Bob’s Remembrance Day recollections 2014
After laying the wreath (I am at right), my Legion escort and I saluted the dais. It was my 12th Remembrance Day ceremony representing the Province of Ontario in Streetsville at the Remembrance Day commemoration.
Quiet, somber and respectful. The cadet trumpeters played the last post, and the sunny and mild November morning fell silent as a record crowd of an estimated 3,500 paused to contemplate the sacrifices of Canadian veterans past and present in the first Remembrance Day ceremony at the newly-redeveloped cenotaph in Streetsville. Our Royal Canadian Legion Branch 139 Streetsville turned out, as always, along with members of the police, fire, armed forces, cadets, and our local elected officials at all levels. Andrea and I have been members of the Legion for years.
The minute of silence to commemorate the time the guns fell silent to end the First World War was punctuated only by a passing freight train and a faraway barking dog. As a baby boomer who grew up listening to the often-told stories of the vets who were my parents’ friends, it was a chance to reflect on the lives of those who came back to build the country, province and communities we enjoy today.
This year, I re-read some of the thoughts I wrote down on my first trip abroad. I had always wanted to see France, and following about a week in Paris, drove north, stopping first at Compiegne, in a quiet and gloomy forest where the armistice to end World War One was signed. The original railway car remains to this day, and reproduced inside are the documents, just as they were prior to the signing of the armistice to end the fighting on Europe’s western front.
The allied representatives at the signing of the armistice. Ferdinand Foch, second from right, seen outside his railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne.
Further north lies the small French city of Arras, and nearby Vimy Ridge. On a beautiful, clear and cool May evening, I found Vimy Ridge just before sundown. Its own silence is eternal. Its forest floor is an undulating carpet of shell craters, rounded by the decades and carpeted with grass tended by sheep. Around are signs in English and French warning visitors that even today danger from unexploded munitions remains. I asked a local official about that risk, and he said that each year, one or two sheep become casualties of the Great War.
And of course, there is the Vimy Ridge monument itself, reaching skyward in silence and sorrow for the sacrifice rather than to the triumph of the battle. On it are inscribed the names of the Canadians killed in the Great War. And it was there I recall watching the sun set, and the evening chill rise. Moreover, it was there, and wandering among the headstones of the Canadians that I felt the thoughts of other Canadians who had called Vimy their final resting place for decades. One feels drawn to think of Canada in that corner of France, as though to share with the fellows who stayed what life was like in the land they left behind. Though in a cemetery, one feels the the welcome of kindred souls from Canada, welcoming another Canadian as a visitor. Like all Commonwealth grave sites, Vimy is tended immaculately.
At the time I visited Vimy, Canada had just begun to re-open the tunnels covered hastily after the end of World War One. Coincidentally, the next day, as I returned to Vimy after a night in Arras, the first Canadian veteran (now once again with his unit with World War One’s roll call in the hereafter being complete) was then visiting, and it was with him (and he was from Mississauga) that we walked the trenches and peered into the tunnels.
“We never got to go down here,” he said to me on that day. “You had to be an officer, or be wounded awaiting evacuation to go into the tunnels. We lived up here in the trenches from day to day.”
At one point, I picked up a rock, and threw it from the Canadian trenches into the forward German trench. Though I have a pretty good arm from baseball, they were that close. As the Canadians moved into the trenches to replace the departing British, the Germans hung banners that said, “Welcome Canadians.”
Just as I had thought of leaving, a tour bus pulled up full of British Vimy veterans. Though we think of the battle of Vimy Ridge won by Canada on April 9th as a Canadian battle, it has to be mentioned that the British and French had tried three times to wrest Vimy from the German Army. These vets were then all in their 90s, and descended from the bus with some spring in their step as they set foot on the ground at Vimy Ridge, and shared their stories freely.
On the same trip, I continued north and west to the beaches at Dunkirk, then south to Calais and Dieppe, and finally past Le Havre and over the Seine to see all five D-Day beaches, but that’s a tale for another time.
Remembrance Day a national statutory holiday?
In the federal House of Commons, a Private Member’s Bill asking that Remembrance Day become a statutory holiday has received second reading. Remembrance Day is a holiday in some, but not all provinces. When I lived in British Columbia, it was a holiday. Here in Ontario, and in Quebec, it is not. MP Brad Butt tells me that Remembrance Day is a statutory holiday in four provinces.
Should the bill receive consideration by a House of Commons Committee, and be returned to the House of Commons for third reading (few Private Members’ Bills are), it would need to be passed by a vote on Third Reading, and receive Royal Assent before being proclaimed. In plain terms, it’s possible, but the bill is not there yet and there are important milestones yet to be achieved.