Dalhousie veteran remembered for his fight for merchant navy recognition

Aurelle Ferlatte of Dalhousie, N.B., served in the Second World War in the merchant navy. He fought for decades for their contribution to be recognized with official status as veterans. (Submitted by Monique McMakin - image credit)
Aurelle Ferlatte of Dalhousie, N.B., served in the Second World War in the merchant navy. He fought for decades for their contribution to be recognized with official status as veterans. (Submitted by Monique McMakin - image credit)

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

But it would take over 50 years before their sacrifice and service was fully recognized. When the merchant navy returned, they didn't have official status as veterans and were ineligible for health care, pensions, education benefits and loans.

Canada's merchant mariners served on more than 25,000 cross-Atlantic trips 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, N.B., family, veterans and community members say they're thinking of his contributions on the first Remembrance Day without him, after he died in June at the age of 94.

Guy Ferlatte, his younger brother, said he still remembers the day Aurelle returned home.

"We were very proud of him. He had his big suitcase full of stuff that he had bought for everyone at home," said Ferlatte.

Submitted by Monique McMakin
Submitted by Monique McMakin

He said Aurelle used the death certificate of a brother to enlist at just 16 years old. 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 had been around the world a couple of times, he had some scary experiences," Guy Ferlatte said.

Trapped in the hold

Guy Ferlatte said his older brother didn't speak much about his war experiences until later in life, when he started to share stories.

He recalls hearing about the time when Aurelle went to get something from the ship's cargo hold, only to have the hatch close on him because of a bombing.

"He was there for 24 hours in the dark with the rats ... that was the scariest experience he ever had," said Ferlatte.

Submitted by Monique McMakin
Submitted by Monique McMakin

After the war ended, Aurelle had trouble getting a ship back home, because many of the merchant vessels were sold.

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

After returning to Dalhousie, Aurelle Ferlatte kept busy as an entrepreneur running several local businesses, worked as a trade unionist with the Canadian Paperworkers Union and was involved in politics.

Submitted by Monique McMakin
Submitted by Monique McMakin

As a member of the New Brunswick Hospital Advisory Board, he helped introduce medicare. Later in life, he was an advocate for seniors and nursing home residents.

In 2000, he was part of a delegation that travelled to France to bring home the remains of the Unknown Soldier.

Leigh Walsh, poppy chair and master of ceremonies for the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 17, said Ferlatte was the last veteran from the Second World War still alive in the town. His name was read at the town's Remembrance Day ceremony, along with the names of 10 others who died in the past year.

"Aurelle was a strong union man, he was well-known, he spoke his mind, never backed down from a politician and held his ground," Walsh said.

Long-awaited recognition

Canada's merchant mariners were part of the Battle of the Atlantic and frequent targets of U-boat torpedo strikes. Ships in the Royal Canadian Navy were often occupied and unable to provide protection during crossings.

Monique McMakin, Aurelle Ferlatte's daughter, said the merchant mariners had no way to protect themselves and had a high casualty rate. His father returned injured after taking a hard fall into the cargo hold on a ship.

"If the other boats would go down, they would be sitting ducks," she said.

Everett Historical/Shutterstock
Everett Historical/Shutterstock

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

"For them to come back from the war and not be recognized is quite amazing, after what they went through," she said.

Aurelle Ferlatte served five years as the president of the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association, pushing the federal government for recognition. He went on hunger strikes to secure a meeting with the minister of Veteran Affairs and seek better compensation.

Submitted by Monique McMakin
Submitted by Monique McMakin

In 1992, after a long dispute, they were granted officials status as Canadian veterans and able to receive benefits. In 2000, the government began offering compensation through a merchant navy special benefit.

"That was huge for him. He worked night and day on that particular project and he was very proud of himself, proud of the group that worked on that," said Ferlatte.