Being a Canadian means everything to 95-year-old Charlie Bernhardt.
“That’s the major thing I’m pleased about,” he said, “that we came to Canada.”
Bernhardt was born in the former Yugoslavia. Just before he started Grade 2, in 1929, his family decided to immigrate to Canada. They settled in Nelson, B.C.
“I liked Nelson,” explained Bernhardt. “I found it a good place for a young boy to roam.”
In 1934 the family moved to Summerland, where Bernhardt completed Grade 8 at MacDonald School.
His father, who was a plasterer and brick layer, believed that learning a trade was more important than getting an education, so he took his son to work with him, until the World War II changed everything.
“My brother and I felt the war was coming,” said Bernhardt. “My brother said, ‘We better go down and join the B.C. Dragoons, so when the war starts we know something about being a soldier.’”
When war was declared, the B.C. Dragoons were called to do guard duty on the railway bridges and Bernhardt spent two months in Lytton, B.C.
“It felt good to wear the uniform,” he said. “I felt like I was finally a Canadian.”
In 1940, the recruiting office opened in Kelowna.
“Several of us from Summerland piled in and were knocking on the door when it opened that morning,” explained Bernhardt. “We enlisted.”
Once the war was over, Bernhardt returned to work with his father, who was now living in Prince George. The town was booming at the time and there was lots of money to be made. Bernhardt worked his trade for one year only, until he had enough money to buy an orchard back in Summerland.
“That’s what I wanted to be, was a fruit grower,” he said.
In 1951, Bernhardt married Evelyn Bowell, a woman who had come to Summerland to teach school. Together they had three children, a girl and two boys.
Over the years Bernhardt acquired more orchards.
“I ended up with over 40 acres in eight different properties,” he said. “I wore out tractor tires on the road.”
In part, to forget the horrors he had witnessed during the war, Bernhardt threw himself into his work, working from dawn to dusk.
In addition to that, he served on the executive of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association for 12 years, five of which he served as president. He also was the president for the B.C. Federation of Agriculture for two years and received the Queen’s Silver Jubilee medal in recognition of this service.
After the age of 65, with his orchards all sold, he and his wife had time to travel. They took a trip across Canada by car. When Bernhardt took up fly fishing, they enjoyed travelling around, camping in their fifth wheel trailer.
Bernhardt lost his wife to cancer in 1995.
He remarried three times in the years that followed, yet today he lives alone with his memories and hasn’t any regrets. He considers himself lucky and is content.
“Ever since the war I’ve had a lot of time to think,” he said. “Why are wars really necessary? Isn’t there some other way for countries to get along? If the leaders were the ones that had to go with the soldiers, then they would find solutions.”
Recently Bernhardt was presented with the French Legion of Honour medal, the highest military honour, for his part in liberating Europe during World War II.
Overcome by emotion and barely able to speak, Bernhardt said,
“This I found very touching. It’s been all over for quite a while and yet they cared enough. I appreciate the medal and feel honoured.”
This medal is now added to his five other wartime medals, which all represent service to Bernhardt.
“It was a service medal, not because of being a hero…because I wasn’t one,” he said.
These days, when he sits and listens to his music and watches the birds flit about in the trees, Bernhardt says he wonders what his life would have been like if his parents had not come to Canada. He doesn’t like the thought.
“I’m glad I’m here,” he said. “I feel I’m a Canadian and that’s all I want to be.”