Five years from now, on November 11th of 2018, it will be the 100th anniversary of the end of the hostilities of World War I. This would seem to be a fitting occasion for the end of the Canadian Remembrance Day, in its conventional form. Remembrance Day was started, after all, one year after the end of these hostilities, to commemorate the loss of lives of military personnel in WW I. I would suggest that, subsequently, the focus of the annual national holiday should be shifted to recognizing and thanking the Canadian military, past and present, for its varied contributions, not only on the battlefield–similar to the American Veterans Day, that also takes place on November 11th. Barring major Canadian military casualties in the upcoming years, the frequency of a national tribute for those Canadian men and women who lost their lives fighting for Canada could be cut back to every 5, or 10, or 25 years, as the majority of Canadians in future years saw fit, and be just one aspect of the November 11th commemoration. Only then would red poppies, now a frayed symbol of lives lost in war, bloom on our lapels.
I’m making these suggestions after having accompanied my mother, a veteran of the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (or WAAF) in WW II, to two Remembrance Day ceremonies at her local Legion separated by four years–the most recent of which was just last week. What a difference four years has made at the West Point Grey Legion in Vancouver. Four years ago, there were a couple of dozen uniformed older male and female veterans in attendance, veterans of WW II and the Korean War–and many other older folk who, like my mother, weren’t in uniform, but who seemed to be veterans. (My mother turned in her uniform at the end of her service, which she later regretted. Would she still have fit into that old uniform? I won’t tell.) In these four years, the male ranks, in particular, had greatly declined. Those old guys, who I’d flirted with a little, complimenting them on all their medals and other military decorations, were virtually all gone now, probably victims of the run-of-the-mill brutality of old age. Also, at the recent ceremony, there wasn’t the large contingent of younger, active, servicemen and servicewomen who had attended four years ago. Four years ago, there was an unusually high attendance of young, active, military people at this particular Remembrance Day ceremony because, in a couple of months, the Winter Olympics would be held in Vancouver, and the Canadian Armed Forces was assisting with the preparation of facilities and advance security. Many of the military personnel in Vancouver for the Olympics were staying at the Point Grey Barracks, just up the hill from this Legion, and this is where they commemorated Remembrance Day. I knew four years ago that there was then an unusually high attendance of young, active, military people; but I didn’t know how unusually high until this year, when I observed virtually no such people.
Four years ago, fortuitously, with the exception of the relatively short ceremonial part of the proceedings that did stress honouring soldiers who had lost their lives in battle, I had participated in the kind of “Remembrance Day” that I think is befitting for Canada in years to come: a commemoration of national service, past and present, and a celebration of our national values. This year, Remembrance Day at this Legion was a generally much more dour and, in the current age, dubious, affair.
It occurred to me in the course of this year’s ceremony that I haven’t personally known a single person who has lost their life fighting in a war, or in any other military action. My closest relative who died in military action was the husband of my great-aunt, Dolly, who was shot down in the Battle of Britain in WW II (the first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces), and who died before I was born. My mother’s father fought in WW I, including in the Battle of the Somme; but, despite the heavy losses for the UK in this prolonged battle, he survived. People in the United Kingdom and Canada who participated in the first Remembrance Day held in 1919 almost inevitably personally knew people who had lost their lives in WW I: the UK lost 887,000 military personnel in this war, or 2.19% of its population; Canada lost 65,000, or .92% of its population.
A Reproduction of a Canadian Armed Forces Recruitment Poster from WW I
Although there were fewer casualties in WW II, those from these two countries who participated in Remembrance Day ceremonies in the years immediately following WW II also were likely to have personally known soldiers who had died in this war: the UK had 383,800 military deaths in WW II, or .94% of its 1939 population, while Canada had approximately 45,000 military deaths, or .40% of its 1939 population.
But the likelihood of Canadians personally knowing someone who has died in battle has greatly decreased in recent decades. Canada lost approximately 500 soldiers in the Korean War (that lasted from 1950 to 1953); 157 in Afghanistan; and 121 in the peacekeeping activities of recent decades. (All the wartime mortality figures in this post are taken from the website canadaatwar.ca.) To put these more recent figures in some perspective, according to WorkSafeBC, there already have been 47 workplace deaths just this year, in just the province of British Columbia. (There have been no catastrophic workplace accidents in BC during this period that individually resulted in numerous casualties. This seems to be a normal number for this period, for just one Canadian province.) I don’t wish to trivialize the more recent military mortalities; however, in terms of Canadians in general being personally acquainted with those who have died in military action, or even personally knowing someone else who lost someone close to them who died in this way, there has been a major drop in recent decades.
Many Canadians my age (late fifties) and younger who now attend Canadian Remembrance Day ceremonies are likely to do so largely to support their elders who served in World War II or the Korean War, and/or who lost people close to them in these wars. (Besides serving herself in the WAAF, my mother lost a close male friend, Peter Moody, a member of Britain’s Royal Air Force, who died in, of all places, Medicine Hat, Alberta, on a training mission with the Canadian Air Force. ) But, when those elders are gone, even a very nice luncheon after the ceremony–even including a couple of free drinks–may not be enough to entice us to attend these ceremonies commemorating only the dead, whose contributions we may appreciate, but who we never personally knew. Not even just once every four years.