They chose love and an unknown future in a new land over their own countries and families.
In many cases their great leap of faith paid off, and war brides lived wonderful, fulfilling lives with the foreign soldiers they married during the Second World War.
As the War Brides: One Way Passage exhibit at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery suggests, many brides raised children and contributed in countless ways to their new adopted homelands.
In other cases, there were tears and misgivings. Some marriages did not work out and the war brides made return trips home.
But for Red Deer residents Violet Elliot and Grace Harris, coming to Alberta was always viewed as a marvelous adventure.
Although these two local war brides are not featured in the museum exhibit, their stories are as compelling as any.
Harris left a twin sister and other siblings behind in England, but felt “I was very, very lucky. Coming to Canada was one of the best things I ever did.”
The former Londoner married Archie Harris, a ground crewman in the Edmonton squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force, during the war — against the advice of an old family friend.
“He said if I came to Canada, I’d probably end up living on top of a mountain!” Instead, 23-year-old woman got off the train on the flat Canadian Prairie in 1946 with her baby son, and was welcomed into the arms of her husband and his loving family.
Edmonton was such a small community then, compared to London.
“It was a new city” that only stretched as far south as the North Saskatchewan River, she recalled.
But it proved to be a thriving setting for a happy and prosperous life.
Harris was married for about six decades before Archie, an electrician, died in 2004. They had two children, a grandson and three great-grandchildren.
“I don’t think I could have been luckier. I am thankful every day,” said the 91-year-old, who now lives in Red Deer with her daughter.
Elliot arrived in Calgary from her native Scotland in 1946. She was following her husband, who had been a gunner in a Canadian tank regiment that helped liberate Italy.
Elliot was so glad the “persistent” soldier she married in 1943 wasn’t killed that she didn’t think twice about joining him in Canada after the war. “I thought of it as an adventure. I didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
She was already pregnant when she arrived in Alberta, and all three of their sons were born here.
For many years, the growing Harris family lived in the village of Marwayne, near the Saskatchewan border, where Jim Elliot worked as an insurance broker and Violet raised the boys and later practised the public nursing skills she learned in Scotland.
Since there was no doctor in the tiny community, she got to help with cases that were far beyond the scope of many other nurses. “It was a very interesting life,” recalled Harris, now 97.
Both of the local women were looking forward to seeing the War Brides: One-Way Passage exhibit that opened Saturday at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery. The exhibit features 70 portraits of young war brides by Calgary artist Bev Tosh.
Many of these women boarded ships and did not see their parents or grandparents again, said Kim Verrier, coordinator of visitor experience at the museum.
They had only brief reunions with siblings in the ensuing years. “It really was for better or worse . . . ”
While some war brides from England, Scotland, Holland, and other countries were warmly welcomed, others were blamed for taking local men, and faced multiple difficulties. One formerly homesick war bride told Tosh, “We could have sailed back to England on the tears we shed.”
Tosh’s mother, Dorothy, was the inspiration for the portrait project that was previously exhibited across Canada, including the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
She did not have an entirely happy experience as a war bride.
The Saskatchewan Prairie girl met a New Zealand pilot at an air base in Saskatoon. They married, and Dorothy moved away with him after the war, but their union did not last.
After a decade, Tosh’s mom moved back to Canada with her and her sister, who had both been born in New Zealand. In a video, Tosh an award-winning graduate of the Alberta College of Art and Design, recounts her childhood feelings of displacement.
“I thought of myself as a New Zealander . . . ” She still keeps a box of black iron-based New Zealand sand, and later returned to that country to teach.
After painting her mother’s portrait, Tosh met other war brides who told her their stories. This sparked her interest in capturing the youthful optimism that was so evident in their faded wedding pictures.
Among the many portraits is one of Phyllis, a Red Deer war bride who’s now deceased. Like the other paintings, it was created on a plywood panel, with the grainy wood texture providing a ghostly, watery look.
This could be interpreted as a metaphor for the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, or tears shed for families left behind.
Each image leaves such a strong impression that viewers will want to know more about the women than the scant text provides. But perhaps this mystery is part of the exhibit’s appeal.
The women depicted “were courageous survivors who made a voyage into the unknown,” said Verrier, who admires their strength and resiliency.
Despite parental objections and government obstacles to international marriages, some 44,000 woman and 21,000 children were issued one-way tickets to join former Canadian soldiers.
Between 1944 and 1947, war brides and their children made up more than 60 per cent of this country’s emigration quota. As a result, one in 30 Canadians is thought to descend from a war bride union.
The exhibit continues to August 4.