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Veteran hoping to commemorate fellow sailors

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Winnipeg might not be thought of as a naval hub, but Robert Watkins is looking to change that.

Watkins, an East Kildonan resident and Second World War veteran, is fundraising for a Prairie Sailor statue to commemorate those from the prairie provinces who nevertheless served on the high seas. The Prairie Sailor Statue would be located at HMCS Chippawa at 1 Navy Way.

The 88-year-old said Winnipeg was the third-largest naval recruiting centre in Canada during the Second World War, and was outranked only by Halifax and Vancouver. He added approximately 300 officers and 8,000 seamen of other ranks were trained in the city during the war.

From his experience, Watkins said those who came from places like Manitoba ended up being exceptional sailors.

"We’ve never actually pinned (the reason) down, but a lot of people think that because on the prairies, you look out and all you see is the horizon," he said. "When you go to sea, it’s the same thing."

Watkins said members of the Canadian Navy, always at the ready, were especially appreciated by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during wartime.

"During the war, the one thing he was scared of was the submarines," said Watkins. "If the supply lines from Canada and the U.S. had dried up on account of the submarines, Britain would have gone under."

Watkins has raised approximately $60,000 for the project thus far, about half of which has gone to cover the base. He said the project needs in the ballpark of $100,000 to be completed. Watkins hopes to have funding in place by the fall so the statue is ready to unveil the first Sunday of May 2014 on Battle of Atlantic Sunday.

One way those looking to support the project can do so is by purchasing a memorial brick to be part of the tribute site. A four-by-eight-inch brick with three 18-character lines is $200, while an eight-by-eight-inch brick with four lines is $350.

"The families who have lost people figure it’s a good memorial," he said. "We honour the ones that we lost, and we like to think of the ones who served, and those that are still serving."

Those looking to donate can contact Watkins at 204-667-7324 or rwatkins85@shaw.ca, or Chris Thain at cthain@mts.net or 204-269-2390.

Watkins has also contacted legions in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario, and even the United States. He also hopes to receive some provincial funding, noting the province funded a statue at the Selo Ukraina site in Dauphin, as well as a proposed memorial for fallen workers, firefighters, and police officers.

Watkins hopes those who see the statue are left with a feeling of appreciation afterward.

"They can think about that— they wouldn’t have all this if we’d lost the war," said Watkins.

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