Stories of Remembrance: Norman Jewison

In 2005, to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Canadian celebrities spoke about the meaning of remembrance as part of the Stories of Remembrance Campaign, a project of CanWest News Service (now Postmedia News), the Dominion Institute (now Historica Canada) and Veterans Affairs Canada. This article is reprinted from that campaign.

Jewison, Norman
Jewison has had an international career but claims that his Canadian perspective has given him an important objectivity (photo by Taffi Rosen).
Norman Jewison
Norman Jewison arriving at the Norman Jewison Tribute at LACMA in 2009.

Wartime Sacrifice

Norman Jewison built his career amid the glitter, ego and abundance of Hollywood. Yet Canada's most famous film director came of age in a very different world of food rationing, self-sacrifice and austerity.

By the time Jewison was 13, the Second World War was underway and all of Canada certainly all of Toronto, it seemed to him had put aside personal dreams and pursuits in favour of public service. The war effort was the only thing that mattered.

"The whole production of the country, from food to material to clothing, everything was being built and focused toward the war," he says. "There weren't even silk stockings, so women were painting their legs. It was unbelievable. Everybody was involved and totally committed to winning this war and supporting the troops. I've never seen a society so focused.

"I look around today and think how long ago it was," he says at 78, gazing out the windows of his sunlit Toronto office past the gleaming skyscrapers and beyond to the Beaches, the once-working-class neighbourhood on the lakeshore where he grew up. "When you look back on it now, you see a totally different country."

Joining the Navy

Jewison's relatives almost all served as army reservists during the war. His uncle Charlie was a sergeant major in the 48th Highlanders, and his father was a sharpshooter with the Queen's Own Rifles. Jewison, however, had joined the Sea Cadets in high school "one way to get the attention of girls" and at 17 he volunteered for the Royal Canadian Navy.

After basic training in Québec City he was shipped to Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, the largest naval training base in the British Empire, where three giant words painted on the side of a building beside the parade square, expressed the sentiment of the time: "Learn to Serve."

The war was in its final months by the time Jewison made it to sea, working as a signalman on a Canadian corvette, escorting merchant ships up the east coast from Maine to Newfoundland, where the freighters and oil tankers would gather for convoys across to England.

Navy Convoy, WWII
Canada provided about half the naval escorts in the Newfoundland (later Mid-Ocean) and Western Local Escort Forces (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-137014).

The Battle of the Atlantic had largely been won by 1945, and Jewison himself never saw direct combat.

"I was disappointed that I never got to cross the Atlantic and shoot up some U-boats," he says. "That's what I really wanted to do."

The U-boats, however, were still sniffing around American and Canadian ports, occasionally sinking ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. "You were aware of the danger, aware that the war was going on," says Jewison.

But his only glimpse of the enemy came after Germany's surrender in May, When his ship escorted "a bunch of sorry-looking German prisoners from a submarine that had sailed into a Canadian port to give themselves up. They were tired; their fearsome white turtleneck sweaters were filthy with oil and sweat. They stank. When we herded them into a train bound for an internment camp somewhere up North, I gave one of them a pack of cigarettes."

Confidence in Ourselves

Jewison eventually came back to Toronto to work for the CBC, and later moved to London and Los Angeles where he forged a sterling reputation as a feature filmmaker. Among his best-known films are In the Heat of the Night, Jesus Christ Superstar, Moonstruck and The Statement.

By the time he returned to Toronto in the late 1970s, he says Canada had lost the collective purpose and confidence that once galvanized the country during the war and energized it afterwards.

"[The Second World War] was when Canada really matured and found itself," he says. "I don't know whether sacrificing so many young men is a good way to find yourself, but I do think that we really stood up for what we believed in, in the fight against fascism, and we did our part far in excess of our population.

"Canada had a passion and a sense of purpose that I've never seen since. I look around today and I sense that people don't know who they are anymore.

"But look at what we've done in history, with so few people. Look at what we accomplished in that war.

"I think that's what we need again today confidence in ourselves."

Years ago, Jewison took his then-teenage sons to France, to visit the graveyards of Canadian soldiers. He took them first to Vimy Ridge, and then to Normandy, to the Canadian cemetery in the green fields beyond Juno Beach so his sons would understand, he says, "the size of the sacrifices, of our small but heroic country."

The Canadian War Cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer, 2012. Image: \u00a9 Richard Foot.
War Memorial, Ottawa
The Ottawa Memorial was erected in memory of the airmen who died in WWII, and for whom there is no known grave (courtesy Canadian Tourism Commission).

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