News

His duty to share. Our duty to remember.

By Cheryl Clock, The Standard

If Dave Hagan has his way, his stories will live long after he is gone.

He wouldn’t want it any other way.

He is 88 years old, a veteran of both British and Canadian field artillery units in conflicts at the end of and after the Second World War. In his words, he is an old soldier. A gunner.

“Once a gunner, always a gunner,” he says in a crisp English accent.

More than one million Canadians (including Newfoundland) served in the military during the Second World War. More than 45,000 died. Another 55,000 were wounded.

Veterans Affairs Canada estimates that there are 50,300 veterans of the Second World War still living. Their average age is 92.

And there are some 7,700 Canadian veterans of the Korean War, still alive.

Canada’s last living veteran of the First World War died in 2010. John Babcock was 109.

Every year, the numbers are smaller. Every year, we lose little by little, a living connection to our history.

“Every day I feel thankful. I feel thankful to be alive,” says Hagan.

“I get up in the morning and say thank you. Thank you for the fact I’m standing here alive.”

On this day, he sits in the living room of his home in Niagara Falls. The poppy on the lapel of his dark blue jacket matches the deep crimson red of his vest. A line of service medals and other pins glint in the morning sunlight.

He wears the poppy over his heart.

Later on, he will drive to the Superstore on Fourth Avenue in St. Catharines and take up his post by the front doors with a box of poppies. He is there for four hours, every afternoon of every single day of the Royal Canadian Legion’s two-week poppy campaign. The money raised — some $10 million in Ontario alone last year — is used to support veterans and their families.

Hagan considers it his duty.

He likes to pin the poppies himself on the people who slide a donation into his box.

“I put them over the heart, where they belong,” he says.

If he can hold the ear of conversation with someone, he will tell them about the history of the poppy. It’s a story that never dulls.

One day, he watched an older woman pull a bill from her wallet, fold it and bring it to his box.

“Do you know what that is?” he asked her.

It was a $50 bill.

“I’m from Holland,” the woman told him. “Payback time.”

He knows people care. People remember.

“Reality tells me I won’t live forever,” he says.

“You keep going for as long as you can.

“And if you can play a part in a little bit of history, you’ve done something good.”

He does not want us to forget about him. Or forget about everyone else who fought for the freedoms we have become accustomed to expect without a second thought.

Indeed, he does everything he can, a man with more than eight decades of life lived, to share his stories, his memories, his thoughts with people.

He likes talking to children. They are our future, he says. The ones who will navigate our world into all the tomorrows yet to come.

So, this year as he has done for as many as he can remember, he stands in the school auditorium in front of a gathering of children and teachers during the Remembrance Day service at Mary Ward Catholic Elementary School in Niagara Falls.

He was a crossing guard there for 20 years. Children still run up to him when they see him at their school, yelling “Dave!”

His knees are always a bit wobblier. The strength of his resolve, unwavering.

He looks out at them and notices all the bright red dots on their shirts. Poppies. His first words are always the same: “Thank you for wearing a poppy.”

He pauses, then explains: “This is your way of saying, thank you.”

In 2001, Historica Canada embarked on The Memory Project in an effort to preserve the images and voices of history before they are silent. The archive houses more than 2,800 audio and transcribed testimonials and 10,000 images of veterans from the First and Second World Wars, Korean War and peacekeeping missions. (This part of the project is no longer active and is not accepting new stories.)

It also offers a volunteer speakers bureau that arranges for veterans and Canadian Forces members to share their stories of military service at school and community events across Canada. It has a repertoire of some 1,700 speakers — yet of those, 183 are veterans of the Second World War and 60 are Korean War veterans, says Bronwyn Graves, education manager.

The older veterans often feel a sense of urgency to share their stories. “They want to ensure the lessons learned from history are not lost,” she says.

“They want to connect today’s generation to our collective past.”

There’s often a bond created between older veterans and project staff. “When they’re on their death bed they will ask staff to come. They will ask, ‘Can you record my story one last time?’”

Last year on Remembrance Day, Pearson International Airport invited a Second World War veteran to share his stories in the departures lounge. “There is something very powerful in the face-to-face,” says Graves.

The younger soldiers also have a deep sense of responsibility to share the lessons they have learned about conflict, peacekeeping and humanity. And teachers need ways to make their history books come alive, she says.

Diane Hill-Rose, a retired aircraft mechanic with the Canadian Air Force Squadron 442, has been a speaker for three years. The Niagara Falls resident was based on the West Coast and served in the 1980s during the Cold War.

School kids used to be bused to the cenotaph to be a part of the Remembrance Day services. Not any more. “They’ve lost a sense of community,” she says.

