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Remembering Isabel McDonald's contribution to Canada in WWII

'I started going down the research rabbit holes and clicking through articles and searching her name differently and trying to find more information and compiling it all together'

This is one of a series of articles, as part of the feature called "Helpers", which focuses on people and organizations that help make our community better.

We remember them for the sacrifices they made so that we can live in peace today. Remembering is only a part of what should happen on Remembrance Day. We need to share their stories and celebrate the accomplishments of the men and women who put their lives on the line to serve our country.

North Bay resident Maggie Daniel did exactly that earlier this week with a post on her personal Facebook page. She shared the story of Isabel McDonald, a North Bay woman who passed away in August of 2018. What she did during her life, and especially during World War II, was something Daniel wanted to share with her community.

“People say you die three times. Once when you die physically, once when you are buried and then when people stop talking about you,” says Daniel. “When you are no longer talked about, when you are forgotten, that’s when you really die. And as sad as that sounds that’s why it’s important to talk about the stories and talk about the people behind them.”

Daniel was introduced to McDonald’s story while house hunting last summer.

“When my fiancé and I were looking for houses, we saw this beautiful century home in downtown North Bay up for sale and we thought we should take a look at it,” says Daniel. “The minute we walked in the front door, the home itself was just beautiful and captivating and it was like walking into the past. Everything had been maintained so well. You could tell that it had history and it was history that really meant a lot to own the home.”

Daniel discovered the home was owned by McDonald's husband Rudy. That’s when Daniel’s inner detective came out, “I just started looking into it a bit more about who were these people?”

“Wanting to get to know Isabel and her story really starts with my love of history. That topic has always meant a lot to me. At Nipissing University I took History and Political Science because I love to get to know and think about all these lived experiences these people had before us and where that brings us to today and how the impacts of what they did has a long-standing ripple effect down the line.”

Daniel says she came across a Globe and Mail article about McDonald and says, “Once I read that article, I couldn’t believe that’s who it was that used to own the home. When we bought the home officially and saw that it was their names on the deal, that’s when my inner student came out and I started going down the research rabbit holes and clicking through articles and searching her name differently and trying to find more information and compiling it all together.”

What Daniel uncovered was the life of someone who was brave, inspiring, and helped the war efforts at a very crucial moment in time.

 “She ended up decoding encrypted enemy telecommunications as a telegrapher,” says Daniel.  

“Isabel ended up going to a women’s Royal Canadian Navy service that was only for women where they could learn different skills, and she trained with them before being posted in a secret outpost in British Columbia. She lived in Victoria in barrack-type living quarters. At night they would be put into covered trucks and be brought to their headquarter locations where they would do their work. It was very secretive because they didn’t want people to know who was moving where and where they were going. They would decode the communications of the Japanese. At the height of all this was when the Japanese were set up on a few islands in Alaska and so they were really close by and so that was a key part of dealing with the Japanese relations in the war and finding out what they were planning. Eventually, a group of American and Canadian Air Pilots were able to secure those islands away from the Japanese side, but at one point they had invaded and were right at the top of North America.”

After the war, Isabel helped Rudy write a history of RCAF airmen from the North Bay area who died during the war which Daniel says was important for Isabel to contribute to.

“She grew up in a time when the world wars really impacted everyone. Everyone knew someone who was either in the war or someone who had passed away because of the war. She had two cousins in the Royal Canadian Air Force who died and so for Isabel she was so close to it and saw how much it affected people. So that was also a reason for why she joined in the first place at such a young age, she would have only been in her early twenties when she started decoding.”

The former McDonald home that Daniel now resides in is still full of pieces of the previous owner’s life.

“When we bought the home, they were able to leave a lot of the original furniture. So, we have Isabel’s piano, and I got it dated and it is from 1914 when the house was built. On her obituary they wrote that she was an avid clipper; she liked to clip newspaper articles. So, I decided to keep a bunch of them because they were still relevant, and it was just so neat to feel that connection. You could tell there was a lot of history in the home that needed to continue to be told,” says Daniel.

Daniel continues, “I never got to meet her and I feel like it would have been so interesting if I got the chance to sit down and have a conversation with her, but I’ve learned so much about her through all the information that she put out, including a donation she made to a Canadian Museum of Military Communications. There is an exhibit that has her hat and typewriter and she’s the one that put together all the infographics that went along with it. She wasn’t the one that was going to push that story upon people, but I think it’s worth sharing to show the different ways that people were contributing during the war years.”

Daniel says this is the true importance of a day like Remembrance Day. Sharing the stories and keeping the memories alive of those who came before us.

“We get to celebrate Isabel and recognize her and know that she had such a huge impact and that her story still resonates because we need to remember how important it was for everyone who played a part in it.”

If you have a story suggestion for the “helpers” series, send Matt an email at m.sookram@outlook.com.