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Editorial: On remembering

Canada has a long history of respect and remembrance for citizens who served and fell in war.

In fact it was a poem by Canadian physician John McCrae that first made the poppy an enduring symbol of remembrance, with the moving opening line: “In Flanders Fields the poppies grow, between the crosses row on row.”

Fertilized by the bodies of the war dead, the native poppies sprang from the soil in numbers never seen before, paying homage to the dead with their beauty, a poignant irony that couldn’t escape McCrae’s pen.

It was just months after McCrae’s own death of pneumonia in a battlefield hospital that American humanitarian Moira Michael was inspired by “In Flanders Fields.”

Two days before the November 11, 1918 armistice agreement was signed, she bought a red poppy and pinned it to her coat. She also gave out poppies to ex-servicemen at the YMCA headquarters in New York, where she was working.

Later, she realized funds were needed to provide for and train injured soldiers, and she proposed the concept of selling silk poppies to assist the disabled veterans. By 1921, the poppy was adopted as a mark of remembrance by both the American Legion Auxiliary and the Royal British Legion.

In the following years, the idea spread to France and throughout the British Commonwealth, where it remains a potent symbol to this day.

Here in Manitoba, remembrance is taken seriously as well. As our Lorraine Stevenson writes in our November 9 cover story, volunteers throughout rural Manitoba quietly undertake projects that tend, protect, and restore memorials to the war dead.

In 2016, the provincial government also announced a program to recognize those lost to war in a permanent way, putting lost Great War veterans on the map by naming geographical features such as lakes, islands and bays after them.

It’s similar to a previous program that’s seen 4,200 similar place names acknowledge the sacrifices of soldiers who lost their lives in the Second World War and later conflicts.

One of the most sobering realities is just how little is known about these soldiers a century later. Officially the province lost 1,092 soldiers in confirmed deaths.

But most historians and students of the conflict say the real number is far higher; the generally accepted figure is 7,000 now nameless and largely forgotten soldiers. At the time the program was announced the province asked the public to contact the Manitoba Geographic Names Program to add a name to the list.

One group that had already seized that torch to hold it high was the local Canadian Legion in Holland, Man. It had been working for years with the local municipality and provincial government to have nearby creeks and tributaries named after soldiers from the area and had succeeded in getting three creeks renamed.

The legion members were disappointed to learn, however, that the provincial program would now limit naming to “… remote locations owned by the Crown, but inaccessible to family members of the deceased,” as Les Ferris, head of the Holland branch told the Co-operator a year ago.

The province indicated it was primarily concerned with conflicts over naming geographic features in more populated areas from where more than one soldier could have served and died.

Ferris and his compatriots at the Legion don’t buy that explanation, pointing out that in the area, approximately 135 years after homesteading saw the first formal place names recorded, there remains “… creeks, hills etc. that are unnamed to this day.”

That’s certainly the case, and there are likewise lots of places throughout Western Canada named after people with little or no connection to the area — early surveyors who took the opportunity to name something after themselves or friends and family, for example.

The real issue of course is accessibility. Descendants of the soldiers and others interested in their legacy might want to visit these geographic features to pay tribute.

A location that can be reached by driving to it will surely serve that purpose more than any remote location that’s only accessible by hiring a piper centlot with a float plane or portaging a canoe.

The Holland Legion post wrote Sustainable Development Minister Cathy Cox, whose department oversees the program, to ask the government to reconsider the naming criteria, which had been set by the previous government. The minister’s office said it would review the issue, but since then has been silent.

We’d like to add our voice to this call for change. Servicemen who lost their lives deserve memorials where family can visit, and even lay a wreath.

After all, what purpose does a monument none can visit serve?

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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