Fourteen years ago, on June 6, 2000, I stood with my family at the Canadian cemetery by Juno Beach. We had arrived at the commemoration ceremony partially by accident; unable to find a camping spot, we’d parked our VW Westfalia in the cemetery parking lot, and awoke the next morning to find ourselves surrounded by armoured vehicles, teary-eyed veterans, and soldiers with machine guns. I have no doubt that it was being there, along with coinciding visits to Vimy, Verdun, and numerous other WWI/II sites in northern Europe, that taught me the importance of remembrance.
In 2014, here I am again, standing on the shores of Juno Beach. Older, independent, but with the same admiration and respect for the sacrifices made at D-Day. For months, I’ve felt this urgent need to be here. Maybe I’ve failed as a Canadian in other respects, never learning to love hockey, preferring foreign to Canadian politics, and lately spending far more time out of the country than in it, but there is one thing I will never take lightly, the warning, the pledge: “lest we forget.”
70 years ago, early on the morning of June 6, 1944, Canadian soldiers and paratroopers landed on the shores of Juno Beach. In harsh, windy weather, they faced an enemy which, although surprised and caught off-guard, was nevertheless formidable. Over 300 of our men lost their lives that day, and in the weeks that followed, the Canadian death toll in the Normandy campaign would reach 5500. Moments of fear, desperation, frustration. Acts of bravery. But above all, growing hope. D-Day marked the beginning of the end, an end that would divert the course of history, and lead to the emergence of the world we know today.
At the commemoration ceremony, both Stephen Harper and Prince Charles gave speeches commending the veterans for their role in preserving the values that define Canada: peace, justice, freedom of speech. I’ve always found it difficult to attach true meaning to concepts like this, especially since I’ve been fortunate enough to know nothing but peace, justice, and freedom of speech. But to put things in a different perspective, I know that if D-Day hadn’t brought the Canadians to French shores, hadn’t allowed them to push forward and liberate the Netherlands, my grandparents may never have immigrated to Canada, and I would not be here today.
However we choose to perceive the consequences of this campaign, it’s clear that its impact cannot be quantified.
On Thursday night, I went to watch the fireworks at Gold Beach. People lined the promenade as the sky filled with light and eerie, green smoke. Amphibious vehicles slipped into the English Channel with the bulky grace of sea lions. If I closed my eyes, I could
almost imagine the barrage of artillery fire. But, try as I might, I will never be able to fully understand what it was like. As the last veterans begin to fade away, the future of remembrance lacks certainty. This year marks the centennial of the Great War. None of us were there. And within a decade or two, the same will be said regarding the Second World War. So how long will these commemorations last? Who will carry the proverbial torch?
This fear has haunted recent ceremonies. I see it echoed in the pledges for remembrance, the speeches, the laying of the wreaths. But being here this weekend, in a crowd of thousands, I sensed that the determination to remember runs strong in Canada. I arrived at the ceremony five hours before it began, and already the crowds had gathered. Police officers in uniform, Mounties, soldiers, civilians. Maple leafs pinned to lapels, emblazoned on shirts, flying over the sandy dunes. I met people who had travelled thousands of kilometres to be here, to honour lost relatives, to honour their nation. Veterans, students, and adults, sharing smiles and tears, an infectious, patriotic love.
Yet, while I saw people represented from all ages, regions, and occupations, there was something that was clearly missing yesterday. An absence that worried me. Although built on First Nations, French, and Anglo-Saxon roots, we pride ourselves on having become a multicultural nation. So why is it that 99% of the attendees yesterday were white? Certainly, the face of Canada has changed drastically in the last 70 years, and the ethnic groups that populate Canada today weren’t all around to take up arms and defend our nation in the World Wars, but does this mean that remembrance of these wars needs to be a race-specific activity? We had First Nations and Black soldiers in the war, but, too often, they remain buried in the footnotes of history, lacking the attention they deserve. And how do we convey the wars’ meaning to a nation of new immigrants, cultures that had no involvement in it? The face of Canada is changing, which means that it’s time for the act of remembrance to follow suit. But how?