What is “Our Mister Nixon”?

Anyone who knows David Nixon will also know that, during his time as China & Crystal Manager at Henry Birks & Sons in Victoria BC, he became known as “our Mister Nixon” to his loyal and loving staff. The epithet spread beyond the walls and blue boxes of Birks and many of his friends took to calling David that… almost always with affection, regardless of the circumstances.

This blog is meant to honour David as he was, before dementia stole the man we all knew and cared for so much.

David in Phnom Penh 1955

David proudly wearing his Nobel Peace Prize Medal (awarded for his service in Indochina), December 2000

Our Mister Nixon is comprised of photos, letters and other snippets from David’s charmed life, especially the time that he was overseas (Indochina 1954-55, Germany 1955-59, and the Congo 1960-61). Readers are invited to post reminiscences and comments as well.

David truly was an innocent abroad, at least at the start. He was also an excellent letter writer and we are fortunate that virtually all his letters were a) typed and b) saved. His father, Glen, made a point of saving these letters, along with many carbon copies of his own replies. David’s letters, as presented here in Our Mister Nixon, have been edited in places to remove such things as details of David’s payroll and bank balance. Extraneous material, such as side-comments on news clippings and church calendar items as provided by Glen, have also been deleted.

David was mad for photos. He took lots of them and put them in albums or boxes and envelopes. All of the albums and slides are now in Victoria, along with most of the framed special photos accumulated over the years, including several that feature David’s late brother, Russell, who passed away on August 6th, 2012.

BACKGROUND

Indochina: In early 1954, David was made aware of job vacancies in what was then the Department of External Affairs. He applied for and was accepted in an entry-level position in a department that offered many opportunities for those who were willing to travel and accept non-standard living arrangements.

As the year progressed, the French were in the process of being given a drubbing by the Viet Minh in Indochina. In May, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu made it clear that they had been beaten and a withdrawal began, leaving the colonies of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia vulnerable. (Remember, this was at the height of the Cold War and “Communist China” was in an excellent position to take over these very strategic nascent nation-states.)

As Wikipedia tells us, “the International Control Commission (ICC), formally called the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Vietnam (ICSC), was an international force established in 1954 that oversaw the implementation of the Geneva Accords that ended the First Indochina War with the Partition of Vietnam. It reported on the progress of the ceasefires and any violations against them. The force comprised troops and officers from Canada, Poland, and India representing the non-communist, communist, and non-aligned blocs respectively.”

Because Indochina was considered to be an active war zone, External Affairs would not send any female support staff into the area. Our Mister Nixon, being an honours graduate of the High School of Commerce, had excellent office management skills, shorthand, typing and so on. So, in an era when any posting overseas – even to a non-war zone – was usual reserved for those over the age of 25, David, at the age of 19, was dispatched to Phnom Penh to support the ICC post there at the end of August 1954. He returned to Ottawa in late July 1955.

Germany: In November 1955, David was posted to Bonn for three and a half years with the Department of External Affairs. His position classification of “teletypist” was actually that of cryptographer. David was in charge of transcribing and coding messages for members of the diplomatic corps at the Canadian Embassy, including the Ambassador. When David arrived in Bonn, the Ambassador was Charles Ritchie, a close friend of Lester Pearson who was then Minister of External Affairs. (For those perhaps too young to remember, Bonn was the capital of West Germany, which existed as a separate country from 1948-1989. The capital of the reunited Germany is, of course, Berlin.)

Europe in the mid- and late 1950s was politically very active as the Cold War intensified and the division of Europe into East and West was becoming more pronounced. David, always circumspect, never mentions anything to do with the nature of his work in any of his communications home. There are, however, gaps in his letters and occasional tangential references to events that speak to the circumstances of the day.

Readers will note that the David Nixon who went to Bonn was very different from the one who went to Indochina. His letters and postcards from Europe, convey a more mature and self-confident man and, reading between the lines through the our modern lens, we also see someone coming into his own as a gay man, in the days long before “gay” was okay.

David returned to Ottawa in late April 1959 and took a leave of absence from External Affairs to attend Carleton University, then in its first year on the new campus on Dow’s Lake in Ottawa South. One of the courses David took was Spanish, and he achieved a real coup in early 1960, by using his connections to have the new Cuban Ambassador to Canada come to speak to his Spanish class. Not just anyone could pull that off!

Congo: Meanwhile, in what was then the Belgian Congo, the Belgians were in the process of disengaging themselves from their colony, which was granted full independence in June 1960. A rebellion soon erupted and a UN mission was struck to try to keep the peace. Canada was part of that mission and looking for male staff to support the military as they had in Indochina. David was inveigled into returning to External Affairs and, in September, he was sent to what was then Leopoldville (now Kinshasa).

After: David remained in the Congo until March of 1961, when he applied for leave to visit South Africa for a holiday. His leave was refused and he was recalled to Ottawa. Within a few weeks of his return, he was summoned to an “interview” with the RCMP. Unsure why he was there, he was taken to an office and seated facing a man behind a desk. The blinds behind the man at the desk were slightly open to the afternoon sun and David was unable to see who was speaking to him. His recollection was simply a statement: “We have reason to believe that you are a homosexual. As such you are a security risk. You have the option of resigning your position immediately. If you do not resign, we will see to it that you are removed.”

David resigned. Things being what they were in those days, he was unable to discuss with anyone why he did so. No one then would believe that the RCMP was involved in such tactics. Now we know they were conducting a witch hunt since the early 1950s with the support of the federal government and the FBI. The focus was generally on anyone more than 25 years of age and single.

Following the destruction of his career in the public service, David moved to London in late 1961 to stay with his closest friend, Sylvia, to try and rebuild his life. He eventually returned to Canada and, indeed, rebuilt his life, but only after paying a terrible price. Our Mister Nixon was nothing if not resourceful in face of adversity. To find out, read on!

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There’s lots to see and read and the Archives goes back to early October 2012, so please use the “Read Previous” button at the bottom of each Archives page to go right back to the beginning (that’s one bug in WordPress that can be really annoying).

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