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Volunteer Profile: John Stephens

Major (Ret’d) John Stephens, CD (at the left above) led three army cadets corps over his 25 years of service with the Cadet Instructor Branch of the Canadian Forces Reserves – the last of which (#142 St Andrew’s College Highland Cadet Corps) was a corps of 550 cadets. Three of his cadets went on to become Commanding Officers of Ontario reserve units: the 48th Highlanders, the Royal Regiment of Canada, and the 1st Hussars in London, Ontario. Another served as Honorary Lieutenant Colonel of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. In 2013 he was honoured with a Commanding Officer’s Commendation for his efforts at the museum.

Since 2005 John has worked as a member of the Ontario Public Service, mostly recently in the Culture Division of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport.

How did you end up volunteering at the museum?

One day I got a call from Lieutenant Colonel (Ret’d) Ed Rayment asking if I could join him for lunch one day along with then Museum Committee Chair Lieutenant Colonel (Ret’d) Rob Zeidler. I had commanded the QOR affiliated #96 Trinity College School during Ed’s term as commanding officer of the regiment so we knew each other although it had been some time since our paths last crossed. It seemed they were in rather dire need of a Museum Curator. I asked what I thought were appropriate questions like “how much of a time commitment is involved” (response: a day a month – yeah not!) By the end of the hour I it was apparently a done deal.

What background do you bring with you that you think helps you contribute in this role?

My time with the two QOR affiliated cadet corps gave me lots of exposure to the QOR history and traditions, and I have always been interested in history in general. I’ve occasionally been accused of being a hoarder which is probably not a horrible trait for a curator but I also have a strong need for things to be ORGANIZED! I’ve also had some experience in other volunteer roles with social media and websites which have proven useful.

What do you enjoy most about volunteering at the museum?

Obviously there are some pretty cool artifacts and stories in our collection but I think the best part is the great volunteers we have. They all come with various backgrounds, skills and interests: some are serving members of the regiment, some are former members, some are museum studies students and graduates, and some have just come out of thin air. Everyone is interested in learning from others and everyone is willing to pitch in doing whatever is needed on that night – and they all have a sense of humour which helps a lot too!

What aspect or content of the museum are you most passionate about and why?

As curator I’d like to think I’m pretty passionate about everything but if I had to pick one aspect, I’d have to say our efforts to connect with a much wider audience through various social media channels and our website. These tools have helped us not only reach out to those who might not have the opportunity to visit the museum but also allowed us to engage others in contributing – by identifying dates and locations of archival film footage, transcribing war diaries, putting names to faces in photos, sharing stories, and many other ways.

Our mandate is not to display items in a display case, but to share the stories of the regiment and the members of the regiment. The more ways we can find to do this and the more people we can include in helping us to do this, the more successful we’ll be in accomplishing it.

Is there one object in the collection that really excites you or that you think people should know about?

That’s a tough one. I’ve already written about the 1866-1882 Nominal Rolls, and the WWI Pridham letters and diaries. Others have mentioned Ensign McEachren’s tunic, and the Boer War ration tin, and the piece of D-Day landing craft.

So perhaps I could mention several large scrapbooks that contain newspaper clippings about the 1910 trip to England when then Colonel Sir Henry Pellat took 600 men (and some horses) at his own expense, to train with the British Army during its summer maneuvers. Taking place during the regiment’s 50th year, this was an extremely significant occasion for those participating – for some a chance to visit family ‘back home’ and for others just a chance to travel and see the world. The were feted by Royalty and Generals and the Lord Mayor of London treated the whole regiment to dinner in the Guildhall – check out some of the photos on our Flickr site.

Throughout the whole trip there were “embedded” reporters from Canadian newspapers who regularly telegraphed back stories to their publishers. And the novelty of a “colonial” regiment coming to train with the regular British Army also meant extensive coverage in British newspapers.

We don’t know who actually deserves the credit, but these clippings were meticulously collected, trimmed, glued into these albums, and each carefully labelled with date and newspaper name. They provide a first hand view of how press of the day perceived the trip, the regiment and of course Sir Henry.

What’s also very satisfying is that these albums recently provided much of the primary research material for a University of Toronto student’s Masters in History paper – which you can read here.

Why do you think a museum like this is important?

There are many ways to serve one’s country but there is little doubt that military service has the greatest likelihood of requiring the ultimate sacrifice. My own ancestors have served in the American revolution (as a Loyalist), in the War of 1812, in the First World War, and the Second World War – the last who did give the ultimate sacrifice, and is buried in a war grave far off in Sicily.

The story of The Queen’s Own Rifles is a story of wars and battles and uniforms and social events – but ultimately it is about individuals who chose, for a wide variety of reasons, to serve their country – and for thousands of those – to die for their country. It is these collective and individual stories that need to be remembered and shared and understood – and in so doing we can honour them and be inspired by them.

Its actually a pretty awesome responsibility when we think of it in those terms!

Would you recommend volunteering to others and if so why?

Of course! The more the merrier. We always have volunteers who can no longer help out for various reasons so new volunteers are always welcome. And as others have already pointed out, Casa Loma is a pretty cool place to work in!

Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t have an opportunity to work together with the former Curator before taking over. Captain Peter Simundson had been involved with the museum for 41 years and has an incredible amount of knowledge about both the history of the regiment and the museum and archives collection. Although he’s been very helpful to me over the past few years I feel we’ve failed to capture much of museum’s corporate memory.

I’d also like to make note of the support from serving members of the regiment and former members in the association. Over 65 members of the regiment have assisted at the museum in some way – painting or lifting or at our QOR Day or by donating objects and photographs from their deployments. And both the current and previous Commanding Officers and Regimental Sergeant Majors and other senior staff have been extremely supportive of our efforts which just goes to prove that its not just my museum or their museum but our museum!

If you’d like to help volunteer at the museum, check out our Volunteer page for information and an application.