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Still carrying the torch

In Grade 8, our classroom teacher, Claude Stewart, challenged the class to learn great pieces of poetry.

By the end of the year, our class could recite from memory more than 30 different pieces.

I can’t remember them all but the piece by John McCrae still rings true in my mind. One only can marvel that this hastily-scribbled poem, written during the Second Battle of Ypres, would mark most cenotaph ceremonies across Canada nearly a century later.

The poem was written about a day after his friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed by a German bomb.

“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow” always has reminded me of the bright red poppies my mother grew in her garden. And the bright red poppies we wear annually in early November to remember fallen Canadians.

I have looked at hundreds of photos of the sea of ceramic poppies that have been planted in front of the Tower of London. This artwork, entitled “Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red” by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, is made up of 888,246 hand-made poppies that represents the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during World War I.

The sea is really emotional. More than four million people have passed by this memorial this year, which was completed when the last poppy was planted yesterday.

In 1914, Canada had a population of 7.2 million. The Canadian Expeditionary Force grew to 619,636 by the end of the war.

More than 60,000 in the military died. Canadian wounded grew to 149,000.

Now 100 years later, we are continuing to learn more about the sacrifices of Canadians. Our Remembrance Day edition of last week has become one of our most popular ones ever.

The first-person accounts in letters home to family members again have given us insight into the war. I’ve been surprised by how upbeat those soldiers are in their letters.

My grandfather on my mother’s side, a member of the Winnipeg Rifles, was wounded twice in World War One. My other grandfather, who had immigrated to Canada just after the turn of the 20th century, was a medic attending to the wounded and dying on the battlefields.

“We are the dead. Short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved: and now we lie in Flanders Field.”

How true those words ring out today as we remember at the cenotaph Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was killed at the National War Memorial, and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, who was deliberately run over and killed by a vehicle.

Both were terrorist attacks in Canada. War has been brought home to Canadians. McCrae’s words written 99 years ago remain true today.

In the final verse of “In Flanders Field,” we are challenged: “Take up our quarrel with the foe. To you, from failing hands, we throw the torch: be yours to hold it high”

Twenty-five years after the start of WWI, we went to war again. And Canadians continue to carry the torch. In our district, sons and daughters have left for Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cyprus, Libya, and Iraq.

We must recognize those sacrifices of our soldiers to protect our freedoms and safety in Canada.