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The amazing life & times of 4669 Toivo Roht – Class Secretary,1960

Feature photo: Toivo Roht and and his wife, the sculptor Deborah Arnold.

4669 Toivo Roht, Secretary, RMC Class of 1960

Arriving with his family from Sweden (but born in Estonia in 1937) , Toivo settled in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC in April 1951 and entered grade 8 in Macdonald High School. The very first English-language book that he was able to read was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles which so fascinated him that he decided to become a rocket engineer helping mankind into space; at that time only the military had rockets so Toivo joined the school’s army cadets, eventually becoming the captain in charge of the small corps. During the next two summers he spent 10 weeks each at Camp Valcartier near Quebec City learning how to set up military communications systems and driver mechanics. In the summer of 1955 he was one of the 250 cadets selected to attend the National Cadet Camp in Banff, AB as well as to be part of the 100-cadet honour guard for Prince Philip in Abbotsford, BC while he toured the province in the context of opening the British Commonwealth Games.

After a two-week stint as a Call-Out Corporal at Camp Farnham, QC  in Sept Toivo entered the Prep Year at CMR de St-Jean. This entry class was only the fourth one since the college opened so it was still being built around them; featuring muddy streets and wooden sidewalks the recruits especially had to spend a lot of time cleaning the mud off their pants and boots which had to be spit-and-polished into gleaming mirrors every night. Toivo did earn appointment for one term as Cadet Squadron Leader of Maisonneuve and worked on Le Défilé (yearbook) as Asst Editor-in-Chief & Secretary, and on the cadets’ newspaper “Le Rempart” to which he contributed a regular column (“Pit Tip”, poetry and jazz reviews, including his first concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet which became an intro for him many years later to begin a correspondence with Dave.

With this heavy involvement in the literary life, Toivo’s interest in engineering began to wane (but was converted into science-fiction) especially when two of his professors, poets themselves, began to encourage him to write poetry: Eli Mandel (English) and Jean-Paul Plante (French). When they brought back reviews indicating promise from their published colleagues, it was an easy decision to switch direction  . . .   . despite parental opposition when he transferred to RMC.

The CMR Class of 1958 is famous for “The Great Plane Robbery” or, as a Class wit called it, “Vol dans la nuit”. On a balmy night in May 1987, some 25 Juniors stole their way into RCAF Station St-Jean a few km away and took one of three WWII training Cornells parked near the control tower, rolled it out of the airbase, across fields and plowed farm land, across railway tracks and a highway, solving and surmounting an amazing number of obstacles; the aircraft was parked on the parade square, much to the consternation of the duty officer when he discovered it on his early morning round. A few days later the team pushed the plane back to the base, this time through the city, and with an escort of police and hydro workers.

Unlike the other two colleges, entry into CMR was with a Junior Matric or with a francophone Classical College degree. The problem was how to occupy the cadets during that “extra” summer. The Air Force cadets reported first to RCAF Station London, ON to be tested for aircrew designation, then they were taken to Camp Borden where they were given small-arms training; from there they were flown to Edmonton and herded into the nearby wilderness to be shown survival techniques; then they went to Whitehorse where they were given time to explore the YT capital and to stock up on over-proof rum. It was a happy crew that finally arrived at Watson Lake, the abandoned WWII staging base after a long, dusty bus ride, where they set up camp in the forest before they started firing outdated ammunition into the woods across the lake and tossing old grenades into the lake to see if they could kill some fish for supper. And with that the CMR RCAF 1956’s summer training came to an end.

At first glance that summer’s training of the CMR naval cadets appears to have been more sedate and serious, and so it was at first when they embarked on the HMCS Nootka in Montreal for their long cruise. The first thing was to learn how to manage their hammocks in the cramped quarters below deck. Then it was lectures and assignment to watch responsibilities.  On their way to HMCS Stadacona they anchored off Cornwallis, NS for two weeks of junior officer training. Back on the HMCS Nootka, they finally set sail for the Portuguese island colonies where the now “old tars” had many adventures best left untold in the family media. On the high seas the cadet’s naval ability was tested and designated by the colour of his gills and how often he needed to rush to the railings.

As for the CMR Army cadets, the summer of 1956 training was downright civilized in comparison: they were treated like gentlemen as they visited every corps school from coast to coast to coast. Highlights: at the Royal Canadian Anti-Aircraft Artillery School on the shore of Lake Ontario south of Picton lay the skeleton of a German V-2 rocket, its bones picked clean as if by vultures. Many years later we learned that this was the location from which test models of the Avro Arrow were fired into the lake to be salvaged recently as treasured mementos. What we were shown was drones towed back and forth some distance from the shore and we were invited to use ack ack guns to fire at the drones. Another interesting stop was to the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery School in Camp Shilo, MB with its jump tower for parachute training which we all got to try. From nearby Rivers we were flown by a “Flying Boxcar” (C-119) to Churchill, MB. Although the first atmospheric research rocket had been launched in 1956, we waited in vain for another launch during our visit. Instead we explored Prince of Wales Fort (1731-41) which was extensively reconstructed in the 1950s, and we had the pleasure of bivouacking on the muskegy tundra.

