As they do every year, Canadians pause on November 11, to remember and pay respect to their war dead. This annual ritual, which takes place at countless memorials and cenotaphs across this vast land, gets more important each year as the numbers of actual participants in those world wide conflicts get fewer and fewer. With their inevitable disappearance, emphasis must be placed on teaching our younger generations just what took place during the wars of the 20th century in which Canadians participated. Lest we think that those difficult periods of our past have finally been concluded, human problems are continuing all over the world and people still choose violence to resolve their real or perceived problems. Their methods have changed little despite the exponential growth of the deadliness of modern weapons. One only needs to ponder over the recent terrorist strikes against the United States of America, to realize that those unfortunate days are not over, and to remind ourselves of the importance of remembering the past, so as to be better prepared for the future.
Many groups of veterans and other concerned citizens have been , and continue to be, active in the areas of commemoration, remembrance and education. New initiatives surface regularly, such as the Canadian Battlefields Foundation (formerly the Canadian Battle for Normandy Foundation), created by a group of concerned veterans and citizens in 1992. Since Canada had been involved in many campaigns and theatres of war , in every part of the world, why chose Normandy as its anchor? Many reasons came into play. The battle of Normandy was widely seen as the turning point in the long drawn out battle to defeat the scourge of Nazism. Also significant was the practical realization that we could get, at no cost, access to a piece of land in Caen, Normandy, adjacent to a major French museum, Le Mémorial. This museum was erected by French authorities to commemorate the liberation of Normandy by the Allies, other campaigns of World War II and the evolving peace following the conflict. Seizing this opportunity, Mr Hamilton Southam, a veteran of World War II and a well known Ottawa personality and philanthropist, assembled a small group of veterans, and a foundation was born.
At the outset, the Canadian Battlefields Foundation gave itself two fundamental mandates. The first was to commemorate the service and sacrifice of all Canadians who served their country in the cause of freedom and the second to familiarize as wide an audience as possible with Canada’s contribution to Allied victory in two world wars. Those mandates have grown to incorporate remembrance and are being constantly reviewed to take into account Canada’s participation in wars subsequent to World War II , including the more recent so called peace operations.
Since magnificent memorials already existed in France at Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel commemorating Canadian and Newfoundland participation in the Great War, the idea of a pan-Canadian memorial for World War II was quickly decided upon. The Foundation, adopting the realistic stand that it would be impossible to emulate Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel in grandeur, decided on a Memorial Garden designed by Canadian university architecture and landscape design students. The Memorial Garden is thus a living memorial continuously renewing itself and growing. The students selected to design this Memorial Garden were deeply moved by seeing the war graves of Canadians their own age in nearby cemeteries and presented the Foundation with several innovative designs from which an evocative selection was made.
On the north side of the valley in which it lies, a fissured terrace symbolizes the descent into turmoil, war and danger. On the southern side, Canadian maple trees surround a black granite slab in a pool of running water on which have been inscribed Virgil’s words:
“Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo”
“No day will ever erase you from the memory of time”
On the wall behind the grove and fountain on the southern side are the names of the 122 communities of Normandy liberated by Canadians. On the terrace in the north are four large steles inscribed with the names of all the Canadian units, Army, Navy and Air force and the Merchant Navy, which participated in the liberation of Normandy. Future commemorative plans include adding steles, with information about Canadian involvement in other campaigns of World War II. Increasing the Canadian presence in our host French museum, Le Mémorial, is also a priority.
This Memorial Garden was officially opened by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in 1995 at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe).
Additional commemorative initiatives included the unveiling of a plaque at the Place de l’Ancienne Boucherie in Caen recognizing the Canadian role in liberating this strategic city. Each year the Foundation conducts commemorative ceremonies at the site of that plaque as well as in the Memorial Garden and at the Abbaye d’Ardenne. The Abbaye d’Ardenne has particularly poignant meaning for Canadians as its garden is the site of the assassination of 20 Canadian prisoners of war in June 1944 by German SS troops.
Concurrently with those remembrance activities, the educational efforts of the Foundation took root. Books and videos were and are the major media. Books such as Normandy 1944 by Professor Jack Granatstein and Canadian Guides to Canadian Battlefields, covering the North-West Europe campaigns, by Professor Terry Copp, were commissioned. A video, produced in 1997 and hosted by well known TV personality Mike Duffy, portraying the Foundation’s activities, was followed in 1998 by another, In their Footsteps or Le pèlerinage. The latter which documented a Foundation Student Tour for that year was produced for Veterans Affairs Canada. While those books and videos form an important part of the Foundation’s educational activities, the annual Study Tour is by far the most important.
Each year, since 1995, twelve carefully selected Canadian University students (with occasional exceptions) have travelled to Europe for a three-week study tour under the direction of distinguished Canadian military historians. They have, when practical, been accompanied for parts of those tours by veterans of Canadian campaigns overseas. Most students have studied Normandy in great detail and have visited Dieppe and the sites of Great War battles on the Western Front. Some have also visited the Scheldt, the Rhineland and Italy. The naval and air aspects of these campaigns are also always studied, as are from time to time, deployment areas in the United Kingdom. The Study Tours vary from year to year but, most of the time, include Normandy in early June, where students can participate in commemorative activities associated with D Day and the Battle of Normandy. These activities are sponsored by the Foundation, veterans’ groups or Veterans Affairs Canada.
The Foundation’s Study Tour programme is very popular amongst Canadian university students and leads to numerous applications. As of now (2004) more than 120 students representing a large number of Canadian universities and all provinces, have participated. It would be safe to say that the large majority of them have been involved in the propagation of the knowledge they gained during those tours, which constitute the cornerstone of the Foundation’s educational programme. This programme is made possible by the generosity of individual Canadians who have, in large numbers, joined the ranks of our Foundation, and also by the generosity of other foundations and corporations which , through large donations, ensure that the Foundation can generate revenue which will help it to fund those activities indefinitely.
As stated above the Foundation’s Canadian Memorial Garden, established in 1995 at Le Mémorial museum in Caen, pays tribute to Canada’s role in the Battle of Normandy and other campaigns of the Second World War. This is complemented by an onsite Guide programme.
Each summer the Foundation, supported by Veterans Affairs Canada, sponsors three bilingual guides to work at Le Mémorial. They offer Canadian and international visitors free guided tours of the Garden and local battlefields, elaborating on the contributions made by Canadians who voluntarily risked their lives for freedom and democracy. In that way, The Foundation hopes that remembrance will outlive all of our war veterans and remain part of our ongoing programmes.
The Canadian Battlefields Foundation is proud of its achievements to date and hopes to be able to continue its remembrance, educational and commemorative work in order to ensure that young Canadians to-day never forget the sacrifices made by their elders to guarantee they could live in freedom. It welcomes queries and general interest. In order to make itself better known, it publishes newsletters and invites all to visit our bilingual web site.
Lieutenant-General Charles H. Belzile (Retired) is a former Commander of the army, a founding Director of the Foundation and currently its President.