The 50’s decade was a re-birth for Milda Veveris, Maria and Janis Udris, and thousands of refugees from the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia who came to Canada when Russia invaded, converted, and purged these countries of their educated citizens.

Three decades later Canadians again opened their hearts to Vietnamese and Laotian refugees who had their countries, and their futures ripped from them.

Today, we again have the opportunity to enrich our lives by holding out our hands to others who have lost beyond human measure, and who must begin again.

When I take time to pause and really think about the losses, the courage, incredible determination refugees need to rebuild their lives, I wonder if I could muster this strength if I was in the same position. It’s so easy to turn aside, look out at our now-thawed Kempenfelt Bay and say, “well, that’s over there, and this is here and I have no need to even think about this!”

It’s so easy to assume that it’s somehow some “defect” in the nature of these parts of the world that this horror happens to them.

When Milda Veveris called me this week to talk about The Gables property, willed by Walter Laidlaw to the use of the nurses and student nurses at Royal Victoria Hospital, it brought together the refugee story of the 50’s, the 80’s, and now, the millenium.

But she didn’t call to talk about that. Walter Laidlaw was a wealthy bachelor whose family were lumber barons during the middle part of this century. A philanthropic family, the Laidlaws have given generously for the public good whether it’s through their foundation, their donation of original paintings by the Group of Seven to the ambitious project started in Kleinberg by Robert & Signe McMichael, or the giving over of an entire home, its associated waterfront property, and its history for public use.

Walter Laidlaw also reached out to refugees in the 1950’s when he sponsored and hired Maria and Janis Udris to come to Canada from their wartorn country, and take care of his Minet’s Point summer home, its spacious greenhouses, its spectacular lawns, and the little cottages along the side of the property which had once housed unfortunate children who frollicked in the Star’s Fresh Air Summer Camps.

Milda Veveris came to know Walter Laidlaw when she visited her friends, Maria and Janis Udris, at their place of work. The Udris couple lived in a room with its own kitchen at the back of the estate, and Mr. Laidlaw, a bachelor, came to know these refugee families as they rebuilt their lives in Canada. Mrs. Veveris became a nurse at Royal Victoria Hospital; her love of gardens gave her a natural ability to talk with Mr. Laidlaw who shared her interest in horticulture.

From her box of slides, Milda pulls picture after picture of The Gables estate. The Udris couple with one of Mr. Laidlaw’s dogs. Maria with a young Latvian student who came to visit. Maria with Mr. Laidlaw. Maria and Janis celebrating Latvian holidays with other new Canadian families.

It was during one of these visits that Walter Laidlaw invited Milda to sit on the front porch, so they could have tea and gaze out at the incrdedible view of Kempenfelt Bay, its waters slapping the pebbly shore while tree boughs dipped almost to the ground.

“He was very interested in the hospital and he knew I worked there as a registered nurse. The last time I met with him was on a Sunday evening in 1959 or 1960,”says Milda. “We sat on the porch overlooking the lake, enjoying the view. The sunset was unforgettable; the lake calm, brilliant, the colours gorgeous. Then Mr. Laidlaw said, ‘it would be great for the student nurses at RVH to enjoy this place and have a nice swim.’ The next week he invited Miss Helen Shanahan (director of nursing), Miss Langman, Mr. Cameron (D.S.F. who was CEO of the hospital), and the chairman of the hospital board and he made the donation verbally.”

Milda recalls that it was just a few months after that Mr. Laidlaw died.

And for almost 30 years RVH has been able to enjoy this property that is now at the core of Tollendale, an oasis in what’s becoming a bustling end of our city.

Now the City of Barrie has purchased this acreage from RVH. There’s discussion that some of the property will be kept for public use while the rest might be sold.

This seems like an excellent opportunity for the City of Barrie to keep all of it, creating in the south end the kind of serene public space that Sunnidale Park has become. Here in the middle of the north end of town we have a wonderful park that is a passive use park, and it’s as great a “jewel” for public use as is our waterfront.

To sell a portion of Mr. Laidlaw’s estate would be eliminate the same opportunity to create a passive park for public enjoyment in our crowded south end. Selling and developing this land will be in direct violation of Mr. Laidlaw’s intent when he left his property so it could be enjoyed.

I think this is a case of being very wise today so that we don’t pave over something we can’t dig up tomorrow.

And what about Mr. Laidlaw? What about Janis and Maria Udris, who toiled for a decade to beautify the property in their care? When The Gables was left to RVH, Maria worried about what would become of she and her husband. Miss Shanahan assured her that she’d have work at RVH. She and Janisbought a house on Owen St in Barrie, retrofitting three apartments, and preparing to move into one themselves when, on the eve of the move, Janis Udris died of a heart attack at The Gables. Maria went on to work in the maintenance department of RVH where she frequently saw her friend Milda in the halls. When Maria retired, she sold her house on Owen St. and moved into the newly-built apartment at #1 Blake St., where Ovenden College once stood. From there she moved into the IOOF Home where she died in April 1980, just a year before the Vietnamese and Laotian refugees were cast afloat in little boats and where some were lucky enough to arrive in North America.

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