During the week at the National Cadet Camp in Banff “we built fieldcraft structures but far more exciting were our ”duties” as escorts for young lady guests at the Banff Springs Hotel, like the daughter of the Spanish Ambassador; what could those sophisticated damsels have thought of the gangly hayseeds stepping on their toes on the dance floor? Our last stop was in Chilliwack, BC where the engineers showed off their skills at the Royal Canadian School of Military Engineering.

Arriving at RMC for Third Year in Sept 1958, Toivo qualified for the rep soccer team but in the first game tore the ligaments in the right ankle, with a history of such injuries from basketball and soccer at CMR, Col. Darby at the KMH recommended that Toivo undergo the Watson-Jones Tenodesis surgery for chronic lateral ankle instability; since it was a newly developed technique he requested that the operation be filmed so that he could show it in the classes he taught at the Queen’s Medical School. So for the whole fall semester he stomped around on a built-up left boot and the right leg encased from the knee down in a heavy plaster cast, just before leaving for Christmas holidays at home, the doctor said it was time for the cast to come off; pleading in vain for it to remain on because he had learned to dance with it on, Toivo spent the holidays with a pair of crutches but without dance partners. The upside was that he was excused parades and room inspections for the rest of the year, assigned the corner room overlooking Fort Frederick on the top floor of Haldimand. He set up a jazz coffee bar that was open late into the night; among others, next-door neighbour Roger Reid-Bicknell was a frequent patron.

On the more serious side there was Prof. Walter “Wally” Avis whose Linguistics classes always began by asking cadets from different parts of the country to pronounce a word, he could identify the  pronunciation, the differences in pronunciation and incorporate them in the first Canadian English Dictionary that he compiled – a massive project.

Then there was Prof. Richard A. Preston whose Military History class began immediately after lunch;  John de Chastelain and Toivo happened to be sitting in the front row, they had to keep poking each other frequently to stay awake, we would fall asleep not because the good professor was boring but because digesting food reacts that way on tired bodies. In 1990, when Toivo was Director of the University of Ottawa Press,  Prof. Preston asked him if the Press would be interested in publishing To Serve Canada: A History of the Royal Military College Since the Second World War. General John, as a former RMC Commandant and as Chief of the Defence Staff in what happened to become his first appointment to that position before serving as Canada’s Ambassador to the United States of America, so he agreed to write a Foreword to the book.

The RMC Class of ’60 is legendary albeit infamous for The Dirty Thirty. In November 1958, following the traditional Third Year Mess Dinner, with further libations afterward, someone suggested that they exact revenge on the Queen’s girls who had earlier raided the Stone Frigate and poured baby powder into the barrels of any rifles they could find. The cadets’ plan was to raid Adelaide Hall, the well-known dormitory that provided many dates. The group was to make a silent lightning raid, grab as many panties as possible, quickly get out and return to the college. As so often happens, especially when the plotters are somewhat inebriated, things went wrong, the alarm was sounded, the raid discovered and reported to the Commandant, Commodore D.W. Piers, who punished them severely.

For our 50th reunion, when we entered the Old Brigade, we decided to set up an executive committee for the Class; nominations and voting took place in 2005-06. At that time, I was also urging my classmates to write short notes about their life after graduation that I could then edit and publish as an illustrated book of memories entitled Biographies: CMR de St-Jean, RRMC. RMC, 1955-2006, now commonly known as the “Red Book” because of its red cloth hard covers. Some 150 classmates each had two pages in which to share bios and photos in the 330 pages of photos, cartoons and stories.

After graduation with a BA in English, Toivo married, joined 3RCHA as a Troop Leader of its X Bty, as they sailed from Quebec City to Rotterdam and from thereby train to Fort Prince of Wales in West Germany’s Ruhr Valley, as part of the 4 CIBG, which itself was in the British Army of the Rhine. There were many interesting activities: live firing exercises at Bergen-Belsen, where we used the Quonset huts occupied by the air and ground crews during the Berlin Air Lift, the large-scale NATO exercises; the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the regiment was dug in just west of the East German border, if war broke out it would be nuclear(what would happen to our families?). Non-military activities included skiing in the Austrian and Italian Alps, touring pre-mass-tourism Europe in a 1960 Porsche Cabriolet bought for CAD$3,500 (!), following the F1 GP circuits; becoming parents of a bouncing baby boy (who narrowly missed the use of a new “miracle drug” – Thalidomide).

