Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Indeed, I am wearing a forget-me-not. Perhaps I can speak about that after my comments, if one of your members of Parliament would wish to ask me a question.
Thank you for your kind invitation to speak.
First I would like to make a brief comment about the bill in general; then I would like to speak about the language of the bill for a moment, and third, I would like to speak about some of the general understandings that I and my fellow Canadians here in Newfoundland and Labrador share as a society about the importance of honouring and remembering the sacrifices that are made for our country
First I would say that of course I agree very strongly with and support the idea of standardizing and in fact mandating across Canada the observance of Remembrance Day. It makes, I believe, a great deal of sense. It recognizes and honours the sacrifice, the commitment, and the history of those who have sacrificed for us, and it would indeed be a wonderful legacy to have done this in the year of Canada's 150th birthday.
Second, as a historian who has generally read in the field of war history—though my particular specialties are Newfoundland and Labrador history, constitutional history, the history of the 19th and 20th centuries of Canada—particularly as a Canadian and a private citizen who has visited Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel, I wish to make one brief observation about the text of the bill here. It's in clause 1, which replaces section 3 of the Holidays Act. It's the phrase, and I quote, “triumphantly concluded by an armistice”. This strikes me in a slightly odd way, and perhaps even in almost a discomforting or maybe even a jingoistic way. Kindly let me explain.
As you will know, Canada's sacrifices, and the sacrifices in my own province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which at the time was a British colony, were very heavy in World War I. Among other engagements, Canada obviously endured the terrible, horrible, cataclysmic, and, as the historians have argued, the nation-forging experience—the crucifixion—if you will, known as Vimy Ridge in April 1917, with 10,600 casualties, among them 3,500 fatalities.
As a fellow dominion of the British Empire at the time, Newfoundland's—Newfoundland and Labrador today—equivalent to Vimy was Beaumont-Hamel, in the Battle of the Somme. Our day occurred on July 1, 1916, when 801 went over the top of those trenches, and the next morning 68 answered the roll call.
That war—the sacrifice, the loss of life, and, in fact, the cost of that war—changed the very nature of life in Newfoundland and Labrador. As much as we might want to think of it today as being triumphant, blood sacrifices of this nature endured by Canada, and Newfoundland and Labrador, are hardly or very rarely ever triumphant.
The Great War, in fact, as we know, was a vicious, brutal, mechanized slaughter of a war, the likes of which had never been seen before in human history.
From my reading of that, I'm cautious about using the word “triumphant”. Yes, Canada was on the winning side, thank God, but at what price? We had to engage in a slaughter, and it was a brutal war. That whole concept of war and loss is very difficult to describe as a triumph.
My mind went back to when, in fact, I walked across the Douai Plain at Vimy. When we, as Canadians, visit there and we look at that profound monument—at least, the several times I did that—my reaction wasn't one of triumphantly concluding an armistice. Rather, personally, very privately, and frankly, I would have to say I had to do all that I could to avoid bursting into tears because of the emotion of that site and the profound, profound sacrifice by our fellow Canadians. At Beaumont-Hamel I was in tears because I found my great-grandmother's brother's name listed on the plaque in front of the caribou memorial as among those who were lost in battle with no known grave.
I believe that Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel are sacred places, if you will, almost holy places for Canadians, just like—and you'll be very familiar with this—the Memorial Chamber in our wonderful Peace Tower where the Books of Remembrance are kept. As Canadians raised in Newfoundland and Labrador, where our experience in World War I and World War II had such a profound influence on our identity and where so many of our citizens know those sacrifices so well from their family experiences, we even find it hard to say we celebrate. “Celebrate” is the wrong word for Remembrance Day; rather, we observe it, and perhaps I will say more on that shortly.
I would just speak for a moment, and perhaps this might be a little bit useful to you, on the mechanics of Bill C-311. I noted from reading the Hansard debates on this bill in the House of Commons that it was recognized by MPs in the debate that the provinces of Canada indeed do have the competence to declare Remembrance Day a public holiday, a legal holiday. Some have already done this, as you've noted.
In this province, Newfoundland and Labrador, that was formally accomplished in the Labour Standards Act of the Revised Statutes of Newfoundland. It was amended in 2001 to formally add Remembrance Day to that list. The mechanism for doing that is the act, of course, but it also enables the Lieutenant Governor in Council to proclaim days as holidays.
It's worth noting that in this province we actually have two separate statutory days or holidays, if you will, on which our war sacrifices are commemorated. They are, of course, the armistice anniversary day on November 11, as Remembrance Day, and the anniversary of Beaumont-Hamel on July 1—at least in the forenoon—which we celebrate as Memorial Day. Most people in my province are very happy to be celebrating Canada Day, but of course, we also have that dual thread of being quite aware of our history in the first war.
This brings me to my final formal observation, that of how, and I guess why, I'm predisposed to believe the intent of Bill C-311 is laudable.
As I say, I've grown up in a province, in a country, and in a community where the warp and weft of the fabric of our society was, in fact, our wartime experiences.
I was a student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, a memorial built in memory of our great war dead in World War I. While I was there as a graduate student, I read primary source documents, letters of people talking about the impact that Beaumont-Hamel had on their families. As a student, I walked through the downtown of St. John's with my late father, who was born in St. John's in 1923. He pointed out to me, when I was a young child, our national war memorial on Water Street, commemorating the people who had died in the Great War—the First World War—and in fact the Second World War and other conflicts. Even Afghanistan is there now.
That memorial—just to digress for a moment—was completed by Thomas Nangle. He was a padre to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and it was unveiled in 1924. That memorial, Mr. Chairman, was the first war memorial we can find that was completed in what is now Canada, and in fact in the British Empire. It was inspired directly by the poem In Flanders Fields, by Nangle's friend Colonel McCrae.
You'll see, if you visit St. John's, that there's a statue of a lady holding high the torch. Of course, this is a direct reference to the line in the poem:
The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die—