Photo by Chung Chow
Canada may widely be viewed as a land of milk and honey, but during the war years such household staples were in short supply.
Sugar, butter and shortening were also scarce, so much so that they too were included in nation-wide rationing.
It was a time Iris Downing knew well.
Today a resident of Richmond’s Maple Residences, the rather sprightly 102-year-old was in her early 20s when the Second World War broke out in 1939.
“Everybody was given a ration book,” she remembers. “If you had teens at home, they were given one too, so your parents were able to purchase a certain amount of products. But you had to make things last because you had to wait up to a month until the next book came out.”
Shortages even led to the sale of horse meat, recalls Downing of a period when goods such as rubber, gas, metal and nylon were also difficult to come by because they were needed for the war effort.
She says rationing in Canada continued until a year or two after the war ended.
The second eldest of six children, Downing was born and raised on a farm in Maple Creek, a tiny southwest Saskatchewan town on the Canadian Pacific Railway line that even now still only boasts a population of 2,000 people.
Prior to 1915, it was best known as the home of the Northwest Mounted Police.
“I don’t know how mom and dad kept six kids living on a farm in the Dirty 30s,” she says. “We grew wheat, sold eggs for six cents a dozen, and raised sheep and turkeys.”
Downing, whose birth name was Hammond, was working for the wheat pool when the war began. She was 24, but “I can’t just remember when or how it was announced.”
Two of those closest to her went off to war.
Her brother, Bruce, a member of the Saskatoon Light Infantry, was sent to India, while her eventual husband, Bill, who she had met at the local skating club, was sent to North Africa.
Originally a banker, Bill, who wore thick glasses, was at first denied enlistment but called up eight months later.
Rising up the ranks to become a corporal in the armed forces Governor General’s Horseguards, Bill remained overseas through to the end of the war and did not return home until January 1946.
“I remember going to Toronto to meet (Bill’s) train,” says Downing.
Iris and Bill (who died in 1982 at the age of 72) were married for 40 years and had one son, Bruce, who became a renowned geologist. The couple loved to dance, especially square dancing. Bill was also an accomplished sportsman, who excelled at baseball and curling.
Letter writing was the standard form of communication during the war years. And soldiers looked forward to sharing any good news. But they especially looked forward to care packages from home—whenever they actually received them.
“I don’t know how many arrived, but we sent many of them,” Downing says of the care packages. “Sometimes we put liquor in a loaf of bread, or gave a cigarette company $10 to send…cigarettes to someone. Of course they all smoked in those days. We also used to knit socks and send those over, because it got pretty cold in those trenches.”
Naturally, remembers Downing, there was a great sense of relief when the war finally ended.
But it produced endless heartache, and took upwards of 80 million lives—more than half civilians.
“There was also a lot of transition between husbands and wives,” she says. “They had to get to know one another again.”
Downing says the First World War was supposed to end all wars, “but (sadly) I don’t think they’ll ever end.”
These days, Downing, who was a keen volunteer for much of her lifetime, enjoys spending time with family and friends and playing bridge.
“I didn’t take bridge seriously until I joined the seniors’ centre. That was 29 years ago,” she says. “I said at the time ‘I’ve got to learn this game.’ The biggest thing to bridge is remembering.”
Downing also plays cribbage and whist (card games) at least one day a week.
She’s surprised by her age, but still gets frustrated at not being able to complete a task she thinks she should be able to.
“I get so mad when I can’t do something. Then I have to remind myself ‘you’re not in your 80s anymore.’”