Serving his country at home and abroad

As Remembrance Day approaches, veteran and alumnus John Ross Matheson reflects on his experiences at war, designing the Canadian flag and founding the Order of Canada

After being wounded in the Second World War
Image by: Harrison Smith
After being wounded in the Second World War

On the shores of Italy’s Moro River in 1943, battles raged between Canadian forces and German troops, fighting for control of the Ortona stronghold. John Ross Matheson, ArtSci ’40, was there on temporary assignment when a shell went off directly over his head, sending slivers of steel deep into his brain, six of which remain there today.

Despite what most people would consider a major setback, Matheson didn’t let a literal hole in his head slow him down. After the war and a long recovery, Matheson got married, became a father of six, went to law school, got involved in politics and served as a judge in Ontario’s court system.

But before becoming a major player in Canadian history, Matheson was a student at Queen’s.

He came to Queen’s in 1936, looking to take any degree that would guarantee him a job.

“I took an honest degree in economics and the only reason was, in ’36 we were in the Depression and people couldn’t get jobs,” he said. “So although economics doesn’t sound like much, it would at least assure you some kind of a job.”

But with the potential of war on the horizon and, as a soldier, facing the possibility of fighting overseas, Matheson said that he wasn’t very interested in his classes.

“I was taking lecture in uniform at that time; I was much more interested in getting overseas than I was in a degree,” he said. “There was only one of my professors who had been in World War One and that was Frank Knox and he was our favourite professor because he had been there. H he’d been a soldier in World War One.”

Matheson was working in northern Quebec when war was declared. He rushed to Quebec City once the declaration was made, but missed out on being sent to war straight away, finding that the first troops had already been deployed.

“They said, ‘John, we can’t take you now, we were mobilized ten days before the war. We’ve been reconverted to an anti-tank battery and we’re part of the first contingent.’ I said, ‘Oh my God. What can you do to get me overseas?’” he said.

The quickest way to get overseas, he was informed, was to return to Kingston, the artillery headquarters. Matheson said the military office told him, “‘We’ve got far too many gunners and far too few guns. And we’ll sign you up for another three years if you like, so we’ve got a handle on you, but we’ll transfer you to 32 Field Battery in Kingston.’”

While that may be the only reason Matheson made it back to Kingston to finish his degree, he also said it was what allowed him extensive training both at the Royal Military College and with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery.

“I was learning how to become a gentleman, according to the RMC standards, and how to manage men in theory, and then the practical work of field guns with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, down in the barracks,” he said. “And so I tried very hard to fit all of this into a very, very busy schedule of a full-time honours degree.”

All his hard work paid off, and Matheson was sent overseas as part of the seventh draft. After training at RMC with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, Matheson said he was looking for a change and requested to be posted with a regiment from outside of Kingston. Instead, he found himself part of B-battery in the First Royal Canadian Horse Artillery.

“After I got comfortable in B-battery, suddenly I found myself posted to intelligence and I was very mad about this,” he said. “I was sent off to First division headquarters, and there I became, first of all a learner, and then an intelligence officer. … There were only four gunner officers, including the Brigadier, a Brigade-Major, a staff Captain and an intelligence officer. We were the people running six regiments of artillery in the first division.

“I was the intelligence officer in charge of the first Division senior officers for the Dieppe debacle. And that was a very, very sad day, to post on the wall the locations of our defeats, or where we’d just lost a regiment, and there I was posting these things up on Dieppe, which pretty much wiped out the sixth brigade in the second division. We had a very sad time of that day.”

After three years of intelligence work in England, Matheson volunteered to do two beach-landings in the Mediterranean, done in an effort to draw the Germans away from the West Wall. First, he landed with his regiment at Pachino in southern Sicily and after thirty days, they crossed over to Italy in landing craft, landing at Reggio de Calabria.

“After thirty days to take Sicily, we beach-landed at Reggio and started to go north,” he said. “And we kept running into real resistance … wherever there was water. So eventually … we were stopped on the Moro River [at Ortona].”

Matheson said when they attempted to cross the Moro River, four Nova Scotia Highlanders were killed, and so were the two pack-mules he was leading.

“Fortunately for me I had just put on a steel helmet,” he said. “I didn’t like to wear helmets. I was a forward observation officer and I used to like a beret, which I thought was cooler than the helmet.”

That helmet saved his life.

“Those six little pieces of steel are way, way deep in my head and of course they couldn’t be taken out surgically. But they apparently cut blood vessels, so I was suddenly transformed into a traumatic epileptic and paraplegic. I couldn’t move or speak or talk. … Why I survived I don’t know, because I didn’t try to.”

Matheson was the only officer who had served in the three batteries of the First Royal Canadian Horse Artillery to survive.

Matheson met his wife, Edith Bickley, in St. Anne de Bellevue Hospital in Montreal after the war. He said they would never have met if she hadn’t been such a curious radiologist.

“She got intrigued by this skull that showed six little fragments of steel in it, and she wanted to meet me. And so, she did.”

As an epileptic and paraplegic, Matheson hadn’t expected to get married and go on to live a full life.

“I thought that sort of adventure was over for me, but she was game, so I was married at Queen’s Theological College. … And that’s the last time I wore my uniform, with its wound stripe on the right-hand sleeve.”

After the war and copious amounts of rehabilitation, Matheson went to law school and eventually became a justice in Ontario’s Court of Justice.

He was first elected as a member of parliament in 1961, during a Federal bi-election. He became Parliamentary Secretary to Lester Pearson and was a leading member of the parliamentary committee that selected the design for Canada’s flag.

“I was Parliamentary Secretary to Pearson, in charge of symbolism,” Matheson said. “And so what had happened was I became the main flag-bearer.”

In addition to his role in the creation of the Canada flag, Matheson also founded of the Order of Canada.

“At the same time the flag was going through, we had a secret project [called the] Order of Canada, which was modeled on … the Tricolour Society [at Queen’s] and some of my Masonic background, which gave me an idea of what an Order was all about,” he said. The Order is a distinction recognizing national service or achievement in Canada. David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood, Agnes Benedickson, and architect Frank Gehry have all been awarded with companionship of the Order of Canada.

After working for Pearson, Matheson kept his position as Parliamentary Secretary under Pierre Trudeau.

“I lived with Pierre Trudeau for eighteen months as Parliamentary Secretary and he was working on his project, which was the Charter of Rights,” Matheson said.

“During that time, I was working on the Order of Canada and thinking that we should bring in an Order of Canada, but Pierre wasn’t too impressed with the flag or Order of Canada. He didn’t think those things were important.” Matheson disagreed.

“I thought symbolism was very, very important, was the very heart of the problem of how a small population could command the attention of a vast country,” he said. “A person doesn’t have to be important, or be in Parliament to be important, to have influence.”

Matheson eventually succeeded in instituting the Order of Canada, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. Since its official launch on July 1, 1967, over 600 people have been honoured with distinctions from the Order of Canada. Matheson himself became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1993.

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