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Pearkes, George R. (George Randolph), 1888-1984

  • Person
  • 1888-1984

George Randolph Pearkes, the oldest child of George and Louise Pearkes, was born on 26 February 1888 in Watford, Hertfordshire, England. His father was a partner in the family department store in Watford, and young George Randolph enjoyed a comfortable childhood with his younger brother Edward and his sister Hilda. In 1896, at the age of eight, he was sent to Berkhamsted School, located about 15 miles from Watford, and remained there until 1906. He later said that his school days shaped his attitudes toward life more than anything else, and instilled in him a sense of duty which he demonstrated many times throughout his life.

At Berkhamsted Pearkes trained as a school cadet and hoped to enter Sandhurst Academy to prepare for a career in the military, but these hopes were dashed when his father suffered financial reverses and could no longer afford to support his son's university education. Pearkes therefore decided to emigrate. In May 1906 he went to Canada and began working on a farm near Red Deer, Alberta, which was run by the Berkhamsted Headmaster, Dr. Thomas C. Fry, as a School farm for Berkhamsted boys. Pearkes remained there for two years, then took a job at a nearby farm to gain more experience, and in 1909 set up his own homestead site on a quarter-section near Dovercourt, Alberta. In 1910 his brother Edward, who had also been at the Berkhamsted Farm, joined him on the homestead, and later that year their mother and sister also moved to Canada (Pearkes' father remained in England), settling with George and "Ted" on the farm.

In 1911 Mrs. Pearkes and Hilda decided to move to the West Coast; Ted remained on the homestead until he could receive clear title, and George went to Regina to join the Royal North West Mounted Police. Six weeks after he joined he was chosen along with seven other volunteers to go to the Yukon on detachment duty. Pearkes remained there for the next three years, working in various regions of the territory up until the outbreak of the First World War. Having decided to enlist, Pearkes received his discharge from the R.N.W.M.P. in February 1915 and went to the West Coast, visiting his mother and sister before joining the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles in Victoria. In June 1915 the 2nd C.M.R. was shipped overseas, and Pearkes returned to England for the first time in nine years. After training in Shorncliffe, the regiment sailed for France in September 1915.

Pearkes distinguished himself in active service. He was wounded five times, took part in the Battle of the Somme and received the Victoria Cross for heroic action at Passchendaele in 1917. He also won the Military Cross in 1918 and the Distinguished Service Order in 1919. By the end of the war he had been promoted to Lt.-Col.; he returned to Canada and was stationed in Calgary, appointed to the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

In the summer of 1924, while on furlough in Victoria visiting his mother and sister, Pearkes met and fell in love with Constance Blytha Copeman; they became engaged and were married in August 1925. Shortly after their marriage Pearkes was posted to Winnipeg, where he and Blytha set up house. They had a daughter, Priscilla Edith ("Pep"), born in 1928, and a son, John Andre, born in 1931. Sadly, Pep, while still in the hospital after her birth, suffered an infection which led to a succession of illnesses, and she died while still a young child.

After the war Pearkes served as a staff officer in Winnipeg and Calgary and at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. In 1936 he attended the Imperial Defence College in London; his family travelled with him to England and remained there for two years. His training at the Imperial Defence College gave Pearkes an opportunity to learn more about the world situation and about the possible impact another world war could have on the British Commonwealth. He made the most of the opportunity, going on tours, researching politics and history in the College library, and giving lectures. He and Blytha also had an active social life, becoming friendly with Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Massey; in 1937 Blytha was presented at court to the newly-crowned George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The Pearkes returned to Calgary in 1938.

