Holidays Act

Mr. Speaker, it is my privilege to rise today to speak on behalf of the government on Bill C-597, particularly at this time when all members of the House are wearing the poppy. It is important for us to debate Remembrance Day, its role in our country, and how we should remember, both here in our nation’s Parliament and at the cenotaphs scattered around the hundreds, if not thousands, of small towns and cities across the country as acts of remembrance.

I would like to thank the member for Scarborough Southwest for bringing this debate to the House today. As he knows, the government supports the intention of the bill with some amendments, which we have spoken with the member about throughout the process. I would like to thank him for sharing his personal reflections on what Remembrance Day means to his family, and indeed he showed the House that the events of a few weeks ago in this city still reverberate deeply with the nation and the members of the House.

It is interesting that we are debating Remembrance Day, a very important and solemn day for our country, but it was not Remembrance Day when it first came to Canada. In fact, in 1919, it was referred to as Armistice Day because it was the year following the important armistice to end the Great War, where the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month would be commemorated to honour the dead from that Great War and to respect the peace that was secured through the sacrifice of many. There have been 1.5 million Canadians who have heeded the call of service over our history as a nation, so it is not only a time when remembrance can be given to the fallen but respect for the service of those in the past and present can be shown.

It was Armistice Day for our young country that was honoured each November. Interestingly, which I am sure the hon. member knows from his research on the bill, for the first decade or so, it was not even formally recognized on November 11 but on the first Monday of the week in which November 11 fell. It might be interesting for members of the House to know that it was an act by a member of Parliament from British Columbia in 1931 that solidified November 11 as the day that would be marked, and changed the name from Armistice Day to Remembrance Day that we know today.

The first decade or so of remembrance for our young nation was an interesting period because within that first decade the guardians of Remembrance Day were also born. In 1925 the Royal Canadian Legion was created, bringing together a number of fraternal and service organizations with many veterans from the Great War. They came together. Then in the House the following year, 1926, an act of Parliament was granted to recognize the important role the Royal Canadian Legion played then and plays now on remembrance and care for our veterans.

To this day, there remains 1,100 veteran service officers whose core principle for the branch they serve is to serve the veteran community. I know the veteran service officer in my branch, on an individual basis, has helped over 500 veterans or their partners access benefits. Most Canadians should know that when they support the poppy drive in their towns and cities across the country, they are supporting the work of the veteran service officers because the proceeds from the poppy fund are dedicated to veteran care in the community and across the country.

I would like to thank the Legion for its important role with our veterans and for making sure that Remembrance Day happens. This week I will be at Remembrance Day services at two of the small cenotaphs in hamlets in my community. There would be no service in those small hamlet cenotaphs were it not for Branch 178 of the Royal Canadian Legion, which makes sure that every cenotaph that bears the name of a fallen soldier for Canada has a proper ceremony and mark of remembrance.

Eight years afterward, in 1939, after Remembrance Day as we now know it was brought forward by this federal House, our National War Memorial was unveiled.

It was struck two weeks ago. It was attacked for what it represents to our country. We are all still shaken by the death of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was an honorary guard there to show respect for the fallen who are commemorated by that memorial and by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There are 22 figures that adorn our National War Memorial that represent the commitment of Canada as a young nation to the Great War, and then subsequently to the wars that followed. In the days following the attacks in Ottawa, everyone in this House was touched by the Bruce MacKinnon cartoon that showed those historic figures tending to the newly fallen Corporal Cirillo.

Canadians continue to commemorate. Just this week, in Whitby, I attended Wounded Warriors Canada’s opening of the Park of Reflection. The park is a memorial to the fallen from Afghanistan and to those who travelled the Highway of Heroes. It provides veterans a place of solace for their own recovery. I would like to thank Scott Maxwell and Phil Ralph of Wounded Warriors Canada for keeping these memories alive.

Corus Entertainment’s Gary Maavara and Joel Watson, a lawyer from Toronto, are ensuring that broadcasters on November 11 commemorate the two minutes of silence at 11 o’clock on TV broadcasts if they are not already playing the national ceremony.

It is tremendous to see the spirit of Remembrance Day from 1931 to today. I think what my hon. colleague wants to recognize through this bill is that across the country Canadians are showing their own ways of keeping this important date as an important part of their lives and of remembering the service and sacrifice of our men and women.

The specifics of the bill before this House are to correct a drafting oversight from the 1970s, when the Holidays Act treated Remembrance Day slightly differently from the way it treated Victoria Day and Dominion Day, now Canada Day. I am proud that it seems most members of this House will support the member for Scarborough Southwest in rectifying this oversight to ensure that as a federal holiday, Remembrance Day is treated in the same way as those other days that are important to our country.

The other item from the member’s bill, as he has recognized in our discussions, is that the flag on our Peace Tower is normally lowered to half-mast on Remembrance Day as part of our act of national commemoration. In some ways, some of the spirit behind his bill is being exercised already. I am glad to see that the House will rectify this 1970s omission from the act.

What is interesting, as the member pointed out in his remarks to the House, is that across the country, six provinces and three territories also grant statutory recognition to Remembrance Day on a provincial level. Federally, it is already a statutory holiday for federal employees within the federal jurisdiction, and six provinces have extended that at the provincial level. It seems that the member is hoping that the remaining provinces might take this rectifying of the language on a federal level in recognition of the importance of Remembrance Day to our country as an opportunity to revisit their decisions on a provincial level. If that is the case, it is a good exercise.

In my time in uniform serving this country, I had the benefit of living in two different provinces where it was handled in different ways. While I was in Nova Scotia serving with 423 Squadron and 406 Squadron, that province had a provincial holiday as well, and we saw large numbers of people at the cenotaph. In Ontario it was not a provincial holiday.

There is merit, as the member recognized, to the argument that it is good to have students in school learning about this process. The Ontario legislature visited this issue in the late 1990s and decided not to proceed provincially with a statutory holiday, for the very reason that it knew students would be learning about Remembrance Day within the school.

Bill C-597 would make it clear where the federal government stands with respect to the importance of Remembrance Day to our country. It would give the provinces the opportunity to revisit whether they want to make it a statutory holiday as well.

At this time of year, if anything, I hope this legislation reminds Canadians that they need to wear a poppy. They need to get to a cenotaph. They need to make sure they remember the people who fell for our country and hold the significance of the date dear to their hearts.

Stay in Touch with Erin

Sign up for email updates from Erin O'Toole to hear the latest from Ottawa and our riding.