Without warning, the cannon suddenly blasted with an ear-throbbing roar behind the assembled crowd. Some turned abruptly to see a wisp of smoke still curling skyward from its recoiling gun barrel; a few younger children began to cry and others covered their ears; and just for that one booming second, most of us instinctively jumped. The old veterans among the gathering didn’t flinch. They had heard this frightening sound too many times before to be startled.
It was during the 1970s and we were there—old and young and many in between—- to commemorate a Remembrance Day service in Peterborough. Many parents had brought their youngsters because it was a Saturday. The weather was November cold, a raw east wind blowing an icy light rain which was already muddying the patch of brown grass under our freezing feet.
Even as the frigid water trickled down our necks and we collectively shivered, I was inwardly glad for these unpleasant conditions, just as I was pleased to hear that scary cannon boom. Everyone there was experiencing a very brief exposure to the kind of horrific conditions many of our service members encountered in war: in the festering, bloody trenches of WW1 France, along the flooded icy canals in Holland during the Canadian’s winter offensive of 1944-45, in the stormy Atlantic aboard a tiny RCN corvette, shivering in a high altitude, damaged Lancaster bomber, huddled under an enemy bombardment in the snowbound hills of Korea.
Educators would call this a “teachable moment.” Later that day, I talked with my little ones about the Remembrance Day service we had just shared as a family: the loud guns, the inclement weather, the always tragic, but sometimes necessary reality of war and the ultimate sacrifice of 118,000 Canadians who gave their lives over Canada’s long history as a nation.
Which brings me to the question of making this special occasion a statutory holiday in Ontario. This view is addressed and supported in the current Maclean’s Magazine (December, 2019). The editorial rightly notes that a 2018 Historic Canada poll found that 88% of Canadians supported November 11 as a statutory national holiday. What a shocking statistic! Can you imagine anyone really answering NO to the choice of a paid day off work or freedom from a classroom?
In a perfect world, I would have quickly voted with the majority. As the Johnstons did, families could attend a Remembrance Day service and use that experience as a valuable lesson in being proud of our Canadian heritage and to appreciate and honour those who served and those who are still serving. Is it not preferable to make this significant day one for the family, not for the school, to share with our children and grandkids?
But this is not a perfect world. As the Johnston family quietly drove toward home and warmth on that long-ago November 11, we noticed most of our fellow residents were spending their Saturday as usual— leaf-raking and yard work, kids playing ball or road hockey in the streets, other families shopping or inside, perhaps still sleeping in, eating lunch or maybe watching television. In my opinion, the reality is likely that for most people, Remembrance Day would become just another holiday, a time to be thankful for the break, but one disconnected with its true meaning and purpose, like Easter has become. I write this without judgement or condemnation, but simply as observation.
That Maclean’s editorial does acknowledge that the Royal Canadian Legion opposes making November 11 a national holiday. The Legion rightly wants this younger generation to attend a well-planned and meaningfully presented school assembly. Its purpose is to remember to be grateful, not for another holiday, but grateful for the freedoms we now enjoy because of the sacrifices of others, most of them not much older than themselves. Let us remember …