Published in the Montreal Gazette on November 9, 2013
On November 11, 2011, I found myself aboard a Virgin Train travelling from Central London to Birmingham’s New Street Station in the very heart of the English Midlands. The ninety-minute trip overlapped with the customary two minutes of reverential silence in memory of those who lost their lives in the various conflicts in which Britain has participated in the last one hundred years or so.
It was not my first time in the United Kingdom on a November 11, having been there on that same date previous years as well. In short, I have had ample opportunity to make observations about how profoundly important the annual occurrence is considered to be in that far off land.
However, on this the most recent occasion, I was not especially optimistic about such a respectful observance taking place in my particular coach on that same convoy for Birmingham. In front of me, on the other side of the aisle, were about six or seven extremely giddy young women, probably in their late teens, who seemed totally absorbed in their own little world of youthful tomfoolery. Continually giggling and laughing about seemingly nothing, I was caught totally off-guard when, without any public address announcement whatsoever as to the hour, an almost eerie, sudden silence unexpectedly descended upon our train wagon as it approached the Coventry Station.
It was exactly 11:00 A.M. on what used to be known as Armistice Day and all of the United Kingdom, including those flighty young women, stopped what they were saying and doing in order to pay their respects to that nation’s war dead. To have noted myself the totally spontaneous and sincere nature of the gesture in question was a deeply moving experience. Clearly, the people of Britain take what is now called Remembrance Day very seriously indeed.
I cannot help but contrast the British observance of the historic day with our own more modest version on this side of the Atlantic. Granted, Canada was not an actual theatre of conflict as Great Britain was during the Second World War; yet there is still the imposing and very touching ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Then again, there is also the more local ceremony at the cenotaph in Place du Canada where, more often than not, several hundred devoted Montrealers – many war veterans themselves – will show up all spiffy for the hauntingly sorrowful gathering.
However, there is, comparatively speaking, no general sentiment on the part of the population as a whole to commemorate the event, as there appears to be in Britain and elsewhere. Many young people in particular seem totally unaware or, worse still, indifferent to the sacrifice made by others similarly aged to themselves at the time of their unfortunate deaths. In fact, in some quarters here in Quebec, there has even been a certain marked hostility to Remembrance Day itself.
For instance, one has only to recall the deplorable attempt to oblige voters to remove their poppy before entering the polling station during the October 30, 1995 referendum. In contrast, it’s interesting to note that electors were permitted to wear the red square while casting their ballot in the most recent provincial election.
Furthermore, around the same time as the 1995 plebiscite, a cantankerous and nationalistic mayor of Quebec City, Jean Paul L’Allier, ordered the Canadian flag removed from that municipality’s City Hall. L’Allier was also known to hassle occasionally individuals selling poppies at various locations in the Vieille Capitale.
Then, for whatever reason, several banks in the Montreal area recently started to see the benign poppy-selling activity as a political statement and, as a consequence, forbade veterans from using their property for that very purpose. It would seem that Remembrance Day and Quebec nationalism were increasingly seen as incompatible.
In Britain, on the other hand, one could hardly imagine the governing separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) engaging in such hostile actions towards their veterans as they surely realize that it would be political suicide for them to do so. Such is the intensity of the feelings for Remembrance Day on the European side of the Atlantic.
While our own Parti Quebecois government is busy ordering a self-serving revision of our ‘national’ history course taught in high schools and CEGEPS throughout the province, they might make sure to include a chapter on the tremendous sacrifice made by others on our behalf so many years ago. And while they’re at it, they could insist on the traditional two minutes of silence being respected in all classrooms throughout Quebec on November 11, le Jour du Souvenir.
(Below, Trafalgar Square, London, Monday, November 11, 2013)