Warning: This story mentions suicide
When people walk or drive a handful of blocks in downtown Esquimalt, Megan Hiltz hopes they’ll reflect on the red, white and green banners hanging there.
Bearing the details of late Canadian Forces service members, the banners hang for a few weeks each fall, around Remembrance Day.
The plan pitched by Hiltz was quickly supported by the township.
“We’re a military town and any way that we can show that – from our heart or from our lamp poles – we want to do it,” said Mayor Barb Desjardins. “You’re going down Esquimalt Road and you’re reading a bit of history,”
The idea, pitched to the township by Hiltz, offers a new way to add another layer of remembrance within the community, and has been wholly embraced, Desjardins said.
Hiltz brought the concept with her from Ontario, where a banner bearing her grandfather’s likeness graced the community of Parry Sound. She still has a small version of it in her home here. The idea started percolating alongside other potential projects when she moved to Greater Victoria in 2016 but didn’t really build up steam until 2019.
Then 2020 was, well, 2020.
Last year, banners flew for the first time.
Families pay the costs associated with creating the banners and provide the information honouring a military member. Esquimalt staff install and take down the banners each year and the township stores them between uses. After the third year, the family receives the banner as a keepsake.
While the annual display honours those who’ve gone before, it signals support for the currently serving military members and families that call Esquimalt home, Desjardins said. The mayor sponsored one to honour her own father, Gerald B. Wilkes, a naval seaman in the Second World War.
“I get a nice reminder of my family and the role they’ve played in terms of helping to serve our country,” she said.
Hiltz maintains two banners.
She facilitates a banner for Dan Unrau in memory of his brother Cpl. John Unrau, an Afghanistan war veteran who died by suicide on Canada Day 2015. Dan, an Ontario resident, continues to lobby for awareness around post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that his brother battled for years after his return from Afghanistan.
Her personal banner is dedicated to ‘Soldiers of Suicide’ building on the work of the late Lise Charron, founder of the non-profit Honour Our Canadian Soldiers whose work led to a plaque at the National Military Ceremony in Ottawa dedicated to remembering service members who have died by suicide as a result of their service to Canada.
“We don’t just lose men and women in battle, we lose them at home right now,” Hiltz said.
Hiltz also organizes a candlelight ceremony each fall at Esquimalt Veterans Cemetery (God’s Acre) in memory of soldiers of suicide. The local roll call for that event has about 40 names, she said, but feels that list could be far higher.
Showing reverence with the banner program is important for her personally as both grandfathers served in the Second World War, her partner is retired navy and her ex-husband still serves. The banners are akin to the poppy, serving as an act of remembrance and a reminder of the humans behind uniforms and statistics.
“Each Canadian veteran has a name, these are actual people,” she said.
Hiltz would love to see them hang year-round, she also notes it’s a navy town, but just sparking introspection is a start.
“Think about what that poppy means, and if you’re not sure find someone in a uniform and ask them. I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to talk to you,” Hiltz said. “Start a conversation.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, call the provincial suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-suicide (1-800-784-2433), or visit crisislines.bc.ca to find local mental health and crisis resources. Black Press Media has also prepared a mental health resource guide filled with information specific to Greater Victoria, you can find it under e-editions at vicnews.com.
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