On Friday, our Volunteer Coordinator and Museum Programme Manager, Jon Ambler, travelled to CARIHI Secondary School in Campbell River at the invitation of the staff to speak to the students at their Remembrance Day Assembly. A former Wing Commander and veteran, Jon reminded them of hard won freedoms, but also of their responsibilities. He set these within the school’s Remembrance Day theme: Our National Anthem. I’m sharing a section of his presentation here with you in the hopes that when you next hear and sing our National anthem, you’ll think a little more deeply about our country… that you will not only be reminded of times past, but also of times present… and that as adults, that you might share these thoughts with the young people in your lives…
“… it is my privilege to join you today as we gather, as Canadians, to remember, in this 150th year of our confederation. I appreciate the effort that has gone into creating this remembrance event: you are showing respect, which I, as a veteran, and on behalf of veterans, very much appreciate. I also like the idea of framing our comments with reference to our National Anthem, and for me, and it’s no surprise, the central words are: “Oh Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”
But what is Canada? What makes us Canadians? It is not simply a matter of living in the geographic area called Canada, or talking about hockey, or complaining about the weather, or drinking Tim Horton’s. I believe that Canada is an idea, a shared idea, which has become a national identity and a value system. Canadian core values can be summed up as “people matter”, each and every one of us matters, and each one matters no more and no less than the other. I believe that what makes us Canadians is our shared belief in individual freedom and democracy, our natural desire to do the right thing, the urge we feel to end suffering and injustice and oppression. We believe in Canadian values, and we have a willingness to defend them. Canadians have been described as not necessarily military, but military when necessary.
You young folks, soon to be adults, sitting quietly here today are among the most fortunate people on earth. When you were born in Canada, or became Canadian by emigrating here, as I did, you really won the lottery. You live in one of the best nations on earth, with rights and freedoms and a quality of life second to none. Men and women alike, you have a home, you can attend good schools, walk along safe streets, have medical care when you need it, and you get to eat every day. You are someone’s pride and joy. You are loved. You are treasured. You are our future. You are the envy of most other people.
We Canadians share a belief in the worth of every person and that we are all entitled to dignity and the full protection of the law. We have the rule of law, based on a written constitution and a charter of rights. We commit to democratic principles of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the idea of a free press that can observe and criticise and be our conscience. We are free from unfair arrest and imprisonment. We freely select our government, through a secret ballot. We live free from fear and oppression based on our gender, race, colour or religion. Few on earth enjoy these freedoms.
During our history Canadians have felt so strongly about those beliefs and values that they considered that giving their life for them was an appropriate price to pay. I will say that again: Canadians feel so strongly about our beliefs and values that they consider giving their life to protect them is an appropriate price to pay.
When Imperial Germany invaded neutral nations in Europe, plunging all of Europe into the First World War, Canada and Canadians said this is not right, this must be opposed. The scope of Canada’s response cannot be over stated. Over 620,000 Canadians joined up, out of a population of just 8 million, in other words one out of every 13 Canadians was in a uniform. To be a fit young man and not in a uniform was to be shamed. If we did that today, our Armed Forces would number 3 million, not 80,000.
Never forget that 68,000 Canadians died to end that aggression. For the most part they died in the mud and blood and horror of trench warfare, blown to bits, or buried alive, by artillery shells, or shot up by rifles and machine guns. Furthermore, over three times that many soldiers were wounded, the result being ongoing disabilities, the loss of limbs, blindness, deafness, and long-term psychological damage. Always wet, always tired, always hungry, always frightened, death and suffering your constant companions: the Western Front was truly hell on earth.
We only had a short respite of 21 years, and it became time for another generation to step up. When NAZI Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan gave up on democracy and chose to act like evil bullies, to dominate their own societies, to invade their neighbours, to bomb their cities, to enslave or exterminate the people and steal their resources, Canada and Canadians said no, this we will not tolerate, this we will fight. Over 1.1 million Canadians donned a uniform and served their country.
As an aside, it is still amazing to me that a nation like Germany which produced musicians like Bach and Beethoven, philosophers like Goethe, and engineers and scientists like Planck and Einstein, men and women at the front rank of learning could, almost overnight, seem to go mad and create efficient systems for murder on a genocidal scale. Although Germany today still carries a burden of “war guilt” such atrocities are not linked to being German, and they are not eliminated, care must always be taken to stop the return of the dictators and the demagogues. And, in 2017, I am saddened, depressed, mortified and horrified by what is going on in the US under President Trump. It turns out our democratic freedoms and values are fragile, and are under attack, we must stand on guard!
Never forget that 47,000 Canadians died to restore democracy and freedom during the Second World War. Never forget that the young soldiers, all volunteers, that stormed the beaches of Normandy on D- Day, 6 June 1944, were the high school class of 1943.
Young Canadians, mostly men, volunteered to defend other nations from tyranny. These 18, 19, 20 year olds entered the Canadian Army, despite knowing full well what ground combat entailed. After all, it was their fathers and uncles that had fought in WW 1. To the well-known agonies of trench warfare could now be added the fearsome and even more deadly weapons of WW2.
They joined the Royal Canadian Navy, tasked with providing Great Britain with a lifeline of supplies, not just for warfare, but for the very essentials of life. They fought every day of World War Two to defend the Atlantic shipping convoys from the German submarines. They served in tiny corvettes, a most uncomfortable vessel, knowing they could be blown up and sunk and drowned at any second. Or even worse, they could be left to drift in the wastes of the North Atlantic, slowly dying of cold, thirst or hunger.
They joined the Air Force. They fixed or flew in Hurricanes and Halifaxes and Cansos. Over 17,000 men of the RCAF were killed. Statistically, the most dangerous job for a Canadian man in the 20th century was to be on a bomber crew, worse than being an infantry officer in World War One: 10,000 young Canadains died in Bomber Command. At times life expectancy on a bomber squadron was down to six weeks.
Canadian servicemen: always wet, always tired, too hot or too cold, always hungry, always lonely, sea sick, airsick, homesick, always frightened: they did their duty, they did not shrink or shirk, they faced it head on and they prevailed. Canadian perseverance, Canadian courage. Canadian skill, defending Canadian values.
When the Communists threatened freedom throughout the world, and in particular by invading South Korea, Canadians stood up, joined with other democracies, as a member of the United Nations and said no. Over 500 Canadians died in battle and rest forever in South Korea. I have been to the Canadian memorial in Seoul, the Korean people remember, they are grateful.
We seek to restore peace and stability and freedom and the rule of law, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Haiti, in Central America, in the Balkans, in Libya, and over 120 Canadians have died on those myriad operations. When terrorists attacked and murdered innocents in office buildings, such as the World Trade Center on 9/11, Canadians said we will fight back, as we did in Afghanistan, where 158 joined the fallen and many more were wounded in body, mind or spirit.
Today we have gathered to talk about remembrance. The First World War ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. For that reason, each year at that moment, at 11 AM on November 11, we stop whatever we are doing and pause for two full minutes of silence to reflect on the heroism, mourn the sacrifice and remember the price paid for our freedom. We will do this again tomorrow.
But, I was asked to frame my comments with reference to our National Anthem, and I focussed on “Oh Canada, we stand on guard for thee.” One could quite rightly assume that the “we” in “we stand on guard for thee” refers to the men and women of the Canadian Forces, and the veterans who served before them. You would be correct, but barely so. For, upon reflection that answer does not ring right: it is too small, it is too exclusive, it is incomplete. The truth is that the “we” in “we stand on guard for thee” is every one of us, every one of you. We, the big we, are responsible for protecting and preserving the idea and ideal that are Canada.
Freedom isn’t free, your and my freedom was paid for by the sacrifice of those Canadians that went before, and in particular by the young men that gave up everything, their whole future, to preserve our freedoms. When you look at the veterans on Remembrance Day you will look at old men, but you must remember what they did as young men. The vast majority of Canadians that fought and struggled, and too often died, were young, very young, most were straight out of High School. Like you.
They left you a legacy. Through their sacrifice they built the world that you live in. A better world for sure, a perfect world, of course not. But, it is a world that holds great hope and promise. Canada is a nation that truly offers opportunities.
We can succeed going forward because of our freedoms, written in law. Freedom of speech. Freedom to assemble. Freedom from unlawful arrest. Freedom of the press. Freedom from prejudice based on gender, faith or colour. Freedom to select our government. Freedom to criticise it.
I have listed our rights, now we speak of responsibilities. Your responsibilities. Your responsibility is to be grateful, your responsibility is to remember. Your responsibility is to treasure those freedoms. Your responsibility is to exercise those freedoms: be involved, care about the country, learn about the issues, vote in every election, join a political party, speak up, write letters to the editor, watch for erosion of our hard won freedoms, and take advantage of the opportunities to learn. When you see something is wrong, such as sexism or racism, or other abuses, get righteously angry, get involved, protest, complain, and press for change. Don’t just live with it, history has shown us that ignoring or just living with such wrongs is the path to ruin.
Reflecting on the disaster unfolding in the United States, how could an incompetent, narcissistic, self-confessed sexual assaulter be elected president? I will tell you how. The citizens grew disinterested, bored and complacent. Just over half the electorate voted, the rest just sat home, couldn’t be bothered, and let the ignorant, the bigoted, the racists choose the President. It happened there, and it could happen here. Stand on guard.
Finally, your responsibility is to do everything it takes to protect and preserve the idea that is Canada. Then, and only then, are you entitled to sing “Oh Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”