By LISA FITTERMAN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Back in 1968, Dominion Day wasn't popular in Quebec, to say the least. As the annual commemoration of Canada's being granted dominion status by the British empire, the holiday didn't go over well in a province riven by language and class wars that featured the Front de libération du Québec's increasingly violent campaign to separate from the rest of the country.
Into this cultural morass stepped W. Bruce Kippen and a few other English- and French-speaking stalwarts of the business world, who had formed a group called the Canada Committee four years earlier. Their goal was simple: to do away with Dominion Day and create a "Canada Week," with July 1 called "Canada Day."
It was, Mr. Kippen once said, as if they were proposing heresy. For swaths of French Quebec, the notion of a holiday that celebrated Canada as a whole was anathema.
And the federal government wondered why it should tinker with something that was such an entrenched tradition.
"We met with someone in Ottawa who was a muckymuck in what would become Heritage Canada," he recalled. "They gave us a cheque for $20,000 - a pittance - and basically expected us to go away."
But they didn't. Instead, the following year saw them prudently using that $20,000 to distribute Maple Leaf flags and leaflets, and helping to create parades across the country. The events were small at first, to be sure, but they grew bigger each year. Ottawa eventually took note of their efforts, and the holiday officially became "Canada Day" in 1982.
Mr. Kippen, who earned a Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee medal for his efforts, died on June 30 in Montreal of cancer-related causes. He was 93 and had entered palliative care only three days earlier.
"It's fitting that Dad died the day before the holiday he helped to name," said Alexander Kippen, his eldest son. "It's his legacy for the country and we can't be prouder."
Walter Bruce Kippen was born in Montreal on Jan. 30, 1926, the younger of Eric and Marguerite Kippen's two sons. The father owned a small investment firm, while the mother ran the household, an apartment in the centre of the city. The parents were saving to build a country house in Como, then a village on the Lake of Two Mountains west of Montreal; construction had begun when the Great Depression hit and the father ran out of money. The family ended up living on the property for at least a year in tents.
"This was not a bad thing for my dad," Alexander Kippen said. "He was thrilled to be living in a tent on the water. He loved showing me a photograph of a garden shed, saying that he had built it."
After a childhood that honed his love of the outdoors, fishing, hunting and camping, Mr. Kippen yearned for more. During the Second World War, he signed up for the Royal Canadian Air Force as soon as he could - at the age of 161/2 - so desperate to be deployed overseas that when the force announced it no longer needed pilots, he said he'd become a mechanic, and then, when the force said there was no need of them either, a tail gunner.
"Tail gunners were the first to be killed in combat because they sat in that little glass bubble at the back of the plane," Mr. Kippen's son said. "Dad was willing to take the risk and signed up. But at over six feet, he turned out to be too tall."
Victory in Europe was declared soon after, in May, 1945, and a frustrated Mr. Kippen was granted leave from the air force and hitchhiked to Southern California, figuring he would join the American force and fight in the South Pacific. Again, his timing was off, as the U.S. detonated nuclear bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just as he got to the West Coast.
While in California, he was at a bar one night chatting with some women when a man sauntered over and introduced himself as Milton (Gummo) Marx, a theatrical agent.
"You may know of my brothers," Mr. Marx said, referring to Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.
"Well, yes," Mr. Kippen replied.
The agent, who had performed with his brothers early in their career as vaudevillians, wondered if Mr. Kippen was an actor and asked him to visit his office the next day. When the younger man went, he was struck by all the publicity shots on the walls of stars he recognized.
"You know this guy?" Mr. Marx asked, pointing to a photo of an actor with curly hair, a square jaw and craggy features. "I see you as following in his footsteps, the next Fred MacMurray."
Although Mr. Kippen took his card and agreed to consider the offer, it seemed too unreal. So he hitchhiked back to Montreal, where he did a commerce degree at McGill University and proceeded to reinvent himself over and again, first as an oil-rig worker in Alberta, where he made enough money to build a successful car wash in Calgary, and then, in the late 1950s, as an investment whiz back in Montreal who expanded his father's small firm to New York and Toronto before selling it in the midseventies, at least partly because of the ascendance of the Parti Québécois in Quebec.
By that time married to Elfride Audley, who he'd met on a visit back to Montreal in the late fifties while running the car wash, and with three adolescent children to support, he had to figure out quickly what to do next. He returned to Calgary, commuting weekly as he started a petroleum company. In a way, the experience helped him expand his vision from beyond his home province to a vast country that needed the opportunity to overcome its regional differences and become stronger.
He used to become incensed when he would hear Montrealers talk about Alberta as if it was a world away, the younger Mr. Kippen recalled. "Once, someone called it the frontier and Dad asked, 'What the hell do they think it is? Siberia?' " When the federal National Energy Program helped wipe out his petroleum business in the early eighties, he worked as an executive for a shale company in the Athabasca oil sands, reinventing himself yet again.
And true to form, when it came time for his son to get a summer job, it wasn't going to be at a cushy Montreal tennis club or restaurant. Instead, Mr. Kippen sent him to Edmonton, where he stayed at the YMCA until he found a job on the oil rigs.
"Those jobs paid my way through school and toughened me," Alexander Kippen recalled. "My father also toughened me by example. He was extraordinarily tenacious and always got up when he was knocked down. He said he had no choice."
Mr. Kippen, who had a penchant for cigars and salty language, didn't take well to the fact that doctors could not cure the cancer that had spread to his bones. He chafed at losing his memory and his strength. His son said that in a way he had the perfect, painless death, falling asleep one night and simply not waking up.
Along with his wife and eldest son, Mr. Kippen leaves his other children, Francesca and David Kippen, and five grandchildren.
W. Bruce Kippen reinvented himself over and over again, working jobs as an oil-rig worker and, later, a car-wash owner in Alberta, and an investment whiz in Montreal. He was even once a prospective client of legendary theatre agent Milton (Gummo) Marx.
COURTESY OF THE FAMILY