This should be more than just a day of remembering

First published in the Toronto Star (11 November 2015): A11,


This time of year, when the sunlight becomes pale and the days rapidly shorter, and deciduous trees cast off the last of their leaves, is marked in an odd way by Hallowe'en and Remembrance Day.

On Hallowe'en we mock the power of death, turning skeletons, graveyards and ghouls into jokes: the point of that mockery is a celebration of life and renewal, in the beauty and playfulness of our outlandishly costumed young children. But Remembrance Day is genuinely a Day of the Dead, a day for calm reflection on the sacrifices made by those who have served in this country's armed forces.

This day is complicated for me by the fact that November 10, the eve of Remembrance Day, is the anniversary of my father's death. He served in World War II, and lived into a contented and generally happy old age. But many of his friends and Royal Military College classmates (he graduated in the class of 1936) were not so lucky. Some died in the air over Germany, some in Italy, or on the beaches or battlefields of Normandy; one of them, a naval lieutenant, drowned in the North Atlantic trying to rescue survivors of a U-boat attack.

The stories my father was willing to share with his children usually had a comic flavour—like the time he and his regimental sergeant-major made a two-man drive deep into German-held territory in Normandy. The purpose of their jeep expedition was to establish a new firing position for my father's 25-pounder artillery battery, but they drifted into a debate over postwar social policy—my father was a conservative and his RSM a passionate communist—which was rudely interrupted by German machine-gun fire. Their lives were saved by the RSM's brilliantly executed bootlegger turn, and they made a scuttling retreat along the railway line that ran parallel to the road.

Deeper stories I learned of only by chance—as when, forty years ago, I overheard my father talking with a cousin of his who had also served in the fighting around the Falaise Gap in Normandy. In hushed tones, after dark, in the garden of the cousin's cottage, they described an apocalyptic scene of death and destruction that felt to both of them like the end of the world.

But my father's deepest psychic wound was caused by the suicide of his younger brother more than a decade after the war. My uncle Bill saw intense action in the English Channel and the Mediterranean as captain of a motor torpedo boat. Though I retain fond childhood memories of a tender and affectionate man, I remember a close friend of his telling me, when I was about fifteen, that he had never recovered from his wartime experiences.

Remembrance Day, then, should also be a time when we go beyond what can all too easily become a vacuously sentimental celebration of long-distant sacrifices by people who are safely dead and buried. The soldiers—some of them no longer young but middle-aged or older—who bear scars and psychic traumas from their service in Afghanistan and elsewhere are still among us. And many of them are urgently in need of care and assistance.

The government that Canadians have just cast off in the recent election was guilty of gross hypocrisy in military as in other matters. While pursuing a jingoistic foreign policy, that government also cheated Canadian veterans out of the resources for their healthcare and social assistance that had been voted for them by Parliament—and it compounded the offence by closing down veterans' affairs offices, making it impossible for many to access the services that were still being offered.

The new government has pledged to work to undo that damage. It has promised to restore lifelong pensions for injured veterans, help returning soldiers pay for their education, increase a fund to pay for funerals of veterans in financial need, and work with experts to improve mental-health services.

We should applaud these promises. More important, we should demand that they are kept without delay.