Zombies in Cape Breton
By Donna Spalding
When I was very young, we had a zombie in our house. You are probably thinking that I had a great imagination as a child, but no, it is true.
In September 1939 Great Britain, France and Canada declared war on Germany. Unlike other countries, war did not unite Canadians but created conflicts within the country relative to conscription. During both WWI and WWII conscription became a problem. In WWI the government enforced conscription. Conscription was very unpopular in Quebec because the French believed it was an English war. Before WWII, Prime Minister Mackenzie King and the liberal government promised the people in Quebec they would not have to serve overseas.
In 1940, the government realized that the voluntary system of recruiting men for overseas duty was not working and the Canadian Army could not get the necessary reinforcements. The majority of Canadians pressured the government to require all eligible men go overseas. People in other provinces did not think it was right for the French not to join the military when their sons and fathers were risking their lives to protect Canada.
The government’s solution, to this problem, was to enact National War Service Regulations in accordance with the National Resources Mobilization Act, which granted the government conscription powers, although overseas duty continued to be on a voluntary basis. All eligible men who did not want overseas duties were obliged to join the military and complete basic training. The government thought this would encourage more men to go overseas but unfortunately this was not the case. The men who remained in Canada had to work at jobs necessary for home defence. The majority of these men were from Quebec and they were referred to as “zombies.”
Zombie was a derogatory term the English Canadians used to express their resentment toward the French soldiers. Zombies were considered to be the living dead because they allegedly had no souls because they refused to go overseas to fight the enemy.
In my hometown of Sydney, the steel plant and the coalmines were very important to the war effort and the zombies were sent to protect these industries. There were no barracks to house the soldiers, so the military requested that the local people house them.
In the early1940’s, a representative from the army turned our apartment into a boarding house. He asked my mother if she would help the military troops by giving soldiers a place to stay. My mother did not want boarders, but knew it was her duty to help in the war effort.
Anti-conscription rally in front of the Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City (courtesy www.warmuseum.ca)
Many of the people who manned the steel plant and coalmines refused to work for these zombies. They did not believe these men had a right to wear a military uniform.
The soldier who lived with us was referred to as Frenchy. At first, it was awkward to have him in the house, but after a while he became friends with our family. He was away from his family and his culture, and was living in a town that hated people like him. Frenchy was very kind and it was easy to become attached to him. Our family was making ends meet, but we had no money for luxuries, and it was Frenchy who always brought treats home for the family. Frenchy called me his little girlfriend and he always brought me candy and sometimes a little toy. Every Sunday afternoon he would take my older brother and me out for an ice cream soda. When it was my birthday he brought a store-bought cake to my birthday supper.
My mother tried to defend Frenchy to her friends. It didn’t matter what she said; my mother’s friends would not accept a man who would not fight for Canada. Like most people, they could not understand why the Canadian French did not think that Canada was worth fighting for. As far as they were concerned, zombies were cowards.
One afternoon, while Frenchy was having a cup of tea with my mother, he told her how difficult it was to be in Sydney. It was a very small place, and everyone knew who he was and what he was doing. He could not hide the fact that he was a so-called zombie, and he had no choice but to take the taunts thrown at him. When Frenchy and his co-workers went to local dances the so-called “nice girls” shunned them. No matter where they went they were considered cowards and no one wanted to be seen in public with them. It was difficult to be despised and scorned wherever he went. He felt that he was not welcome in Cape Breton, and this made him feel sad and very lonely. The only place Frenchy felt welcome was at our home. He could not understand why people didn’t realize that there was more to a person than his or her political beliefs.
The war ended and Frenchy went home but every year for 16 years I received a card from him on my birthday.
Some things never change and we continue to judge people by our own standards. When others do not meet our standards, we ostracize them.
Zombies, of course, are not the living dead without souls but men with different values.
**Originally published in The Reader, NB.
Donna Spalding is a displaced Cape Bretoner and retired professor living in Hampton, NB. Her articles and stories have been published in Readers’ Digest, Celtic Heritage Magazine, The Reader, Homestead Magazine and the Kings County Record.