Not forgotten

After having taken in a Remembrance Day  Service at St. James Legion No. 4 and having heard of the success of other November 11 services at the Winnipeg Convention Centre and the new Valour Road Commemorative Plaza, I was surprised to learn that a survey showed Remembrance Day participation has been declining for three straight years.

The Dominion Institute, established in 1997 to promote knowledge of Canadian history, released an Innovative Research Group survey, taken just before November 11, indicating anticipated participation in formal Remembrance Day events would be at 50 per cent (28 per cent strongly agreed they would participate and 22 per cent somewhat agreed) this year. In 2001, 58 per cent of Canadians surveyed indicated they would be attending Remembrance Day events.

What is surprising about the survey results is that they came after a strong media and public awareness campaign informing Canadians that 2005 is the Year of the Veteran — the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. 

I’m sure that less than 50 per cent of Canadians did attend a formal event, but the attendance figures this Remembrance Day must have surpassed those in recent years. For one, the St. James Legion was filled to capacity. I also talked to friends who attend the ceremonies at the Convention Centre who were equally impressed by the number of people paying tribute to Canadians who made the ultimate sacrifice in major conflicts and in peacekeeping missions.

What also surprised me was the number of youth in attendance, including those who witnessed the ceremony at Bruce Park and the following march to the St. James Legion. In front of the Legion, children of all ages accompanied by parents or grandparents, lined up to pin a poppy on a cross erected for the occasion. 

Media reports talked of thousands attending ceremonies across Winnipeg, standing in silence to pay tribute to the men and women who fought for freedom. The Winnipeg Free Press used the adjective “spectacular” to describe the attendance at the Convention Centre.

“Together, the young and the old bowed their heads in prayer, sang hymns and clapped during the final march — their presence a sincere show of gratitude to the thousands who died during four wars and countless peacekeeping missions,” reported Jason Bell.

 There was a sea of uniforms across the Legion clubroom, filled by men and women serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. It was the first time I had ever seen so many young service men and women attending the annual St. James Legion ceremony. They represented all ranks, but the majority were youthful looking privates and corporals. They  were so young  — typical of the service age of the now elderly veterans who fought in the Second World War or Korean War — and yet many had already done a tour(s) in Afghanistan or some other troublespot where Canadians help to keep the peace.

The survey also found that 80 per cent of Canadians agree that “high school students in their provinces should be required to take a course dedicated to the study of 20th-century Canadian history in order to graduate from high school.” It should be noted that only three provinces in Canada — Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec — have a mandatory high school Canadian history course. 

In Manitoba, Canadian history is presented in Grade 11, and had been at one time under threat to be relegated to the ranks of an elective course. Its mandatory status was only retained

after strong lobbying convinced the government of the power of history to create a better citizenry — without a knowledge of Canada’s past our youth are condemned to a rootless existence, not knowing from whence they came and hence being unable to plan where they are going.

Because the present Education Minister, Peter Bjornson, is a former national award-winning high school history teacher, it is doubtful Canadian history in Manitoba schools is now under threat. As a teacher, Bjornson’s lesson plans included student re-enactments of First World War trench warfare, which means at least a smattering of Manitoba high school graduates have an understanding of the sacrifices that Canadians made while serving their country.

“We made the solemn pledge after the First World War never to forget our veterans,” said Rudyard Griffiths, the executive director of the Dominion Institute. “Ensuring that every high school graduate has taken at least one course dedicated to the study of 20th-century Canadian history should be an essential part of fulfilling this basic promise. The seven provinces that don’t have mandatory Canadian history courses are letting our veterans down.”

Veterans I talked to were pleasantly surprised by the numbers who attended the Legion event, and for at least one day believed they had not been forgotten. Yet, as their ranks are depleted by the passage of time, they do worry about who will be around to explain what they sacrificed to maintain the freedoms now enjoyed by others.