't in any of your books during the filming process?

AH: People say there's nothing to learn about Titanic, but when I was filming in Halifax I discovered Hilda Slater's diaries, which are brand new. Indeed, in the Nova Scotia public archives there are are four or five diaries related to the Titanic that no historian has ever looked into before. I'm going to Halifax to check those out. The story keeps on going...


Alan Hustak is the author of Titanic: The Canadian Story (available in the CBC Shop). His research over the years into the Canadian connections to the Titanic laid the groundwork for this CBC Doc-Zone documentary. He serves as the main historical advisor and as an on-camera particpant.

Titanic: The Canadian Story is available to watch online

As well as Titanic: The Canadian Story, CBC News is bringing comprehensive and uniquely Canadian coverage of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. The National broadcasts live from Halifax, NS, tonight - a city where the fingerprints of the disaster are all around.



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