Remembrance Day 2016

Listening to great-grandmother's stories

Listening to great-grandmother’s stories

Delivered at Minto Armoury, Winnipeg, on 11 November 2016

There was no reason for the guns to fall silent on this day in 1916. The Battle of the Somme was in its final phases, with the battle for Ancre Heights just ending and the battle for Ancre just beginning.

That fall, the First Canadian Division had worn the famous red patch for the first time, making a name for themselves as assault troops at Courcellette that they would carry through the Somme and sear forever into the memory of friends and foes alike with their assault on Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

Today it is easier to think about those ghostly figures, wreathed in gas, fog and smoke clambering out of the trenches on old video clips, because they are all gone. Their words and images, the rusted tools of trench warfare preserved in museum collections, speak to us in ways that we can shape and control. We remember them in the way that we want, without fear of contradiction.

It is harder to create the same mythology about the Second World War or Korea, because there are still some among us who were there.

Whether it is Cyprus, Golan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo, Libya, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, however — from Kapyong to Medak, to the Panjwaii and Kandahar – there is a long list of places where Canadians fought because they accepted the call to serve. Each one needs its own stories to be told in ways that give voice to those who were there, not merely carving their names and battle honours onto a monument to enshrine what the next generation wants to remember.

Today we remember those who died in battle, those whose lives were forever scarred by the horrors of war and have passed on, and we honour their sacrifice.

But memorials, like funerals, are never for the dead. They are for those who are left behind, for those who must rise to greet the dawn of a new morning, regardless of darkness in which it begins.

Most importantly, therefore, we are here together today to honour the living, to listen to their stories as they remember them, however difficult it is for them to tell us and however hard it is for us to hear what they have to say.

In church in Selkirk every Sunday, I grew up with a veteran who survived the serious physical wounds he had received at Passchendaele. But he had other scars. Many times over the years I asked about his experience, but he could not bring himself to tell me or his family. In the last months of his life, he finally agreed to talk, but Geordie Sutherland died before I came home that Christmas. In the end his story was never told, his grief never shared, the lessons of what war meant in his life never passed to another generation to be learned. His service and his sacrifice were honoured, but they were never really understood.

In 1918 and 1945, our service men and women returned home to a country that was tired of war, but which at least understood something of what war meant.

It is harder for the survivors among us now. Only some of the wars we fight today are acknowledged; only some of our heroes still wear a uniform to mark their service; only some of the casualties have wounds and scars that others can see. Only some of them are here today, because these services can bring back memories too painful to bear.

So on Remembrance Day, within our larger Canadian family, to honour past sacrifices and to support the veterans among us, we need to weave together the stories that each individual family carries about the cost of war and the price of peace.

In my own family, I learned it was my grandmother’s cousin, James Layton Ralston, who was Battalion Adjutant of the 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders that took that first hill at Vimy Ridge, and who went on to be Minister of National Defence in the darkest days of the Second World War. Years ago, I met her friend, Harvey Crowell, who — as captain of C Company — led those Nova Scotians out of the trenches that day and into Canadian legend.

My grandmother turns 108 tomorrow. She began school the year soldiers first dug trenches on what became the Western Front, and she has told me stories, from a child’s perspective, of life during the Great War, one of which I will share with you:

Her father was the railway station agent in Maccan, in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia. Toward the end of the war, he got a telegram from Halifax warning him that a sick soldier was coming home to a community on the Hebert/Joggins line. The soldier, dying from what we now know was the Spanish flu, would have to wait in the station for three hours to transfer to the next train.

Whether because he honoured the man’s service or out of the compassion that good people find in their hearts for strangers, my great-grandfather took the arms out of one of the wooden benches in the station so that there would be a place for the soldier to lie down, and then brought bedding from home to make it into a bed. My great-grandmother helped set things up, before he sent her away, so he could care for the soldier by himself.

They both knew the risks he was taking, but they did it anyway. The soldier came through, and the inevitable happened – my great-grandfather got sick, for about a month. My great-grandmother was much worse, needing six months to recover. My grandmother and her sister recovered more quickly, in a few weeks, but they all were lucky, because millions died.

For me, this day brings to mind, not the images of battle or the horrors of war, but two men sitting alone in a railway station, sharing their stories, as they waited for the train that would separate them forever.

When we listen to each other’s stories, no matter what else we are told to believe in a world that thrives on anger and alienation, we learn that what makes people enemies or friends is not their skin colour, nor their religion nor where they were born, but the pain that lies in their hearts and in our own.

The way to peace in a troubled world is found through the courage of compassion for strangers who become friends, understanding the cost of war when there is no other choice, but preferring to find another way to justice, acceptance and freedom.

May the wisdom that comes from all of the seven directions guide the choices that each of us makes.


May 2015

May 2015