Community Memories from Garfield Gillis

Garfield Gillis was born in Point Fred, Prince Edward Island. Around the age of 17 he joined the Navy. He describes some of his experiences.  He was on an aircraft carrier, escorting convoys of ships. There were a lot of ships sunk by enemy submarines.  In some cases, there would be no survivors if the ship was hit in the magazine where explosives were carried. The British were pretty impressed, realizing that we were escorting ships loaded with food and materials for the war effort.  The Canadian navy was the third largest navy in the world at the end of World War II.  Garfield felt that Canada has since let its naval defense deteriorate and sees the need for much improvement. 

When service with the navy ended, Garfield attended University where he took courses in mine-mapping and surveying. He was employed by INCO in Sudbury for several years, and in 1957, arrived in Thompson where he worked for Paddy Harrison, the Construction Company contracted to sink the shaft.

Garfield met and married his wife, Josephine, in 1960.  They had three children: Barb who works here for MTS, a son Lee employed by INCO, and a son in Regina with the R.C.M.P.  In 1978, after thirty years with INCO, he retired.

He relates some of his work experiences in the early days of Thompson.  Their first priority was getting the shafts down.  They had started on the smelter, mill, and refinery at the same time.  Garfield, like many others, lived in camp on the INCO property.  Food was great, and he had many good things to say about INCO's safety program.  Transportation needs were met by small aircraft flights and the train.  At first, the schools and the hospital were in houses on Poplar Avenue.  Streets were a sea of mud, and construction was going on everywhere.

Garfield's heritage is quite interesting. His ancestors came to Canada 201 years ago under the leadership of Lord Selkirk. A group of people, 800 strong, settled in P.E.I. When asked if he brought with him any traditions from eastern Canada, Garfield explained.  In '57, they built a rink at the campsite, but they didn't have any nets for hockey. "I told them if they got some twine, I would make nets for them." It was something he had learned in connection with the fishing industry. The principle of netting is the same whether big or small. Garfield attended church quite regularly and many of his experiences were of an ecumenical nature.  At sea the captain would gather the sailors on an open deck and conduct the services.  In the early days with INCO, a minister would come out to the camp and hold services in any space available.

Being near water was always an attraction to Garfield. Growing up by the sea, he loved swimming, playing on the beach or just watching the ships go by. During his years in the Navy he crossed the ocean eight times. During his retirement he went on cruises along the coast of Norway, the High Arctic, Greenland, and the coast of Siberia.

When asked about some of the highlights of his life, Garfield spoke of many events.  He and his wife and children were standing at a roped-off area when the Queen visited P.E.I.  When she came close, she looked at Garfield.  He never had a course in protocol, so he just said, “Hi, Your Majesty.”  He mentioned being in the navy and she knew the ship he’d been on.

A scary time for Garfield was when there was a mine cave-in and three men were buried under the rubble.

Garfield enjoyed fishing and hunting, loved being with his family, and liked helping at the Heritage North Museum, shingling the forge shelter and helping with the fur press.

Sadly, Garfield passed away in 2004.  We are glad we had the opportunity to hear his stories. His community involvement and his pioneer spirit have been an inspiration to many.

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