Opting Remembrance: why we pander to the indifferent

Ask me to recount the poem In Flanders Fields, and I will most likely end up singing it. It was the first song I learned in Canada with my grade five choir, and the first time I  heard the words of John McCrae.


Since my arrival in 2000, every November 11th has been marked with a Remembrance Day ceremony. I have to thank Bonnycastle Elementary School for putting on a large-scale tribute each year, and teaching a young immigrant about what this day is all about. Fast forward to my years in high school, when a passionate teacher tells the class “…and Friday, we are going to be talking about Vimy Ridge.”

She teased this class like any broadcaster does a major event – a countdown to the epic, momentous telling of the battle for Vimy Ridge. The day it happened, she displayed proudly a picture that had been stored the whole semester in the corner of the room – the one that gave me chills to look at everyday before knowing, and still brings uneasy feelings after finding out: those ghosts are our boys.

“Ghosts of Vimy Ridge” William Longstaff, 1931

This same teacher took a class of 40 students across the ocean for a tour of WWI and WWII battlegrounds. These trips aren’t uncommon nowadays and for good reason. Fast forward to 2012: I interview a Saskatoon high school teacher about why it’s important for him to do this same trip for his students.

“…because until you stand in Flanders Fields, smell and see these places you just… it’s just – its life changing.”

 I understand how hard it is to recount the exact emotion. The day I took in the memorial at Vimy Ridge, it was raining the worst it had during our spring time visit in Europe. In the pelting rain, that same passionate teacher stood at the foot of the memorial and recounted her lecture. I never thought I would cry as much as I did that day – I actually ached for these people, and most of all for our young country.

Do I feel this intensity every time I pin on my poppy? No. But I do think “I am wearing this to show I remember. To show I am undertaking the act of remembrance.”

I know there are some who share these sentiments, and others who don’t. For some, the poppy holds as much weight as the great feeling of  having the day off. So I’m here to get back to the basics, back to what I learned at my first school ceremony: the best – and least – we can do today is remember.

Simply cut out all other noise, and think of all those we lost, those who sacrificed and gave themselves for our moment today.


Apparently times are a’changing and we just can’t let Remembrance Day go unscathed: we have to make it political. In Edmonton, some schools are allowing students to “opt out” of the ceremony. In a CTV Edmonton report, Jane Sterling with Edmonton Public Schools said:

“It’s always an option for parents…Typically it’s a really rare request, but in certain situations there are parents that would prefer their children not to be part of the Remembrance Day ceremony.

Sterling said students usually don’t take part in the ceremonies for religious reasons, and only applied in what she called ‘demographic areas’.”

I am going to parrot the view of another mentioned in the story, and many others in arms about this issue: Remembrance Day is not about religion. It’s not about whether it is right or wrong to fight. It is not about anything other than honouring our fallen, and those still alive today, for their service.

Why is that so hard to do?

The amazing thing about this day is it can be presented in so many ways – and is decided by each person in how they remember. So many of my school ceremonies stuck to the basics and encouraged us to think of our own ways to remember:

“We remember because we want to live in a world of peace… We remember because grandpa came back while his best friends didn’t… We remember because these men and women fought for a country where all creeds and races can live together and learn to accept each other.”

And yet some of these people, who would otherwise not be able to live freely with their beliefs, suddenly don’t want in on thanking those who shaped this very country. Therein lies the muddied water of this debate:

Our brave men and women also fought for the freedom of religion and freedom to express beliefs.

Okay, so let’s move on if you are adamant to make it political and religious and you don’t want to bend. Because it’s so far to stoop to offer some gratitude.


Yes, let’s hear from this motley crew. These people who just want to “opt out” without the guilt of being called out as ungrateful and perhaps just a little – spoiled.

“I think it should be a choice with the parents, whether they should celebrate Remembrance Day or just do other activities,” Parent Pam Fillion said.”

Just let that disregard for fellow-man and country dance around in your head for a second. Yeah, it still doesn’t quite keep up with the counts.

I think back now to that first ceremony and wonder what it would have been like to be excused from it all. Every moment thereafter would have been for naught: the Vimy Ridge talk, the trip. I wouldn’t feel the same love for my country; I wouldn’t be able to connect with my surroundings in the same way, with the same respect and regard for all I have; because so many of our interactions are based on the freedoms for which these men and women fought.

I wouldn’t have an ounce of the understanding of just how fortunate we all are to live in Canada. To have the freedom to remember publicly, and peacefully.


