Canadian Army Officers’ Mess once home of Canada’s poppy lady – an apt circumstance

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Article / October 18, 2017 / Project number: 14-0222

Ottawa, Ontario — Lillian Freiman’s modus operandi was “do good by stealth.” As a result of her humility, her many great works for the good of both serving and returning World War One veterans and many other causes in Ottawa and Canada remain, unfortunately,  largely unrecognized in the 77 years since her passing.

Freiman was the first Jewish-Canadian to be made an officer of the Order of the British Empire, presented to her by King George V on New Year’s Day, 1934 for her work with war veterans. Her incredibly numerous and varied philanthropic efforts are too numerous to list here. She was unquestionably the most influential Jewish-Canadian woman of her generation.

She was the first woman to become an honourary life member of the Royal Canadian Legion, which she helped found. Some of her accomplishments include involvement with leadership roles in the Canadian Institute for the Blind, the Red Cross Society, the Amputations Association of Great War Veterans of Canada, the Salvation Army, Girl Guides of Canada, the Big Sisters’ Association, the YMCA, the Joan of Arc Society and many others. During the flu epidemic of 1918, she was called upon by the mayor of Ottawa to organize a 1 500-volunteer relief effort that gained national attention.

Indeed, it would be simpler to list those few organizations with which she did not work.

Canadian medic and soldier Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s famous poem In Flanders Fields led to the poppy becoming an official symbol of remembrance and a means of raising funds for veterans. Annual poppy campaigns began in the United States in 1918 and in France in 1920. In Ottawa, Freiman adopted the fundraiser and the first Canadian poppies were made in her living room in 1921. She was influential in the 1919 creation of the Vetcraft Shops, which employed returning servicemen to make furniture and toys. In 1923, they took over the poppy making. She was a member of the National Poppy Advisory Committee and chaired Ottawa’s annual poppy campaign nearly every year until her death.

At her funeral in 1940, her coffin was covered with red poppies and the event was attended by notables including Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Ottawa Mayor Stanley Lewis, and representatives from every organization in which she served. A Royal Canadian Legion honour guard attended as did many of the 151 Ukrainian war orphans she had rescued.

The daughter of Ottawa’s earliest Jewish settlers, she was born Lillian Bilsky in 1885 in Mattawa, Ontario. From early childhood, she helped her father perform social service work in their community. It was second nature for her to continue on this path following her marriage in 1903 to A.J. Freiman, owner of Freiman’s Department Store on Rideau Street. The couple were leaders in the city's Jewish and business communities.

Within months of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Freiman set up 30 sewing machines in her home and organized Red Cross sewing and knitting circles and sent sheets, blankets and clothing overseas. She helped found The Great War Veterans Association – the precursor to the Royal Canadian Legion – donating office space in her home and writing its first official letter in 1929.

Freiman travelled across Canada in 1921 to raise funds and find homes for 151 Jewish war orphans from the Ukraine to Canada. She and her husband adopted a young girl of 12 from the group.

The Freiman house was the hub of many philanthropic organizations, regardless of race, creed or religion and during the depression years, she opened a nearby hostel called Trafalgar House to help veterans find their way. No one in need left her door empty handed.

On December 29th, 1941 a tablet was unveiled by Major-General L.F. LaFleche, Associate Deputy Minister of National War Services at Trafalgar House that was inscribed: “In loving memory and to the honour of Mrs. A.J. (Lillian) Freiman, OBE, national officer and general convener in Ottawa of Canadian Legion Poppy Day. The friend of all soldiers and dependents who, in public and in private gave generous, warmhearted and always effectual service and assistance in their cause from the days of 1914-18 to the day of her passing November 2nd, 1940.”

Fast forward to 1957 when the Freimans’ Victorian-style mansion, located at 149 Somerset Street West in Ottawa, became the home of the Ottawa Army Officers’ Mess. The location of many an Army celebratory dinner, countless weddings and other events, it is a fitting legacy for this building that was steeped in so many good works involving soldiers, veterans and their families.

“The Army Officers’ Mess today carries on the traditions started by Mrs. Freiman as a place where soldiers are welcomed, says Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Dan Mackay, the Mess Historian who has been adding the finishing touches to the recently renovated Mess. LCol (Ret’d) Mackay was intrigued by the history of the house, especially when he began unravelling the many threads connecting the military, the mansion and Mrs. Freiman’s many and diverse charitable efforts in support of the war effort and of the returning soldiers.

As part of the renovation, he created a commemorative display of her contributions to war veterans and Canadian society on the wall of the hallway leading to the conservatory. “When I researched the history of the house, I couldn’t believe that she was not better known in Ottawa after all she had accomplished,” he says.


Written by Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs

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