Art exhibit gathers war brides' stories

A new exhibit at the Diefenbaker Centre in Saskatoon that will travel across Canada tells the remarkable stories of Canada's war brides.

A new exhibit at the Diefenbaker Centre in Saskatoon, which will move on to other Canadian stops, tells the remarkable stories of Canada's war brides.

More than 43,400 women married Canadian servicemen stationed overseas during the Second World War, then followed them to a new life in Canada. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the mass migration of these war brides to Canada.

Calgary-based artist Bev Tosh has produced 52 oil paintings of these women, mostly taken from old photographs of them on their wedding day. She has painted their young, hopeful faces on wood panel.

Tosh, herself the daughter of a war bride, also has spent the past five years gathering their stories.

"A lot of them were coming from cities, and they were often coming to small communities and rural communities to farms in Canada," she told CBC Radio.

"They were coming almost always from indoor plumbing, often to no indoor plumbing, things that they were really not equipped for. A climate change that was quite shocking to many, cultural differences, money differences, so many things."

Servicemen returned home on troop ships, with the government paying passage for their brides to follow them at a later date. Although women were arriving from 1942 to 1948, the biggest wave of war brides came in 1946, with the arrival of the Mauretania II on Feb. 9, 1946, at Pier 21 in Halifax. It carried 943 servicemen's war brides and their children. 

By the time of the women's arrival, some of the men had disappeared, failing to turn up to meet their wives and leaving the women alone to face the challenges of life in Canada.

Tosh's show, One-Way Passage, opened at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre in Saskatoon on the weekend and will show there until May 31. Then it will travel to the Immigration Museum in Halifax in June and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in May 2007.

Tosh, an established figurative painter and an instructor at both the University of Calgary and Alberta College of Art & Design, often works with women's stories. An earlier series featured women swimming underwater.

A painting she did of her mother as a young bride — her mother married a New Zealand airman stationed in Canada — is in the entrance of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Tosh says she hopes her exhibit will provide visitors with an appreciation of the stories of these women, and their role in this country.

"I receive mail and calls every few days," says Tosh. "I find the stories and the sharing so poignant. It just connects. The hair on my arms rises every time I read a war bride's story."

Both New Brunswick and Manitoba have declared 2006 The Year of the War Bride.