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Woman finds families of soldiers connected to 102-year-old letter about Vimy Ridge

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A Steinbach, Man., business owner has successfully located the families of two soldiers connected to a 102-year-old letter found in a pile of papers.

Last week, Amanda Kehler, of Prairie Pickers Cafe, stumbled across the letter in a box of old papers she’d bought for a dollar. She got the box from a local man who buys and sells items from estates.

The letter was written in May of 1917 by Earl Sorel, a 20-year-old soldier from Selkirk, Man. Sorel was recovering in hospital after being wounded at the battle of Vimy Ridge.

In the letter, Sorel explains to a Selkirk woman how her brother, Gordon Rochford, had saved his life before dying in the battle.

The story of the letter, and the two friends’ poignant wartime experience, captured lots of attention.

“Goodness, probably over 200 people have either called my business or emailed me or messaged me on Facebook,” Kehler said. “The last few days have been unbelievably overwhelming.”

Through a mixture of publicity, social media tips, interested historians and help from the Canadian military, Kehler said descendants of both men — four in total — have been found. 

Gordon Rochford’s grandniece sent this photo to Amanda Kehler after reading about the 102-year-old letter. (Family handout)

She said the grandniece of Rochford contacted her shortly after a CBC interview.

“I was getting a number of people calling claiming to be descendents, and they couldn’t actually validate that,” Kehler said. “But these folks were a little bit different. They knew specific details, they had pictures, they were very friendly and understanding.

“Honestly it was a fantastic experience to get to know these people a little bit.” 

Kehler also spoke by phone with the grandniece of Sorel, who has two grandnephews as well. She said all of the relatives would like to remain anonymous for now.

“They were very excited to hear that their family member was being honoured this way,” she said. “They were thankful, and grateful, and it was a really great experience. I feel very close to these families now because I spent so much time researching them. ” 

She said everyone agrees the letter should go to a museum, because both families have claim to it.

The hope is to get the letter displayed at the visitor education centre of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France and Kehler has already been in contact with someone from the Canadian military about making it happen.

Prairie Pickers Cafe owner Kehler, right, and employee Felicia Wall with the letter, which was sent from a military hospital in May 1917. (Submitted by Amanda Kehler)

She believes the letter should also be shared publicly, because of the interest and tips she received while searching for the soldiers’ families.

“Because of the story … it’s young men who went to war, and they were friends,” she said. “They lived only a few minutes apart … signed up for the military on the same day.

“The letter basically outlines the fact that Gordon saved Earl’s life, and then unfortunately passed away.”

Rochford’s military records show he enlisted on Aug. 2, 1915 and embarked for France a year later.

Kehler has learned that Sorel came back from the war and moved to Winnipeg with his mother. He married in 1935 but had no children. He died in October 1969.

Kehler said she is touched by the thoughtful comments and notes she received from strangers about the story.

“It’s been a little bit emotional for me,” she said. “I find myself very attached to this letter and these families. It’s been a really good experience though.”

The faded address on the letter says Miss P. Rochford, Manitoba Avenue, Selkirk. Her brother Gordon died at Vimy Ridge. His friend Earl Sorel writes how Gordon saved his life. (Submitted by Amanda Kehler)

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‘Too soon to celebrate’ Ottawa’s low case count, says Etches

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Ottawa Public Health (OPH) logged just 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the lowest daily total since Sept. 1.

Because of the lag between testing and reporting, the low number could simply reflect low turnout at the city’s testing sites on weekends — all month, new case counts have been lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

During a virtual news conference Tuesday, the city’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said she doesn’t read too much into a single day’s report.

“I don’t think we can make too much of 11. Actually, it could be a lot higher tomorrow — I would expect that, on average,” she said. “It’s too soon to celebrate.”

Provincewide, public health officials reported 1, 249 new cases Tuesday.

OPH also declared 62 cases resolved Tuesday, lowering the number of known active cases in the city to 462. Two more people have died, both in care homes currently experiencing outbreaks, raising the city’s COVID-19 death toll to 361. 

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Santa Claus isn’t coming to Ottawa’s major malls this year

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Santa Claus may still be coming to town this Christmas, but he won’t be dropping by any of Ottawa’s major malls, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, Cadillac Fairview said Santa won’t be making an appearance at any of its 19 malls across Canada, including Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa. On Tuesday, Bayshore and St. Laurent shopping centres confirmed they, too, are scrapping the annual tradition.

“Due to the evolution of the situation in regards to COVID-19, we have made the difficult decision to cancel our Santa Program and Gift Wrap Program this year,” Bayshore spokesperson Sara Macdonald wrote in an email to CBC.

Macdonald said parent company Ivanhoé Cambridge cancelled all holiday activities “due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country.”

Macdonald said families that had already booked an appointment to visit Santa will receive an email with more information.  

Virtual visits with Santa

Rideau Centre said based on customer research and discussions with public health officials, its North Pole is going online this year.

“Children will be able to have a private chat with Santa,” said Craig Flannagan, vice-president of marketing for Cadillac Fairview. “You’ll also be able to join a 15-minute storytime with Santa over Facebook Live.” 

At Place d’Orléans Shopping Centre, visitors are invited to take a “selfie with Santa” — actually, a life-size cutout of Santa Pierre, the man who’s been playing Santa at the east end mall for years.

“We understand that this is not ideal, but in lieu of this tradition we will be doing what we can to maintain and encourage holiday cheer,” according to a statement on the mall’s Facebook page.

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Ottawa Bylaw breaks up two large parties in Ottawa over the weekend

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Bylaw is investigating social gatherings of more than 10 people in private homes across Ottawa last weekend.

Mayor Jim Watson tells Newstalk 580 CFRA that Ottawa Bylaw broke-up two house parties over the weekend, with 20 to 25 people at each party.

“That’s the kind of stupidity that angers me, that’s where the bulk of the transmissions are taking place, if we exclude the tragedy of the long-term care homes; it’s these house parties with unrelated people,” said Watson on Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa at Work with Leslie Roberts.

“The message doesn’t seem to be getting through, particularly to some young people who think they’re invincible.”

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Bylaw and Regulatory Services Director Roger Chapman says, “There are still ongoing investigations from this past weekend that could result in charges.”

Chapman says recent investigations led to two charges being issued for social gatherings of more than 10 people in a private residence in contravention of the Reopening Ontario Act.

“In one case, up to 30 individuals were observed attending a house party in Ward 18 on Oct. 24,” said Chapman.

“The second charge was issued following a house party in Ward 16 on Oct. 31, where up to 16 individuals were observed to be in attendance.”

The fine is $880 for hosting an illegal gathering.

Alta Vista is Ward 18, while Ward 16 is River Ward.

Ottawa Bylaw has issued 24 charges for illegal gatherings since the start of the pandemic.

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