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They forgot
May 06, 2005

We nearly experienced one of the lowest moments in Canadian history. Petty politics almost sullied honouring those who deserve a heartfelt acknowledgement of their deeds and sacrifices.

A generation of Canadians fought and died for freedom, but this has not been the focus on Parliament Hill. Instead, the only battlefield that seems to matter is the one in Ottawa where the war is for political survival or the capture of political power.

The “election nobody really wants” has degenerated into a nasty squabble. And, until the politicians came to their collective senses, the victim had been the over 42,000 Canadians who died fighting the real “Axis of Evil.”

Today, there are only some 200,000 veterans remaining of the nearly one-million men and women who served during the Second World War. (To put their contribution to the Allied war effort into perspective, at the start of the war, Canada’s population was just over 11.5 million.) Only a decade ago, there were 487,000 veterans still living. 

The veterans, who are honouring their fallen comrades as part of the 60th anniversary of VE-Day, are now mostly in their 70s and 80s. Their lives are drawing to a close and soon there will be fewer of them to tell the first-hand story of what they had accomplished and what they had suffered.

The 60th anniversary of the end of the war on May 8, 1945 is for many veterans their final hurrah — the last time many of them are still physically able to either journey to Europe to mark such events as their liberation of Holland — 7,600 Canadians died during the liberation — or take part in the many ceremonies scheduled across Canada. According to the Globe and Mail, Veterans Affairs has made no plans to commemorate the future 65th anniversary simply because there may not be enough veterans able to make the trip.

About 1,500 aging veterans are now being feted by the Dutch, who remain to this day grateful to the then youthful Canadians who liberated their country. What the veterans are encountering are the tenderly cared for graves of their fallen comrades and school children who are well acquainted with their sacrifice. 

In Canada their role in bringing about freedom to millions of people is mostly forgotten, but the Dutch serve as a useful reminder that the veterans are more than just a bunch of old men and women who periodically go down to their local Legion branch for a beer or two and reminisce about the war.

“I remember the Dutch people were very, very happy we had liberated them and they couldn’t do enough for us,” said 82-year-old Winnipegger Art Uhrich, who 60 years ago was serving with the Regina Rifles, and was among the Canadian troops near the German port city of Emden when VE-Day arrived.

The liberation of Holland is unique for this nation because it was primarily Canadian troops who freed them from Nazi tyranny. And, Canadian General Charles Foulkes accepted the surrender of the Germans in Holland on May 5. Because of this, the old soldiers are greeted with flowers and cheers by children who are now the same age as their grandchildren.

The bickering of our politicians only reinforced the impression that these veterans are unworthy of our respect. As Conservative Opposition Leader Stephen Harper signalled he would use all his power to instigate an election, Prime Minister Paul Martin cancelled his planned trip to take part in the overseas commemorations.

Finally, they came to their sense and organized a 48-hour truce that allows them to stand side-by-side with the veterans overseas. Martin, Harper, NDP Leader Tom Layton and Bloc Quebecois Leader Giles Duceppe will be taking part in the commemoration of the end of the Second World War in Europe.

“This is simply too important,” the prime minister told reports, citing the need to put politics aside.

Before his announcement, there had been no indication that politics wasn’t uppermost in the minds of the federal party leaders. The threat of a potential vote in the House even led to the recall of Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri and the the NDP’s Peter Stoffer.

It took a public outcry to remind the politicians that what the sacrifice of the veterans in the cause of democracy and freedom now enjoyed by Canadians is more important than any political gamesmanship.

“It had to be done,” said Uhrich, who was a mere lad of 22 when Nazis Germany finally surrendered. “I don’t know what we’d be doing today if it hadn’t been done.”

It’s a simple, but telling message. 

And, one that should never be forgotten.