Christmas came early for Francois Arsenault.
The Vernon resident is the volunteer museum curator at the Vernon Cadet Training Centre (Vernon Army Camp) as well as the volunteer historian for the Army Cadet League of Canada.
On a recent trip to Ottawa for the Army Cadet League’s annual general meeting, Arsenault discovered a box of 16mm film. The markings on the films were vague but two of the reels said ‘Vernon in 1956.’
“The hair on my neck stood up,” said Arsenault, 54, a documentary cameraman who attended the Vernon Army Camp as a teenager. “The footage was a major surprise to me. We know the majority of it is shot at the army camp. It is absolutely the most amazing footage.”
The silent film was digitized and edited into one quality film that totals one hour and 13 minutes in length, and covers the summer of 1956 at the Vernon Army Camp, where the Western Command Trades Training Camp had been operational since 1949.
In 1956, some 1,700 cadets from B.C. and Alberta attended for the six weeks of annual training.
The film begins with a couple of cadets saying goodbye to their families in Vancouver. Two CPR cadet trains transported the cadets, one from Vancouver, the other from Alberta. It shows a convoy escort by military police happening through the streets of Vernon to the army camp; cadets being fitted and getting their dress ‘kits’ and making their cots.
It captures the Saturday morning weekly cadet parade at Dieppe Square; lunch being served by camp staff in one of three mess halls; training life featuring drills and calisthenics.
The film shows competition among cadets at the North Okanagan Regatta on Okanagan Lake, at Paddlewheel Park, where there’s an actual diving board (with diving events), and lanes roped off for swimming races. It shows cadets at Kal Lake, where you can clearly see the old diving tower at the end of Rotary Pier, and also at Fraser Lodge at Sugar Lake near Cherryville.
It also captures some spectacular footage of what Vernon looked like in the mid-1950s.
Views from the camp show no homes in what is now the Foothills, as well as the Coldstream Valley and Middleton Mountain; some bare land on East Hill.
In-town shots feature legendary Main Street hangout Nick’s Kandy Kitchen, Nolan’s Drugs and the old Allison Hotel, on the corner of 30th Avenue and 30th Street, which had a sign on the 30th Street side of its building plugging events at the Civic Arena – complete with a northbound pointing neon arrow.
In the film, the sign promotes the Cadet Farewell to take place at the arena.
There is also footage of a cadet track meet and parade at Polson Park, featuring the old wooden grandstand, and the practice of the Searchlight Tattoo, an event held south of the camp at a natural amphitheatre setting near what is now the Allan Brooks Nature Centre.
And everything on the film is shot in glorious Kodachrome colour.
“It’s (film) 61 years old and it’s meticulous,” said Arsenault. “There’s no fading. This film needed no fixing. There’s no scratches.
“There’s maybe been a half-dozen showings. This has never been seen in public.”
So who shot the film?
There are no credits. No clues in the box. Arsenault believes the film was shot by either local photographer Doug Kermode, or Capt. Campbell (Cammie) LeBlond, the man who inspired Arsenault, as a teen, to pick up a camera. Arsenault is leaning towards LeBlond, the official camp photographer from 1951-1981.
“I recognize his style, and it’s shot at the barracks where he would have had access,” said Arsenault, a native a of Calgary who attended the Vernon Army Camp in the summers of 1978, 1979 and 1980 as a member of the #1955 Service Battalion Army Cadet Corps out of Calgary.
“I’m still friends to this day with friends I made at the army camp,” said Arsenault, who, along with his wife, moved to Vernon four years, buying a lot and building a home in the Foothills with a view of – surprise – the army camp.
Arsenault produced annual documentaries on the army camp from 1994-2007, save for 1997 when he was in Bosnia, and taught military history at the camp from 1998-2007.
The 1956 film can be viewed above.