Niobe Day: reflecting on naval artefacts and family heritage

Navy News / October 22, 2015

The great majority of Canada’s economy depends on maritime trade routes and its world-record coastline borders three oceans. So, Canada is clearly a maritime nation, and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is vital in this reality. Economic and geographic facts are important to Canadians, but naval lore, stories and artefacts arouse a keen sense of pride and passion that facts alone cannot emulate.

A historical artefact was presented to the RCN to commemorate this year’s Niobe Day. Niobe Day marks the arrival of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Niobe in Halifax on October 21, 1910 – the first Canadian warship to enter Canada’s territorial waters – a landmark event in the beginnings of the Naval Service of Canada. Each year on October 21st, today’s sailors take the opportunity to reflect upon the proud history of Canada’s navy, and on what it means to be a member of the profession of arms.

A rare, century-old framed portrait photograph of Seaman Walter “Lofty” Williams, one of the first members of HMCS Niobe, was donated to the RCN for safekeeping in the Halifax Maritime Command Museum, during an event at HMCS Bytown in Ottawa on October 16, 2015 by descendants of Seaman Williams.

This precious heirloom, presented by members of the Williams, Beaulieu and Blondin families, depicts “Lofty” in the naval rig of the time. Reportedly a bit of a rascal, Seaman Williams’ naval service record is sketchy, but the young sailor later volunteered for Canada’s Expeditionary Force, displayed his mettle at Vimy Ridge, and later fought and was gassed during the second battle at Ypres.

Now, over a century later, Lofty’s great-grandchild, Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Walter Blondin, serves as a Boatswain in the RCN. Regrettably, PO2 Blondin could not attend the presentation as he was aboard HMCS Montréal, at sea near Scotland at the time. The 30-year-old, who was named after his great-grandfather, arguably has seawater running through his veins.

In addition to his great-grandfather Lofty, PO2 Blondin’s maternal grandfather Beaulieu also served in the RCN shortly after the Second World War, and his father, Lieutenant-Commander Al Blondin, a Cold War submariner, is serving with the Naval Staff in Ottawa. Like Lofty, the Blondin family military service is also part of a strong and proud heritage that extends beyond the sea. PO2 Blondin’s brother, Master Corporal Yvan Blondin is a technician with the Canadian Army Communications Branch in Kingston, Ont. In addition, PO2 Blondin’s brother, mother and father are all veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

This year the RCN has had the great fortune to further explore more of its own history, even as it looks ahead to a bright future. The naming of five of its future Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships brought to light yet another family heirloom of historical significance.

Each of the upcoming vessels will carry the names of prominent naval heroes, and for one such hero, Lieutenant Frédérick Rolette, Commander of the brig General Hunter during the War of 1812, a precious artefact served to further tell his story. Lt Rolette’s sabre, preserved by generations of Rolette descendants, was found and displayed during the naming ceremony for HMCS Frédérick Rolette in Québec City on July 16, 2015. The sabre is a fitting tribute to a sailor who was passionate about the sovereignty of his fledging nation.

During the War of 1812, Lt Rolette was repeatedly honoured through dispatches by senior military officers. Major-General Isaac Brock praised Lt. Rolette writing, “I have watched you during the action. You behaved like a lion and I will remember you.” Wounded, Rolette refused to leave the field at the battle of the River Raisin. “I have been selected to work this gun,” he said. “It would be a lasting disgrace for me to leave it.”  

It is this legacy of service and professionalism that has inspired generations of serving men and women to work to ensure the RCN’s continued excellence, both at sea and ashore.