2018 Remembrance Day Address
November 11, 2018
Stratford, Ontario, Canada
This is a day of remembrance, here in Stratford and across our country. I am honoured to have been asked to say a few words – words of remembrance and of tribute, to those who have served and serve us still.
This annual time of remembrance brings me back to my childhood, in my home town in Manitoba, a kind of hometown replicated in the thousands across this great country of ours, a memory of standing in the crisp, fall air, surrounded by our fellow citizens, our neighbours and particularly the families who knew most intimately what it meant to serve and to sacrifice. It was a time of communal gathering, to acknowledge together, that we have all shared in the benefits and the sacrifices of so many before us.
The parade of my childhood was large, with veterans from many conflicts marching briskly and proudly, … they were our aunts and uncles, our grandfathers and grandmothers. They were also someone’s sons and daughters, sisters and brothers… And now, in 2018 as we see the dwindling numbers of those noble figures make their way before us, we are called once again to reflect on what it means to us ..to remember, now and in the future, when they are no longer standing in front us.
This day, in 2018, we know is historic. This Remembrance Day marks a full century – one hundred years — since the end of the First World War, the terrifying conflict that was, at one time, called “the war to end all wars”. While it was not ‘the end of all wars’, the sacrifices made by Canadians in World War I were profound, and they hold special meaning for us today.
As that war began – in far-off Europe in 1914 — Canada was a young country, not quite 8 million in population. A ‘call to serve’ in this fast-spreading conflict rang out across a nation that was still finding its own identity. And yet – we marvel today — so many answered that call. They came from Canada’s then-younger cities. And more came from the farms and fields, the towns and villages which dotted this still-rural country.
Historians tell us some 4000 young men from Stratford and Perth County answered the call to service in the First World War, and over 600,000 young Canadians stepped forward and signed up nationwide – an incredible commitment.
And so, on this Remembrance Day of 2018 , we look back and ask,
WHO WERE THEY?
WHY DID THEY GO?
WHAT WAS IT LIKE “OVER THERE”?
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN THEY CAME BACK?
WHAT SHALL WE TAKE FORWARD INTO OUR LIVES?
I am not someone who has “the answers”. There are many who are far more qualified to offer opinions. But pondering these questions today – is, I think, important, perhaps more important than ever.
Many of us here are direct descendants of those who answered that call a hundred years ago and more. What do we know about them?
My own grandfather fought in World War 1. He signed up at one of those small towns – in the vast Canadian prairies and soon – like so many — boarded a train in uniform and headed off to places he’d only heard of.
Why did he go? Why did others like him go? We read that it was often in a spirit of entering on a “great and purposeful adventure” — Everyone was going, everyone was signing up. The war would end quickly they were told. It was so important to stand up to be counted.
In the muddy, blasted fields of that horrific war, things, as we know, were different. Though we read about the conditions, few of us can truly imagine the stench and filth of the trenches, the barrage of nerve-shattering explosions, the horses flailing in mud, comrades falling. It was a world of living and doing your duty under a punishing burden of fear and sorrow.
Whatever the merits of fighting – and, they say, winning — this war , we can’t ignore – the nature and scale of the loss involved. Estimates say that total combined military and civilian losses in this terrible conflict reached a staggering 37 million. Nearly 60,000 young Canadians died “over there”. Loss touched families everywhere in our young nation – it touched the sons, daughters, sisters, brothers — and the mothers and fathers who tearfully opened the telegrams that would tell them that their loved one would not be coming home. And we remember those who did “come home” but were never the same.
And yet we know too by reading their stories that – under terrible strain — these soldiers grew closer to each other, that their hearts glowed as they shared a smoke and a smile with a comrade, as they opened and read a blessed letter from home.
We remember wistfully the unofficial “Christmas peace” of 1914, when soldiers from both sides laid down their arms for a brief moment and reached out to each other and in the cold of the night air, sang and exchanged gifts.
We can’t forget, that even in those dark days and nights of war, a light glowed, one that showed the incredible power of the human spirit. That human connection reached from the battlefields of Europe all the way back to the country and the communities that were home to our soldiers. It reached back to the community in which we stand today. And through that human connection, those who served in that Great War – and those who have served since — helped define what it means to be Canadian.
Canadians and a sense of service come together on Remembrance Day as we honour all who have served –in the conflicts and missions since WW1 and those who serve us still. This can be in the capacity of sovereignty patrol, search and rescue, disaster relief, or peace-making, peace keeping and combat operations.
On this day, I personally reflect on my own travels with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the nearly 12 years I have been privileged to serve them as an Honorary Colonel.
My travels and experiences have shown our Canadian Forces to be exemplary and often noble individuals. I have found them to be stoic, deeply devoted to their missions and keenly attuned to their professional and moral responsibilities. I have also found them to have a fierce sense of humour in the most dire of circumstances.
I have become deeply aware of the sacrifices made by these serving members, along with their families as I have attended repatriation ceremonies in Trenton.
We are deeply privileged to have some of the finest men and women serving in the Canadian Forces . Around, behind and beside them are some of the most remarkable families you will find anywhere. We, as Canadians, do not thank them often enough.
At this time of remembrance, I think of them.
So, in our remembering, what shall we learn from this and take forward into our lives?
Perhaps we remember the words of a family member, or of stories we’ve heard and read…Perhaps we remember the millions of citizens, who, through no fault of their own, were caught at the wrong place and the wrong time …or we remember the school children who tend the graves of our soldiers in foreign lands. Perhaps we imagine the things that were unspoken and admire the courage of those who served and who serve us still.
And we think of the hope their service brought and still brings to all of us. But today more than ever, we are also reminded that history matters… and that a country which loses its connection with its history, is like a person who acquires a kind of amnesia. They don’t know where they have come from or where they are going to.
We are reminded that, all it takes for evil to reign,… is for good men and women to do nothing… or that suffering happens when others look away.
We are reminded that our democracies, no matter how imperfect, do not thrive as a spectator sport and like the very quality of life that was given to us through such incredible human sacrifice, these democracies are fragile and vulnerable.
We are reminded that by stepping forward in our own ways to serve our communities and our fellow global citizens — their gift of service is something we can emulate in our own lives.
On this Remembrance Day of 2018, it is my fervent hope that we will all learn to be soldiers of democracy, to be ambassadors and advocates for diplomacy and respectful discourse when possible, and defenders of the common good when necessary, and in times of great pain and need, that we remember also, .. that we can be — must be — ministers of compassion, generosity and love.
Honorary Colonel of The Royal Canadian Air Force
The Beacon Herald – Galen Simmons
Stratford Marks a Century of Remembrance
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