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D-Day, Canada, and Canada Day

(Also published in the Huffington Post)
All my life, I thought I was a proud, and grateful, Canadian.  There is, after all, so much to be proud of. We live in a wonderful country.

There is also much to be grateful for, because we didn’t get to where we are by accident. We owe a great debt to the generations of people who worked hard, who sacrificed, who suffered through hard times, who in so many ways worked to improve on the world around them. We are lucky for the generations of politicians and other decision-makers who, over the course of our history, have made, most of the time, good decisions.

Our history has been far from perfect. Our aboriginal populations as well as successive waves of newcomers from different parts of the world have at times suffered discrimination and abuse. Some still do. We have not, in Canada, been immune to the ability of humans to be awful to each other.

But most Canadians have not known, let alone shared, the incredible suffering of so many around the world under totalitarian, oppressive, sometimes murderous regimes.

So it was that in June of this year I became even more proud of being Canadian, and even more grateful – this time to a particular group of Canadians: those who, in WWII, helped liberate Europe from levels of oppression and man’s inhumanity to man that we here can’t even imagine.

My father, Hugh B. Hall, landed on D-Day, 70 years ago — June 6, 1944. He was a member of the Signal Corps, part of the Stormont, Dundas, Glengarry Highlanders (the “Glens”). He was awarded the Military Cross for, with his men, working for days without rest and under constant fire to ensure functioning communication lines in those critical days after the beach landings in Normandy. He and many other Canadians went on to help liberate Holland, and the war in Europe finally ended less than a year

But the suffering of so many innocent civilians, for so long, was immense.  The losses among the liberating forces were huge.

Our Dad was a Lieutenant, and at only 22, was responsible for writing letters to the families of those of his men who were killed in action and who would never return home. Many of them were even younger than he was. It is said that they grew up fast in those awful days of fighting – but “they” were the lucky ones. So many young men were killed — denied ever being able to grow up at all.

Three of my siblings and I went to France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. We were there for our Dad, but also to honour all of the other soldiers — and the millions of civilians — who suffered through those times.

On June 6, we walked Juno Beach. We tried to imagine from the few photos and limited film footage what it must have been like, landing that day. We went inland and visited places where battles had been fought, including what became know as “Hell’s Corner” at Villons-les-Buissons, where Dad and his platoon were stuck for days on end under heavy fire.

At many of these places, now innocently quiet in the sunshine and calm breeze, we found small plaques honouring lost soldiers. Underneath were simple wreaths placed by friends and relatives of the soldiers and — to our surprise – by locals from the various villages. This was, for us, the most emotional. On seeing Canadian flags, people came out of their houses to say – even after 70 years — “Thank you.” Some told stories of how difficult the Occupation had been, and of the French Resistance. Some told stories of how happy they had been, or their relatives now passed on, to see the Allied soldiers arrive. Some told stories of harbouring soldiers. An old woman showed us a pack of cards, now 70 years old, that a soldier had given her in thanks for the milk she’d given him. She had been only a child, and she didn’t know whether ‘her’ soldier had lived or died, but she had never forgotten him.

We Canadians must never forget him either, because he was just one of many who fought to ensure that Europe could return to freedom. By extension, that young soldier, our Dad, and the many others who gave so much of themselves – many, even their lives – helped ensure that Canada could be the wonderful country that we call home.

Happy Canada Day.

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