For sailors and airmen lost at sea, the sound of a Consolidated PBY-5A Canso aircraft overhead meant help was on the way.
The lumbering twin-engined “flying boats” could land on water to rescue the helpless from their peril.
The symbolism couldn’t be missed when a restored Canso roared low overhead Monday as the ceremonial cornerstone was laid for the Andy Carswell Building, a 40-unit residence for homeless veterans that will be the first of its kind in Canada when it opens in November 2020.
On hand to do the honours was 96-year-old Andy Carswell himself, a Royal Canadian Air Force veteran and former Canso pilot who was decorated by the Queen for rescuing an ailing sailor from his ship off the British Columbia coast. The chest of his blue Royal Canadian Legion blazer bedecked with medals, Carswell and his son, John, himself an air force veteran, stared skyward as the aircraft droned overhead.
Spearheaded by the Ottawa charity Multifaith Housing Initiative and seeded with a donation from John Carswell’s company, Canso Investment Council, the Andy Carswell Building will house 40 veterans who are living on the street or at risk of becoming homeless. The project also has the backing of the Legion, Veterans Affairs, Soldiers Helping Soldiers, True Patriot Love and the Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services.
In her remarks, Suzanne Le, executive director of Multifaith Housing Initiative, noted that veterans make up 10 per cent of Canada’s homeless population. That translates to somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 vets who have been reduced to living on the street after having given so much of themselves for their country.
“This problem is unacceptable, but it’s not insurmountable,” said Le, extending her gratitude for veterans like Andy Carswell.
Carswell, who was there with his wife, Dorothy, 98, joined the RCAF during the Second World War straight out of high school.
“The principal said anyone who had any war work to do could quit early. So I quit early and signed up with the air force on my 18th birthday,” he said.
After learning to fly in Canada, he was shipped overseas as a pilot of a giant four-engine Lancaster bomber. His war didn’t last long. His Lanc was shot down over Germany on his fourth mission. Carswell spent the next two years as a prisoner of war.
He documented his war experience — and his two unsuccessful escape attempts — in his memoir, Over the Wire.
Carswell left the air force after the war and studied to be an accountant, but found it so boring he re-enlisted and was assigned to fly search-and-rescue missions. He retired as a squadron leader and went on to a career promoting air safety in Canada.
The restored Canso flew to Ottawa from Hamilton’s Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Carswell’s honour.
John Carswell, whose company is named after the Canso aircraft and is one of the largest investors in Postmedia, said helping veterans was an easy choice.
“ The military often doesn’t end up well for people. And I’ve had a lot of friends that have had issues with addiction and mental health. So when I got the opportunity to participate in this, I thought it was a wonderful thing to do,” he said. “Writing a cheque is easy, but when I heard that I could help homeless veterans — and there is no higher or noble cause in this country — then I said yes.”
The Multifaith Housing Initiative was established in 2002 in response to Ottawa’s shortage of affordable housing. Its membership consists of more than 80 faith groups and it operates 139 rental units. The Andy Carswell Building is the only one meant specifically for veterans. The federal government is contributing $6.5 million to its total cost of $11.5 million, with MHI committed to raising the rest.
Residents will receive services such as counselling and mental health support provided by Ottawa Salus.
Appropriately, the Andrew Carswell Building will be located on the site of the former CFB Rockcliffe, where Carswell himself spent some of his military career.