Toivo retired from the CAF as a Captain in 1963, spent a year at U of Toronto, then moved to Kingston and earned an MA in English from Queen’s and added a daughter to the family, then got a job translating French into English for the Quebec Govt in the provincial capital. A year later he was asked to set up a a foreign language service in the Translation Bureau; when he accepted the position of Exec Dir of the Canadian Book Publishers Council in Toronto in 1970, the service was handling some 65 languages using 250 freelance translators. After five years at the CBPC he left with an antique pocket watch and joined McClelland & Stewart, The Canadian Publishers (of Margaret Attwood, Leonard Cohen, Farley Mowat, etc.) as General Manager. Another nearly five years later he agreed to accept the position of Director of Publishing for the National Museums Corporation, which was the umbrella organization for the for the four national museums on the condition that his family agree to move to Ottawa after the kids’ school year; only three months later he received a call saying that continued discussions had revealed that the family did not want to abandon their friends, etc., with the result that over the next seven years Toivo spent a lot of time on the Super Express Bus between Ottawa and Toronto, with family reunions at the recreational farm they had bought together with another couple in Prince Edward County where they could also sail in the Bay of Quinte.

In 1980, when the federal government, led by PM Pierre Trudeau,  decided to provide the much-needed new homes for the National Gallery of Canada and the National Museum of Man (which was renamed NM of Civilization), designed by architects Moshe Safdie and Douglas Cardinal, respectively, in 1980, the funds needed for the buildings, the money was taken from the budget of the NMC which finally died in 1988 with the individual museums taking control of all of their activities, including publishing. Before that, Toivo had become the Manager of English Publishing at the Cdn Govt Publishing Centre which was located in a grandiose building that housed the Cdn Govt Printing Bureau, a component of the Dept of Supply and Services. When his French colleague left due to ill health, Toivo took on all of the publg and preferred to think of himself as the “federal publisher” even though that was a fictitious title. The work had some interesting elements to it but most of it was very bureaucratic so he applied for the position of Director of Publg at the OECD in Paris but lost to his boss who had also applied. But he survived it for only a few months.

At this time the U of Ottawa was looking for a new director for its Press; they ended up accepting Toivo’s application. The first thing he did was to start computerizing its operations. These were exciting times again: the Press grew, sales increased and we were able to take on interesting projects in both official languages, like the university itself. But then there was a changing of the guard and it was decided to sell the Press, as they had done with the library. At that point jobless Toivo set up his own company, Thor Communications, and worked for a year as a consultant for the Association for the Export of Canadian Books before getting contracts with the Privy Council Office, the Cdn Centre for Mgt Development , the “college: for senior public servants for which Thor translated curricula, course textbooks, exams, etc.

During this period Thor also won a contract to translate the documents and reports of all the organizations with which Finance Minister Paul Martin was involved (such as the G-7/8, Bretton Woods, Big City Mayors’ Caucus, etc.) On Monday morning, 3 June 2002, when the translators returned for work at Finance, we were informed that in all the many documents, speeches and reports that were going to be used in the next couple of weeks, the name of Paul Martin was to be replaced by that of John Manley, (figure skating star Elizabeth’s big brother). At the same time Toivo was editing and translating drafts of the Throne Speech being written at the PMO. There is still question whether Martin resigned or Chrétien fired him.

In 2017 Toivo pulled the plug on Thor Communications  and is, with trembling fingers and fading eyesight trying to write the memoir of his amazing life before it’s too late. He and his wife, the sculptor Deborah Arnold, live on the shore of the Rideau River in Manaotick, Ontario.


  • J.Douglas Smith, 8074

    May 15, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    Congratulations on a great article! Not to be picky but Watson Lake was an active RCAF Station well after the war, flying air support via Norsemen to the mapping and defense activities underway in the far North. I can say this as my father flew out of there, where I was a young child from 1947 to 1951. J.D. Smith, 8074, TDV !

  • len Kubas

    May 19, 2018 at 9:42 am

    Toivo is an inspiration to all ex-CMR(55-58) cadets, and especially to RMC Class of 60.

    Toivo is a great Class Secretary — keeping us informed of important news affecting classmates and sending notes to widows and widowers following the fateful news of a member of the Class of 60 family being reported as SOS.

    He has forever endeared himself to our class as the originator, editor and publisher par excellence of our Class of 60 Biographies – 1955-1960, that proudly report on the accomplishments and lives of our classmates in a professionally published book. This iconic book is a tribute to his perseverance, professionalism and commitment to our Class.

    Bravo Zulu Toivo!


    Len Kubas, 4778

  • Thérèse Behm (ex Durdin)

    July 9, 2018 at 12:18 pm

    Hello, Toivo!
    Wow! What a life! Congrats, dear Toivo and bon courage pour ta bio.
    Je pars dans trois jours (juillet 2018) pour souhaiter les 50ans de mon “bébé” Nick, à Ottawa, avec toute une ribanbelle de famille.
    Je te souhaite un très bel été, pas trop chaud!!!