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Poppies adorn a headstone at the Canadian Military Cemetery in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Poppies adorn a headstone at the Canadian Military Cemetery in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Barbara McDougall

Every year, I remember my friend: ‘I could see their faces’ Add to ...

Barbara McDougall was Canada’s minister of immigration from 1988 to 1991.

Each year on Nov. 11, I think of my Nova Scotia neighbour, Malcolm Webber, a veteran of the Korean War.

When I first bought my old farmhouse in Chester Basin, Malcolm came to call, and when I held a flag-raising for friends and neighbours, he attended with enthusiasm and brought me a hanging plant. He was a favourite of mine ever after.

I was Secretary of State for External Affairs in the early 1990s, and our government was contemplating sending troops to Bosnia, in a messy and potentially dangerous mission, despite its “peacekeeping” designation. Malcolm made one of his rare but welcome visits, and it became clear that this time his purpose was to share with me a little insight into his military experience. He had been in the artillery, on the front lines of our forces in Korea.

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He had looked down his gun sight directly at the enemy forces, frequently infantry. “When I was shooting I could see their faces, you see,” he said.

When he returned to Chester Basin, he told me, he found it difficult to sit and chat in the ordinary way with family and friends about ordinary things, because he could “see their faces.” That was all.

Malcolm died in 2004. In the interim we had several visits, and he remained a favourite though not close friend. He never spoke to me of his experience again, although as a supporter of the local Legion, I’m sure he and his fellow legionnaires swapped lots of stories.

What struck me then, and has stayed with me since, is how important he thought it was to share his important and profound thought: “I could see their faces.”

Every year I attend a Remembrance Day service, or watch the national service in Ottawa. I think of my father’s experience in the Second World War, but I think also of Malcolm’s message.

As we remember our dead and wounded and their families, I can’t help but be aware that when we send our young to be in harm’s way on our behalf, we send them to kill other young of other families in other countries.

It must change them, as it clearly changed Malcolm. My heart goes out to them.

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