Gitxsan soldier’s story of love, war and the value of remembrance

Kitwanga man Alex Morgan tells the story of his father, Raymond, a soldier of Gitxsan descent who fought in the Second World War.

Kitwanga is one of the places on the list when Peter Crompton from Branch 13 of the Royal Canadian Legion here begins organizing the poppy distribution campaign in smaller northwestern communities early each fall.

There he finds Alex Morgan, who looks after the poppy campaign in that village and the surrounding area east of Terrace.

Morgan has a story of ties with the Second World War – a story that illustrates the power of love and war and the value of remembrance.

Alex’s parents, Lavender and Raymond, met in Europe and it was one of those love-at-first-sight encounters between nurse and wounded soldier.

Raymond, who was of Gitxsan decent (his birth certificate records his place of birth as “Skeena River”) was one of many volunteer soldiers who left the B.C. northwest to fight for the Allies largely because of their values, says Alex.

Like Raymond, a good number of volunteers from the northwest were First Nations and a number were killed overseas and never returned.

Alex says his father didn’t speak a whole lot about his service, which is fairly common among war vets, but his body showed the marks of wartime conflict: He was mostly deaf in one ear, and had one arm shorter than the other after having reconstructive surgery to shattered bone.

He went into the North African conflict then up into the Mediterranean into Italy and Greece,” Alex recounts. “He was driving a Bren gun carrier that has tracks on the back and wheels on front, he was the driver and he was blown up in Italy and there were four of them, all who died except for him.”

Raymond was then sent to a hospital in England where he met Lavender and their transcontinental romance began to bloom.

When Lavender, a young Scottish woman with bright red hair and an adventurous streak, set off by boat with scores of other war brides from England in 1944, she soon discovered she was risking her life to be with Raymond who had travelled separately to Vancouver for treatment at Shaughnessy Hospital.

From the ship’s deck Lavender saw other vessels getting sunk by German U-boats.

Alarms would sound in the night and passengers had to rush to the emergency boats.

Surviving the ocean voyage, Lavender made it to Halifax and then, after an administrative delay, took a one-week train ride across Canada by steam engine, followed by a two-day journey, also by train, north to Kitwanga.

She had been in touch by mail with her new Gitxsan mother-in-law, Martha Morgan, and knew that Kitwanga was a tiny town of 200.

But according to Alex, who now recounts the story of his parents to school classes in the area around this time of year, Lavender wasn’t prepared for the grand welcome she received by the local brass band.

She told me, when she got off the train and saw the crowd of people playing instruments, she turned around to see if there was someone behind her coming off the train who would be honoured,” Alex said.

As it turned out, the grand welcome was in fact for her – the community honouring the arrival of Raymond’s wife from England.

Born several years later, Alex and his sister Naomi moved with the family to Houston where Raymond worked in forestry, before returning to Kitwanga in the 1980s.

Throughout that time the family became avid promoters of Remembrance Day, visiting schools to share their story that shows the influence of the war in shaping their own lives and the society we know today.

I can see they now put a face to Remembrance Day,” says Alex. “I will see students in the mall, and they will say, ‘ah, you came to our class and gave the poppies out.’”

Alex says that in the classes – at various aboriginal schools in Gitsegukla, Gitanyow and Kitwanga as well as public schools – he passes on the same messages that his parents did before they died –  Raymond in 2001 and Lavender ten years later.

We’d be out in the bush in 30 below, and he would say, ‘isn’t this just wonderful,’ and I used to look at him and tell him it’s crazy,” Alex recalls.

“‘We are alive and we’re free,’ he’d always say.”

Story by Josh Massey, Terrace Standard.