World association

Dalhousie veteran remembered for fight for Merchant Navy recognition

When Aurelle Ferlatte returned to New Brunswick after fighting in the Second World War, more than 1,600 of her fellow Canadian merchant mariners had died at sea.

But it will be more than 50 years before their sacrifice and service are fully recognized. When the Merchant Navy returned, they did not have official veteran status and were not eligible for health care, pensions, education benefits, and loans.

Canada’s merchant seamen participated in more than 25,000 transatlantic voyages during the Second World War, transporting munitions and supplies to Europe.

After the war, Ferlatte fought for decades with the federal government to change that. In his hometown of Dalhousie, New Brunswick, family, veterans and community members say they think of his contributions on the first Remembrance Day without him, following his death in June at age 94 years old.

Guy Ferlatte, her younger brother, says she still remembers the day Aurelle returned home.

“We were very proud of him. He had his big suitcase full of stuff he bought for everyone back home,” Ferlatte said.

This exhibit was outside Aurelle Ferlatte’s bedroom at Villa Providence in Dalhousie, until her death in June. He was 94 years old. (Submitted by Monique McMakin)

He said Aurelle used a brother’s death certificate to enlist at just 16. The minimum age to join at the time was 17, but that didn’t stop him. He became a radio operator and went overseas for several years.

“He’s been around the world several times, he’s had scary experiences,” said Guy Ferlatte.

Trapped in the hold

Guy Ferlatte said his older brother didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences until later in life when he started sharing stories.

He remembers hearing about the time Aurelle went to get something from the ship’s hold, only to have the hatch closed on him due to a bombardment.

“He was there for 24 hours in the dark with the rats…it was the scariest experience he had ever had,” Ferlatte said.

Aurelle Ferlatte was President of the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association for five years and was awarded the Order of Canada and, more recently, the Order of New Brunswick. (Submitted by Monique McMakin)

After the war ended, Aurelle found it difficult to bring a ship home, as many merchant ships were sold.

“The only reason the ship came back for him was because he was the only radio operator and they needed him for the ship,” Guy Ferlatte said.

After her return to Dalhousie, Aurelle Ferlatte occupied herself as an entrepreneur running several local businesses, worked as a unionist for the Canadian Union of Paperworkers and got involved in politics.

Aurelle Ferlatte in Dalhousie at a time when the city was booming. After the war, he worked at the paper mill and owned several local businesses. (Submitted by Monique McMakin)

As a member of the New Brunswick Hospital Advisory Board, he was instrumental in the introduction of medicare. Later in life, he was an advocate for the elderly and residents of nursing homes.

In 2000, he was part of a delegation that visited France bring home the remains of the unknown soldier.

Leigh Walsh, poppy chair and master of ceremonies for Royal Canadian Legion Branch 17, said Ferlatte was the last surviving World War II veteran in the town. His name was read at the city’s Remembrance Day ceremony, along with the names of 10 other people who have died in the past year.

“Aurelle was a strong trade unionist, he was well known, he spoke his mind, never backed down from a politician and stood his ground,” Walsh said.

Long-awaited recognition

Canadian merchant seamen participated in the Battle of the Atlantic and were frequent targets of torpedo strikes from American submarines. Royal Canadian Navy ships were often busy and unable to provide protection during crossings.

Monique McMakin, the daughter of Aurelle Ferlatte, said merchant seamen had no means of protecting themselves and had a high casualty rate. His father returned injured after falling hard in the hold of a ship.

“If the other boats sank, they would be sitting ducks,” she said.

Merchant Navy ships were frequent targets of torpedo strikes from submarines while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Royal Canadian Navy ships were often busy and unable to provide protection during crossings. (Historical Everett/Shutterstock)

McMakin said her father viewed the lack of official recognition as an injustice. She often remembers him on the phone with widows and veterans, helping to lobby for individual cases.

“For them to come back from the war and not be recognized is quite unbelievable, after what they’ve been through,” she said.

Aurelle Ferlatte was president of the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association for five years, pushing the federal government for recognition. It came on hunger strike to get a meeting with the Minister of Veterans Affairs and ask for better compensation.

Aurelle Ferlatte spent much of her life after retirement seeking merchant navy recognition. (Submitted by Monique McMakin)

In 1992, after a long dispute, they obtained official status as Canadian veterans and were able to receive benefits. In 2000, the government began offering compensation through a special Merchant Navy benefit.

“It was huge for him. He worked night and day on this particular project and he was very proud of himself, proud of the group that worked on it,” Ferlatte said.