From Semaphore to Short Wave: A Salute to RCI

In an age when instant communication is taken for granted, it’s hard to imagine a time when news could take months, even years, to reach a final destination. During the 18th and 19th centuries a number of experiments were undertaken to speed up the process. One of the earliest was known as semaphore. This involved sending messages by holding flags in certain positions according to an alphabetic code. Many people wondered: Could semaphore be used to relay messages long distances overland?

In the early 1800’s, the British military commander in the Maritimes, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, thought so; and ordered the building of a semaphore link between Halifax and Fredericton. As it turned out, uncertain Maritime weather, and the Duke’s return to England doomed the enterprise. But more important, semaphore was quickly overtaken by other, more efficient, means of communication. Today, the only reminders of this early effort are a few isolated place names on the map of New Brunswick; for example, Telegraph Hill and Telegraph Brook.

Just over a century later, the advent of radio was destined to bring the province into the field of global communication. By the late 1930’s, the storm clouds of World War Two were on the horizon. The BBC, which formed a model for the CBC, had already established a successful international service. It was clear that Canada would not be far behind, as the propaganda value of radio became apparent.

As early as 1937 a proposal was put forward calling for a CBC short wave station. Moreover, there is evidence that the British were anxious to see such facilities in Canada; in case of possible war damage to their own transmitters. On September 18, 1942 the creation of an international service was formally approved by the federal government.

Although wartime shortages of equipment hampered progress, the location of the new short wave station was never in doubt. There were two basic requirements. A location had to be selected sufficiently far east to lessen interference from the magnetic North Pole. To cut costs, it was expected that the facility would be built on land already owned by the CBC.

All signs pointed to Cole’s Island on the Tantramar, site of CBA Maritimes. Further, by this time CBA had earned a reputation for clear reception. It’s long wave broadcasts had been picked up from as far away as Bermuda and the UK. The upgrading of facilities to accommodate short wave transmission began in 1944. This included the erection of a new building, two transmitters and three directional antenna curtains.

At the same time studios and program offices were set up in Montreal. Hundreds of miles of especially balanced telephone lines had to be leased to carry programs from Montreal to Sackville. On Dec. 19, 1944 construction on the Tantramar site was completed and the first short wave test broadcast successfully made.

A few weeks later, C. W. Moffatt, editor of the Sackville Tribune visited the new short wave station. His enthusiasm was apparent: Last Thursday, Feb. 15th, I stepped from the historic Tantramar Marsh into a new world, as unrelated to the background of the Isthmus of Chignecto, as this planet is from Mars. We are now… in instantaneous communication with the rest of the world.

On Feb 26, 1945 at 4 pm ADT, with the words This Is Canada Calling the country’s new short wave radio station, CHTA was on the air. There then followed congratulatory remarks in English from the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, and in French, by the Minister of Justice, Louis St. Laurent. Both messages were relayed from Ottawa for broadcast over CHTA. Canada’s international short wave service was born.

Initially, programming was largely directed toward Europe. News, especially for Canadian service personnel overseas, light entertainment and drama predominated. Later, as the war drew to a close, documentaries, round table discussions, special events and on location broadcasts were added.

As the international service expanded, the quality of programming and excellent reception soon drew a world wide audience. A listener in Punta Arenas, on the Straits of Magellen, in Chile wrote: The reception here is much stronger than the BBC, twice as strong as any short wave station in the USA, and better than local long wave transmissions.

The maintainence of an international short wave service is an expensive proposition. Annually, when CBC estimates are debated in Parliament there are calls for trimming or even eliminating the budget for RCI. Those opposed are seemingly unaware of the important social, economic and cultural benefits that flow from short wave radio. They overlook, that everyday, RCI brings notice of Canada, and all things Canadian, to listeners world wide. It is significant that if either of the two recent attempts to close RCI had succeeded, Canada would be left as the only G-7 nation without an international radio service!

Unfortunately, even people who live close to the carnival of lights on the Tantramar are often unaware of their importance. Since few Canadians listen to short wave programs, the full impact of the international service (or Radio Canada International as it became in 1972) is not readily apparent. Having lived overseas, I can testify to the value and significance of this short wave link with home. Today, thousands of Canadian citizens and particularly Canadian service personnel on peacekeeping duties, may be found all over the world. Thanks to RCI they are able to keep in touch.

During the past month Tantramar Flashback has featured a salute to the carnival of lights on the Marsh. Each day, for sixty years, since April 8, 1939, Cole’s Island on the Tantramar, has been front and centre, first in national and later international radio broadcasting. Long may it continue!