Mr. Speaker, Canada is the best country in the world and each of us in this House understands that. We enjoy rights and freedoms that many other countries simply have never known or will ever know. We owe much of this, if not all of this, to the brave men and women in uniform who are always willing to defend Canada, who have always stood up for Canada.
Other nations also understand how blessed we are. When we visit those countries that have been conquered or occupied by a foreign army, we realize just what remembrance truly means.
It was the former Minister of Veterans Affairs, a member of Parliament still serving in this House, who first told me about the deep appreciation I would gain from going overseas with our veterans. At the time the former minister had only called to congratulate me on my posting, but as we spoke, he told me that I would be changed by the visits I would make to the countries we helped liberate and that having the privilege to go to these nations with the very Canadian soldiers who made history there decades ago would have a lasting effect on me. I was told it would change the way that I view our country and that it would have a profound impact on the way that I look at our men and women in uniform. He was right.
I believe all members of Parliament who have made these sacred journeys have reached the same conclusion. They have watched the same emotional scenes play out before their very eyes with lasting impact.
We can see it happening in places like Monchy-le-Preux, a beautiful little town in rural France, a place where so many Newfoundland and Canadian soldiers gave their lives in defence of peace and freedom in the first world war.
Last April when our Canadian delegation went to France to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, there was an early morning ceremony held in Monchy-le-Preux. It was not a national holiday and it was not a civic holiday, but the entire town was there. Banks were closed. Businesses had shut their doors. Farmers, housewives and school children came from villages far and wide.
It always happens like this. When Canada comes to commemorate its fallen soldiers, the grateful people of Monchy-le-Preux, as with their sister communities, want to be there with us. They simply want another chance to say thank you.
This gratitude is real and it is lasting. It is handed down from generation to generation, like a family treasure, a sacred bond that will not be broken.
We see it every time our veterans return to the countries they helped liberate. We can see it in the eyes of the local children laying wreaths alongside our aging veterans. Quite simply, the expressions on their faces say it all.
It does not matter that many of these soldiers are now in their twilight years or that the passage of time has slowed their walk or caused their salutes to grow unsteady. Despite the physical challenges, despite the challenges of their aging bodies, they make the salute every time.
This determination in turn makes the children's admiration for our veterans even greater, because they know they are looking at the very men and women who freed their countries. They know that they are in the presence of the Canadians they have read about, they have learned about and their parents and grandparents have told them about. They know they are among heroes. That is why these countries welcome our veterans so warmly.
They know our history, our stories, our pain, our suffering. They know about the Fred Engelbrechts, a Dieppe veteran who, with his daughter Lynda, joined our delegation, returning this summer to that French coastal town 65 years after that impossible mission, that impossible landing on that distant rocky shore.
Together, hand in hand, Fred and his daughter were walking through the cemeteries of Dieppe when he found the graves of some of his fallen friends. It was then that the memories came flooding back to Fred. It was there that he broke down and wept for all the years that had passed, for the comrades who had never returned home with him, who had never realized their own dreams, who had never raised a family, and who could not, as he did then, return to that sacred place holding a daughter's hand.
That is why in Europe they line the streets to see our veterans parade through their towns and villages. From the youngest to the oldest, they want to reach out with spontaneous tears of gratitude to say thank you. Because the memories of the foreign invasions and occupations will remain with them forever.
We might ask ourselves how they could possibly remember after all those years. All I can say is that they will never forget.
One afternoon in a village church a French farm woman approached me with a single rose. She presented the rose to me. She wanted me to take it back to Canada. She wanted me to take it home.
She explained that it came from a rose bush on her family's farm, a farm that was completely destroyed during the first world war. The family's home was gone, the farm was gone, the animals were gone, and their way of life was gone. The only sign that the farm had ever existed, the only thing that grew back from that total devastation, was a rose bush. For her, that single rose bush is her daily reminder, a living reminder of her freedom.
In Europe, such remembrance is part of their being. It is who they are, “in sunshine or in shadow”. That is why when we lead Canadian delegations to the historic battlefields overseas, to Vimy, Passchendaele and Dieppe, there is no need to explain our presence to the local communities. They instinctively understand. As the mayor of one of these French towns told me, there are more Canadians buried in the surrounding communities than there are French citizens living in those communities today, 90 years later.
We all know that is Canada's sacrifice. That is our history. Canada is a nation that has always sent its finest men and women to serve where they are needed and in numbers far exceeding what the world might have expected.
But such willingness to act has come with a terrible price. In the two great wars alone, more than 116,000 Canadians made the ultimate sacrifice, a loss experienced by countless families across this country.
It was felt in Newfoundland, which was only a colony of barely a quarter of a million people during the first world war, when in just 30 minutes an entire generation of Newfoundlanders, Newfoundland's leaders, was lost in the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel. Of the 801 members of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment who went over the top that morning, 733 would not answer roll call the next morning. Only 68 did.
This is the type of sacrifice that Canada has bravely made, not just in the great wars, but in Korea and on peacekeeping and peacemaking operations throughout our history. That is the type of sacrifice Canadians continue to make today to defend our way of life and to protect the values we cherish: freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.
Never was our tradition of great sacrifice, both past and present, made more painfully clear than when we were in France this April. We were there to remember Canada's heroic efforts at Vimy Ridge 90 years earlier. The world had come together to commemorate the battle that defined Canada, that marked our nation's coming of age.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was there. Our Prime Minister was there, as was the French prime minister. So were a number of members of Parliament, including the deputy leader of the opposition, and of course, Mr. Speaker, you yourself were there. All of us were there to share this proud moment on a glorious day that only a poet could properly describe.
Yet when we prepared to honour and celebrate our history, a sombre reality was weighing on our minds. Only one day earlier, six Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan had made the ultimate sacrifice. When Her Majesty referenced this in her speech, the sombre reality of what we had achieved then and what we are doing today connected.
That simple, handwritten sentence in Her Majesty's speech was a powerful reminder that freedom is never free and has never been free, and that when the world calls, Canada answers, because that is the Canadian way. That is our proud tradition. That is what we remember today.
At times like these, words cannot help but fail us. As a scholar once noted, words are all we have and words are not enough. Words cannot begin to describe the men and women behind the incomprehensible numbers and the tragic statistics of war, individuals who loved and were loved.
And now it falls upon us to keep faith with them. All those who have served will tell us that the greatest gift that we can give any veteran is the gift of remembrance. Many of our men and women in uniform have heard this in the final wishes, the dying wishes, of their comrades. They do not want to be forgotten. They do not want to have died in vain.
On November 11, we know where all members of Parliament will be. In the next few days when we leave this House, we will return to the people who sent us here, the people we represent, and we will stand shoulder to shoulder with them in our largest cities and our smallest villages.
Together we will be with our veterans to honour their own promises to remember their fallen comrades, to remember those buried at home and those buried in foreign lands, with unfinished lives. We will say thank you. We will say thank you on behalf of a grateful nation.
Lest we forget.