They need to be there. They need to see the realities of the service.

“It’s about freedom,” says Hill-Rose.

She remembers one service where she watched a young girl run around the peripheries of the cenotaph, laughing, screaming, rolling in the grass, “having a great time,” she says.

As the veterans stood in line, they commented to each other about the girl.

“No one was upset,” she says. “No one was upset because she wasn’t standing at attention.”

They saw the symbolism. “It was the freedom that child had,” she says.

“That child had the freedom to run around and play.

“Kids have these freedoms. And that means so much, to hear the laughter of children.”

Last year at the service in St. Catharines, she met a Second World War Air Force veteran. He was unsteady on his feet at best, but insisted on marching in the parade.

“He told me he does it for all those he lost,” she says.

The depth of his request had to be respected.

“We’ve got your back,” she assured him. “Let’s go.”

And so he walked, side by side with younger officers. The military is a family, a connection so powerful it can’t be understood by outsiders.

“Their lives depended on me. My life depended on them,” she says.

“When you’re in a uniform and you say ‘I’ve got your back’ … it means I will defend you with my life.”

Lou Moffat of Niagara Falls is one of The Memory Project’s newest speakers. He served in both the Canadian Navy and Air Force, and now works as a marine security office with the Canadian Coast Guard based in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The war in Afghanistan cultivated a renewed respect for the military, he says.

“I’d like to see that perpetuated.”

This past spring, 16-year-old Serge Atkinson, a Grade 11 student at Saint Paul Catholic High School in the Falls, travelled to France with his cadet corps to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. He is a warrant office with the 2835 Royal Canadian Air Cadet Corps.

Atkinson, also a bagpiper with the Niagara Regional Police Pipes and Drums, toured various battlefields. He brought his pipes across the ocean to offer a personal thank you through his music. When he reached Juno Beach he went off by himself to play Amazing Grace and Going Home, a mournful bagpipe song played at funerals.

“To put yourself in the line of duty and sacrifice yourself for your country, is something that not a lot of people will do,” he said.

“To fight for what we believe in, which is freedom, that’s something you can’t really thank someone enough for.”

In St. Catharines, every summer at Victoria Lawn Cemetery a group of volunteers from the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 24 replaces the old and worn Canadian flags that mark each grave site of a veteran, with a new, fresh flag. They exchange some 3,000 flags annually, says Lloyd Cull, branch president.

“We’ve made a promise to them,” he says.

“We’re saying, ‘We’re looking after you.’”

In Ontario, Grade 10 students study Canadian history. And Saint Paul Catholic High School history teacher, Stephen Abbruscato endeavours to bring life to events of the past.

And in the spirit of remembrance, every year he takes a group of 50 students to the National Remembrance Day service in Ottawa “to be among the tens of thousands of Canadians who are reflecting,” he says.

“To have them there and witness the ceremony … this is a way for them to give back.”

At St. Mary Catholic Elementary School, Grade 4-5 teacher Jami Russell and kindergarten teacher Rachael Gignac collaborate on a Remembrance Day service. Russell handles the prayer. Gignac writes the script for a play, usually based on a book or story she has discovered, and then enlists the help of students who practise it (starting right after Thanksgiving) and present it at the school’s assembly.

One year they recreated a Heritage Minute story of the Winnipeg Falcons, a hockey team of Icelandic Canadians who put aside the game to serve in the First World War then came home to win an Olympic gold medal.

This year they recreate the story Silver Threads, about the internment of Ukrainian Canadians during the First World War.

“Kids need to know the sacrifices that were made,” says Gignac. “We need to know that our country is not perfect and we made mistakes and that’s how we grow.

“I want to make it memorable for the kids. I want them to walk away remembering it.”

Russell’s late grandfather, Pietro Vit, was a veteran. “I said to him, I want to be like you,’” says Russell. “I glamourized war. I wanted to be a hero like him.

“He brought me aside. He said, ‘Listen, it’s not about winning the medals, it’s not about this, it’s not about that. People lose lives. People get hurt. You’re never the same.’”

A few years back, veteran Dave Hagan began teaching the 10th Battery 56th Field Regiment in St. Catharines how to use the Second World War 25-pound field gun housed in the Lake Street Armoury.

Hagan used it in war. Nowadays, it’s used in ceremony during events such as the Remembrance Day service in St. Catharines.

The old guys (his words) can’t move it around anymore. And he feels a sense of urgency to pass on his knowledge.

“It’s your heritage,” he says.

“If I don’t pass it on, it could die. It would wither away.

“Unless we put a foot forward, unless we teach them, how will they know?”

cclock@postmedia.com