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My cell phone was almost dead that morning as we walked up and down the aisles of the Toronto Home Show. I tried to ignore the ringing, but the persistence of one number made me curious and, even though I was talking to an exhibitor, I handed the phone to my husband. He meandered ahead but returned to find me after a few minutes, phone in hand, “You’d better sit down. This police officer knows your mom’s name, your grandfather’s name, where he lived. This is crazy but they found your grandfather’s war medals under the Gardiner. They’ve been looking for a next of kin for weeks.”
Weak in the knees, incredulity rising, my emotions stirred up a series of questions. “Really?” was all I could muster. “He got too many things right for this to be a crank call,” David insisted. But I knew nothing about any missing medals.
Both of my parents had been gone for years. They would have known about the medals, and our family cottage on Georgian Bay housed a lot of old family heirlooms. Perhaps they’d been stolen from there? I remembered there had been a break-in about 10 years ago.
Granddad had fought in the First World War. I knew he’d enlisted in 1916 and got injured. As a child, I’d always loved visiting with him. I remember his warmth and friendliness, but also a formalness, perhaps a remnant of his military training. Even at the cottage he always wore dress pants with suspenders, a white shirt and those elastic arm bands men used to wear to keep their shirt sleeves rolled up.
David and I took a moment to process the news, and thought about what to do next. Realizing we were less than a kilometre from the officers’ unit, we decided to head right over. It felt as if we could do nothing else.
Coming through the station-house doors, the officers met us with big smiles and firm handshakes. “A lot of people have been looking for you,” one of the constables said. Luckily, I had a photo of Granddad’s official discharge papers, signed by King George and dated Nov. 11, 1918, on my phone. I’d posted it on social media just before last year’s Remembrance Day to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war’s end. That photo helped confirm my identity.
We learned that, if not for a city-enforced removal of homeless shelters under Toronto’s elevated highway, the medals would likely have never turned up.
Constables Rick Gomez and Ed Otten arrived at Lower Simcoe Street and Lakeshore Boulevard to check in on a few homeless people who’d set up camp for the winter in makeshift tents. They wanted them to know about the bulldozers and dump trucks coming soon to clear everything away, including their encampments and piles of discarded items.
Among the piles, Gomez noticed an envelope and picked it up. “Enclosed is the jewellery you requested us to return. James H. Lynn Funeral Homes Ltd, Midland, Elmvale.” Handwriting underneath the printing read, “C.E. Scott Medals W.W.1.” Inside the envelope was three medals and a pin.
I remembered Granddad’s funeral, I was 17 and it was the first I’d ever been to. The casket was open and I couldn’t believe Granddad was there, lying motionless in a box. He would have been 86 years old in a few days’ time. When the funeral-home staff closed the lid after the service – I turned away, sat a little closer to my mom and started to softly cry. He was the only grandparent I had known.
The officers knew the medals’ value, and brought them back to the station. With the help of Constable Chris Kainz – all three were ex-military – they began to look for clues as to who the owner might be. Engraved into the edges of each medal are the owner’s name, rank and number. Through Veterans Affairs Canada they confirmed that C. E. Scott was Charles Edward from Penetanguishene, Ont.
The officers read through dozens of pages of information about Granddad after an online search. They learned about Charles Scott’s war experience, including the severe injuries that led to an honourable discharge. They made dozens of calls to funeral homes in the area, museums, military organizations, government ministries and even an antique military establishment in Toronto. Since the medals may have been stolen, they searched police records for any reports. Still, they came up empty-handed.
Constable Gomez returned one last time to look under the Gardiner Expressway and see if he could find any other clues. City clean-up crews had been postponed twice owing to winter weather, but soon the machinery would arrive to clear the site.
This is where the truly miraculous happened: Kicking around the debris, Gomez noticed a small, torn scrap of paper, wrapped together with two others. Unravelling them, he saw that one piece mentioned a James Scott, who he now knew to be Charles’s only son. These torn insurance papers also mentioned Nancy Scott, James’s wife, who they knew of already and a third party – Elizabeth Scott. They appeared to be the torn corners of three different life insurance premium notices.
With this new piece of evidence – and a new name to search – within hours, the constable had found my cell-phone number and called. So there we were, standing at the police marine unit’s front counter last March, listening to their unbelievable tale.
As I held that envelope, I recognized my father’s handwriting straight away. Emotions coursed through me and tears came to my eyes as memories of Granddad flashed through my mind – special moments, such as sitting on his knee as he bounced me gently, singing, It’s a long way to Tipperary. I must have been around six or seven at the time.
Eventually, after taking photos with the officers, we left the station and headed home with our treasure. Today, the medals are framed and hang next to Granddad’s official military discharge papers and a photo of the 177th Battalion (Simcoe Foresters) CEF.
I’m so grateful the Toronto officers persevered in their search. Thanks to their diligence, my sons – Granddad’s great grandsons – will inherit this meaningful piece of history, one that symbolizes the sacrifice of many, who gave everything they had, for the betterment of future generations.
Elizabeth J. Scott lives in Toronto.