By Brian Lee Crowley
Every Remembrance Day, Canadians rightly honour the sacrifice made by so many valiant compatriots over the years and decades past. Too often, however, we forget that remembrance of past deeds carries with it obligations to the present and for the future.
Primarily, we must care for our veterans and their families; that is, uphold the contract which exists between society and those who served in the past. We must also renew it with those who are serving today and will be asked to serve tomorrow.
Why do we falter in honouring our debt to our veterans? One reason is our lack of understanding of why the sacrifice of those who died, of those who were maimed in body or spirit or who simply risked so much in the service of their country, is so important, to us and to people a half a world away.
Let me pass on a story from a good friend who, as a child, was brought from Holland to live in Canada. It helps explain exactly what kind of men and women we sent overseas for past wars, have overseas today, and will need to send again.
Canadian troops liberated the Netherlands from Nazi occupation in World War II, a difficult job carried out with typical Canadian effectiveness and self-effacement, despite considerable losses fighting on flat, wet terrain that offered little shelter from enemy fire. Shortly after the liberation, my friend's Dutch father met a Canadian soldier and stopped him to say: "You don't know me and I don't know you, but I know who you are and what you represent. You and your fellow Canadians came from across the Atlantic, from far away, knowing nothing of my country and having little at stake here. At great expense in blood and treasure you have freed us from cruel oppression, and I imagine you have lost friends and colleagues in the effort. The least I can do is to tell you how deeply grateful my fellow-countrymen and I are for what you have done for us."
The Canadian looked at him calmly, smiled and said, "No need to thank me, sir. We had a job to do and we did it." Then he saluted and carried on down the road, while my friend's father went home and announced to his family, "I think we have found the country where we must go to live."
My friend is Peter Stoffer, now a distinguished member of the Canadian parliament and a keen advocate of the rights and honours due to veterans. And his story reminds me of Col. Pat Stogran, Canada's retiring Veterans Ombudsman. He, too, had a job to do and did it with quiet, dutiful determination. But it is a job we must all take upon ourselves.
Ask yourself this: Why was that Canadian soldier in Holland? It wasn't just to fight the enemy. He and his comrades were also there to defend the moral principles on which our society is based, values like individual freedom, democracy and the rule of law. He, and soldiers just like him, was prepared to put his life, his hopes, his dreams and his family's future on the line to uphold these principles, fighting for home, country and for a precious way of life.
They fought, and died, on behalf of all Canadians. When we, as citizens, ask our compatriots to take such risks, and make such sacrifices, we assume a debt of honour to all who serve, to those who return as well as those who do not. We must care for them and their families as needed.
I want to add my voice to Pat Stogran's in calling on Ottawa to fulfill our practical and even more important moral obligations to ensure that the treatment of our veterans is based on the highest Canadian standards of decency, generosity and fairness. While I trust that the moral obligation is clear, the practical one also matters; the world is not a safe place and if and when we ask such sacrifices from our brave men and women, it is imperative that we understand and keep the commitment that necessarily accompanies the request.
Safety and honour alike demand it, on November 11 and every day.
Brian Lee Crowley is Managing Director of Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a national public policy think tank in Ottawa. This commentary is based on a recent MLI publication, "Honouring Sacrifice."