We’ve been honouring our fallen veterans for more than a century now with Remembrance Day services at Cenotaphs, two-minute silences and poppies.
Recent years have seen several innovations; locally, we have the white cross program to mark veterans’ graves, and a former soldier’s around-the-clock vigil at the Cobble Hill Cenotaph.
A new one provincially, as of last year, is a sign, 24 x 16 inches with stand, bright with red poppies for your front yard. Bearing the phrase, “We Will Remember Them” along with the RCL logo and salutation, “Thank you,” they’re available through some Royal Canadian Legions for $20 each and sold on a first come first served basis.
There are some new wrinkles to the Poppy Campaign, too — biodegradable poppies and wreaths, among them. In fact, there’s been something of a sea-change in this major fundraising and awareness promotion program that annually raises $20 million for needy veterans and their families. There will be fewer poppy boxes (sales outlets) this year but, for the first time, they’ll accept payments from tap-enabled devices or cards.
Another high-tech app is ‘Poppy Stories,’ described as “an initiative allowing people to scan a lapel poppy with their smartphone and be presented with information about real Canadian veterans, including anecdotes about their lives, their roles within the military, where they served and what their passions were.”
These initiatives are aimed at “engaging more Canadians from across generations, to engage younger people in the act of remembrance,” Nujma Bond, national Legion communications director explained. It’s hoped that “modernizing how we remember,” will “carry on the tradition of remembrance in Canada.”
Since 2011 thousands of Canadian students have embraced the No Stone Left Alone Memorial Foundation (not to be confused with the American non-profit No Stone Unturned Foundation which works with disabled children).
According to its website, No Stone Left Alone’s goal is to “honour every Canadian veteran who has passed by placing a poppy on their headstone each November. We can’t do this without your help. Use our interactive map to see where veterans are interred in your community, and sign up to ensure they are commemorated!
“There is no cost to participate, and the impact on your community, its youth and veterans’ families is priceless.”
A report in the Kelowna Capital News described last year’s event in Vernon during a drizzling rain when six Grade 10 girls from W.L. Seaton Secondary placed the last of their poppies beside the gravestone of a Canadian veteran. As they’d already done with 23 poppies, “the girls stood at the headstone, heads looking down at the name, and reflected on the sacrifice made by that soldier and his comrades in arms in both World Wars…”
They were among almost 300 students who placed more than 1,200 poppies in Vernon’s Pleasant Valley Cemetery as part of what has become an annual No Stone Left Alone ceremony that recognizes the sacrifices of all military personnel. This year, the poppies were pinned to the ground beside the graves so they wouldn’t blow away.
The 2021 ceremony, for the first time, had a student colour guard from Seaton Secondary carrying the flags to open the ceremony under the watch of Legion Sgt. At Arms Doug Weaving. A member of the Vernon and District Family History Society opened the ceremony by telling the students and guests about the impact of the soldiers returning home from the First World War and recited the Prayer of Remembrance.
A Grade 10 student recited Lt.-Col. John McCrae’s classic First World War poem, In Flanders Fields, a Grade 6 student read aloud the Commitment to Remember and a retired lieutenant-colonel recited a verse from the Act of Remembrance. They were followed by the Last Post on trumpet, two minutes of silence and the placing of a wreath at the base of the Field of Honour Cenotaph in the cemetery.
In a final act of remembrance, students from an elementary and a secondary school were to lay poppies on November 10.
The immensity of this program can be gauged by the fact that, in the Greater Toronto area alone, 28,112 Canadian veterans are buried in 224 cemeteries! The value of this personal engagement of young Canadians who’ve grown up generations removed from the wars of their grand and great grandparents simply can’t be measured.
“The No Stone Left Alone leaves a lasting legacy for students,” Cedar Hill Middle School teacher Maryanne Trofimuk said last year. “They get so much more, by being out there, among the graves, than by hearing about it in a school gym.”
There was a truly novel expression of remembrance this August, the 80th anniversary of the ill-fated Dieppe raid. In what was known as Operation Jubilee, the Canadian Army’s first first major combat against Nazi Germany, Canadian and British troops were landed near the German-occupied port to destroy its facilities and capture vital information.
It was a disaster. In 10 hours of fierce fighting the 5,000-man Canadian force suffered 900 dead and 2,000 became prisoners of war.
This spring, the Juno Beach Centre Association mailed 400 unique postcards across the country “that share the name and fate of a serviceman whose records show once lived in those places”. The idea was to “encourage people to take a moment to consider what happened to this individual who lived in their home, or nearby to them, 80 or more years ago,” the JBCA’s director Alex Fitzgerald-Black explained.
