Mr. Speaker, the world has long known that it can count on Canada. Wherever there is danger, wherever there is need, Canada has earned an international reputation for generosity and compassion. Wherever peace is threatened, Canada's men and women in uniform have earned the reputation for courage and action.
We are a nation devoted to freedom, to democracy, to human rights and to the rule of law, and we see it today in Afghanistan and Canada's many other peacekeeping and military operations around the world.
On the eve of the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, we are reminded of where this proud tradition was forged. It was on a treacherous, sodden battlefield in the north of France that a young Canada came of age as a nation.
Every time I rise in this House I cannot help but mention that we only serve in this place because our veterans served our country with great courage and at great cost.
Such is the story of Lieutenant Colonel Sam Sharpe who was a parliamentarian. He sat in this chamber and, like all of us in the House of Commons, he earned his privilege to sit here. He took his seat as an elected member of Parliament but he was also a soldier, a soldier who served on that battlefield that the French came to call “the graveyard of France”.
He witnessed death and destruction on a scale that none of us can imagine: 800,000 casualties and 200,000 dead on the heavily fortified slopes of Vimy Ridge alone.
Lieutenant Colonel Sharpe knew what he was facing when arrived with his own troops just weeks before the battle began on a cold and miserable Easter Monday morning.
He felt “a sacred trust” to bring his men home alive, and he knew exactly how difficult it would be to honour that trust.
Writing to his wife, Mabel, he said:
We have very little protection there and I may not pull through. If it should be my fate to be among those who fall, I wish to say I have no regrets to offer. I have done my duty.
Seven months later, while still serving on the battlefields of Europe, the fields of France, he was re-elected to this House of Commons for the third time.
However, even in such victory, Lieutenant Colonel Sharpe was already succumbing to the ravages of war. He never returned to this House. His life ended tragically, shattered by what he had seen. He had survived the bullets and the bombs but, sadly, he died at a Montreal hospital in May 1918 of complete mental and physical exhaustion. He was heartbroken by the loss of so many young men placed in his sacred trust.
We must never forget our Sam Sharpes or the Woods family of Winnipeg, in fact, Mrs. C.S. Woods, the Silver Cross mother who lost eight sons in that great war.
When we speak to such families that have paid the ultimate price, they often tell us that they were only answering their call to duty.
We need to cherish and honour them and we need to cherish and honour our last living links to what has been called our “greatest generation”. We need to celebrate men like John Babcock and Dwight Wilson who represent our last known surviving Canadian veterans of the first world war, two remarkable men who remain as proud of Canada today as when they wore the uniform back then.
Their stories are of great sacrifice and great achievement. They remind us of who we are and where we are from. And they remind us of the great debt we continue to owe.
British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, explained it very simply in a speech he gave just days after the great war had ended when he said, “What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for our heroes to live in?”
I know all of us here are committed to this challenge and we accept this responsibility. I see it every day in this House and I am always comforted by it. When the passions and rhetoric of question period have subsided, members from every side of this House, from all parties, approach me, as Minister of Veterans Affairs, not for political advantage or personal gain, but on behalf of their constituents, their veterans, Canada's veterans.
All of us want Canada to do the right thing for our veterans. It speaks highly of all members in this House. And so, this is what we will honour next month in France, in Ottawa and in every region of this country.
Canadians of all ages will come together in our largest cities and our smallest villages to pay tribute to our veterans' heroic efforts and to remember: to remember that our victory at Vimy Ridge came with a steep price. More than 10,600 Canadian soldiers were wounded in the fighting. Among them were 3,600 Canadians who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, for freedom and for peace.
Their names are inscribed on the beautifully restored Canadian National Vimy Memorial, the same memorial that Queen Elizabeth II, the Prime Minister and thousands of ordinary Canadians will rededicate next month. There are 11,285 names etched on this powerful monument, a lasting tribute to the Canadian soldiers who died in France and a lasting tribute to the 600,000 Canadians who stepped forward to serve our country in the war to end all wars.
With 5,000 students travelling to France next month, we will ensure that those Canadians from our past are remembered for generations to come and that they are remembered for more than just numbers or finely etched names.
They were fathers, sons, brothers and uncles who answered the call of duty, the call of their country in its greatest need.
They were soldiers cut down in their prime before they could realize their own dreams. They sacrificed what they could have been so we could know a better tomorrow. It is the most unselfish act we can ever know. These soldiers remain a source of pride and inspiration today.
We know that soldiers, in moments of reflection, often wonder why they were spared and not their fallen comrades. They wonder, in moments of silence and solitude, why fate chose their comrades. They often struggle with the question of why they were allowed to return home to their loved ones while other brave Canadians were laid to rest in foreign soil.
That is why I am so honoured and so privileged to be leading a Veterans Affairs contingent to Vimy next month to join some of our traditional wartime veterans and special guests on a six day pilgrimage to France.
We will pay tribute to those men who accomplished, through courage and ingenuity, what other allied forces could not: to capture and hold Vimy Ridge.
We will mark the true birth of a nation when the four divisions of the Canadian Corps joined together for the first time on April 9, 1917, and began what was termed “months of unending triumph”.
But more than anything, we will be going back to France to keep the promise of those who returned home, the promise of those who vowed never to forget their fallen comrades.
I am sure that in the silence of our solemn ceremonies, our veterans from all generations will hear the voices of those they left behind. Those voices will be saying, “Thank you. Thank you for today. Thank you for your gift of Remembrance”.