Remembrance Day has always been ambiguous to me. In my early years I commemorated it in an off-hand way. Sometimes I wore a poppy; sometimes I didn’t. I went to a parade or two or even a cenotaph ceremony. In this, I took my lead from the veteran I knew best: my father.
My father joined the Canadian army at the age of 32 during World War II. He was a volunteer, joining up while working at a mine in northern Quebec. He entered the Royal Canadian Engineers, and as such was often working in front of the front lines. He didn’t join out of some patriotic enthusiasm or hatred of the foe. He joined because of duty — to his country and especially to his family. The promise was — kept in my father’s case but not always — that only one son would be taken from a farm family. He joined to keep his younger brother out of it.
Old enough to be called ‘Pops’ by most of his comrades and a veteran of six years of the hobo life, my dad did not take well to army discipline, especially stupid orders from officers ten years younger than him. But he was good at his job so he made sergeant — three times.
My dad told me he never fired his gun in the direction of another human being, wasn’t sure if he would do so even to save the life of a friend though he supposed he would in extremis do that. Certainly not to save his own life.
After the war, he went to the Legion a few times but by the time I was ten he stopped doing that, stopped marching in the Remembrance Day parade. He told me that he couldn’t stand the drinking and couldn’t stomach the men who told stories of war as if it were a glorious thing, as if it was the best thing they had ever done. My father was a strong gentle man and he hated war and the remembrance of it.
But he also loved his fellow soldiers, fought with Veterans Affairs on their behalf, getting several men pensions who had been previously denied. I came to hate that department on his behalf. Things haven’t changed much.
So most years I don’t wear the poppy and don’t remain silent at 11 a.m. But this year is different. I was at the Cenotaph when a mad man with a gun killed Nathan Cirillo and I can never forget that. So this year I am wearing the poppy and I will be silent. Maybe this once.
But while I’m remembering the men and women who served us in war, I will also remember those others who made sacrifices for our freedoms. Miners on picket lines. Suffragettes who chained themselves to fences. Civil rights activists and anti-war protestors who were beaten and gassed and even murdered. I’ll remember that freedoms don’t come from the barrel of a gun but from those people who are willing to face them down.
Because if it isn’t about freedom, democracy, equality and progress, what the hell is it about? And what are we remembering?
But that’s ten minutes.