Melfort bush pilot and researcher presented Meritorious Service Medal

Sgt Anis Assari, Rideau Hall © OSGG, 2024 Doug Chisholm was presented the Meritorious Service Medal by Governor General Mary Simon on March 21 at Rideau Hall.

Heritage researcher and bush pilot Doug Chisholm of Melfort recently received one of the highest honours in Canada from Governor General Mary Simon.

On March 21 at Rideau Hall, Chisholm received a Meritorious Service Medal (Civil Division) for his work keeping the memory of those who passed away in the Second World War through photography. Chisholm said the entire event was a shock to him.

“When you get a phone call and then they say you’re there from Rideau Hall and wondering if I would accept this Meritorious Service Medal … yeah, I was surprised,” Chisholm said. “It was unexpected. It wasn’t what I thought would happen when I picked up the phone that day.”

Chisholm said that the wording in the citation was important to him.

“This honour, one of the highest in the country, has been conferred upon you by Her Excellency the right Honourable Mary Simon, the Governor General of Canada. It’s a testament to your outstanding achievement and service to the nation,” Chisholm said as he quoted the citation.

“Now, that’s pretty bold talk, right? I mean, but not everybody gets that, and so when you read that or when she stands in the front of the room in Rideau Hall and reads like that and says those things, it’s an honour,” he added.

Chisholm’s award was a long time coming. He received notice about the award during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Governor General’s Office was unsure when it would be presented. Then in January, Chisholm got an email finalizing the date.

According to the Governor General’s Office citation, Chisholm has photographed and documented many of Saskatchewan’s 3,800 remote lakes, islands and rivers named in honour of military personnel who died in the Second World War. For the families of those war dead, his carefully crafted tributes allow them to view many inaccessible sites, and to connect their loved ones’ legacies with the region’s magnificent natural beauty.

Chisholm started his work in 1997. He was a bush pilot who flew a float plane and lived in La Ronge for 35 years.

There are 4,000 sites in northern Saskatchewan named in memory of each serviceman who lost their lives in the Second World War.

“I started to research the lakes and the islands that have these features in northern Saskatchewan that were named in memory of the serviceman that died in the Second World War,” he remembered. “Then over the years I came in contact with a lot of the families who were interested in this, and they provided me with pictures of the serviceman.”

He would provide the family with pictures of the lake or island and they would provide a photo of the serviceman. Eventually families also requested that he put a memorial plaque on the shoreline and each summer he would fulfil these requests and over the years he completed 300 plaques.

“Each one is different, (and) each one is special, just like the individual, and I think that, in a sense, is why I received this honour,” he said.

Doug Chisholm/Facebook Doug Chisholm, seen here with one of his plaques, was presented the Meritorious Service Medal by Governor General Mary Simon on March 21 at Rideau Hall.

Chisholm had no GPS when flying to the sites, so he would use maps to locate them. Sometimes he would come across plaques the families had already placed in honour of their loved ones.

“At one point, a friend asked me to take a picture of an island out on Lac La Ronge that was named in memory of a serviceman that died in the Second World War,” he remembered. “I looked on the map and then the name was there. I went out and circled and took the pictures and it begged the question, you know, who was this individual and what happened to him? I started to research.”

Chisholm said that the names were on all official maps but it was not well known at the time that the memorials existed.

He is also author of “Their Names Live On – Remembering Saskatchewan’s Fallen in World War II ” which was published in November 2001 by the Canadian Plains Research Center at the University of Regina. When the book came out families started to contact him.

A number of his photos are on the back wall of the Melfort Legion for soldiers from the area.

“That was my bread and butter,” he said. “That was how I paid the gas for my plane was I took these pictures. I had no government grants or anything. There were no programs for this.”

In 2001 he was contacted by a member of the Melfort Legion who provided a list of names for all those who lost their lives. Chisholm provided the photos of the locations and the Legion then provided the pictures of the fallen. He said he built the photos and charged $100 a frame and that paid for his fuel for his plane and the film for his camera.

His process is to circle the lake with his plane and film it with his video camera.

“I pick a spot and I land and tie up on shore and I drill into the bedrock and I mount the plaques,” he explained.

“I have a bit of a sequence that I go through. I record it, do a bit of a eulogy, and I play the Last Post on my boombox and there’s a minute of silence and then there’s Reveille like on Nov. 11.”

He records it for the family and has seen it move from VCR tapes to now using a USB stick to provide it to the family. He said that he hopes all of his research material ends up in the Provincial Archive.

He explained that just being in Rideau Hall made the honour that much more special.

“Rideau Hall is a really historic building, I mean it goes back into the mid 1800s and there’s a lot of things have happened there over the years. To be able to go and take and take a walk about and look and meet all those people, it really is something. It was a very special honour.”

On March 21, Simon presented a total of 64 Meritorious Service Decorations (Civil Division), including 8 Meritorious Service Crosses (M.S.C.) and 56 Meritorious Service Medals (M.S.M.).

The Meritorious Service Decorations (Civil Division) were created by Queen Elizabeth II to recognize great Canadians for an exceptional deed they accomplished over a limited period that brings honour to our country. They honour activities or deeds that are often innovative, set an example or model for others to follow, or improve the quality of life in a community.