Manning knew Watters as a founding member of Doctors for the Repeal of the Abortion Law (DRAL) and a key player in its broader-based affiliate, Canadians for the Repeal of the Abortion Law, but the two men also became friends and talked about their personal lives. “Like many people who have rough beginnings, he did his best to see that other people didn’t go through the same kinds of trauma,” said Manning, adding that “almost everybody I met during the time I was working on the [Morgentaler] case had a story to tell about a sister or a mother or a daughter who was affected by what I called the terrorism of the system. He was a very compassionate man.
Wendell Wallace Watters was born Oct. 1, 1923, near Fredericton. One of three children of Herbert and Ola (née Regina) Watters, he grew up in a treacherous era spiked with alarming newspaper accounts from the Spanish Civil War, Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia and Nazi Germany’s takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Religion and war – both of which he would come to abhor – collided for him when he was not quite 16. He was attending a provincial conference of the Anglican Young Person’s Association early in September, 1939, and about to go into a church service when another participant, who had been listening to the radio, told him that England and France had declared war on Germany.
Too young to enlist, he finished high school, spent a year at teacher’s college and taught briefly in a one-room schoolhouse on the Nashwaak River before joining the announcing staff at CFNB in Fredericton – his moniker was Graveyard Gus because he had the early morning shift. He was rejected twice by the RCAF – once because he was underweight – before being accepted into the fledgling Canadian air force in June, 1943.
After earning his navigator’s wings and the nickname Windy, he was shipped to India in November, 1944, as a navigator on B-24 Liberators, an American designed and manufactured heavy bomber.
He mostly flew operations against Japanese military installations and bridges in Burma, Thailand and Malaya and was not involved in anything like the carpet bombing of German or Japanese cities, but he confessed in an unpublished memoir that he was “seriously disturbed” about his role in the Second World War for “many years,” mourning the lives he had destroyed and asking why he had survived when friends had been killed.
Back in Canada, he used his veterans’ benefits to get an undergraduate degree at the University of New Brunswick and to study medicine at Dalhousie in Halifax. That’s where he met and married surgical nurse Lena Robertson in 1952, the year before he graduated with his MD. For the next four years, he worked as a general practitioner for the RCAF at its station in Greenwood, N.S. In 1957, the Watters family moved to Montreal where he did post-graduate training in psychiatry at McGill, completed the training program at the Canadian Institute of Psychoanalysis, worked on staff at the Montreal General Hospital and taught in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill.
He rarely talked to friends and family about his own early life – his father committed suicide when Watters was a teenager – or the effects of his war experience. Some of his colleagues suggest he talked himself out in psychoanalysis – a form of psychiatry he later rejected as too orthodox. Others say the traumas were too profound and he preferred to look outward and concentrate on helping others.