Fern Blodgett Sunde could be called a heroine but she was certainly a trail-blazer – she was a Radio Operator during World War 2 when women were not allowed in the Canadian Navy, not even the Merchant Navy. Not giving up on what she wanted to do, she signed on to a Norwegian ship and made 78 crossings of the Atlantic during the Battle of the Atlantic. I’d call that heroic and certainly worth commemorating with a statue. And that’s what Leona Woods wants to do, commission a statue of her and have it erected in a prominent place on Cobourg’s waterfront. Leona has teamed up with Sudbury sculptor Tyler Fauvelle and together they made a presentation to Cobourg Council on July 23. The cost will be $135,000 plus installation but they were not looking for any cash contribution from the Town – just site preparation.
The photo at right is of a model of the proposed bronze sculpture – looks good although personally I don’t like the part at the back – I’d prefer a more traditional base – see photo below of another sculpture by Tyler.
Why a Statue of Fern?
The story of Fern is inspiring. In 1918, when Fern Blodgett was born, Canada was still more than 80 years away from opening sea duty to women on all Navy vessels. Determined to serve her country during the Second World War, she broke educational barriers to become the first Canadian woman to certify as a professional wireless radio operator.
Unlike Canada and Britain, Norway had no rule for or against women serving at sea. Although a young Norwegian captain was a little shocked to find that “F. Blodgett” was a woman, there was a shortage of “Sparks” – wireless radio operators – and he took a chance on the spirited young woman who very much wanted the job. In 1941, Fern became the first Canadian woman to serve as a radio operator at sea, working as an officer aboard a Norwegian vessel in the Allied Merchant Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic. It was incredibly dangerous work – some 3500 vessels were lost at sea, the majority of them merchant vessels. She carried out her duties bravely and well, making 78 Atlantic crossings on the Mosdale. Remarkably, Fern Blodgett Sunde was also the first woman ever to receive the Norwegian War Medal.
Fern opened the door for twenty-two young women, new “Sparks”, who followed her to sea. As for Gerner Sunde, the Norwegian captain who hired Fern, little did he know that he had just met his future wife.
See below for more detail on her story.
Although Fern did not live all her life in Cobourg, she spent 20 formative years here – from infancy onwards. For years, she watched the ships from the shore of Lake Ontario at Cobourg, dreaming of becoming a sailor, even though she knew that only boys could crew ships at sea.
The proposed location of the statue would be at the “east end of the waterfront, close to the walking path.”
The main goals of the commemoration are:
- honour Fern Blodgett Sunde, her wartime service to Canada, and her role in the advancement of women
- honour and educate about Canadian (and Allied) merchant mariners’ essential role during the Battle of the Atlantic
- talk about science and technology as a career path for youth, particularly young girls and women
- celebrate with an unveiling event, which will attract citizens, visitors, and positive news coverage
- inspire more public art and heritage activities, using Cobourg’s rich history as a springboard to new and engaging projects
Leona has recruited Peter Delanty to start a steering committee and they are looking for 2-3 more citizens to join them. They have already consulted with members of the Sunde and Blodgett families (Norway and Peterborough, respectively) and they strongly support the proposed commemoration.
The intent is to look for a Federal grant to cover 50% of the cost with the hope of getting approval by the end of February 2019. The balance would be sourced from the Private sector – perhaps one or more Canadian women CEOs would help out?
All councillors seemed supportive although Leona was asked to submit her request for an in-kind contribution for site preparation through the Municipal grant approval process. Mayor Gil Brocanier commented that the Town was recently quoted $250K for a Statue of James Cockburn; Tyler said that he thought that $250K was “very high”. The issue was referred to staff for a report at the August Council meeting.
It is hoped to have the unveiling celebration in 2020 – possibly October which is Women’s History Month in Canada.
- The Fern Blodgett Sunde Story
- Presentation by Leona Woods and Tyler Fauvelle
- About Tyler Fauvelle
- Tyler Fauvelle Web site
At the Committee of the Whole Council meeting and follow up regular council meeting on August 13, Council approved $5,000 for the installation of the statue as described above. They will also provide the letter of support as required in the application to the Federal Government for funding.