When WW2 vets pass, will Remembrance Day live on?
Published Friday, November 11, 2011 10:36AM EST
Approximately 10 per cent of the one million Canadians who fought in the Second World War are alive today, and according to Veterans Affairs Canada, they're dying at a rate of about 50 every day.
Factor in their average age of 87 years old -- which tops the average Canadian's life expectancy of 79 years for men and 83 for women -- and at that rate, the numbers suggest the 125,000 surviving Second World War veterans will be gone soon -- very soon.
When the "Greatest Generation," as they are known, has disappeared Canadians will lose the faces and voices most closely associated with Remembrance Day. The wrinkled brows of aging fathers and grandfathers, the dress uniforms brought out once a year and possibly, the large crowds gathering in silence.
One academic worries that when that generation of veterans disappear, so will Canadians' tangible connection with the memory of their sacrifice.
"The Remembrance Day service will very much become a memory in itself, not just the (memory of) veterans," says Douglas Bland, chair of Defence Management Studies at Queen's University. "There are going to be fewer and fewer people in grand numbers ... and that community touch is just going to disappear."
Jack Granatstein, a preeminent Canadian military historian, sounds a similar if less pessimistic note.
"Remembrance Day will change, I don't necessarily know if it will lose its force or not, but it will certainly change," Granatstein, a ten-year veteran of the Canadian military, said of the passing of Canada's Second World War vets.
Some Canadians already see that change occurring, and say it's resulting in a sanitized image of war -- clear cut, full of heroics -- that people who were there wouldn't agree with.
"It's the Oprah-zation of Remembrance Day ... it's become a little too idealized," said Lesley Patterson, a Vancouver administrative assistant whose father served in the Second World War and Korea.
"We are looking at (war) with rose-coloured glasses," she adds, saying her father doesn't like to speak of the wars at all.
If that is true, it might have to do with the growing disconnect between Canadians and those who live with first-hand knowledge of war.
A Growing Distance
One million Canadians -- 10 per cent of the country's population at the time -- served during the Second World War, with just as many working in Canada to actively support the war effort.
"It touched every part of the community ... it's that volume that accounted for the staying power of the image of the armed forces in the community," Bland said.
Today, Canada's fighting force stands at just under 70,000 men and women. Out of a population of 34.5 million, that's just 0.2 per cent of the entire Canadian population.
Chances are you either know a lot of military personnel or you barely know any at all. If you are from a rural area, and particularly if you are in Atlantic Canada, you are much more likely to know a member of the Canadian Forces. Although the four Atlantic provinces account for just seven per cent of all Canadians, they had sustained nearly one quarter of all casualties in Afghanistan by late 2009.
And, despite significant inroads the Canadian Forces to increase its diversity, the bulk of the military remains the same as it's been for decades -- white men from rural areas.
"It's very much a white military in a country that is increasingly less white," Granatstein said. "To a substantial extent a lot of the people that join are the kids of serving soldiers. The demographic appears to be self-selecting to an extent."
Simply put, the military is increasingly a "them" for many Canadians, not an "us."
Bland says that has been an ongoing process for generations.
Outside of the Second World War, there are approximately 600,000 Canadian Forces veterans -- men and women who served in Korea, Afghanistan and a number of peacekeeping missions.
Those serving in the Second World War were "our soldiers, our guys" to Canadians, while those serving in the Cold War and beyond are seen as a "government unit" -- a professional army separate from civilian life -- Bland says.
Remembrance Day is also synonymous with the 'Greatest Generation' vets for philosophical and practical reasons. Not only is the scale of their participation and sacrifice largely unfathomable to young people today, unlike today's wars there was a clearly defined enemy and nearly universal support.
"It's hokey but it's true. We live in freedom because people fought for this freedom," Granatstein said.
The Next Generation
Popular culture has also played a significant role in keeping memories alive.
The Second World War in particular has inspired countless books, movies and especially in the last two decades, video games. So it's not surprising that kids today still equate Remembrance Day with honouring those who fought in that war.
Tara Bates, a Calgary elementary teacher originally from Nova Scotia, says that in her recent experience Remembrance Day activities at schools have continued to focus on the Second World War.
"I really haven't seen a shift towards our more current or recent veterans," she said.
Bates also points out that personal memories of grandparents (she speaks of her grandfathers both serving) from the current generation of young-ish adults are alive and well.
"In 10 years there will still be those of us in our generation whose grandparents fought and know the stories. It's going to take a while before there's a shift in those in who we are talking about actually remembering."
There's little doubt that Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, and the deaths of more than 150 soldiers on that mission, has increased this country's respect for the military.
And while many Canadians don't personally know someone in the military, unlike 70 years ago they do know the names and faces of those who have died in duty because of considerable media coverage.
When Canadians line up on overpasses above Highway 401, "The Highway of Heroes," they are not just there honouring a soldier's service, they are honouring an individual.
"Awareness has been higher since Canada has become involved in Afghanistan, you see cars with the yellow ribbon, and even tributes during hockey games," said 30-year-old Stephen Coulter, a Toronto creative professional whose grandfather was in the air force during the Second World War.
Bland says that it's those acts of genuine spontaneity and community -- not government sponsored advertising campaigns -- that will keep Remembrance Day alive in the future.
He recalls being in small towns in Ontario and seeing makeshift crosses erected at war memorials in the days leading up to Remembrance Day. Every small town across this country has one, at a church, a crossroads or a town square and every November 11, people gather there to remember.
Bland says although it's unlikely so many communities will build memorials for the Afghan War, the modern equivalent isn't built with granite, but with computer code.
More than 500,000 people have joined Veteran Affairs' "Canada Remembers" Facebook page, where they've posted stories and pictures of their relatives' experiences.
Mostly though, they offer thanks. Maybe the imagery of Remembrance Day will change with the passing of "The Greatest Generation," but the gratitude will live on.