Association employees and volunteers began planning this imaginative campaign late last year by compiling lists of addresses for about half of those who participated in the Dieppe action. Because rural addresses are less exacting, the resulting mail-out favours urban areas, many of them in southern Ontario, Montreal and Winnipeg. The association also staged a temporary exhibition in Normandy, France. In June, a delegation of federal ministers, veterans (including three survivors of the raid), and members of the Canadian Armed Forces participated in the anniversary events held in France.
“It’s vitally important that we continue to recognize and honour the extraordinary service and sacrifice witnessed 80 years ago on the beaches of Dieppe,” Lawrence MacAulay, minister of Veterans Affairs said in a release. “As the living memory of this seminal moment fades, we as Canadians must ensure that the legacy of those who served Canada is never forgotten.”
Fitzgerald-Black hopes that the novel postcard project helps Canadians remember those who died serving their country and those who survived. “They’re not going to be around much longer to share these stories — the stories of their comrades who were killed during the raid,” he said. “And so we hope Canadians will continue to take up the torch to do this into the future.”
Victoria-raised filmmaker Eric Brunt made the news in September with his ambitious project to preserve on film the memory of surviving Second World War veterans in cooperation with the Canadian War Museum. He records interviews with veterans who are rapidly dying off; of the 1.1 million who served in the last world war, fewer than 20,000 are still alive. Brunt, 29, was motivated to take up the project by his own grandfather who died, aged 95, without leaving any record of his war experience. Brunt told Times Colonist reporter Jeff Bell that “I sometimes have to pinch myself,” he’s so pleased to be able to record surviving veterans for posterity.
At Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery last year, several score gathered for a brief service at the Cross of Sacrifice and at the naval monument for the only Canadian naval ship lost in the First World War. Among the names of lost seamen on the marker is that of Austin Ordano from the Cowichan Valley; his name is misspelled. He has a plot and headstone in St. Peter’s, Quamichan cemetery although his body was never recovered.
For the 100th anniversary of Armistice, a team of military pilots decided to fly over the Vimy Memorial in scaled-down versions of vintage aircraft; what made their idea unique was their choosing to honour real-life aviation heroes. “My aircraft is honouring a gentleman named Charles Hickey, who was born in Parksville,” said former RCAF fighter pilot Dale Eerhart of Comox. “He was raised in Nanaimo and he was an ace. He had 21 victories in the First World War. He was sadly killed at the age of 21.
“His name is emblazoned on the side of my airplane as well as Andrew Eykelenboom. I’m trying to bring in both the more contemporary veterans and heroes of our day as well as the past.” Cpl. Andrew Eykelenboom, 23, was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2006.
Explained Bellingham resident Allan Snowie, the founder of Vimy Flight who served in the Royal Canadian Navy Air Branch in the 1960s, “Our pilot group is baby boomers, and the First World War was our grandfathers’ war. Our generation is the last living link with these men. It’s truly our duty to pass along what knowledge we have of them to our grandchildren.” Snowie’s grandfather and four cousins served in the Great War; only his grandfather returned.
Remembrance is one thing but cold, hard reality is quite another, alas, as evidenced in Victoria. This summer, many of the memorial trees planted along Shelburne Street, Saanich, that were planted to honour the men of the First World War were axed to allow for traffic and safety re-configurations.
All that said, how in heaven’s name, one might ask, can something as sacred as Remembrance of Canada’s war dead and all the men and women who have served their nation in uniform in three wars and, latterly, on peacekeeping missions, come into disrepute?
Sad to say, some prominent memorials have recently come under siege by those who choose to deny history as fact, as something that, because they refuse to believe it, justifies their not just rejecting it, but their desecrating its most revered icons such as cenotaphs and war memorials — even the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during the truckers’ siege of Ottawa last winter. Or by hijacking such memorials for gathering points for their political protests.
According to The Canadian Press, an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick has explained their behaviour this way: extreme political movements need symbols to succeed, so it’s not surprising that some protest groups in Canada have tried to use the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for their own purposes.
“You have the Unknown Soldier,” Prof. David Hoffman said, “the ultimate martyr, someone who can’t even be remembered for their name. And you have these individuals…trying to equate what they’re doing with a sense of martyrdom.” Retired Brigadier-General Duane Daly, who helped to create the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 20 years ago, was more to the point: “That’s a tomb. If they want to make a statement….go to Parliament. That’s what it’s for, not the tomb.”
Although Public Services and Procurement Canada “monitors” the memorial 24/7, it has been pointed out that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, is protected around the clock by armed military guards. (Despite this, there have been calls for even greater security.)
Some believe that no limits should placed upon public access because the vast majority of visitors are respectful. There’s another, more sinister side to this. According to Barbara Perry, director of the Centre of Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, restricting access could backfire: “In some respects, that’s more dangerous because it feeds into the victim mentality that we’re being oppressed.”
Those considerations aside, perhaps Youri Cormier, executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, said it best: The tomb of the lost Soldier is a “sacred space…not for the taking.”
Thinking Canadians will agree with him.