Compiled by Ali Schwabe
Illustration by Mathias MacPhee
NOVEMBER 11 MAY be over, but many students believe the day symbolizes values that should be reflected upon throughout the whole year. Others feel it’s time to move on from a bloody past and focus on a peaceful future. Here, students share what Remembrance Day means to them.
My grandmother’s day
When I think about Remembrance Day, as much as it’s about everyone who served our country and the people who supported them, I can only think of my maternal grandmother. Even though all of my grandparents served during the war, she stands out for me. My grandmother is a member of the Royal Canadian Legion and has actively volunteered for it for as long as I can remember. Every November, she goes down to the airport and waits in the arrivals area, selling poppies to people coming into town. I still remember putting loonies into her plastic box when I was little to buy poppies from her each year. The money she raises goes to support many worthy causes in the community.
I know selling poppies means a lot to her, even more so now that she is in a nursing home. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, every day for the past two weeks she’s put on her uniform and her many pins and badges and rolled into the airport, poppies in hand. Even at her age and in her circumstances, she wants to continue to do her part. When November 11 comes, she’ll go to the Legion with other veterans and take part in a ceremony, as she always has. For me, Remembrance Day and the weeks before it are a chance to see my grandmother at her best, doing something that gives her pride and purpose. Seeing how happy she is to be out there honouring our veterans, I can’t help but be happy too.
I believe we should not be limiting ourselves to one day of reflection, but I also understand that one day is all that’s possible for some people. While war isn’t something one can just forget about, it’s also not an easy thing to dwell upon—it’s sombre, and wholly depressing, really. While people should certainly never forget, it’s good to have a single day where we can remember the fact that people were brave enough to fight for their countries’ freedom. While people can reflect as much as they want on their own time, having a day specifically for it creates solidarity among all Canadians. Hopefully for many future Remembrance Days, the entire country, myself, and my grandmother included, will reflect with you.
The white poppy
On November 11, many Canadians don the blood-red poppy on their lapels, keeping it close to their hearts to honour the veterans who fought for their country’s freedom many years ago. I think we’re missing the bigger picture.
What about the civilian deaths that occurred during the great wars of our past?
More pressingly, what about the civilian deaths occurring today? What about the 12,000+ Afghanis who died during Canadian occupation of their country between 2006 and 2011? Although the United Nation attributes around 65 per cent of those deaths to the Taliban, it takes two sides to wage war. When do Canadians take a moment of silence to reflect upon the death and destruction faced by other nations, by other human beings? Can we not see beyond borders to recognize suffering should end for all, regardless of citizenship?
The CBC reported that this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs spent $3.5 million to promote Remembrance Day, including a campaign targeted at engaging youth through contests that offer “cool prizes” like laptops that can be won by tweeting about Remembrance Day. It appears there’s a disconnect—isn’t Remembrance Day about loss, not winning? Furthermore, that’s a lot of money to be spent—some of it on advertisements that I believe, at times, glamourize war.
Whether intentionally or not, videos emphasizing the courage of soldiers fighting demonized enemies, or the nation-building aspect of war, such as when Canada was “truly formed” at Dieppe, carry a certain message. Perhaps Remembrance Day funds would be better used if directed toward veterans themselves or toward non-violent peacekeeping activities.
I think to engage younger generations, the emphasis needs to move from reflection on the past to focus on the present. Sure, war is a grey area and some will argue that at times in our history, such as during the First and Second World Wars, there were no options other than resorting to violence for the greater good. But is that the case today? I hope not.
I hope the meaning of Remembrance Day can widen. Instead of solely mourning and reflecting upon the past, let’s use November 11 as a reminder that war still goes on today. Let’s respect the memories of the fallen by implementing non-violent solutions to current conflicts. We are at a point in society where we can reject war as a tool for social change.
Respecting civilians and advocating for peace need not necessarily conflict with our current understanding of Remembrance Day. Next year, why not wear a white poppy alongside your red one?
An insider’s view
I stumbled into the army almost by accident when a friend dragged me to an information session in 2000. My friend didn’t end up joining, but I did. Twelve years ago, what seemed to me a part-time job opportunity, is now an interesting and unique career.
I have been to Afghanistan twice, for a total of 14 months, and am fortunate to have returned home both times. I currently work for the Small Arms department as a weapons and range instructor at the military base in the small town of Oromocto, N.B. My philosophy is that things can always get worse; you can always be colder, wetter, or more miserable than you are right now, so appreciate your current conditions.
For me, the meaning of Remembrance Day is simple; it’s a day to reflect upon those who went overseas to protect their country and gave their life in the process. In 2006 I was the pallbearer for a close friend who died overseas in Afghanistan. Remembrance Day has since become more personal for me. I will watch the ceremonies with sadness and optimism for the future as our work does good.
