Any of the dwindling number of Canadian veterans who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944 will have their travel costs covered by the federal government if they choose to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day in France.
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino announced Sunday that the Conservative government will pay up to $2,000 to help surviving veterans return to the site of the invasion which marked the turning point in the Second World War.
"The success achieved in Normandy is a pivotal moment in Canadian history, and is now deeply rooted in our national character," Mr. Fantino said in a statement. "It is a humbling honour to once again pay tribute to Canada's brave veterans and express our gratitude on the 70th anniversary of D-day."
The Canadians who landed at Juno Beach on June 6, 1944 were among the first of the Allied troops to breach German defences. On that day alone, 359 of Canada's military were killed, 574 were wounded and 47 taken prisoner.
The fighting continued throughout the summer of 1944 as the troops pushed through France and into Belgium and Holland, liberating people from the Nazi occupation. But Canada's exploits came with a cost. Today, there are more than 5,400 Canadian graves in Normandy.
To mark the effort and the sacrifice, special events are planned from June 5 to 8 in France which will include delegates from the participating countries, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The government expects as many as 180 veterans to take advantage of the offer of travel money.
But the Canadians who returned from the battle are now in their 90s. And, for some, a trans-Atlantic journey is no longer possible.
John Hadley, 92, of Toronto, was a rifleman with the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada who were among the first to set foot on Juno Beach. Mr. Hadley said Sunday that he would love to be in Normandy in June but his arthritis has left him too crippled to travel.
"I have a brother in the cemetery there and a lot of my friends," he said in a telephone interview. "I lost a whole company of men there on the beach."
Of the 100 or so riflemen who landed, he said, 19 were still standing at the end of the day. The rest were killed or wounded.
The Conservative government has been criticized this year for paying too much attention to the commemoration of veterans and not doing enough to assist them financially.
Both the Veterans Ombudsman's office and the Royal Canadian Legion have questioned the money that is being spent on ceremonial gestures when many Canadian veterans are not getting the support they need. But those groups and others have also said it is important to honour the heroics of Canada's military.
Jenna Misener, the executive director of the Juno Beach Centre, a Canadian organization established to pay tribute to the Canadian participation in the Second World War, applauded the decision to help send D-Day veterans to France.
"I do know that in the lead-up to this announcement, there were a lot of veterans who actually got in touch with us to say 'is there a delegation, how can I go?'" said Ms. Misener. "So this is actually really great news because it means that there will be veterans able to travel from Canada to Normandy."
Given the age of the veterans, she said, the 70th anniversary of D-Day will mark the last time they will be able to travel en masse for an event of this sort.
All veterans of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy eligible to apply for the travel assistance are urged to let the government know of their interenst as soon as possible by contacting 1-866-522-2122, visiting veterans.gc.ca or e-mailing Normandyfirstname.lastname@example.org.