In honour of Remembrance Day, the Airdrie City View's November subject for the monthly Qs with the View interview feature is Bill Dunbar, the president of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #288. Dunbar, who is also an Order of Canada member, has been the Airdrie Legion's president since 2019.
He spoke to us about his military background, his lengthy career in telecommunications, and why he thinks the Airdrie Legion is an important community institution.
The interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.
City View: What's your military background?
Dunbar: I was born the day before the Second World War was declared in 1939. My father served in the Canadian army in the B.C. tank regiment during the war. He was overseas in England and Italy, and was involved in the battles that took place with that regiment. He returned in late 1945, after the war, and at that time we lived in B.C., in a little town called Hammond.
When he returned from the war, we moved around B.C. a number of places and I joined the Army Cadets and Air Cadets when I was in high school. In 1956, I had just finished Grade 11 and there was an opportunity the Canadian government had opened up for an apprenticeship program for young military males.
I was brought into a program called the Soldier Apprenticeship Program, and I joined on July 11, 1956. It was for a seven-year period. You would spend two years as an apprentice, and in those two years, they’d teach you basic military training – everything a soldier needs to learn – in the first six months. Then, because it was an apprenticeship program, we actually went to high school in the army. It wasn’t regular high school, but an instructor was brought into the base to teach us. The focus was on history, English, mathematics and physics. When you graduated, [you would receive] trades training and recognized credits. My trade was as a radio technician.
When I completed that apprenticeship program, I was sent to Gagetown N.B., to the signal squadron in 1959. I spent a number of years at the large military base there, met my first wife and got married.
City View: And then where did you go?
Dunbar: I was sent to the Congo in 1961. I was there for about seven months, in various places. I was in Léopoldville, as that’s what the Belgians called it, but it’s Kinshasa now. I was also in Elizabethville, which is in the southwest corner of the Congo, and I was also in another place called Albertville on Lake Tanganyika, which is one of the largest lakes in the world.
After that, I came back to Canada and was stationed in B.C. with the B.C. Signals Squadron. The final thing I did in the army was work on the Diefenbunkers, which were the centres they set up for the various provincial governments in the event of an atomic war.
City View: What did you do after you left the army?
Dunbar: I got out in in 1963. I spent a couple of years doing TV work on the side, but also working as a security guard at the correctional institute in Maple Ridge, B.C. I worked there for about two years and then in 1965, I joined CN Telecommunications, which was the operative for the telecommunication system along the Alaska Highway. It started in Grande Prairie, Alta. and went all the way up the Alaska Highway to the Alaska border. [CN Telecommunications] was a member of the CN Railway system.
We went up north to a place way up the highway [near Whitehorse] and I spent a number of years there. I started as a technician, and then worked with CNTel for over 30 years. I retired in 1996. In that period of time, I moved to various places, such as Hay River, Whitehorse, Edmonton, and back again. I wound up in Whitehorse, where the headquarters for CNTel became. Its name was changed from CN Telecommunications to NorthwestTel. It was sold, I think, in 1994, to Bell Canada. At the time, we operated all the telecommunication systems in the Yukon, western Northwest Territories and northern B.C.
During my [career], I started as a technician and when I retired in 1996, I was president and CEO, so I did quite well in that field. After that, I did a number of jobs for Bell Canada internationally, like in Brazil.
Basically, the value I received from my apprenticeship training as a radio technician and as a soldier led to a successful later career. If I hadn’t had that training, I wouldn’t have been as successful.
City View: What about your legion involvement?
Dunbar: When I was in the military, you couldn’t join the legion as a regular force member. In later years, we changed the rules so anyone in the army or has that background [can join]. But at that time, you could not be an active member in the Canadian Forces and be a legion member. But when I got out, the first thing I did was join the legion.
I just got my 50-year service medal. Just before I retired, I was also honoured by the Governor General of Canada and inducted as a member of the Order of Canada. If you look at my medals, you’ll see I have one that is kind of white with a red and white ribbon. When you look at medals, you go from right to left, with the most senior medal being the one closest to the heart. So the most senior one I have is the Order of Canada, which is the highest medal you can have other than the Victoria Cross or the Canadian Cross of Valour. I received the Order of Canada for work I did in the Yukon, raising funds and heading up different organizations like the chamber of commerce, and building a large arts centre that cost $11 million.
City View: When and how did you arrive in Airdrie?
Dunbar: It was actually Rocky View County. If you look west of here, there’s Range Road 13, just at the top of the hill. When I first moved south, I bought one of the acreages over there. That was in 1996, when I retired.
City View: Were you involved with the Airdrie Legion’s founding?
Dunbar: No, when I moved here, Airdrie’s branch had already gone through two locations. This one, we built about five years ago. The older one is a church today…off the corner of Edmonton Trail. Our old building was right beside it. This is a brand new building here, built by McKee Homes.
It was built for us by McKee, so we sold our old building to the church. They expanded the area and put their school in there, which is great. There was a little house here that we tore down and we built this building on top of it.
City View: What makes the Airdrie Legion special?
Dunbar: The people of Airdrie are very supportive of the legion. They appreciate the legion and the work we do and are very supportive of our poppy campaigns. We find it a very supportive community. From a legion point of view of keeping the business open, the selling of our old property fixed us up and put us in a financial position of, when we bought the new building and got it built, we paid for everything and had a positive bank account,
As we came into the pandemic, we struggled a bit, but because of the supports given to small businesses and the people, members, we’re in a very positive position and will be here to serve the community for years to come.”