Mr. Speaker, “How will you remember?” “Comment vous souviendrez-vous?”
I am moved as I rise in the House today to inaugurate Veterans' Week. I would like to thank my colleagues in this Parliament, whether they are practised politicians or new recruits swept in by the popular tide, for taking the time to pay the most important national tribute, our tribute to those resting in eternal peace for the glory of our country and to those who have sacrificed so much for us.
I am of Irish descent and over the generations my ancestors became a part of French Canada. Therefore, I share Quebec's particular view of the world. It is from this perspective that I look at the world and consider the stories of the great wars and the epic battles that I have learned about. Especially as a member of Parliament, and now as a minister, I have come to realize the extent of the sacrifice made by these men and women whose fate was tragic and heroic, but who are too often ignored or forgotten.
The encounters I have had over the last six months, often in places steeped in history, have proven to be profoundly moving. From Cabaret Rouge, in France, where I paid tribute at the place where the remains of the Unknown Soldier were once buried, to the spectacular Canadian National Vimy Memorial, where more than 11,000 names are engraved, it is impossible not to think about the enormous loss of life and sacrifice.
Looking at the interminable rows of headstones, which seemed to extend forever, I came to a better understanding of the human drama behind each one, each soldier, each family, each story, each hard-hit community, and also of the history of our country.
At first, the colonists of New France and the British fought as enemies on the Plains of Abraham, but they later united to fight for the common cause of peace and freedom. The two founding nations, along with aboriginal peoples and newcomers, fought side by side at Châteauguay, for example, during the War of 1812, at the capture of the unconquerable Vimy Ridge in 1917, or on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, where the valiant militia of the Régiment de La Chaudière—from Beauce—and members of the Queen's Own Rifles from Toronto joined together to drive back the Nazi invaders and liberate France.
It was this sacrifice by people of many origins that made Canada what it is today, a strong nation that is the envy of the world. The sacrifices of these soldiers have united our country. We are what we are today because of the sacrifices of these men and women who went to their eternal rest, sometimes far away in Europe and other distant places, and who transformed our nation. Some of our soldiers also returned transformed, with injuries to their souls that burdened them until their last breaths.
It is this blood, spilled in the off lands—European battlefields such as Beaumont-Hamel, where 800 Newfoundlanders faced enemy fire, or Korea, Cyprus, Bosnia and, more recently, Afghanistan—that define who we are. As citizens and parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to rediscover these sometimes tragic exploits in order to better understand where we are going as individuals, as a people and as a nation.
Let us recognize today that we are indebted to them for every vote we hold here in this House, for our freedom and for our ability to shape the destiny of our country.
One does not need to travel all the way to Vimy in France to be a proud Canadian, but I wonder if there is anywhere else on earth where that pride could be felt more intensely than on the ridge overlooking the plain of Douai.
It is not necessary either to go back in time to see examples of dedication, courage and the gift of self. These values of bravery, valour and service transcend time, place and generations. I see it today.
Born in the aftermath of September 2001, where terrorists killed almost 3,000 innocent people, Canada's war on terror hit the ground in Afghanistan and has seen a decade of a strong involvement from large scale military operations to improvements in infrastructure, supporting the opening of schools for girls and providing humanitarian health. However, that came at a great cost as more than 150 Canadians have lost their lives to establish lasting peace.
Many of these men and women who serve our country without hesitation are coming back or returning from the Afghanistan mission. Individuals such as Sergeant Nielsen, who we have just recognized, are a symbol of bravery and perseverance.
On Canada Day, July 1, 2010, Sergeant Nielsen was hit by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan and was severely injured. He lost his two legs, but he stood up today in the House, which made us very proud.
I was privileged to meet with Sergeant Nielsen. What struck me most was his outlook on life. To him, he was simply doing his job. As members can imagine, I was sincerely impressed with Sergeant Nielsen's attitude and his willingness to move forward no matter what. He said to me, “You can lie down and let the world happen or you can get up and do something yourself”. Luckily for us Sergeant Nielsen has chosen the latter.
Mr. Nielsen and his comrades are with us today, his comrades who are supporting him and who are supportive of each other, and with whom I have had the privilege of having dinner. They serve our country with pride and conviction. They fought for peace, freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
We thank our men and women for what they are doing, as they continue to do every day to make the lives of the Afghan people better and therefore for us so we can live in a better world.
That is not all. As we conclude the month of women in the military, we also have remarkable women who wear the uniform and continue to do so today, remarkable individuals such as Brigadier General Sheila Hellstrom who was the first woman to earn the title and Lieutenant Colonel Shirley Robinson who has devoted her life to ensuring women have equal opportunities in the military.
Nellie McClung once said, "People must know the past to understand the present and face the future". These women paved the way for all women, not just those who wear the military uniform but all Canadian women, and this is an excellent example for the world.
There are still challenges. Veterans, such as Sergeant Roland Lawless, who is the vice-president of the Veterans Emergency Transition Services, know it too well. Sergeant Lawless devotes his time and efforts to assist our too many homeless veterans in finding the support they need. For this, he deserves our full acknowledgement.
Yesterday, we paid tribute to those who dedicate their lives to caring for and supporting our veterans. I refer to the families, of course, and the loved ones.
When an individual joins the Canadian Forces, he or she does so by choice. That choice takes a heavy toll on that person's family, whether it is being left alone while their loved one is deployed far away or whether it is trying to transition to civilian life after years of being a military family. All too often, it is the spouses and caregivers who are left to provide stability and balance at home. They bear a burden very few of us understand but they, too, deserve our recognition and respect.
As a nation, we have a duty to remember and honour the exploits of those who died defending our ideals. In Libya, we have again shown the world that we are determined not to allow a dictator massacre his people. This House of Commons is the symbol of our freedom and democracy. It is here that we make decisions on behalf of the nation and here that we make the lives of these people a priority in our country. Thousands of Canadians have paid the ultimate price for this freedom, wherever duty called them to serve.
As of last week, our country was tragically struck by the death of Sergeant Janick Gilbert and the departure of Master Corporal Byron Greff in Afghanistan.
Those who for their country gave their lives
Should hear the prayers of many at their grave.
Theirs is the most beautiful of all beautiful names.
Compared with them all glory is ephemeral,
And the voice of an entire people
Is like a mother's lullaby to them in their graves.
These are the words of Victor Hugo, which are found in the Canadian Merchant Navy Book of Remembrance.
In the coming days, let us feel humbled by the greatness of these fallen men and women, and of those who have served and are currently serving. Let each of us, as Parliamentarians, go to our communities, cities and towns and take the time to quietly reflect and thank them.
“In Flanders fields the poppies [still] blow...”. I would ask my colleagues how they will remember and I thank them for rightly doing so.
Lest we forget. Nous nous souviendrons d'eux.