The silver lining? Apparently the “importance of Remembrance Day” is still being taught.

Well then consider it an already failed lesson, as these parents and now their children make it clear Remembrance Day isn’t nearly as important as “other activities.”

So this Remembrance Day I will stand even straighter, with even more pride along with my fellow Canadians:

At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them

We will remember them.


For those who don’t know where the last passage is from, ask your teacher.


Writing to remember

It was a rainy April morning, when I arrived at Vimy Ridge, France. Our small group marched on the wet, marshy fields toward the hill. Some complained about the rain. When we reached the top, we didn’t have to fight or run or scream – we just had to remember.

I left the group and walked around the memorial site alone, trying to make sense of  the symbols embedded in the sculptures. The fallen were there as names carved inches deep into the stone, their bodies now lying in honourable graves. But no image haunted me more than the statue of Mother Canada.

She stood alone atop the front wall, holding a branch in her hand. There was a heaviness to the cloth draped around her body and she looked down. She was sad, mourning, remembering: forever immortalized in stone.

I don’t think I really got Remembrance Day until my trip to visit the battle sites of the first and second world war.  Being from South Africa, I didn’t grow up with the tradition of remembrance and pinning on a poppy. In fact I was horribly confused by the whole event when I first attended a school event in grade four.

But that trip, aside from being advertised as a history excursion, was an exercise in remembering.

Canadians gather annually to hold community ceremonies of remembrance, a standard of which is the playing of the last post. On a chilly April evening, a large group of people gathered at the Menin Gate in Ypres, France for a remembrance ceremony. While I was only there for one night to witness people crying wile the last post played, it is a ritual they do everyday. They never let themselves forget.

And there are many people who go through remembrance everyday, without ritual. Parents and children of the fallen, comrades, soldiers currently on deployment. The people whose lives are continually dependent on the service of soldiers and their sacrifice, or who owe their freedom to those in uniform.

I’d would be bold enough to say that’d all of us.  So what are my acts of remembrance?

Last year I wrote a story about my father and how he made a dear friend out of an enemy he fought during the Angolan war. It was hard to listen to his story, having been confused for so long by his depression and tirades, which it was diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder. It was also hard for him to remember, recounting events of being a young man forced into combat.

My father thanked me for writing it and sent an email copy to Jorge, his “Cuban brother.” This was the letter I received back (he used a translator):

“Daniella my Sister I am very happy for you and see that you are very intelligent and have ease of words when writing. Everything is well written in your article and you honor me, with the sheer reality of our pure dispair, you seem to understand the sincerity of our souls during this damaging time in our lives. God offered us and I met your father, thank you for your sentimental words about his life […] all my gratitude and my hugs to you, merry Christmas..”

I was overwhelmed by his thanks. Even though I thought I had just written another story – it was an act of remembrance.

It was from writing his story that I realized I wanted to work with the Canadian Forces for my Independent Professional Project. I am happy to be in charge of the 38 Brigade newsletter, and play a number of communications roles. I have had the opportunity to meet many reserves soldiers, who do great work in the community and help out on the home front; most recently during the spring flood.

The theme for our November newsletter is how do you remember. I attended the Valour Road ceremony today, and as I’m waiting for the crowd to disperse, I see a man standing with his dog; watching people as they lay wreaths. I go up to him with a smile and ask him how he is, if he’d like to share with me how he remembers.

“I remember everyday, my father was killed right before I was born.”

Without saying me saying a word, the man continued to tell me about all the members in his family affected by the war. His father was a Canadian soldier in South East Asia. His mother lost both of  her brothers. His stepdad had tried to get overseas to no avail while his stepdad’s twin brother was a thousand miles away,  working on a map when a sniper bullet shot off part of his ear. An inch difference would have meant his life.

Or another gentleman I asked, who was donning a beret. It was his fathers, the man in the picture wearing the same hat. The photo was taken a few days after he married the woman beside him, while on a few weeks leave. The two lovebirds lived together until they were 95, passing away within months of each other. Today their son thanked them on Remembrance Day by putting their picture on the memorial.

I think I finally get Remembrance Day. It doesn’t matter who you are, or whether you attend a ceremony (be nice if you did). What matters are the stories. Memorials, like the one at Vimy Ridge that moved me to tears, bear the names – but we bear the people, their histories and legacies.

My way of remembering is telling stories. All the while Mother Canada mourns and soldiers lie in wait. When it one days ends, and until then, we will never forget.

%d bloggers like this: