Remembrance Day: for the veterans, not the politicians

Support the troops. No Canadian would argue with that, except maybe the members of Vancouver's city council.

The trick is to wait until those troops are not so young and healthy, having had enough of disabling wounds and dead bodies, and likely to come back with stress disorders that will have them using their lethal training in inappropriate ways. Then you do what Canadians always do with veterans: ignore them and hope they go away. It is not a great program, but Vancouver city council is right on it.

To council, Remembrance Day is when we trot out the aged survivors of the Second World War and use them as props in campaigns to propagate more international violence of the kind no veteran would agree to. There are fewer vets marching each year, and it's not just because they are dying off in a demographically inevitable way.

As a member of the Canadian Forces Communication Command reserve, I stood to attention in full dress kit at Victory Square on Remembrance Days in the 1970s. The reservists and militia, marginally augmented by the few available regular force personnel, were in those days outnumbered by the Royal Canadian Legion contingents.

Unlike us, the Legion members–almost all Second World War veterans–had no orders or obligation to march. But there they were, middle-aged men with faces that stayed adamantly firm and backs that stayed straight no matter how the wind blew and the rain pelted down. And around us would be a few hundred family and friends mixing with the shoppers and passersby wondering why there was a parade in such a run-down part of town.

A quarter of a century later, I joined the Legion and was eventually asked to march to Victory Square again. Things had gotten to the point where an out-of-shape ex-reservist was considered necessary in case he had to catch old vets should they keel over.

The Remembrance Day parade in 2001, just two months after the famous terrorist attack in New York, was unlike anything I had seen in the 1970s. About 20,000 people clapped their hands raw as we wheeled onto Cambie Street and tried to stay in step approaching Victory Square.

I was angry for a bit, seeing those people, wondering where they had been for 25 years, and suspicious that they had come as a gesture of solidarity with politicians' callous plans for a new generation of soldiers. I thought they were expressing their wish that another generation would go and put on the uniform in order to die or be wounded in horrible ways.

I know now that Canadians do not want their fellow citizens to die, even if people in the U.S. do. They respect the sacrifices that have been made, and on Remembrance Day they only want to express their appreciation. I also know that politicians of all stripes do not share the citizens' attitude toward those who have taken up arms and suffered for their country, and that politicians generally see veterans as a symbol to exploit. Cannon fodder then, and now a different kind of fodder.

In 2005, several veterans who paraded at Victory Square were afterward admitted to local hospitals to be treated for hypothermia and respiratory complications after being left in driving rain at 2?C for more than an hour. The politicians stayed dry under their marquees and never even considered the idea of shortening the ceremony for the sake of the people it is supposed to honour.

The following July, Vancouver city council refused to entertain a motion that would have followed almost every other municipality in B.C. in granting tax breaks to branches of the Royal Canadian Legion. It was, apparently, the Legion branches' fault to have run into financial trouble because of diminishing membership and a refusal to be anything but a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping local communities.

The veterans of the Legion who muster on Remembrance Day march not for themselves but in place of those who died for their country and who cannot attend the parade in person. They stand with the still-serving troops because all Canadians who have sworn to defend their country to the death share a common desire for peace.

It hurts them when recognition of their sacrifice is limited to a single day or week, with free parking for veterans' plates begrudgingly allowed by city council this year. It also hurts them to hear that the federal government finally spent billions on much-needed equipment for the Canadian forces but forgot to budget for mental-health care for service personnel and their families who are having to bear the human cost of the largest sustained deployment of Canadians in combat zones since the Korean War more than 50 years ago.

Politicians seem to find justifications for war where veterans of combat can find none, and our leaders seem to support the troops only until they go off duty. Remembrance Day might be more meaningful if the veterans and troops were protected under marquees while the politicians stood out in the cold, driving rain. 1

A former signalman and Seaforth Highlander, Verne McDonald now serves as sergeant at arms for the Billy Bishop (No. 176) branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

Links: Remembrance Day at the BC/Yukon Command of the Canadian Legion
Remembrance Day at the Canadian War Museum




Nov 8, 2007 at 9:28am

In the 1970's my father and my uncle kept afloat a regional Legion because the previous administration milked the organization for everything, poppy money went for free drinks, etc. both my dad and uncle WW2 vets took matters in their own hands and saved the day.

That being said, one of the annual events so mishandled was the 11th ceremonies. It devolved to a few politicos, legion members, and cadets, shivering around the cenotaph.

Again, prompt action turned an embarrassment into a function attracting over 1000 people!

As I was the go-for for the ceremony, over the 10 years my father ran things, I noticed that federal an provincial politicians only came during election years; municipal politico's (civic elections were every two years then) did double duty for the government of Canada and the Province of BC.

It was when over 1000 people were at the cenotaph and the provincial MLA was a no show, did the people realize his nonappearance and questions were raised in a supporting newspaper. He was there the next year and every year after.

A sad note to end all this; My father, a veteran of WW2, was dying of a awful disease, I applied to the same legion to see if there was any programs available for vets. The first question was, "what did your dad do to deserve help?" and "What do you expect we can do about it?"

I turned and left the Legion and never have bought a poppy since. When the Legion disgraces veterans, it's time to go!