This content is also available in: Vietnamese
By Maureen Littlejohn
On the 11th day of the eleventh month at the 11th hour, no matter where I am, I observe a minute of silence to commemorate those who died in military service, protecting our country. It is a solemn day for school children who sit in assemblies, for congregants at church services, for veterans at Royal Canadian Legion Halls and for all those who attend laying of the wreath ceremonies at local parks and national war memorials.
November 11th is the anniversary of the Armistice agreement in 1918 that ended the First World War and it was signed at exactly 11 a.m. In what is also known as the Great War, more than 68,000 Canadian were lost at sea and on battlefields across Europe. For a brief spell (1921-30) Armistice Day was held on the Monday of the week of November 11, but that got confusing and occasionally even collided with Thanksgiving Day. In 1931 Armistice Day was renamed Remembrance Day and parliament declared it would be held on the actual day of November 11th.
Prior to the Great War, Canadians honoured their overseas war dead on February 27, Paardeberg Day, the anniversary of the Second Anglo-Boer War Battle of Paardeberg in 1900 in South Africa. The Boer War was the first overseas deployment of the Canadian army and this battle resulted in victory. These days, we commemorate the sacrifices soldiers made, not so much victories.
Sadly, there have been other wars since 1918. According to Veterans Affairs Canada, more than 118,000 members of Canada’s Armed Forces have died in foreign conflicts including the Second World War, the Korean War and the War in Afghanistan.
In the days leading up to November 11th, we wear a symbolic red poppy on our chests. The poppies we pinned to our coat lapels when I was young were made of felt. Now the poppies we receive from veterans after putting coins in their donation boxes are of a flexible and waterproof plastic that work well in November’s rainy weather.
The poppy became a symbol in response to Canadian soldier and surgeon John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. As he looked out over the churned earth, he saw the red flowers growing in abundance where so many died and were buried. This poem is often recited at the many ceremonies and services where the public, veterans and current military personnel join together to remember fallen friends, family and strangers who fought to preserve our freedom. To find a ceremony to attend in your community, contact your local Legion branch, or go to the Royal Canadian Legion website at legion.ca.
In Ottawa, at the National War Memorial, a nationally televised Remembrance Day ceremony attracts tens of thousands and is attended by the governor general, the prime minister, senior Royal Canadian Legion officials and a large parade of veterans. At the foot of the memorial lie the remains of an unidentified Canadian soldier killed during the First World War at Vimy Ridge. Labeled the Unknown Soldier, this tomb represents all Canadian killed overseas who lie in unmarked graves.
Recently, a new tradition has been introduced by Allan Cameron, a former cameraman and now executive director and producer with Veterans Voices of Canada. Flags of Remembrance was launched in 2014. “I was driving on the highway from my home in Sylvan Lake to Red Deer, Alta., and just thought ‘We need to line the highway with 128 flags to remember our veterans,’” he explains. His dream became a become a reality and now there are 12 communities from British Columbia to Prince Edward Island that take part; Vernon, B.C.; Sylvan Lake, Edson, Whitecourt, and Ponoka, Alta.; Beausejour, Man.; Windsor, Ottawa and Kingston, Ont.; Riverview, N.B.; Sydney, N.S.; and Charlottown, P.E.I. “The idea is that when Canadians drive past or visit a Flags of Remembrance site, they gain a stronger sense of patriotism and better understanding of the number of Canadian lives lost in times of war and conflict, and also during peacekeeping actions,” says Cameron, who notes that members of the RCMP are also honoured at the sites.
The flags are raised the first Saturday of October at the opening ceremony and taken down the first Saturday after November 11th. The flag poles also are hung with a sponsored, maple leaf hero plaque that names a veteran, either alive or deceased. “It costs $200 to sponsor a hero plaque and flag. Eighty-five percent of our sponsors are private individuals,” says Cameron who notes that a per cent of the total money raised is donated to a charity of the community’s choice. When the flags are lowered in November, they are given, along with the plaques, to the sponsors at the closing ceremony.
Cameron says the feedback has been overwhelming. “In the first year we did it our organization got thank you emails from around the world saying ‘this needs to be done more.’ It really struck a cord.”
In the future, Cameron and a team of his tireless volunteers, hope to install Flags of Remembrance in every province and territory. “Through this initiative, we aim to ensure that Canadians throughout the country of all ages and walks of life continue to understand and appreciate the sacrifices that our veterans have made on behalf of the country we all call home,” he says. “I want to make it a national institution.” For more information go to vetvoicecan.org.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
– John McCrae, May 1915