A story of survival I’ll never forget

Bob Wakeham
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It’s fair to say I’ve interviewed thousands of people in my seemingly endless time in this media racket, and that the bulk of those one-on-ones have disappeared into the deep crevices of my skull, lost forever.

A still from the NFB film "54 Hours."

But it’s equally fair to say there are a few interviews I’ve never forgotten, and never will. And, in the last little while, during the course of viewing two documentaries on the 1914 sealing disaster, I’ve been reminded of a memorable interview I had while still a neophyte reporter in the early ’70s with Cecil Mouland, the best known of the survivors of that near incomprehensible tragedy.  

The late Mr. Mouland has become something of a Newfoundland icon, as two interviews he did, one with CBC’s “Land and Sea” and the other with author Cassie Brown, have been dusted off and reprinted or re-aired in various formats.

An extremely modest man, Mr. Mouland would probably be slightly bemused by his fame, his profile especially pronounced with the 100th anniversary in April of the sealing tragedy in which 78 Newfoundlanders froze to death on the ice floes.  

Reg Sherren, a reporter originally from these parts, produced a wonderful documentary that was aired on CBC’s “The National” in early April, a piece in which Mr. Mouland’s “Land and Sea” interview played a prominent role. (A plug for Sherren here: I worked with Reg for several years when he was doing his thing with “Here and Now.” His story-telling prowess was evident back then, and has continued to blossom in his years working with the Mother Corp crowd upalong; his work is invariably worth catching).

The second production that revived my memory of that afternoon with Mr. Mouland occurred a couple of weeks ago when I visited the “Sealing Disaster” exhibit at The Rooms, and had a chance to see the National Film Board documentary, “54 Hours”; it’s a powerful and evocative film, once again with Mr. Mouland’s words providing the most significant content in the first-hand accounts of what occurred on those two days and two nights of unspeakable horror on the ice a century ago.

And, as I say, I couldn’t help, while taking in that NFB film and the Sherren documentary, but reflect on that day when a stroke of serendipity (my initials on a news assignment sheet arbitrarily attached to Mr. Mouland’s name) allowed me to spend several hours in his company.

Back then, Mr. Mouland was not nearly as well known as he eventually became as a survivor of that tragedy. And, to tell the truth, I don’t think I was aware until that day, either, of his involvement in such a historical event. I’m sure I was nervous about the interview; I was still learning my craft at the time, and was uptight about any story I was assigned.

What I recall is Mr. Mouland’s gentlemanly demeanour, how he went out of his way to make sure the shy and ill at ease tadpole of a reporter sitting in his living room was comfortable.

He was incredibly gracious.

As I listened, hypnotized by his amazing recollection, Mr. Mouland told me the same story he had told “Land and Sea” and Cassie Brown, how he and his fellow sealers made their way from their vessel, the SS Newfoundland, skippered by Wes Kean, over the ice to the SS Stephano, captained by Wes’s father, the famous — or infamous, depending on your take of that 1914 tragedy — Abram Kean. After a quick mug-up, the men were ordered over the side of The Stephano by Kean Sr. to hunt seals and return to The Newfoundland, but were stranded and lost in a vicious blizzard, and were stuck on the ice for those 54 hours.

He told me in graphic detail how he watched his friends collapsing and dying one by one on the ice; his description, in particular, of a father and son freezing to death in each other’s arms sent shivers up my spine.

But one story he told me did not appear in either of the documentaries I’ve seen in recent weeks. When I asked him how he managed to survive while surrounded by death, he told me that back home in Doting Cove, Bonavista Bay, he knew that a young fella had his eye on the same woman Mr. Mouland was hoping to marry, and that he was determined he wouldn’t lose her to someone else. As he struggled to stay on his feet, to keep walking, to keep moving, he thought about a girl named Jessie.

That’s what kept him going, he said. And it worked. He lived, returned to Doting Cove, and he and Jessie eventually married.

I’ve told that story before, but it always bears repeating, and now most especially, given my reconnection to Mr. Mouland through those two documentaries, and the coincidental fact that this year’s seal fishery is now underway.

 Of course, the seal hunt has turned into a mere shadow of itself, the result of the anti-sealing zealots and their immoral and dishonest campaigns that started in the mid-1970s.

And their actions have been reprehensible not just for their blatant lies and distortion, and their exploitation of those dollar-signed images of cute harp seals and bloody ice, but the way in which they’ve slandered honourable men. Cecil Mouland, for example.

The humane societies, Greenpeace, the International Fund for Animal Welfare types, and innumerable entertainers (many of the has-been variety) have raised millions — if not billions — of bucks by portraying immensely decent men like Mr. Mouland as sick and twisted barbarians.

There was a photograph of a seal protester in The Telegram a couple of weeks ago posing in some animal shelter on the west coast of the province, and I’m thinking now that this poor young thing, misguided and brainwashed, should be forced to watch “54 Hours.”

Maybe it might prompt her to do something decent with her life.

Although I doubt it.Even meeting Mr. Mouland, as I was fortunate enough to have done, would have had little impact. She and her ilk are a lost cause. With the scruples of an alley cat.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC, National Film Board, The Rooms Greenpeace International Fund for Animal Welfare

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Doting Cove, Bonavista Bay

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