By Greg Price
I have covered Remembrance Day ceremonies as a reporter in the Taber/Vauxhall area since 2003.
I of course have attended many more ceremonies as a spectator in the crowd, both as a child and as an adult. Anytime I’ve not attended a ceremony, I’ve at least stopped whatever I have been doing to bow my head and experience a moment of silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
But this year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Taber Community Centre is the first time in all my years I’ve been brought to tears, and I can thank World War II veteran Burns Wood and organizers for that.
Which I find surprising, because a lot of the story he told the packed crowd on Friday I had already written about when I traveled with Woods to the Netherlands to do a feature on him as we attended the Liberation Festival in Wageningen in May 2013.
As a Canadian pilot who flew planes all over the world to strategic locations to aid the war effort against the Axis, Wood saw just how thankful the locals were to the Allies and in particular Canadians, in the ‘City of Liberation’. On May 5, 1945, German troops in the Netherlands capitulated to the allied forces, releasing the country from Nazi occupation which officially ended the Second World War in the Netherlands. Wageningen is world famous for its military history and historical importance. The German general Blaskowitz and the Canadian general Charles Foulkes, negotiated the terms of surrender of the Germans in Hotel de Wereld, one of the few hotels left standing in the Netherlands which was ravished by war.
Perhaps it was the eloquence in which he spoke of losing a fellow English pilot and his crew in a storm near Christmas, never to be seen again. As it would end up that December of 1942, Wood and his crew would be one of only two planes to arrive at a strategic location in Scotland on New Year’s Eve, as seven of his friends and three planes were lost. In the next two years, Burns would visit 34 different countries, with one of seven of his fellow servicemen being lost along the way.
Perhaps it was his selflessness in his speech, that while he had his own horrors to deal with in World War II, he fully acknowledged the sacrifices that were made all over the globe with veterans of the Korean and Afgan wars, peacekeepers across the globe, and the service of RCMP, policemen, firefighters and emergency first responders.
“Going to war was one of the greatest defining moments of my life, and in our nation’s life. I honour my fellow veterans, both dead and alive, and count it a privilege to be counted among their ranks,” said Burns in concluding his speech that eventually brought two standing ovations in the standing-room only Taber Community Centre, with the 94-year-old Burns himself being caught up in the moment in tears of acknowledgment.
The same tears he fought back recounting his life story from decades upon decades ago.
Perhaps it was Burns’ sense of humour as well, knowing I like a good joke and I can only imagine so did our soldiers at the time, simply for the fact of being able to laugh at one’s self to keep one’s sanity amongst the heartbreak of war.
“My mother said that my birth was the longest day of her life. I was in fact born on June 21, which is the longest day in any of our lives.” “We learned responsibility, we learned obedience, we learned to trust in one another’s ability, we learned to work as a group, and we learned commitment. And I learned how to wait and have patience and hope that my girlfriend would not marry someone at the Iron Works in Calgary. (She waited, by the way),” were a couple of the Burns nuggets that brought a chuckle to the crowd between the solemn moments.
Perhaps my tears were from the memories of that trip to the Netherlands with Burns a few years ago where I got to see first hand how grateful those residents were for Canadian soldiers who helped them regain their freedom. There was a teenager at the front of the bus that immediately gave his seat to Burns the moment he walked on in full uniform, thanking him for his sacrifice. There was enjoying a nice lunch outside in the beautiful weather, just outside a cafe where numerous strangers came up to Burns to shake his hand or ask to have a picture taken with him. It was the type of adulation that we seem to only reserve for your movie/music/sports celebrities here in North America.
There was the Silent March I participated in alongside Burns in Wageningen, where at just under 40,000 residents, it seemed every single one of them was there to witness the event that honoured Holocaust victims. At the end of the Silent March lays the Holocaust memorial where instead of people laying down wreaths or flowers they laid down small stones. Unable to bury their dead in the desert, the Jewish burials were done by piling stones over top of the departed.
Or perhaps my tears came from the realization that it is easy for me to take my own freedom for granted given I have been blessed to live in a nation that has never had to go through the horrors the Netherlands and many other countries have had to endure over the years.
And in those safe places we have here in North America, those freedoms can be slowly eroded for its citizens and we do not even notice if we are not careful. The freedoms that Burns and many other veterans have fought for are the very foundations my profession is built on in the freedom of the press.
The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” Freedom of the press is construed as an absence of interference by outside entities, such as a government or religious organizations.
Perhaps my tears from Friday’s Remembrance Day ceremonies was a reminder, that while perhaps I myself am not a veteran, I can continue, as we all can with our actions, to uphold freedom and liberty in our everyday lives.
Thank you Burns Wood and organizers of the Remembrance Day ceremonies on Friday for reminding me of that. I will continue to the best of my ability to uphold those virtues in my profession and everyday life.