Julie VanSpall – Home Front

It's Remembrance Day, not a sleep-in day

Voices Oct. 28, 2018

Julie VanSpall was surprised to move from Ontario to B.C. and discover students here have a holiday on Remembrance Day. “I am certainly not opposed to having a day off to honour the occasion, but I don’t want the point of this day to be lost on my children,” writes Julie VanSpall.  (Photo taken at Vimy Ridge, 2014, by Stephen VanSpall)

Growing up, I learned about the origins of Remembrance Day at home and at school. I had not been directly impacted by war, but many older relatives and friends had been. I heard their stories, as if they had happened yesterday.

At school, we wrote poems and essays, learned songs, distributed poppies, and prepared services of remembrance. We learned that the Nov. 11 “holiday” was instituted to enable loved ones of those lost in service to attend memorials in their honour.

A few of my peers had grandparents who were veterans or had died in one of the Great Wars. We made connections at our own levels; however, to us Remembrance Day wasn’t an opportunity to mourn, honour, and remember a brother, cousin, uncle, or father. It was about acknowledging strangers from the “olden days.” We were removed.

Distance from war was a blessing for us, and it was also what caused the Ontario government to change policies and decide to keep schools open on Nov. 11, in hopes of ensuring that the occasion was properly respected. As teenagers, we gave thanks for those who sacrificed so that we could live in peace; yet, through no fault of our own, we didn’t really “get” it. In the absence of immediate connection, the actual day of Nov. 11 had become a day to sleep in and hang out at the mall, rather than a day to visit a cenotaph or to truly remember the sacrifices made on our behalf.

Even though there has been opposition to the decision, since my high school years, Nov. 11 has seen Ontario students in school and attending Remembrance Day ceremonies in their communities. Those who died in the Great Wars for which Remembrance Day began, and those who have died or served more recently in peace-keeping missions overseas – or in the line of duty on Canadian soil – are honoured. The children may not really “remember” the sacrifices made, but they deliberately focus on them, specifically on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour.

While these ceremonies were always prepared to honour the dead and the veterans, they were likewise intended to motivate us to learn from the past. As high school students, we saw videos and pictures of wreckage, burn victims from Hiroshima, people stepping over dead bodies in the muddy fields of Vimy Ridge, injured veterans, and young men waving to tearful family members. These horror-filled images are imprinted on my mind. I didn’t like to see them, but I needed to see them to come close to understanding something so removed from my experience, and to do everything in my power to ensure it never happens again.

When I moved to B.C., I was surprised to discover that Nov. 11 was still a day off school. I had assumed my experience had been Canada-wide. I am certainly not opposed to having a day off to honour the occasion, but I don’t want the point of this day to be lost on my children. 

Our foray into services with our children involved taking young toddlers to the Legion in North Surrey in the freezing cold. It was challenging, yet I remember realizing how small my sacrifice was in comparison to those who lived in trenches, suffered injuries, or whose children never came home. I hoped that this small gesture would impact our youngsters.

We continue to acknowledge Remembrance Day as a family and have pulled our children from soccer games which have conflicted with memorial services. Many teams seem to participate in Remembrance Day tournaments and I know that our soldiers fought to promote a peaceful world in which children could play without worrying about gunfire and landmines; however, if children aren’t taught to acknowledge this reality, they will never appreciate their good fortune.

I am grateful that my children have not experienced war. I’m also thankful that they never complain about not being able to sleep in on Remembrance Day. Whether it is a day off school/work is irrelevant, if the day is treated with respect.

May we all take a few moments at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, to pause, ponder our blessings, learn from the horrors of the past, and move forward with gratitude, peace, and remembrance.