Remembrance Day is approaching, and with it comes a barrage of Facebook posts, the white poppy debate and Terry Kelly's "A Pittance of Time". But what do these posts, poppies and songs really mean?
For many, the war stories of selfless sacrifices and those of human triumph are just that; stories. If you haven't met a veteran, chances are you feel no difference between the Napoleonic Wars, the Boer Wars or the World Wars. These overseas wars are just like other war stories; ancient and taking place a world away. For many of today's youth, there is no difference between these events except for their chapter in a history textbook.
As a young adult, I too struggle with this. I know the events happened, and I can watch footage of them on television, but I have trouble relating to them. While ignorance to the reality of war is a blessing,
it makes it impossible to relate to stories of somebody younger than myself storming into Berlin, or of firing a flamethrower at Japanese soldiers, or even watching a friend die in the dirt of a battlefield. These are things I will never understand because I have never related to them.
As I travelled the world and saw more and more countries, I began to learn about what Canadian soldiers have done for us. Overtime, I came to realize the great impact they have had.
In Hong Kong, I learned about the 1,975 Canadians that were stationed to protect the city from Japanese forces. Of the almost 2,000 Canadian soldiers stationed there, 554 were killed either on the battlefield or in POW camps, and almost another 500 were wounded. This is something I never learned in school, so imagine my surprise when I found a war memorial made out to them.
In the Netherlands, I learned the Dutch hold a special place in their hearts for Canadians, who not only liberated the country but also hosted the Dutch Royal Family while in exile. I also learned that, because of this unique relationship, many American tourists pretend to be Canadians while visiting so that they are treated better.
While in Amsterdam I visited the Anne Frank House. There, I learned about the final months of the Frank family before being captured by the Germans. This museum put into perspective the horrors of their prosecution and helped me realize just how important their liberation was.
In France, although only in passing, I saw the Vimy Ridge Memorial. Impressive from afar, I have been told by countless people about how beautiful it is up close. Vimy Ridge is considered Canada's greatest military accomplishment, capturing a hill during World War I that the French were unable to take. It cost the lives of 5,398 Canadians with an additional 7,000 wounded. Today the memorial is surrounded by trenches that the soldiers used, and is an active, outdoor war museum. I am honoured to have seen it, but sad that I couldn't get any closer.
In London, I saw black and white pictures of the city burning during the Blitz. There I was told stories of families being torn apart, of subway tunnels being used as bomb shelters and of train rides in and out of the smoldering city. I also learned about the 2nd Canadian Division from Quebec City that protected London during the war. While stationed there, King George VI addressed them in French - something an English king has never done, and would have been considered almost treasonous just a century earlier.
In Poland, I saw a death camp. I witnessed the rooms the prisoners lived in, where they were tortured in, electric fences they threw themselves against and the gas chambers and furnaces they were disposed of in. I saw the worse humanity could do to itself, and I was left speechless. There, I learned about "Canada I" and "Canada II" - safe havens where workers wouldn't be killed. I felt humbled that they would name the only safe place in a death camp after my home country, but also sad because very few know about this.
In Munich, I saw the effects the Second World War had on the city and the mentality of its people. Germany has a rich, millennium long history that is often eclipsed by the dark shadow of the Third Reich. Because of the war, many Germans are ashamed of their heritage. Canada also struggled to look past this and imprisoned thousands of German immigrants in work camps during the war.
World War II came to Canada in 1942 when German U-Boats infiltrated the St. Lawrence River. There they sank 4 warships and several merchant ships during a two-year period. This was the first time since 1812 that a foreign country had attacked Canadian soil. Nazi spies such as Werner von Janowski also infiltrated Canada, with von Janowski working for both the Nazi intelligence and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
In 1944 Canada was again under attack, but this time by Japanese fire balloons. These balloons' purpose was to set the forests of the continent ablaze, but instead became a military nuisance and occasionally knocked out power lines. The balloons even drifted over my hometown and exploded in the nearby city of Moose Jaw. Planes were scattered across the prairie sky looking for these explosive balloons, and their impromptu hangers remain in operation today.
