Madam Speaker, it is a privilege for me to rise today and debate Bill C-311. It is an honour as a parliamentarian, but also as a veteran and as a former minister of veterans affairs. In many ways, this speech will have elements of my speech in this place in 2014 because this issue keeps coming back to the floor of the House of Commons. Any time we debate remembrance of those who have served our country, it is worthy of debate in this House, probably the most important debate we can have. Therefore, I thank the member for West Nova for bringing this modest contribution. His bill would add a word creating a legal holiday with respect to November 11, and it builds in part on the bill in the last Parliament, Bill C-597, which I spoke to, brought by MP Dan Harris from the New Democratic Party, then member for Scarborough Southwest, who had a slightly more substantive bill with respect to this, which was not successful. He also had provisions with respect to the flag.
However, I can say that several Parliaments have had this debate. Several members have mentioned that really the statutory holiday elements of this are provincial. In 1982, former premier Bill Davis removed the statutory element for Remembrance Day in Ontario. I am an Ontario MP. I certainly know that schools and other organizations make an effort to remember. I served in Nova Scotia when I was in the RCAF, and certainly I saw the large cenotaph gatherings in that province because of the holiday, so it really is at the discretion of the provinces. Several members have mentioned that. I am going to bring a history of the day to our debate today because that is important. I hope some Canadians want to see how our country has evolved our remembrance.
Especially in our 150th year, we really have to thank the people who served and sacrificed for us. In our 150 years, 1.5 million Canadians have served our country throughout our history, so debates about Remembrance Day or Armistice Day are important. I would also like to say that nobody has fought for this issue to come to debate in the House of Commons more than Wilma McNeill from Sarnia. I have met Ms. McNeill, I have seen her letters, and I know her advocacy, so I thank her for that. She has been doing this for over 27 years, trying to have all provinces recognize it as a holiday, and I thank her for that advocacy. I certainly agree that more Canadians need to remember; it is how we remember that is important.
It was in this place in 1919, following the Great War, following the rebirth of this Parliament when the buildings were reconstructed and our Peace Tower was a reminder of the sacrifice of the Great War, that a motion was brought by MP Isaac Pedlow in 1919 to recognize Armistice Day. The Great War ended at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, and November 11 became significant for the peace that was finally secured after the terrible horrors of the Great War. It was just a motion to acknowledge that, in 1919, and it was two years later that an act came before this House for the first time, the Armistice Day Act. It was still called Armistice Day at that time.
What is interesting is that our country's early marking of this remembrance, Armistice Day, was not on November 11 for pretty much the first decade. It was on the first Monday of the week of November 11. Because at that time Thanksgiving was at the discretion of the federal parliament, it was tied together in a holiday alongside Thanksgiving. However, in the years that followed that, a lot of Great War veterans did not like the fact that those holidays, Thanksgiving and the remembrance of Armistice Day, were attached to each other and there was a floating date. Increasingly, veterans, regardless of what day was recognized as the holiday, were gathering at cenotaphs across the country and gathering here in Parliament, and a decade later at the great War Memorial that was built, to recognize November 11 in moments of silence, on the 11th.
It is interesting that in the years after the Great War all of these veterans organizations, Great War empire veterans, finally gathered together into one national organization, the Royal Canadian Legion, in 1925.
I know many members on both sides of the House are members of that very important service organization. I thank all of the Legion members and the service officers for the critical work they do, and I saw that firsthand as veterans affairs minister. They are the front line serving our veterans, and they have been since 1925.
At their founding convention in Winnipeg, the Great War veterans addressed the issue of remembrance, and they did not want the Monday observation of Armistice Day alongside Thanksgiving to be maintained. The Great War veterans spoke and that led to change.
I want to take this opportunity to remind members of the House of the act to incorporate the Royal Canadian Legion. I would also remind the Minister of Veterans Affairs and his parliamentary secretary, who I know is very passionate about her role. She has children serving in uniform, and is very proud of them, and should be.
However, at that founding convention, veterans put themselves together to help one another and to mark remembrance. The next year, Parliament passed another act in 1926 to incorporate the Royal Canadian Legion. I would refer members to section 4, the purposes and objects of the Legion. I would note that no other service club has its mandate from an act of Parliament, but in section 4(f), Remembrance Day and remembrance was actually given to the Legion, and it reads:
(f) to promote and care for memorials to their valour and sacrifice, to provide suitable burial, to keep an annual memorial day...
There are a number of other purposes and objectives that Canadians and parliamentarians should get to know, because long before there was a Veterans Affairs Canada, there was the Royal Canadian Legion. It was empowered by Parliament to help care for our veterans, and to help preserve their service and sacrifice. Therefore, it was actually the Legion that wanted November 11, and not a floating holiday, to be significant in the history of our nation, and to have the moment of silence surrounding the Armistice at the 11th hour.
From the direction of the Great War veterans, the Royal Canadian Legion, there was finally another motion brought to this chamber by the MP for Comox—Alberni. The motion's intention was to fix November 11 as the permanent Armistice Day. The interesting part of that debate was that most members had heard the Legion loud and clear and said, “November 11 it will be”. However, another member from Vancouver Island, the MP for Nanaimo, added to the debate and to the motion, and said the day should no longer be called Armistice Day, because it is not just marking the Armistice agreement, but that it should be marked as Remembrance Day. The member, C.W. Dickie, at the time said, “We wish to remember and perpetuate” the Armistice, and the peace secured at tremendous sacrifice to Canada.
It was interesting that, in those same years, the formation of what we know as Remembrance Day was just being formed by our country. The Peace Tower and the Book of Remembrance was being put in place just above us on most hallowed ground in this building. Each day a page is turned for the thousands of Canadians who fell in service to our country.
The debate that comes before us today is significant. To echo my friend from Barrie who quoted the executive director of the Royal Canadian Legion, we must respect the Legion's opinion with respect to Remembrance Day, because a previous Parliament empowered the Royal Canadian Legion by an act in 1926 to maintain the memorial to our fallen. The motion in 1931 created that on November 11 and called it Remembrance Day. Therefore, I support Bill C-311 today, and we should adhere to what the Legion, the true guardians of this day, want with respect to how the provinces handle it.
I want to thank the member, I want to thank the Legion, I want to thank Wilma McNeill, and all those Canadians who make sure that we live up to the expression “Lest we Forget”.