Much of Edwin Kift’s formative years, and subsequent adult life, were shaped by his military contribution to Canada. As a teen he helped build the De Havilland Mosquito and the huge Lancaster bombers, the mainstay of Allied intervention during the war years. In May of 1944, at 18, he stood before a naval recruitment agent, eager to join the armed forces. “Before I left for training I came home one more time to say good bye to my father and my sister Marjory. My dad was just glad that I had joined the navy and not the army, as he had 30 years earlier.”
Ed is still comfortable with all the nautical terms he learned during his service in World War II. He peppers his recollections with terms like ‘bogie bearing green 9-0’ (incoming enemy airplanes, 90 degrees, 90 miles, starboard side), ‘ratings,’ and ‘grog.’ After the war, the Legion became a favourite haunt. His initiation of the Sea Cadets in Little Current just over a decade and his work with the Legion Bugle Band in Canada’s Centennial year, 1967, won him the Queen’s Jubilee medal. He has also been recognized for his work with the Manitoulin District Cenotaph.
“Both my parents emigrated from England, looking for a better life in Canada. My dad, Arthur Joseph, was born in 1889, arriving here in 1910. My mother, Florence (nee Snelling), born 10 years later, came after the end of the First World War. She had met my dad as a teen back in Kent, England, and that familiarity likely enhanced their decision to marry,” Ed continues. “As a youngster, my father had spent a half-day in school and the remainder earning money for food. He worked hard in the brickyard and he made castings of heavy pulleys. By the time he joined the army in 1914, he was the most powerful man in his unit. The hard physical work had paid off. My father spent four years in the war, but returned, rather disillusioned about the horrors of conflict. He was given a medal for bravery from the Prince of Wales himself for trying to save a senior officer.”
Ed was born on the kitchen table, with the help of a mid-wife, in Weston, Toronto’s western reaches, on November 22, 1925. “The light was likely better in the kitchen,” he surmised. “I remember my mother as a great cook and seamstress. She could study a dress in a shop window and then duplicate it without a pattern.”
Ed was three when his mother died in 1928. His father was not employed during the depression years that followed and this produced much hardship for the family: “My sister Marjory quit school in Grade 7 and began to work in a restaurant for eight dollars a week. I found a job helping weed 40 acres of carrots and radishes in the Holland Marsh between Toronto and Barrie. At 12, I was earning ten cents an hour.”
It seems the brother of Ed’s boss was often late picking up his crew in the morning. “Our pay did not start until we were on site, so one day after the brother was tardy again from partying the night before, I convinced the other four boys to go on strike with me. We walked off the job and protested to the employer, Eglington Flats. We insisted that we should be paid from the time that we arrived for the pick-up. Much to my surprise, they agreed. I was quite proud that I had taken that bold step. I became foreman after that, and soon negotiated a raise to one dollar an hour.”
In 1936 Ed’s dad, Arthur got a good job working for Canada Customs at Front and Young. It was a steady job with a pension. “By the time I was 16, I was getting a lot of ribbing from the other boys about ‘still living off my old man’ so I got work with CCM, Canada Cycle and Motor at their western plant. We made bikes and skates for hockey players. After some training, I made blueprints and developed photos in the engineering department.”
The chemicals Ed worked with, developing photos, gave him ‘mechanical dermatitis’ so he was transferred to the milling machine but found he was just as allergic to the machine oil used in that process. “My next job was with Canadian Kodak Company, another large factory in his home neighbourhood, in the framing department, mounting photos on cardboard frames. I also worked in shipping and receiving. Kodak had a newly-built cafeteria for staff where ping pong was offered. It was unfortunate that all the employees were older so I had nobody my age to chat with.”
“After Kodak, I got a great job at De Havilland, building wings for a Mosquito bomber. This tiny plane was the most successful aircraft in the war,” Ed shares. “It was a fabulous ship armament. We built about 1,000 of the 7,700 bombers that were made. I also worked on the hydraulics systems, the flight tests and joined the inspection teams for the Lancaster bomber.”
In May of 1944, Ed, still 18, joined the navy, spending the first five weeks training in London, Ontario. “HMCS Prevost was our stone frigate. All the marching, the foot drills, drove me crazy,” he admits. “After four days of leave, we got on a train to HMCS Cornwallis and endured five more weeks of intensive supply training. After that we came to the Stadacona Naval Base and got on an actual ship. We had to supply all the ships with the harbour craft, a small diesel-engine boat. We made sure adequate food and clothing arrived as needed. We would just heave packages over the side as the pipe (loudspeaker) came on: “All ‘active duty’ lay after the quarter deck’.” Sailors would appear and the packages would be stowed away.