—Sergeant Alexandre Sicard as told to Nadia Helal
Respecting the little our veterans ask of us
Remembrance Day, to me, is a time to thank our veterans for the sacrifices they have made for us. I think it’s sometimes difficult to fully realize what soldiers go through, especially in the context of the First and Second World Wars. The Great Wars are just something that we read about in our textbooks, paragraphs interspersed with black and white pictures. But once you meet someone who has been to war and has fought for their life and ours, it totally changes your perspective.
When I was in high school, I was chosen to go on a trip to Dieppe, France, organized by the Government of Canada and Veterans Affairs Canada, to commemorate the 1942 raid on Dieppe. It’s an organized trip that happens every five years; I went for the 65th anniversary. We laid wreaths alongside various dignitaries and attended numerous receptions, but it was the veterans who made the greatest impact on me.
There were about 17 veterans with us, all of them 85 to 90 years old. Being able to connect with them was an experience I will never forget. It was incredible to see them in France where they had fought so many years ago. I think I cried the entire week.
I remember one man in particular. We were on the beach and we were supposed to lay roses. He just kept walking and walking and walking further down the shoreline. I went with him, helping him out because the beach was so rocky. Finally he put down the rose and started to cry. He said to me, “This is where I was shot.” I didn’t know what to say; I just started to cry. It was an unbelievable, surreal experience.
More than anything, I think the veterans on our trip appreciated that we cared enough to listen to what they had to say. To care about our collective history and their personal sacrifices and stories, and never take our freedom for granted, is all these veterans have ever asked of us.
On Remembrance Day, it is important for us as Canadians and as young adults to not just observe the necessary moment of silence, but to put a face to the names in our history books and remember that these were real people who made sacrifices for our freedom. Remembrance Day should not be an opportunity for anti-war political commentary—it should be one day where we can get over ourselves and thank the people who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us.
—Natalie Morris as told to Spencer Van Dyk
Violence within ourselves
Walking around downtown this past weekend I was hard pressed to find somebody not wearing a poppy. People came out in droves this year, as they do every year, to watch the planes fly overhead and celebrate the sacrifices made by so many. Where is the day heading as we move almost 100 years away from the exact moment for which we take a moment of silence: 11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918? With fewer and fewer veterans alive from WWII and Korea to tell their stories of war, how will young people learn what Remembrance Day is supposed to mean? More to the point, what does this day represent at its core? In an age where hopefully there will continue to be fewer veterans than in previous generations, will this day retain its significance?
I think the answer to this last question is a resounding yes. The idea of Remembrance Day is not about one specific war or one specific period in time. Remembrance Day is about the victims of violence. And we should start thinking about violence in a more broad sense, not just when it occurs between opposing states. Victims of violence are more than just victims of war—there are victims of terrorism, victims of domestic abuse, and yes, even victims of self-inflicted violence and depression. As the minister of an Ottawa Ascension church said in his service I attended on Remembrance Day morning, unreasonable violence exists in all of us. He said that every time our temper rises and we swear at the car that swerved in front of us or curse at a sales representative over the phone, the banality of our own violence is manifest.
This type of violence within us, in both its uncontrolled and politically correct forms, leads to harassment at the misogynist workplace, bullying in the schoolyard, and, if enough hate exists in a society, war. Remembrance Day should not be about celebrating war. Remembrance Day should be about celebrating the lives that were lost and the lives that were never begun because of war. It is a chance to commit ourselves, all 35 million of us Canadians, to a country and to a world with more peace and less hate. Lest we forget.
Lest we forget. The last century has been the most innovative and productive period in human history. Each year as Remembrance Day comes and goes, we gather to remember the price paid for our freedom and independence. It’s hard imagining the phrase “history repeats itself” coming to fruition in our current, restructured society; yet, almost a century after the First World War, there are still wars raging around the world. We continue to feel the effects of war that are seemingly in direct contention of Remembrance Day’s original message. All politics aside, there is a very honest and moral conversation that needs to come out of our remembrance: is war necessary for peace?
The first Remembrance Day in 1919 was honoured by a Canadian population who had recently lost nearly 65,000 people. It was a tribute to fallen loved ones and a celebration of the end of violence—violence which would never have to happen again. Unfortunately, 93 years later, the latter message has gone astray and been somewhat forgotten: the irony in Remembrance Day.
As much as November 11 is about remembering those who fought in war and paying respect to those currently fighting, the global pursuit of peace should not be left out of the commemorations. Today’s Remembrance Day ceremonies carry the underlying message that military action is justified and required as a means of obtaining peace. Although this is a time to empathize with those who have lost loved ones, it is also a time to refocus our efforts. To truly pay tribute to peace is to strive toward a time where there will be no grieving due to war and no lives lost due to violence in the name of our country.
Considerable controversy surrounds this debate, a debate itself which is seen as disrespectful to those who lost their lives at war. However, when we look at the facts, what better tribute could be made to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice than to uphold the original message of Remembrance Day?