By the start of the Second World War in 1939, Pearkes had been promoted to Brigadier. He was put in command of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, which was comprised of western Canadian units: The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, based in Vancouver; the Edmonton Regiment; the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, with companies in Victoria and Winnipeg; and the Saskatoon Light Infantry, which was attached temporarily to the brigade. In December 1939 Pearkes, his staff and the men of the 2nd Brigade sailed to England and were stationed at Aldershot. In February 1940 he became seriously ill with spinal meningitis but started to recover within a few weeks. Blytha had been informed of his illness, and she and John left for England in order to be with him. They remained in England, staying in a cottage nearby. In November 1941 Pearkes was asked to take over as Corps Commander of the Canadian divisions from Lt.-Gen. A.G.L. McNaughton, who was taking an extended leave. Pearkes was made Brig.-Gen. and eventually Maj.-Gen. Serving as Corps Commander brought Pearkes in contact with Lt.-Gen. B.L. Montgomery, with whom he had numerous personality clashes.

In August 1942 Pearkes was sent back to Canada and appointed general officer commanding Pacific Command, overseeing defences on the West Coast, the Yukon and Alberta. The Pearkes family once again headed back to North America, Pearkes by air and Blytha and John following later by sea. In 1943 Pearkes helped organize Operation Greenlight, a plan to attack Kiska, Alaska, which had been taken over by the Japanese. In 1944 he helped stop the mutiny of the 15th Brigade in Terrace, B.C.; one of the biggest mutinies in Canadian army history, this mutiny was one of several which took place in the province in response to Prime Minister MacKenzie King's reversal of policy and decision to conscript men for overseas service. Pearkes succeeded in bringing this mutiny under control without blood-shed. However, he grew disillusioned when it became clear that the Canadian government would not consider employing any force to use against the Japanese until the fighting in Europe had ended, and he began to see himself more as a senior recruiting officer than as a commander-in-chief. Therefore, in January 1945, he asked to be relieved of his appointment and requested another one, although he also indicated his willingness to retire altogether if another, more suitable appointment could not be found. The Cabinet War Committee eventually decided that there was no other employment for him at his present rank in the Canadian army, and he therefore was retired with full pension in February 1945.

After leaving military service, Pearkes decided to go into politics, partly out of a desire to assist war veterans. In June 1945 he won his first federal election, representing the Nanaimo riding, which at that time included Saanich, Esquimalt and the Gulf Islands. He became the Conservative party's Defence Critic, and over the next twelve years made speeches in the House of Commons criticizing the Liberal Government's defence policies and stressing the need for the armed forces in Canada to become more efficient and integrated. In 1957 the Progressive Conservatives won the federal election, and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker appointed him Minister of National Defence. As Defence Minister Pearkes faced one of his first crises, the cancellation of the Avro Arrow interceptor aircraft, and also helped approve the proposed agreement for the North Atlantic Air Defence Command (NORAD), which Pearkes considered to be one of the highlights of his political career. Throughout these years in Ottawa Blytha Pearkes was also busy, being active in the Wives of Progressive Conservative Members and Senators, and helping her husband in his election campaigns.

In 1959 and 1960, Pearkes devised a policy for Canada to acquire nuclear warheads such as the Bomarc and Lacrosse missiles, and thereby clashed with Howard Green, Secretary of State for External Affairs, who did not want to see Canada become an atomic power. Pearkes also found that Prime Minister Diefenbaker seemed uninterested in military matters, and as Green exerted pressure on Diefenbaker, the Prime Minister became more reluctant to commit to Pearkes' policy. Eventually, Pearkes decided to resign from federal politics and accept an offer to become the next lieutenant-governor of British Columbia. In October 1960 Pearkes was sworn in, and he and Blytha moved into Government House in Victoria.

Pearkes remained Lt.-Governor until 1968, assisted by the Government House secretary, Commander Gar Dixon, and other staff members, and kept daily journals of his activities, both official and personal, during these years. He travelled widely around the province, welcomed official visitors such as the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, and invited local orphaned children to a Christmas party at Government House each year. He and Blytha also entertained family and friends, including John and his wife Joyce and their two sons, Anthony and Timothy. By the end of his tenure he had possibly been to more areas of British Columbia than any other lieutenant-governor before him.

After retiring from Government House in his eightieth year, Pearkes continued to travel about the province, give speeches, and appear at official functions. He died in Victoria of a stroke on 30 May 1984.

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