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Rocket Richard hugs the Stanley Cup in 1960. (Harry McLorinan/The Globe and Mail)
Rocket Richard hugs the Stanley Cup in 1960. (Harry McLorinan/The Globe and Mail)

EXCERPT

Lives really lived: ‘just a hockey player’, a Supreme Court judge and a war hero Add to ...

By the time the report was delivered, Mulroney had retired from active politics and Jean Chretien’s Liberals were in power. For many it seemed too little, too late, but Jane Stewart, the minister of Indian affairs, did offer the First Nations a statement of reconciliation – not apology – in a ceremony on Parliament Hill in January 1998. Stewart also presented an action plan amounting to $600-million over four years, much less than the $2-billion a year the commissioners had recommended.

Frustrating and depleting as it had been to wrestle the final report into submission and to withstand the fractiousness of the deliberations, Wilson found the process illuminating and reaffirming, especially in the way it nurtured the ongoing negotiations for the Nisga’a and Delgamuukw Treaties and the establishment of Nunavut. In many ways the royal commission was the culmination of her judicial activism on behalf of fairness and justice.

As the century turned, Wilson retreated more and more from public life as the fogginess of Alzheimer’s disease gradually destroyed her virtuosity.

With her faithful husband of sixty-one years by her side, she died at Rideau Place on-the-River in Ottawa on April 28, 2007. She was eighty-three.

Ernest Alvia (“Smoky”) Smith

Winner of the Victoria Cross

May 3, 1914-August 3, 2005

A rowdy, spunky fellow who liked drinking, smoking, and roistering, Smoky Smith wasn’t the romantic Victorian ideal of a dashing hero on a white charger. A private in the Canadian Army, he was promoted to corporal nine times and demoted back to private just as often, until he showed his mettle at the River Savio in the brutal Italian campaign of the Second World War.

In real life, heroes typically don’t come off an assembly line. They are usually ordinary folk like Smith who step into the fire, driven by a mixture of guts, circumstance, and adrenalin. Instead of blustering, they willingly sacrifice their own safety for the benefit of others. That’s what Smith did. He single– handedly destroyed a German tank, forced the enemy to retreat, and saved the life of a wounded comrade. That alone should have earned him a medal. But Smith’s bravery went further than personal valour: he inspired his fellow soldiers to demonstrate their own heroism.

That’s why he deserved the Victoria Cross, the only private of the sixteen Canadians who won the award during the Second World War. The citation read in part: “By the dogged determination, outstanding devotion to duty, and superb gallantry of this private soldier, his comrades were so inspired that the bridgehead was held firm against all enemy attacks, pending the arrival of tanks and anti-tank guns some hours later.”

Queen Victoria introduced the VC on January 29, 1856, to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War. Supposedly the medals were struck from metal extracted from Russian cannons captured at the siege of Sebastopol in 1854–55, but recent research has cast doubt on that swelling narrative. Be that as it may, the VC even now is the ultimate award for bravery in the face of the enemy. It was reconstituted in 1993 as the Canadian Victoria Cross, but no Canadian has received it since the end of the Second World War.

Smoky Smith was famous in Canada because he was the last surviving recipient of the VC, but that is not why he was loved. He was loved because he wore his heroism simply and he didn’t glorify war. “Even Germans do not like to be shot,” he said sixty years after winning the medal. “I don’t take prisoners. Period. I’m not prepared to take prisoners. I’m paid to kill them. That’s the way it is.”

There was no swagger about Smith as he attended Remembrance Day ceremonies and represented his country at poignant anniversaries both here and on the battlefields of Europe. He was the known soldier, to be sure, but he was also a regular guy who could relate to young and old with a quip and a wink and a modesty that did him and us proud. “I am not the hero,” he was fond of saying. “The real heroes are the ones left over there buried in the ground.”

Ernest Alvia Smith was born in New Westminster, British Columbia, on May 3, 1914, a few months before the outbreak of the “war to end all wars.”

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