Remembrance Day has always been an important day of reflection for me personally, but this year it was very different. For the past few years, my family has gathered at a Remembrance Day ceremony at La Cité francophone. Due to COVID, the ceremony was not held this year. But even if the ceremony had not been cancelled today, it would have been missing one of its annual speakers.
On September 4, 2020, my grandfather, Daniel Cournoyer, passed away at the age of 97. He was a veteran of the Second World War who served in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany during the war.
His experiences during the the war had a profound impact on him and he made it his mission to tell those stories and ensure that those who served and made the ultimate sacrifice were not forgotten.
Each November 11 at La Cité, he would collect and share the stories of franco-albertains who served and made the ultimate sacrifice during the two World Wars, the Korean War and the war in Afghanistan.
I did not anticipate how difficult it would be today, not being able to hear him share his stories and not being able to thank him for his service. It made me appreciate even more the time I did get to spend with him, hear his stories, and the work he had done to preserve the memories of those who had lost their lives in the service of our country.
A few years ago, he wrote down some reflections on his experience and what Remembrance Day meant to him:
Canada, situated far from war-torn Europe, never did experience the destructive aspects of war. World War II was an historical event taking place far from Canadian shores. What Canadians knew of the war, they learned through the intermediate of the radio and the press. For its sons who participated in the campaigns in Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, they experienced the pain and anguish of war with its devastation and destruction.
On my departure for overseas, the local reporter wrote in the Survivance, the provincial French newspaper: “It is needless to say that our hears are mixed with emotions every time we say good-bye to one of our young men leaving on such a perilous and perhaps tragic voyage.” To some of our families, (the Caouette family, the Foment-Allaire family, the McDonald family and the Theberge family), the loss of a beloved son brought to the very heart of their home the tragic reality of war.
Today, as a teacher and a veteran, I’m often called upon to talk to the students at their Remembrance Day ceremonies, Following the singing of “O Canada.” I address them as follows:
Your singing of “O Canada” has brought to mind a touching and vivid memory of my return to Canada as a soldier.
The “Ile de France, one of the oldest ocean liners of that time, entered Halifax Harbour with thousands of Canadian men in their khaki battle dress, viewing the Canadian shores for the first time after many years of war service overseas. All of a sudden, the dock’s public address system blasted these simple words across the harbour “WELCOME HOME” followed by “O CANADA, OUR HOME AND NATIVE LAND.” As we stood there, on the decks, the reality of our homeland overwhelmed us.
We couldn’t sing, we just stood there. Never or ever since, have I experienced with such emotion the singing of our National Anthem. I had learned its words like all the students do at school, but not hat day of my return to Canada, every word and every verse had taken on a new meaning.
We were back home. We had come home alive and safe. We were the fortunate soldiers who had survived the war, but what about those who hadn’t made it back?
Later, during this Remembrance Ceremony, during the 2 minutes of silence in tribute to those fallen Canadians of both World Wars, what will I be thinking about as a veteran? I will be thinking of those thousands of Canadians who lost their lives but to give it more perspective, I’ll be thinking of the former classmates and friends who didn’t make it back and the activities we carried on together – Leo Allaire, classmate at Couvent Notre Dame, killed in Italy; Paul Couette, friend and nephew of my uncle Georges Tellier, killed in Hollard; Richard McDonald, who played hockey against the Main Street Gang every Saturday morning at the old skating rink, killed in Italy; Leon Theberge, who with his brothers worked at the Cournoyer-Trottier-Lamarre mink range, killed in Italy.
Let us now look at their photos and remember them. They were amongst us for a very short period of time, we knew them briefly and they left us in the flower of they youth and most of all let us not forget them. As Governor-General Schreyer once said to a group of veterans, “Not enough is said about them and not enough is remembered. We often lose sight of those who sacrificed their the lives of rate preservation of peace and the highest ideals of civilization.”
Daniel E. Cournoyer