The Lord Strathcona Horse Mounted Troop is part of the Okanagan Military Tattoo and performs at the IPE  fairgrounds in Armstrong

The Lord Strathcona Horse Mounted Troop is part of the Okanagan Military Tattoo and performs at the IPE fairgrounds in Armstrong

The story behind the Okanagan Military Tattoo

Find out what David Thompson, a Voyageur canoe race, and the bagpipes have to do with starting a tattoo in Vernon.

Moira McCall

Special to The Morning Star

“In 1807 David Thompson looked down at the Columbia River north of present-day Golden. He was searching for a way to the Pacific,” said Norm Crerar, producer and director of the Okanagan Military Tattoo.

I’ve asked him how a military tattoo in Vernon came to be. I realize that this is going to be a long story.

Crerar’s friends call him a visionary and his current passion has developed over many years. It involves a Canadian explorer, the 1967 Centennial Voyageur canoe race, a traveling stage show and some bagpipes.

The tradition of the military tattoo originated in Belgium around 1600 when British drummers marched, summoning soldiers back to quarters and signalling to innkeepers with “doe den tap toe,” meaning “turn off the tap too.”  Shortened to “tap toe” and eventually “tattoo,” this ritual has evolved into international celebrations of music and entertainment.

“Most successful tattoos have military installations close by,” said Crerar.

Vernon is home of the oldest cadet training centre in Canada. The first troops trained here in 1912, and each summer about 1,200 cadets attend the centre. Last year about 200 of them took part in the inaugural Okanagan Military Tattoo.

A life-altering event for Crerar was participating in the 1967 Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant, from Rocky Mountain House to Montreal. This 104-day canoe race, with 100 other young Canadian men, developed his deep respect for the early explorers and a passion for the great country of Canada.

But what does this have to do with a military tattoo?

About a decade ago, plans were underway to re-enact the bicentennial of Thompson’s 1808 voyageur canoe trip from Rocky Mountain House to Thunder Bay. A shorter trial-run, the Columbia River Brigade, paddling from Canal Flats to Trail B.C., was organized for 2007. Crerar wanted to incorporate a theatrical component to entertain residents in communities along the route.

“You don’t know me,”  was how Crerar began a phone call in early 2007 to Dave Brotsky and Lorraine Johnson Brotsky, well known in Vernon for designing theatrical productions.

This was the beginning of the creative partnership that, along with sound videographer Randy Jones, is now the production team behind today’s Okanagan Military Tattoo.

For the 2007 Columbia River Brigade, Brotsky built a mobile stage. The stage and crew traveled by road and joined the brigade at communities on route. A nightly show told Thompson’s story.

In 1784, the 14-year-old Thompson arrived at Churchill and within three decades he traveled 90,000 kilometres by foot and canoe, surveying and mapping more than 3.9 million square kilometres.

Crerar had decided to learn to play the bagpipes because there was no money for a piper and he played Amazing Grace at the end of each performance.

The Bicentennial David Thompson Brigade took place in 2008, but there were insufficient resources to include a stage production. However, Crerar continued playing his bagpipes and in 2010, he participated with the Kalamalka Highlanders Pipe Band in a performance at BC Place.

Being immersed in a mass band of 400 was a powerful experience. He imagined it felt like being in a military tattoo.

“When I had that epiphany, the first person I told was Derek Hall,” said Crerar.

Hall, a former Vernon councillor, is a history buff with experience in fundraising and promotional work. Then there was a second phone call to the Brotskys.

“Do you want to do a tattoo?” asked Crerar.

That began an 18-month project which resulted in the inaugural Okanagan Military Tattoo in August, 2014.

An imposing castle and miles of black curtains transformed Kal Tire Place into a theatre. Brotsky handled the lighting, Jones manned the sound booth, and Johnson Brotsky was the stage manager.

With more than 500 performers, and two well attended performances, it was a resounding success.

This year there are two related events.

A performance of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse Mounted Troop will be at the Interior Provincial Exhibition fairgrounds in Armstrong July 24 at 7 p.m. Soldiers on horseback and dressed in period costume will execute a musical ride. Bands and other tattoo performers will also perform.

The actual tattoo is scheduled at Kal Tire Place in Vernon July 25 at 7 p.m. and July 26 at 2 p.m.

The RCMP Ceremonial Troop will be joined by the Delta Police and Winnipeg Police Pipe Bands, the Band of the 15th Field Artillery Regiment, the Royal Canadian Artillery Band and the Vancouver Naval Veterans’ Band. The 100-plus voice tattoo choir, local pipe bands, Highland and Irish dancers and other exciting talent will entertain and inspire everyone from grandparents to teens and toddlers.

Crerar knows that the success of the Okanagan Military Tattoo is largely due to its army of volunteers.

“Last year we had more than 150 volunteers. Just like a voyageur canoe, if everyone paddles at the same time, the canoe moves ahead quickly.”

David Thompson would be proud.

For tickets and information, visit www.okanagantattoo.ca.