It’s easy to forget, if you’re at a Montreal Alouettes football game at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, that you are inside a memorial to the Great War.
It’s easy to forget that Newfoundland and Labrador’s only university, Memorial University, was built and named to honour the war’s dead.
It’s easy to forget, if you’re snapping a family picture in front of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, that the most prominent thing in the photo, the Peace Tower, is a First World War memorial.
Inside Parliament, the Senate chamber is dominated by eight enormous paintings recalling Canada’s role and suffering in that war. And at the centre of the building is the Memorial Chamber, where each day, the pages are reverently turned in the books containing the names of Canada’s war dead.
The biggest book is the one from the Great War.
From coast to coast to coast, this country is dotted with memorials to a war that ended 100 years ago, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Almost every small town has one.
Beneath a cross of sacrifice or on a simple stone cenotaph, the local dead are named. The lists are shockingly long; a Canada that then had just eight million people lost more than 66,000.
Some monuments speak of what Canadians of a century ago thought it had all been for: King, country, empire, God, freedom, justice. Other monuments are more circumspect. “To our honoured dead,” they read. “Dying yet behold we live.” “Their name liveth for evermore.”
Some list only the names of those lost. Others quote from “In Flanders Fields.”
John McCrae’s poem was written from the perspective of “We are the Dead.” And before the war was over, its author, a soldier and physician commanding a Canadian hospital in France, would be counted among them.
His poem is part mourning and part call to action. The last stanza commands the living to “take up our quarrel with the foe,” because if we fail, the Dead “shall not sleep.”
Today, that part understandably sounds off to many readers. However, the poem was written during a war that the author understandably wanted his side – Canada – to win. He gave his life for that cause. But that war is now long over.
A century later, the greatest of Canada’s poems of remembrance can also be taken as a command to the living to give meaning to the sacrifice of the dead by continuing to struggle for a better world, and a better Canada. McCrae did not want his readers to remain in the past, mourning. He wanted Canadians to look to the future, and to act.
“To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.”
It’s why the people of Newfoundland honoured those who “short days ago lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow” with a promise to strive for a better future, by building not just a memorial to the dead but a Memorial University for the living.
It’s why Canada’s best men's junior hockey teams play each spring for the Memorial Cup.
It’s why that war memorial towering over Parliament is called, hopefully, the Peace Tower.
And it’s why Percival Molson endowed a monument not to loss but to life, and to the things he loved most. A sports star, he was named the best athlete at McGill University three years in a row. He won the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Victorias in 1897. He set a world record in the long jump in 1900. He represented Canada in the 400 metres at the 1904 Olympics.
He was also from one of Canada’s wealthiest families. Nevertheless, when the war came, he signed up. In the summer of 1916, he was horribly wounded at the Battle of Mount Sorrel, struck in the face by a bullet that sliced through his mouth and shattered his jaw. He returned to Canada to recover. And then he went back to France. On July 5, 1917, he was killed in action near Vimy Ridge.
In his will, he gave $75,000, an enormous sum at the time, for his university to pay for the stadium, so that the living could go on living.
But in living, perhaps also to pause for a moment from time to time to remember those who gave their today for our tomorrow.
Lest we forget.