Every night, at 8 o’clock, regardless of the weather, the people of Ypres in Belgium gather under the Menin Gate to participate in a ceremony which has taken place uninterrupted for the past 68 years.
It is a ceremony of remembrance for the soldiers who fought and died for Belgium’s freedom and independence. Inscribed on the interior walls of the gate are the names of more than 54,000 Canadian, British and other Commonwealth soldiers. And not one of them is ever forgotten.
I know this because I was there this past summer. Last year, while studying at Vanier Catholic Secondary School in Whitehorse, I applied for and won the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Scholarship. As part of the award, I travelled to Europe with 15 other high school students from Canada, Britain and France, where we spent two weeks touring the battlefields of the first and second world wars.
These are the places where our Canadian identity was firmly established and where so many gave their lives to defend, not only our identity and freedom, but the identities and freedoms of countries that had been overrun by forces of oppression. Through this experience – the people we met, the number of cemeteries we visited, the absolutely phenomenal monuments we saw and the stories of loss and heroism they all represented – I understood how important it was not to forget the great wars of the past.
As time goes on, remembering those who fought for our country becomes increasingly significant. No veterans from First World War remain alive today, and there are fewer Second World War veterans every year. As they pass away, it is our responsibility to ensure that their memories, their stories and their legacies live on.
On day six of our trip we visited the monument of Vimy Ridge. It is built on land the Germans held for almost three years during the First World War. The French tried to take it – they couldn’t. The British tried to take it – they couldn’t.
Finally, the Canadians tried to take it. It was the first time all four Canadian divisions made up of soldiers from across the country fought together on the same battlefield, and together, they took it.
This victory was the birth of Canada as a new and independent nation. Our guide, who was a previous winner of the Vimy prize, told us everything about the monument and the battle of Vimy Ridge. But what was even more telling was his story at the end of our tour.
He spoke of his grandmother, who had served in the Canadian air force during the Second World War. When she came home after the war had ended, she retired from the military, but she never attended a single Remembrance Day ceremony. When he asked her why, she replied, “I don’t need a day to remember, I never forgot.”
We can’t forget either, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of generations before us and so we work harder to find a peaceful solution to war. On Nov. 11, I encourage you to take a moment to remember and acknowledge the service and sacrifice of the Canadian men and women who fought and continue to fight for us today.
Rothesay, New Brunswick