Ed’s friend Steve Parry from Hamilton had taken a draft to the HMS Uganda, a Colony Class cruiser. Ed decided he would like to be on the same ship as his burly friend so he made the request to his Chief Petty Officer. The officer told him, “It is a ‘pusser’ ship, don’t go.” This meant the ship had a reputation of being tough, strict, with a regimental dress code. The commanding officer was known to be the toughest in the navy. Nevertheless, Ed wanted to join Steve so the officer marked a number on a slip, stamped it and handed it to Ed. Ed was on the Uganda.
The Uganda had taken a bomb in the Italian campaign and then been retrofited in Charleston, South Carolina. A temporary plug of cement had been used to keep the ship afloat in Gibraltar. Once back in Halifax in October of 1944, Ed and Steve joined the crew and they made their way back to England where the ship had been built. Only one of the four propellers was functional so they had to travel at seven knots an hour (normal top speed: 30 knots). They were an easy target for the enemy. Luckily, they arrived safely at Newcastle. “We spent the next six weeks there, including Christmas, while the boat was fully repaired.”
One of Ed’s first tasks on board was ‘rum duty.’ All 600 staff got their ratings daily, portioned from 11 gallons of rum. The basic sailor got a ‘grog’—one part rum and two parts water. The petty officers got it neat (straight). The braided officers had their own boardroom and their own rules. If a sailor was under age or being punished, he missed his grog. “I was still under age so they felt I was safe to ration the alcohol. If we were building up supplies for a celebration we could restrict ratings even further by diluting the rum. Birthdays meant extra portions. We all took turns testing each rum barrel to make sure it was safe. Once I reached 18-and-a-half I could draw my daily grog.”
Ed has vivid memories of the kamikaze planes attacking their convoy on May 4, 1945. “That was Bogie bearing green 9-0. One Zero (the iconic Japanese fighter aircraft) came at us at ground level and our three guard planes quickly took up the chase. As soon as they were out of sight four more Japanese planes attacked the convoy. The Zero planes were just too fast for us. We got hammered.”
“We had two large aircraft carriers, the 740 foot HMS Formidable and HMS Victorious. Formidable wound up with a large hole on both sides where the bomb had entered and gone right through. Debris from the exploding Zero hit the big ship and flames shot up 200 feet into the air. Ed recalls one of the Japanese planes with its front shot off, spiralling downward into the sea with its ejected pilot. The convoy lost 18 lives that day and twice as many wounded. Uganda had lost one gun turret. Victorious transferred part of her steel plate to Formidable to help patch the holes in her sides.”
Back in port, all sailors needed a landed card filled out by the Master of Arms to go ashore. As long as this card was in officer’s possession, you were considered to be ashore. Ed recalls being near the Master of Arms’ office one time when the Chief Petty Officer, a tough guy, came down and said they were short a number one loader position on the upper deck. “I happily volunteered and was sent up to take part. It was unusual that I would be sent as I had no specific gun training. I had to pick up the magazine and snap it into place so the gunner could cock it.” As it turned out, Ed did not have to shoot the gun.
In April of 1946, Ed left the navy after a short stint on a Destroyer, the HMCS Crescent. “We were the only active ship left in the west to guard the coast and look for Japanese mines in the ocean. Many of these had floated over to the west coast on large balloons.”
Ed signed up for accounting and management courses and subsequently got a job with Canadian General Electric in Toronto. As paymaster, he handed out weekly paycheques to most of the 1,100 employees. He also monitored the paperwork for the heavy equipment section and spent a year doing accounting in their lab division. “My job included the arbitration of about 20 complaints a week and this was often challenging. About that time, I accidentally found out that my supervisory role should have been compensated at $65 a week instead of $50. That increase was finally given, but grudgingly so I knew it was time to move on.”
While in Toronto, in the late 1940s, Ed joined the Second Armoured Divisional Signal Company Bugle Band. “We travelled all over Canada and the States, winning all competitions we entered. Some of the places were Waterloo, New Jersey, and Detroit. Bob Hope was performing at the Detroit State Fair. He was so impressed with our version of ‘John Peel’ he came off the stage and hugged some of our band members.”
“We had on our trademark scarlet uniforms, ‘Busbe’ hats and Wellington boots with spurs. The spurs jingled from the dimes inserted in each one.” One year the band travelled to the Calgary Stampede on a converted Lancaster bomber. “We had bucket seats on both side of the plane. That noisy ride took seven and a half hours, but we had a terrific reception.”
His next two jobs involved accounting for a Toronto firm that was opening up shopping centres all over Canada. From 1956 to 1960, Ed did accounting for ‘Art and Design Studio Ltd.’ Then in 1960 Ed moved to Manitoulin to a six-acre lot he had purchased in Sheguiandah. He arranged some financing with the help of his sister’s husband, Jack Van Esterik, and put up the ‘Sheguiandah Bay Village,’ boasting five cabins. Ed also joined the late Albert Rolston’s Insurance and Real Estate business and it became known as Rolston and Kift.