Many believe Canada has never faced the challenge of war, or had its freedoms threatened, but this belief is not true. Another untrue statement is that Canada stopped making war veterans after World War II, although you seem to rarely hear about them. Beyond the World Wars, Canadian soldiers have been stationed in places such as Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, Libya and scores of other countries. At any given day, over 8,000 Canadian soldiers are preparing for, engaged in or returning from an overseas mission. These range from helping to rebuilt Haiti, to training Ukrainian forces, to even helping stabilize democracy in the Congo. While we don't hear about it on the news or on television, one third of our military force is elsewhere around the world.
The more I travel the world, the more appreciation I have for our military. Canada is a safer place because of their actions, and our freedoms exist because of them. Simple things like going to school, going to the supermarket or using social media are forbidden in other countries, and these are things we should not take for granted.
Travel helped me realize just how valuable our veterans' sacrifices were for our freedoms. Canada isn't perfect, but its positives greatly outweigh its negatives. Travelling the world helped me put into perspective our freedoms, and it helped me understand the impact our military has had on others. Travel has taken me to foreign lands and to the places where Canadians made their mark on other people's lives. While it may sometimes be hard to relate to our past, no matter how ancient, we must never forget it. I believe this solemn action of never forgetting, is all our veterans would have ever wanted.
Long before I started my blog, many, many years ago, I visited Innsbruck, Austria. I was on a Contiki trip through Europe and visited a plethora of locations such as Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Lucerne and Innsbruck, just to name a few. It was an incredible experience and one that I think was a transformative moment in my life.
Off the record (or, on the record now, I guess), of all the places I visited, the only one I didn't like was Innsbruck. I couldn't get into it. We visited it in late March, so the weather wasn't the best. The trees didn't have any leaves on them, the grass was brown, and everything had a post-winter grey look to it. After visiting Munich and spending the night in St. Goar, my mind wasn't thinking about Innsbruck at all. Instead, I was more excited to go to Venice the next day, and the Vatican the day after that. My time in Innsbruck was uneventful, and all I wanted was to get back on the road.
That was in 2011, and now it's 2018. Has my opinion on Innsbruck changed? I would say yes. I'm more mature now and if I went back, I would better appreciate what I was seeing. As I've gotten older, I've been less impressed by the massive buildings and more enthralled by the history that created them.
Just over a year ago I wrote an article about the glockenspiel that once stood in downtown Regina. I had fond memories of the glockenspiel as a child and was sad when they took it down to renovate the park. I was even more sad when they didn't put it back up, and I was angry when I discovered it was sitting in a junkyard (sorry, outdoor "storage facility") for the past ten years. That article got a lot of attention, from both the public, the city and the press. Today, efforts are being made to restore the bell back to its original location.
I'm telling you this because preserving heritage – may it be a 25-year-old bell, or a fourth century building – is important. Without heritage, we lose who we are. Often, the desire to move society forward steps over the heritage and causes it to get lost. As impressive as tall glass buildings might be, nothing is better than a smoky red brick structure.
Saskatchewan is beginning to realize how important this is – and thankfully it's happening now and not in a few decades after everything is gone. But, our neighbours have been on the heritage preservation band train for several years now, especially in Alberta.
Those who attended my Chernobyl lecture at the Queen City Collective earlier in May would have heard me singing praises about HBO's new miniseries Chernobyl, and for good reason. HBO did a fantastic job on the miniseries by immersing the audience into mid-1980s Soviet Ukraine and by peeling back the layers of the disaster.
With that said, there were some liberties HBO took while making the show. As somebody who spent two days in the Exclusion Zone in 2016, I know a thing or two about how the events unfolded, and a few parts of the miniseries weren't accurate.
Chernobyl began by tackling a nearly impossible task. The miniseries had to break down one of the largest cover-ups in human history. They had to show the devastation of the world's deadliest nuclear disaster and also highlight the many countless heroes who stepped up to make a difference. It's natural to expect HBO to simplify this – and they only had five episodes to do it. I don't blame them for some of these mistakes, but I felt they should be pointed out.