Preserving Our Local and National History
The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “[d]eath comes to all, but great achievements build a monument which shall endure until the sun grows cold”. This quote came to mind this week in both a positive sense and in a negative one. I am proud that the positive stems from the passionate work by members of our local Durham community who have worked steadily towards preserving our local history. Unfortunately, the negative stemmed from press reports in Ottawa late last week that indicate that politics in Ottawa appears to be standing in the way of preserving and honouring our national history. From the smallest plaque on a park bench or Legion hall to a towering monolith in the nation’s capital, monuments and memorials are a way that our society can remember and pay respect to the people, places and events that forged our nation. We owe our modern society and the tremendous freedoms and opportunities we enjoy to those who came before us. Remembering our past helps us better understand our present and ensures we make the right decisions locally and nationally for our future. We should embrace preserving our history through our schools, through our museums, through our books, movies and culture. We should also continue to use historic markers and monuments to serve as touchstones and teaching devices for our study of history locally and nationally.
I will begin with the positive. This week, the Uxbridge Public Library will formally unveil the work of a Scugog artist as part of an ongoing effort by many in our community to honour the legacy of Sam Sharpe. Sharpe was the Solicitor for the Township of Uxbridge a century ago and he served as Member of Parliament for the area. He was a leading citizen of his time and in this capacity he raised a regiment in Durham and served with gallantry alongside its soldiers at WWI battles like Vimy Ridge and Avion. He was a heroic and larger than life figure in Durham society of a century ago, but he tragically took his own life before the end of the war amid struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or “Shell Shock” as it was euphemistically called at that time. Sharpe was the only sitting Member of the House of Commons who fought overseas and was re-elected in the 1917 election while fighting in Europe. The Township of Uxbridge and active citizens have preserved the Sharpe legacy over the last century on a local level, but Sharpe was a largely forgotten part of our national history in Ottawa until Romeo Dallaire and I began to use the story of Sam Sharpe to help us talk about Operational Stress Injuries from service with veterans and first responders. The story of Sharpe shows that a mental injury can strike anyone from any walk of life. From a low-ranking soldier to a senior officer and pillar of society like Sam Sharpe mental injuries or illness does not discriminate. The sad end to the remarkable like of Sam Sharpe can also serve to show veterans and first responders struggling with operational stress today that we have made huge strides in the treatment and prevention of operational stress injuries. We are also able to discuss mental health issues more rationally in the last number of years and that helps break down the stigma that usually leads to men and women avoiding seeking treatment. Today, nobody should face these injuries alone and in shame as Sharpe once did. Today, there are treatments and supports that can help someone manage or even overcome their injuries. It is extra special that the sculptor of the striking bronze relief of Sam Sharpe is local artist Tyler Briley. Tyler was a firefighter who has had his own struggles with operational stress. He was comforted by learning more about Sharpe and proud to be part of the project in preserving his legacy. Tyler knows firsthand how the Sharpe story can teach and inspire us almost a century after his death. The Uxbridge Historical Society and civic leaders from across Durham will join the artist this Thursday as we celebrate his work locally before the relief sculpture makes it way to its permanent home on Parliament Hill.
This leads to the less positive development in the last week. Last Friday, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen revealed that the new government is ending a local Community War Memorial Program run by Veterans Affairs Canada and is possibly cancelling the planned National Memorial to the Canadians Armed Forces Mission in Afghanistan. The report indicated that the new government is trying to shift away from a focus on “militarism” that some claim was too heavily focused on by the previous Conservative government. There are suggestions that the Liberal government will remove some of the military heritage items contained in the history sections of the Citizenship guide for newcomers to Canada and there now appears to be a plan to cancel both funding for local community remembrance programming and the planned National Memorial to the Afghanistan mission. As Minister of Veterans Affairs last year, I announced the location and plans for the Afghanistan Memorial and had instructed the National Capital Commission to engage Afghanistan veterans and families of the fallen in the planning and execution of the Memorial. It is obviously quite personal for me as former Minister, but as a veteran who knows many Afghan veterans personally, I know that they need to know that their service and sacrifice was appreciated. This is what a national memorial will do and it is why I have said that the subject that memorials and monuments should be above politics. Afghanistan represented the longest single military operation in Canada’s history. We lost 158 soldiers, a diplomat and several civilians in the mission. Over twelve years approximately 2000 were injured physically or mentally with some of our seriously injured still struggling with their injuries. The mission was first ordered by a Liberal government and it ended under a Conservative government. If there was ever an issue that should not be politicized in Ottawa it is this one. I hope the new Minister clarifies their intention to proceed and if he does, I will applaud that move. The Community War Memorial Program was also something I got to see firsthand as Minister. It was a very small program that I think demonstrated the support of the federal government at its best. It was regularly under budget and the approach of the program was to partner with local Legions or heritage groups to complete a local project. This led to $2.80 being raised in the community for every $1 of federal grant money. Most small communities need a little assistance to preserve their local history and this program allowed them to direct and complete their local initiative with some assistance from Ottawa. For a Liberal government that is quite cavalier in spending money and is committed to “infrastructure”, this small program should be maintained.
The history of Canada includes our military heritage and understanding why Canadians stepped forward to serve a world away in Europe a century ago or Afghanistan a decade ago is part of learning about the values of Canada and its people. Remembrance and paying respect where it is due is not militaristic, it is patriotic. Militarism and Patriotism should not be conflated by the new government to maintain a some “sunny ways” public relations campaign. I know some people who stood on the Highway of Heroes bridge in Bowmanville who may not have agreed with the mission or length of time Canada spent in Afghanistan, but they certainly respected the service and the sacrifice of Canadians who were sent there by their country. Canada is not an aggressive or militaristic nation, but one that since our earliest days has shown the quiet confidence of a people who are willing to stand up for what is right and is willing to leave the safety of our own shores to stand with our allies to serve the cause of peace and security. Whether it was the hundreds of local young men that joined the 116th Battalion and served with Sam Sharpe a century ago, or the families of Darryl Caswell and Geoff Parker who are living in Durham with their personal loss from our mission in Afghanistan, civic leaders have a duty to ensure that we remember their sacrifice in our towns and in our national capital. I write this just before heading off to Question Period, where this issue will likely come up. I certainly hope the federal government shows a little of the leadership that I have seen from civic leaders and volunteers in Durham in recent years.