War dead from Afghanistan add new focus to Remembrance Day

John Ward, THE CANADIAN PRESS 6th November

OTTAWA - As the poppies of autumn blossom on lapels across the country, a continuing war and its sad fallout adds a new focus to the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies, especially for the young.

This year, fresh memories of flag-draped coffins coming home from Afghanistan and the pipes and bugles of televised military funerals add new poignancy to the annual commemoration of the country's war dead.

Remembrance Day traditionally marks the end of the terrible First World War in 1918, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. But it now stands for the more than 100,000 dead of all of Canada's wars, including the one being fought today in the rocky hills and scrub brush plains of Afghanistan.

It's no longer about great-grandpa's war. Today's war dead are young, some just a few years out of high school and that strikes a nerve, says Bob Butt of the Royal Canadian Legion.

"Obviously, Afghanistan has raised the awareness," he says. "It brings things home to a lot of people, especially to the younger generation," he says. "I think the younger generation does care."

For a 17-year-old high school student, the death of a 21-year-old soldier resonates far more than other deaths long ago and far away.

"If you're 17 and the guy's 21, it's your generation," says Butt.

Rudyard Griffith of the Dominion Institute, which promotes knowledge of Canadian history and traditions, agrees.

"Growing numbers of Afghanistan veterans, many of whom are in their 20s ... must have an impact."

For more than 80 years, the crimson poppy has been a ubiquitous symbol of remembrance, each a tiny tribute to the dead.

Butt says the number of poppies distributed has grown slowly every year for more than a decade. In the early 1990s, the Legion handed out between 12 million and 14 million. Last year, the number was just over 18 million, about one for every two Canadians.

The field poppy, or Flanders poppy, papaver rhoeas, thrives in disturbed soil. They bloomed in bright red blankets across the shell-churned fields of Europe in the First World War. Soldiers' memories of those flowers, and John McCrae's iconic poem recalling the blowing poppies in Flanders Fields, made them an obvious choice as people gathered in the aftermath of that war to remember the carnage and mourn their losses.

In recent years memories and mourning are again fresh as names from a new generation of soldiers are added to the rolls of war dead, this time from another land where poppies blow, although Afghanistan's poppies are a more sinister, opium-producing cousin of the European flower.

Canada lost 60,000 dead in 1914-1918, an average of 39 deaths every day for more than four years.

About 70 Canadians have been killed in Afghanistan, but for many, they bring home the sacrifice of war far more than the tens of thousands from wars long shadowed in the past.

Terry Copp, a professor emeritus at Wilfrid Laurier University who taught Canadian military history for years, says he has seen interest in Canadian military history expand exponentially since he launched his first course on the Second World War in 1981. His colleagues at the time were "aghast" at the idea, but he struck a chord.

It eventually became the largest arts course at his university, suggesting that a younger generation has a deep interest in war and its impact on Canada.

Copp notes, too, that people these days are expressing their feelings outside of the traditional November services.

In recent months, when bodies come home from Afghanistan, people have taken to lining overpasses along Ontario's Highway 401 as the hearses roll by en route to Toronto from Trenton, where the military planes land their sad cargoes.

The onlookers often stand to attention. Some carry Maple Leaf flags. Others salute as the black convoys pass.

"That really was something that started in the last six to eight months," Copp says. "I don't remember it before last year's Remembrance Day on anything like the scale I see now."

Ontario renamed that stretch of road the Highway of Heroes. Highway 416, which runs south between Ottawa and the 401 is the Veterans Memorial Highway. Quebec has just named a stretch of road between Montreal and the Ontario board as Autoroute du Souvenir, or Remembrance Highway.

Griffith sees a cultural divide in people's attitude toward Remembrance Day.

"This stuff resonates more with the Tim Horton's crowd than the Starbucks crowd," he says.

The mourners on the overpasses tend to be middle-class, average Canadians, not university professors. But he says he thinks the gap is narrowing.

Butt sees a divide, too, but between urban Canada and rural Canada, which tends to produce many of the country's soldiers.

"They come from small places in Nova Scotia and small towns in Saskatchewan and rural Ontario and Newfoundland and places like that."

But Griffith also sees Remembrance Day as taking on a greater significance each year, especially in English-speaking Canada. Quebecers have traditionally been cooler toward the military in general and wars in particular.

"Remembrance Day has become, maybe, what we hoped Canada Day would be but never is. It is the one occasion in our calendar where we come together as a people and ponder the awesome responsibility of citizenship.

"In English Canada, at least, it is our St-Jean-Baptiste Day, the touchstone of English-speaking nationalism."

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