There’s something about just being there to make you realize just how much Canadians sacrified during the First and Second World Wars.
That’s what North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney discovered last month when she was part of a delegation of MPs to Europe to take part in the 105th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and to attend the opening ceremonies of the Invictus Games.
On April 9, Blaney visited the memorial at Vimy Ridge with Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay and other MPs to be part of the ceremony commemorating the battle wherein 100,000 Canadians fought, 10,600 were injured and 3,600 were killed.
What stood out to Blaney was the landscape around the memorial, still scarred by a battle over a century old. She said she was moved by “just how many big craters and holes there are that they left. Of course all of those have filled in with grass, but you can still see what the mines and the explosions did to that land. It’s just horrific to realize that all of that is based on what happened all of those years ago.
“From there we went to multiple different grave sites that had Canadians and people from other Commonwealth countries buried. After going to so many of those gravesites, looking at the names and finding people from British Columbia and some times from our area was quite powerful,” she said.
The delegation then travelled to Belgium, visiting memorials at Menin Gate and Tyne Cot. At the Menin Gate memorial, located in Ypres, Belgium, Blaney said she was able to participate in a nearly century-old tradition where people shut down the street at 8 p.m. leading up to the gate and lay a wreath commemorating the Canadian soliders who were able to deliver them to freedom.
“They have over 50,000 names of young men whose bodies were never found,” Blaney said, describing the memorial itself. “They built that huge monument for those names, thinking they would have enough space and they didn’t. They didn’t have enough space, so they actually had to create a space at the Tyne Cot Cemetary where they have another 34,000 names. All of those names were of young people who were never found.”
From there the group returned to France, visiting Dieppe and Juno Beach.
“What was the hardest for me was when we were in the museum (at Juno Beach) looking at all of the symbols of the second world war, there was a screen on the ceiling that just scrolls through the names of people who died. They told us ‘if you wanted to watch every name go by you would have to watch for 30 hours,’” she said. “It’s a good reminder, especially as we look at what’s happening in Ukraine that its so important for all of us and the importance of diplomacy, trying to stop conflicts before they get to this place.
“What we pay for it is so much more profound than we can imagine. That’s why all of these monuments are so important. We cannot forget, we must remember so that we understand the decisions that we make when we make them.”
They were then able to pay tribute to living veterans. The delegation travelled to The Hague to be a part of the opening ceremony of the Invictus Games. Blaney met with local veterans who were participating in the games: Chris Zizek of Campbell River, Emilie Poulin of Courtenay, Rock Ferland of Comox and Nick Holyome of Comox. The most poignant moment for the MP was when the Ukrainian veterans came on stage.
“When they walked out on stage, of course everybody in the room cheered in a sense of solidarity for what’s happening in their country. Seeing their faces when we were applauding them, it was really emotional,” Blaney said. “A lot of those veterans were crying. We acknowledged how hard it was for them to be there.”
What stood out most to Blaney was the fact that even though some of these events were over a century ago, even in the smallest towns people remember what Canadians did.
“When you’re there, you see the gratitude. Just driving through some of those communities and seeing Canadian flags up in people’s windows… we’re not in Canada, but they know. They remember and to this day, 105 years later, they remember and they practice that remembrance.”