Reuben Sinclair, a Second World War veteran and a fixture at Remembrance Day school ceremonies in Vancouver, frequently addressing students more than a century his junior, died on Aug. 27. He was 112. Until his passing, Sinclair was the oldest living Canadian veteran, the country’s oldest man and, reportedly, the third oldest man in the world.
To all who knew him, Sinclair, born in Lipton, Sask., on a Jewish farming enclave in 1911, was a remarkable man aside from his longevity.
“He was a man of character and a man of honour. He was always positive and always showed his appreciation. Anyone who ever met Dad always called him amazing,” his daughter Karen Sinclair said.
This sentiment was repeated in numerous tributes to the notable centenarian in Vancouver and around the country following the news of his death.
“I’ll always remember his zest for life and how much he loved being around people. He used to say, ‘I’m amazing! I’m still here!’ And I couldn’t agree more—he really was amazing. I’m just fortunate that I got to know him over the last couple of years, because he touched so many people’s lives,” said Ezra S. Shanken, the CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
“Mr. Sinclair proudly served with the Royal Canadian Air Force as a wireless operator during the Second World War, providing crucial information to Allied forces and saving many lives with his actions. His service and dedication to his country remains an inspiration to all Canadians. While we mourn his passing, we should celebrate his life and service to Canada,” Minister of Veterans Affairs Ginette Petitpas Taylor said in a statement to The CJN.
Sinclair’s father, Yitzok traveled from Ukraine and, in 1905, made his way to the Prairies where he was given land by Baron Maurice de Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association. As a child, Sinclair worked on the farm, but during the Depression the family had to sell the land and move to Regina.
Sinclair was working in the Saskatchewan provincial treasury when the war started, and decided to join the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942 at age 31. Though he was not obligated to do so—and technically not allowed at the time because he did not have a high school diploma—he felt it was his duty, as a Canadian and a Jew, to sign up for the armed forces.
“He walked away from his government treasury job with a life-long pension, where he would have been set up, because he was compelled to join the war. He could not sit back and watch what was happening in Europe from afar and had to do something about it,” Sinclair’s grandson, David Lipetz, said.
Diagnosed with flat feet and unable to serve overseas, he belonged to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and served Canada on the home front. Sinclair worked in the control tower at the Saskatoon BCATP base, teaching pilots how to manoeuvre take-offs and landings in the dark, a skill they would need in wartime Europe. This training is credited with saving countless lives by allowing Canadian forces to report to European allies unbeknownst to the Germans.
After spending most of his military service in Saskatchewan, he was redeployed to British Columbia at the end of the war. With his youngest brother Joe, also a veteran, he opened Sinclair Bros. Garage and Auto Wrecking in Richmond, across from the since-demolished Fraser Street Bridge to Vancouver. The brothers collected old cars to salvage and refurbish and sold surplus military vehicles.
In 1964, Sinclair and his wife Ida moved to southern California, where he worked in a family furniture business. There the couple engaged in philanthropic endeavours, including, among other things, raising more than a million dollars for a cancer hospital and research facility. When Ida died in 1996, he returned to Canada.
“On a scale of one to ten, their marriage was a 12,” members of his family said.
In recent years, he was frequently asked during interviews about the key to a long life, to which he would reply, “That’s easy. I always say, if you have a problem, don’t worry; you’ll lose your hair. Fix it. If you have a problem, fix it. Don’t sit back and worry. Worry is not going to help.”
Not only did Sinclair boast a full head of hair into his 12th decade of life, he also lived at home and, according to reports, did not take any medications.
Always willing to discuss his story with youth, Sinclair, who received his first COVID vaccination at age 109, had, during the pandemic, taken to Zoom to talk to elementary school children across Canada about his life and experiences.
In these forums, students would ask questions ranging from life as a Jew in rural 1920s Saskatchewan to what kids would do for fun in an age without mobile phones, computers and television. Each of his answers was peppered with his ever-present laugh. As pandemic restrictions lifted, he would return to schools each year on Nov. 11, adorned with his military medals.
Sinclair’s fondness for telling jokes and continually trying to lift the spirits of others was retold this past week by family members. Not long ago, after receiving a small increase to his military pension from Veterans Affairs, he called friends and relatives, singing “I’m in the money.”
“The silver lining of this difficult day is that if you knew him, he definitely had an impact on you,” grandson Daniel Lipetz said at his funeral, noting that Sinclair was constantly receiving fan mail from people around the country and letters of appreciation from prime ministers, ambassadors and royalty.
“His loss will be felt by so many in our community, but he has left us a legacy of kindness and resilience from which we can all draw inspiration. Canada is lucky to have had Reuben in her service and we are all better off having had him as a role model and example. He was a hero in the truest sense. May his memory be a blessing,” said Taleeb Noormohamed, member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville.
In addition to family and friends, members of the Vancouver Police Pipe Band and the Royal Canadian Legion attended his funeral on Aug. 29.
Though his birth certificate was registered on Dec. 5, 1911, according to his family, Sinclair was actually born in July that year.
An honorary lifetime member of Vancouver’s Congregation Schara Tzedeck, he is survived by three children, six grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.