There they stood on Vimy Ridge on the ninth day of April 1917, men from Quebec stood shoulder to shoulder with men from British Columbia and Alberta and there was forged a nation tempered by fires of sacrifice and hammered on the anvil of high adventure.
These were the words of General Byng, the commander at Vimy Ridge, who led Canadians from every province and every background in a battle that changed our nation like no other. It was a battle for more than a summit, for more than even the summit of military achievement. Vimy was the triumph of a new nation united at home and respected abroad.
It was at Vimy that all Canadian units in the war would fight together and it was at Vimy that Canada stood alone in victory for the first time.
Their victory kindled our national pride and earned them a place of honour at the peace table at the end of the war.
The heritage of Vimy would see the Canadian Forces take part in World War II, the Korean war, the Gulf war and all our peacekeeping missions around the world. Every Canadian has to be aware of the magnetic power of Vimy.
It is a legacy and a history that each successive government has inherited, preserved and honoured with ever greater care and even higher purpose.
I commend the Department of Veterans Affairs for continuing that tradition by connecting many more Canadian children to perhaps our most inspiring source of national pride, identity and confidence.
At Vimy, these young Canadians will walk through the trenches, the tunnels, and stand on the summit where the most outstanding Canadian work of art reaches for the sky in the very place where thousands of Canadians fell to earth.
Perhaps they will visit the town of Arras, very near Vimy itself, where there is one of the most stunning signatures of Canadian soldiers preserving their memory for later generations to find.
A restaurant constructed in recent years has sub-basements that go down several stories. At the base is a small dugout and on the stone is etched a single word “Toronto”. No one knows who was there or whether they survived.
But what does survive is a message from the soldier of the day. A message that I am Canadian and I want the world to know that Canadians were here, and we made our mark.
The young Canadians on this month's journey will learn that at Vimy, Canada fought as one, French, English, aboriginal, Canadians of every origin. They will learn that what mattered at Vimy was backbone, not background.
On April 9, aboriginal soldiers emerged from the trenches alongside thousands of other Canadians. They stood devoted to each other with a unity welded in battle.
Private George McLean was one of the soldiers who scaled the walls of history that day. He was a rancher from the Head of the Lake Band in British Columbia. At Vimy, he would earn a distinguished conduct medal for launching a solo attack against a group of enemy soldiers, thus saving a large number of casualties. Private McLean was far from the only aboriginal soldier whose valour is part of the history of the soil at Vimy Ridge.
Henry Louis Norwest, a Métis marksman would become one of the most famous Canadian snipers in the first world war. He earned the military medal in 1917 at a peak on Vimy Ridge dubbed “the Pimple”. Henry Norwest would never again know peacetime. He was killed by a sniper's bullet just three months before the war ended.
On the memorial at Vimy are engraved the names of other aboriginal veterans who would never make the journey home, but whose journey into history would change their homes forever.
Their courage and the courage of thousands more at Vimy caused Canadians of all origins to look at each other with greater respect, greater promise and far less distance.
That is the reason so many historians look back at Vimy as a defining and unifying moment in our history.
Our nation captured a key summit, a Canadian stamp had been placed on world history, and Canada had earned a separate signature on the Treaty of Versailles, a right reserved for only the great powers, the most powerful nations on earth.
The identity of every nation is shaped by the great battles that marked its history. For the Canadians, Vimy Ridge stands as a monumental achievement, a place where Canadians have left their mark for eternity.
The victory at Vimy may have forged a nation out of the mettle of our men in arms, but it came at a terrible price.
When the machine guns were finally stilled three days into the battle, over 3,500 would lie forever still on French soil. The total casualty count for Canadians at Vimy in the months leading up to the final battle approached 20,000.
The scaling of Vimy Ridge, the scale of the victory, and the scale of the sacrifice would bond Canadians together like never before.
Just a decade later, visionaries of the day transported the original Vimy memorial back to Winnipeg to honour the men of the 44th Battalion. They knew that what was achieved and what was sacrificed at Vimy was a memory worth casting in stone for centuries to come.
Long before the great memorial was officially dedicated, Prime Minister Arthur Meighen stood at Vimy and made a promise to the men who died yards away. He said:
Across the leagues of the Atlantic the heartstrings of our Canadian nation will reach through all time to these graves in France…we shall never let pass away the spirit bequeathed to us by those who fell.
That is the promise we keep today in this House. We cannot know all the great feats and awful fates that are kept secret under the soil at Vimy. We cannot know all the missions accomplished or the futures lost.
But we do know that each of these Canadians rests in the peace they earned for a grateful nation. We will forever struggle to be worthy of their sacrifice.