Remembrance Day is an unusual event on the Canadian calendar.
Typically, our holidays and rituals are based in religious observance, often transmuted into joyful celebrations of one kind or another. We’re used to gathering with family and friends, paying whatever sort of attention seems fitting to the underlying meaning of the day, and enjoying whatever feast, ritual or celebration goes along with it.
Remembrance Day is a notable exception. There are no gifts to buy, no wacky costumes to don, no party to stage. We’re not opening the cottage, packing a picnic or searching for Easter eggs.
Instead there’s the simple act of wearing the poppy, a brief moment perhaps at the local cenotaph, or a ceremony in the school. Sometimes a parade, but not a parade with clowns and candy. Instead we may watch veterans marching in their medals, maybe with a pipe band.
There are outlying rituals too: the documentaries on television, the articles in the papers and online. In a world where Billy Bishop is on Flickr, there’s ample opportunity to delve into the meaning of the moment, if we take the time. And there’s always the ceremony on Parliament Hill that many watch on TV as their way of participating.
Through all this runs a peculiar somber thread not typically seen in Canadian day to day life. It’s not universal perhaps, but it is genuine, and unites young and old, civilians and veterans, immigrants and landed Canadians.
Whatever we may do, however we may observe, we have only one task to fulfill for Remembrance Day. We are to remember.
Not everyone does – and chastising those who don’t wear poppies has become a ritual as well – but that only underlines why the rest of us do, and must remember.
We’re not glorifying war. We’re not ignoring the many conflicts ongoing in the world. We’re not putting our military service personnel on a pedestal merely because they wear the uniform. We’re not even beating our chests because the good guys won in the major conflicts of the 20th century in which Canada played an important role.
We’re just remembering. Remembering sacrifice. Remembering courage. Remembering victory and defeat and the cost of war. Remembering how individuals, families, communities, and the country were defined by war during the dark days of battle. Remembering how death in the fields of France, on the heights of Hong Kong, in the cold winter of Korea, in the arid expanses of Afghanistan have scarred us at home and abroad.
Those scars defined us as a nation nearly a century ago, and they do now.
I come from a family that included several Second World War veterans, including my grandfather, and a beloved great uncle who was shelled in the fighting that followed the Normandy landings. He lived to a ripe old age, but deaf in one ear and in constant pain from the shrapnel that remained in his legs. He left me his memoirs before he died, and they are a visceral link to experiences I could otherwise never even have fathomed. I go for beers with my buddies. He watched his buddies get their brains blown out.
The pain and the stories of the men and women who served shaped their families, and the pain and the stories of thousands of families shaped the way this nation grew in the past century.
There were constant reminders of that in the small town of my youth. There was a living World War I vet every kid knew about and revered. He visited the high school every Remembrance Day and was a living testament to the continued presence of long-ago war. We listened to the bugler play the Last Post and shivered. We watched the middle-aged World War II vets march, we read the names on the cenotaphs and the plaques and stained glass windows in the churches. Remembrance was easy then. It was all around us.
Today, perhaps it’s not so easy. What’s easy is to let the clock tick right past and forget the moment of silence; to ignore the difficult act of remembering someone else’s sacrifice in favour of more pressing distractions. It’s easy for some to be cynical, too, thinking that war is such an unthinkable thing we all ought to just move on. But that’s no use to anyone. Soldiers are still real people in unreal situations, and war goes on.
Cynicism doesn’t end wars.
It will be courage, ultimately, that ends wars, or at least keeps them as humane as possible, as limited as possible, as infrequent as possible. We’ll all be asked to contribute our share of that courage. And that will be a tough job.
For many of us courage is a quality we’re seldom called upon to express. We’re seldom asked to sacrifice. Where will we find that strength?
This is why we remember: because the stories we tell and the sacrifices we honour on Remembrance Day are the living repository of the courage of a young nation. That strength can be our strength, for justice and for peace – if only we remember.
Lest we forget.