This documentary 2011 Goose Lane publication subtitled The Tragedy at Valcartier is a compelling story which you will wish had not happened. It is nonetheless a story which needs to be read and registered by as many readers as possible, young and old and all those in between.
There is a summary of the organization and the history of the Royal Canadian Cadet Services here. For those who are not familiar with the organization this might be helpful. I found what it had to say about girls in the cadet forces interesting because I participated in a girls cadet program for five years (1954-1959) in high school in southwestern Ontario. Our corps was under the direction of our French teacher who had been a navel officer during the second world war. A Wikipedia article says the cadet organization changed the word “boys” to “persons” in 1975 so I guess my status during high school was not official.
Gerry Fostaty tells the reader up front exactly what she/he is going to read: “”one extraordinary and horrible day has stayed with me for more than thirty years” he writes in the Preface. “In 1974, while I was on a cadet summer training assignment at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Valcartier, a live grenade that somehow got mixed in among the teaching aids blew up during an indoor lecture on explosives safety. That day instantly changed me as only something terrible can. This story focuses on that day, although, for context, I touch on the days leading up to the incident and the few weeks that followed.”
The year 2004 marked the 125th Anniversary of the Royal Canadian Army Cadets and the Army Cadet League of Canada issued 25,000 + anniversary pins for distribution to Canadian army cadets. Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp honouring cadets. This information gives us a very rough idea of how many young persons in this country have passed through the programs provided as well as an idea of how many potential readers there are out there for this story. There is additional historical data here.
Fostaty explains in the Preface exactly why he wrote this story: “First, I never seemed to be able to tell the whole story in one go without interruption. It really is the kind of story that raises questions throughout, and the detours one must follow to answer them can assume a life of their own, prompting new questions and additional side trips. …I wanted to recount the story as it unfolded … I set the scene by describing the usual routines that occurred on a normal day of cadet summer training camp before the explosion.”
“The second reason I wrote the book is to tell my family what happened to me in 1974. My sisters and my mother surely had forgotten about it, while my children and my wife needed to know that something had changed my life thirty-four years ago – perhaps more important, I needed to tell them.”
I found all parts of this account equally interesting. I appreciated the straight-forward tone of the writing and the specific detail about camp life including Fostaty’s position as an NCO. “There were forty-seven cadets in my platoon. Although they had been here for three weeks, I was still getting to know them. Some were easy to know because of their large personalities or because they were troublemakers…Others, though, were quieter and kept to themselves. My brother, Nick, was a cadet in 10 Platoon. Karl Medvescek’s brother Ingo was a cadet as well. Karl and I had an agreement that, if the need arose, we would handle each other’s sibling issues; that way we hoped to avoid complaints of nepotism or sibling rivalry.” Whether this had been suggested by superiors or not, I found this level of maturity impressive and indicative of the intelligence of these young men. Such decisions also exemplify the qualities of leadership the cadet services fostered in its members.
The chapters about the actual explosion and the hours immediately following it are not a comfortable read. I had to pause before them and prepare myself to continue reading the next day. The emotional force in the simple description is made more powerful I think because the reader knows what it will say.
Fostaty was there when the roll was called in the mess and could see the list the Sergeant was reading from: “There was a circle around his name and beside it was marked, Décedé. I felt my throat tighten and my stomach fall. ” Fostaty had been required to attempt identification of one of the dead cadets (a daunting task for an adult with considerable life experience never mind for an eighteen year old) and so he knew that the attendance call was part of the process of validating the identification so that parents could be notified.
The details about that night (“Night Watch”) when the company is moved into the chapel and the sections titled “The Days After” and “Investigation” are absolutely compelling. The investigative interview was a harrowing experience for Fostaty: “They started firing questions at me, literally, from left and right. I would no sooner finish answering a question from the officer at one end of the table than the officer at the other end would sharply ask another, causing me to look from side to side as though watching a tennis match. If my answer was not going in the direction they wanted, they would just cut me off with another question. …They seemed to be challenging what I said…I started to feel very uncomfortable with the way I was being questioned…The way they were questioning me was both accusatory and dismissive.” And finally, “Days later, although no one went into any detail about the questions and answers, a few of us joked and laughed about the inquiry. It was an uneasy laughter.”
Another review can be read at Buried in Print’s website. There is a comment there by Charles Gutta the CSM of the company involved in the Valcartier tragedy and who appears frequently in the book.
This is a story about healing: it has the potential to help anyone who reads it.
In a broader sense, its acknowledgment of the role of cadets in the lives of young Canadians and in our history should not be overlooked.