Mr. Speaker, as you know, I seldom rise in the House to speak. There is enough of little consequence that goes on here that members do not need me to add it. However, today I have something important to say. I am proud to join my colleagues in support of Bill C-227, an act respecting a national day of remembrance of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
I will begin my remarks by thanking all of my colleagues who have spoken in favour of this legislation. I would like to pay a special tribute to my colleague, the hon. member for Algoma—Manitoulin, who has worked closely with his colleagues in bringing his private member's bill to this important stage in our parliamentary process.
I know the hon. member would prefer to pass the credit to his constituent, Mr. Robert Manuel, for inspiring this initiative, but this legislation would not have been possible without the hon. member's commitment and leadership. Both he and Mr. Manuel deserve our deepest appreciation on a job well done. I would also like to thank the members of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage who reviewed and endorsed this legislation.
Bill C-227 is part and parcel of a wider discussion about how we can better remember the contributions of our veterans when so many of our firsthand witnesses are no longer with us. How can we best honour the memory of those who served and sacrificed their lives for their country? How do we preserve and promote their legacy for future generations of Canadians?
April 9, 1917, marks the day upon which Canada became a nation. It was a turning point in our history. Up until then we were colonial, part of the British army. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was the first time that Canadian soldiers would fight as one formation, the Canadian Corps under Canadian command. One major battle, one seemingly impossible victory, and the world began to look at Canada differently. As many have said, Canada became a nation at Vimy Ridge.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge is one of Canada's best known war stories for the ingenuity shown by those who planned the attack and by the men who carried it out. It was indeed the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Corps had fought together, but it would not be the last. At Vimy Ridge the price of victory would be high. In those three spring days of 1917 there would be more than 10,000 Canadian casualties. Of those, 3,598 would lie forever in French soil.
The accounts of bravery and courage are told in the four Victoria Crosses won in those few hours, and in the untold and unsung actions of the other Canadian soldiers who did what two other Allied nations could not do. They took Vimy Ridge.
There are some who have asked whether this legislation creates a precedent. In the past, it has not been Canadian practice to single out a particular Canadian battle or campaign in such a manner as proclaiming a national day of remembrance. Rather, it has been our custom to mark the major anniversary dates of significant Canadian contributions in the two world wars and in Korea through pilgrimages abroad and commemorative ceremonies at home.
Remembrance Day is a time when Canadians join hands to solemnly commemorate the service and sacrifices of all those who served Canada in times of war, conflict and peace.
We would not want to give the impression with the passage of this bill that somehow the sacrifices made on a particular day in history are more worthy than those made in any other campaign in any of the wars or conflicts that we have participated in.
Let me reiterate that Canadians value and honour the contributions, accomplishments and sacrifices of all of Canada's veterans.
There is little argument that there is something quite extraordinary about the actions at Vimy Ridge which led to equally extraordinary results for Canada as a nation.
Few events in our military history have played such an important role in the development of the Canadian nation as the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Before the war ended, Canadian courage and prowess had won recognition in the imperial war cabinet and a seat for Canada at the peace conference at the war's end.
Around Vimy Ridge lay dozens of Canadian cemeteries, some within metres and others only a few kilometres away. It was from one of those dozen cemeteries around the Vimy Ridge battlefield that an unknown Canadian soldier, known only unto God, was selected to return home and represent the tens of thousands of Canadians who have lost their lives in war. The Unknown Soldier lies in a place of honour in front of the National War Memorial here in our nation's capital.
Hon. members who follow the veterans affairs portfolio are aware that we hold annual ceremonies at the Vimy Ridge memorial in France to commemorate the Canadian victory. For those who have had the privilege of visiting the Canadian National Vimy Memorial the experience is emotional and compelling. One comes away more convinced than ever of the importance of keeping the memory of our fallen alive for future generations.
I have never had the opportunity to visit the memorial myself, but the beauty and importance of the memorial is brought home to me often when I visit the sergeant's mess of my local militia regiment, the Ontario Regiment. The Ontario, then named the 116th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, fought with great honour at Vimy Ridge.
Hanging in a prominent place in the mess is a reproduction of a famous painting, the Ghosts of Vimy Ridge , which was painted in 1931. It portrays the spirits of servicemen of the Canadian Corps in ghostly form climbing Vimy Ridge towards the memorial that stands dramatically on the summit beneath silvery moonlight.
Members will remember seeing this same picture often as it is commemorated in mural form in the Railway Room of the Centre Block. It is an awe inspiring picture that never fails to remind me of the sacrifice of those young Canadians who never returned from that terrible field in France.
The Vimy Ridge memorial is not immune to the effects of time, nature and environmental pollution. That is why the Government of Canada has committed $30 million to the restoration of the Vimy Ridge memorial and 12 other Canadian first world war battlefield memorials in Europe. The repair work required to rehabilitate these memorial sites, now an average of 75 years old, is beyond the scope of routine maintenance.
The program of work is being carried out by Veterans Affairs Canada in collaboration with Public Works and Government Services Canada, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and other specialists, consultants and military historians. The project work is expected to be completed in 2006.
By implementing this bill we would reinforce the commemoration initiatives that Veterans Affairs already provides to recognize and honour the significance of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
For many years, Veterans Affairs has concentrated much of its commemorative efforts overseas, with pilgrimages of veterans returning to old battlegrounds, monuments and cemeteries so they could pay tribute to their comrades who fell and remain buried in foreign fields. Some hon. members have participated in these pilgrimages.
As important as our overseas commemorative work is, over the past seven or eight years we have begun to pay increased attention to commemoration and remembrance here at home. Pilgrimages will continue, but in a more focused manner and with a greater emphasis on youth and getting the message out through more in-Canada activities.
The passage of Bill C-227 would not be the end of the matter, but just the beginning. If we are going to proclaim the 9th day of April as a national day of remembrance for the Battle of Vimy Ridge, we must do more than just pass a bill in this place. It is incumbent upon all members to spread the word among their constituents about the importance of this day in our history and how they might remember the day in their local communities.
Our challenge, really our duty, is to keep alive the memory of our veterans and their contribution to building a vibrant nation guided by the values of peace, justice, freedom and diversity.
We must continue to foster this sense of pride in our history and in our veterans for the youth of this country and for all Canadians. We must keep the faith with those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. We must remember those who risked their lives to protect what we all too often take for granted.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.