A Saanich man with a passion for military history has had a full-circle experience.
Bart Armstrong is a retired Master Warrant Officer with the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves. He spends his time researching the lost stories of fallen soldiers, with a particular focus on Canadians who received an American Medal of Honor.
“I get the greatest satisfaction from reuniting families,” Armstrong said.
In the past 12 years, he’s reunited families with the history of over 60 medal recipients who hadn’t been recognized before, as well as advocated for proper grave markings of veterans who had gone unrecognized.
But just weeks ago, Armstrong was on the other end of the outreach: a family in Belgium contacted his family about the portrait of a bride painted during the Second World War.
The portrait was done by a well-known Belgian artist, Achiel Bentos. Bentos’ family had records of the 400 portraits he created during the First and Second World War, and were trying to track them down and learn their history.
The bride was Armstrong’s mother, Cathryne “Kay” Armstrong (nee Blackley). Cathryne and Gordon Armstrong were married at the Canada House in Brussels in the city’s first all-Canadian wedding.
“With some incredible irony, that portrait hung over the mantle in every house we lived in,” Armstrong said, adding that his industrious mother built the mantle herself.
Armstrong had never heard the back-story of the portrait, and his mother never spoke of it either, but what he did know was that there were three other portraits which accompanied it: one of his aunt and his grandparents.
“We told Bentos’ family that there are actually four portraits, and they were very surprised,” Armstrong said, adding that more surprises are coming their way. “She was so much more than a bride.”
Cathryne Armstrong was no ordinary woman, but in fact a national figure for women’s advocacy and the recipient of the Order of Canada and the Person’s Award (now known as the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case).
Cathryne grew up in a military family and decided to enlist in the Canadian Women’s Army Corp, where she started serving in 1942. She toured overseas, eventually landing in Belgium where she met her husband, Gordon. They announced their engagement one month after Germany surrendered, and were married on Sept. 7, 1945.
|Bart Armstrong’s picture shows his parents getting married in the Canada House in Brussels right after the Second World War. In the photo, his father cuts the wedding cake with a recovered sword from a German soldier which Armstrong still has. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)|
|Bart Armstrong shows a picture of his parents getting married in the Canada House in Brussels right after the Second World War. In the photo, his father cuts the wedding cake with a recovered sword from a German soldier which Armstrong still has. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)|
During her tour, Cathryne took a liking to painting. She entered her war art in an international competition and her pieces won respect and were showcased across Canada. Even today, her pieces are still displayed in the Canada War Museum in Ottawa.
After returning home, Cathryne and Gordon had five children, but that did nothing to slow her down. She pursued an education in political science and ran for provincial and federal politics with the Conservative Party.
“Later she would tell me ‘I shouldn’t have been fighting for the Conservative Party, I should have just been fighting for women and men in Canada,’” Armstrong recalled.
Cathryne served as a director on many boards, including the Toronto Consumer Association, and federal food councils. She also worked as the president of the National Council of Women of Canada, and eventually sat as the vice president of the International Council of Women, which was comprised of people from 80 countries.
In these roles, she advocated for women’s rights, education, child welfare, prostitution rights and equal pay. She was a key figure in the creation of Canadian Women’s History Month, and was featured in many publications including a book called “Who’s Who of Canadian Women.”
In 1979 she received the Person’s Award, and 1989 she received the Order of Canada.
|Bart Armstrong shows off his mother’s Order of Canada and Person’s Award medals, as well as the medals she recieved will serving the Canadian military during the Second World War (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)|
Cathryne continued her work on many boards nationally and locally, including her volunteer time at the Saanich Peninsula Hospital. She died in June 2008.
Now, Armstrong needs to decide what to do with the portrait, which is currently housed with his cousin in Vancouver.
|Cathryne Armstrong was the president of the National Council of Women of Canada (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)|
He hopes he’ll be able to send it somewhere where it can be more publicly seen, but doesn’t have a final plan yet.
“We were just stunned that they were asking us about the portrait,” Armstrong said. “But that’s the beauty of genealogy and history, it opens up the story to so much more.”
For more information on Armstrong’s work, you can visit canadianmedalofhonor.com.