Judy Joly came into Ed’s life in 1963 when he hired her brother Jack to do some wiring at the camp. The two men visited the Anchor Inn after the job was done. Jack casually addressed the young receptionist and switchboard operator. Ed was impressed with the pretty young lady. “Who’s that?” he asked Jack. “That’s my sister and you stay away from her,” Jack replied. The warning was futile as Ed became acquainted with Judy that night and their first date was an August dance in Mindemoya. Judy had moved from Sudbury to Manitoulin with her family in 1944, when her father started a new plumbing and electrical business on the Island. Rudy and Lola Joly anticipated that there would be a lot of work since many homes on the Island lacked both indoor plumbing and wiring.
When Ed was asked what drew him to Judy, he thought for a few seconds and responded, “She was pretty, a lot of fun and besides that, I knew her mother could cook,” he adds smiling. At this point Judy explains that she had convinced her mother to bake one of her favourite pumpkin pies for Ed in October of 1963. “She made the crust and I made the filling and the whipping cream.” Judy took the pie to the camp and asked a staff member to put it in Ed’s fridge. At six that evening Judy’s phone rang. It was Ed. “‘Hello’ he said, ‘pack your bags, I’m coming to get you!” Judy was thrilled with his humorous response. It was clear he had liked the pie and appreciated the effort. This pie was later aptly named the ‘man-catcher.’
The couple eloped on December 9, 1963, saying their vows in Toronto’s Old City Hall. Both knew they would be happy together and they wanted to keep it simple. “It was very exciting to elope and a lot easier to avoid a costly wedding,” a practical Judy added. “On the way back north, we ran into a blizzard and decided to stay overnight in Barrie.” Back home on Manitoulin, the newlyweds rented a small furnished brick home in Little Current. The honeymoon would come later.
There was a lot of work involved in running a lodge. Looking back, both Judy and Ed feel that was the case. “However, the people we met were great. Many returned every year for the excellent fishing. Pike, lake trout, and perch were plentiful. A big freezer was a necessity. Every Friday we hosted a cook-out, a fish-fry,” Ed boasts. “We sang songs and sometimes I got out my guitar to liven things up.”
Their first son Ted was born late in 1964. He would be joined by Jason and John. In 1967 Ed started a boys’ and girls’ bugle band with 20 boys and four girls. Carrie McCulloch and nephew Thomas Smith played the cymbals. “People would stream out of their homes when we marched down the street. This band proved to be a very successful venture despite having no financial help.”
In 1973, Ed decided to go into real estate full-time, later buying a Cessna 150 to help with real estate marketing. They decided to sell the cottages to individual buyers. The cabins were well-spaced and they moved two that were not situated ideally. The Kifts bought a furnished house beside the Catholic Church in Little Current.
That year Ed also became the town’s fire chief. He obtained uniforms for the men and lobbied to get a Class ‘A’ pumper, a first for their brigade. “We saved part of the old hydro building in Kagawong from fire and we got $1,500 from the insurance company for keeping their costs down. This money helped buy some new equipment for our fire department. Being a fireman was very rewarding but once I got into my ‘50s, I realized this was a young man’s job.”
Ed helped expedite the setting up of the Manitoulin East Corporation. This company would assist Section 40 CMHC (Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation) clients in rural areas. “We generated enough revenue and materials to build 15 homes in Little Current, Manitowaning, Providence Bay and Gore Bay. These homes were for people who did not have the funds to build them. Many of these were single mums.” The future owners helped with the cleaning and painting and their down payments were labour or ‘sweat equity.’ The construction of the District Cenotaph between Mindemoya and Providence Bay is another venture Ed was immersed in. Allan Tustian, Johnny Bryant and Ralph Marshall worked on that project too.
At the time, Rolston and Kift were promoting Colonial Sunnybuilt homes on the Island. Ed and Judy built one on Meredith Street. Recently, son Ted moved back to the area. His daughter Marissa is currently a student in London. Jason lives in North Bay. He and his partner Julie have a one-year-old named Judy and they are expecting in May. John lives in Toronto.
Ed’s strengths include having good organizational skills and strong commitment to see projects to their completion. “In 1995 we had a reunion of the ‘Men of the Pacific’ in England. There were only a few of us from Canada. We enjoyed a lunch with the Duke of Edinburgh and had a very good time sharing stories,” Ed adds. “I would still like to write my memoirs one day,” the former sailor shares. “I have kept up the tradition of playing the ‘last post’ in ceremonies here.”
Manitoulin is special to both Ed and Judy. “When I arrived here as a little girl, my father told my mother we had found Shangri-La,” Judy, the long-serving librarian at the Northeast Town, recalls. Ed adds: “Manitoulin is a jewel, outstanding in beauty, and ideal for hunting and fishing. I love the Island. We are blessed to be able to live here and to have raised our children here. We have seen many other places. There is no place like Manitoulin.”