PHOTOS: TOM MacGREGOR
It is Remembrance Day in Kirkland Lake, Ont., and the only noise you hear is the sound of boots crunching down on the thick layer of snow surrounding the northern Ontario town’s war memorial. It is almost 11. In a few moments, a siren—from a nearby fire truck—will signal the start of two minutes of silence. When the signal comes, more than 500 people bow their heads and remain that way until the siren sounds again, 120 seconds later.
“We’ve been using the siren for the past few years,” said Ferbie St. Cyr, one of the organizers of the ceremony and a stalwart at Kirkland Lake Branch of The Royal Canadian Legion. “It reminds people of the mining days. A whistle would blow for lunch or…if there was an emergency.”
A choir of schoolchildren, positioned near the back of the cenotaph, leads the crowd in singing the national anthem. Meanwhile, members of the Kirkland Lake Legion Army Cadet Corps are serving sentry duty around the cenotaph. Standing nearby are members of the Ontario Provincial Police and the local fire department.
Lining the steps up to the cenotaph are a number of dignitaries, including Kirkland Lake Branch President Wilf Reaume, Mayor Bill Enouy and Veterans Affairs Canada’s Rick Millette, the associate regional director general for Ontario. At the time, Millette was also acting as regional director because a new director had not yet taken office in the town, 680 kilometres north of Toronto.
Trumpeter Carl Reinholt, who has performed at the Kirkland Lake Remembrance Day service for more than 50 years, played Last Post and later Reveille. Pipers Clyde Mong and Don MacKenzie played the lament in unison. Reaume and St. Cyr read the Act of Remembrance in both official languages. “Can we ever pay enough tribute to those who laid down their lives for our freedom?” asked Reaume. “I think not. Will our forefathers ever be proud of the way we honour our deceased veterans? I hope so.”
Master of ceremonies Janine Johnston spoke to the children about the war dead. “This is why we are here today, standing in silent tribute to those who fought for our country in past wars at such a terrible cost. We are also paying tribute to those who fought and came home—some of them badly wounded in spirit and body. They, too, deserve our thoughts and our prayers. Some of them never recovered from the trauma of war.
“Even today, during our many peacekeeping missions, Canadians have died. We think of the four soldiers who were killed (in 2002) in Afghanistan, and, more recently of the young lieutenant from Halifax who died of toxic smoke inhalation when the submarine he was serving in caught fire off the coast of Ireland.”
Following the placement of several wreaths, the dedication and the singing of God Save The Queen, the branch colour party moved off and many in the crowd made the short trip to the branch to warm up and share stories. Soup and sandwiches were served by the ladies auxiliary and as the afternoon progressed a singer led the crowd in a singalong of old, but familiar tunes. The two pipers who participated in the ceremony at the cenotaph also performed in the branch, and among those in attendance was former dominion president and local resident Bob McChesney.
The feeling of remembrance became even stronger as branch members spread some bad news. Former president and WW II veteran Vince Lafranier had died that morning at the age of 81. “He was a great friend of mine and great friend of the branch. We thought he might die last week but it is like he wanted to hold on until today,” said St. Cyr.
Renate Fournier, VAC’s regional director of communications and Canada Remembers, brought her 10-year-old son, Keegan Sullivan, to the ceremony. “They were only going to have a short assembly in his school. So I wrote a note to take him out of school. It is important to bring him to this,” she said. “He really got into it. He has asked all kinds of questions.”
Fournier said VAC staff come to the service every year. “This is what we all do,” she added. “It is about being with the veterans.”
St. Cyr, 79, noted that the cenotaph had only recently been moved closer to the branch. “It’s the third location we have had for the cenotaph,” he said. “It used to be on Government Road and then it was by the arena. They decided to build a new arena and so they had to move it. But the arena agreed to put it here. It’s close to us.”
The branch has always taken remembrance very seriously. One of the projects it is most proud of is a small shelter at the Kirkland Lake Cemetery known as the House of Remembrance.
It was inspired by the immaculately groomed war graves cemeteries kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Branch member and longtime membership chairman Larry Brown, 79, saw in them a solution to a long-standing problem. The WW II veteran and former member of the Algonquin Regiment had returned to the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany for the ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. “I was in quite a few of the Canadian war graves cemeteries…. I was in Groesbeek and Bergen-op-Zoom (in the Netherlands) and Beny-sur-Mer in France.”
In particular, Brown liked the stone gatehouses he passed through in order to access the cemeteries. He liked how they looked and discovered that they have a practical purpose as well. While the gatehouses have no doors, they do protect the guest books people sign to show they’ve been there. The small buildings also house the maps people use to find a particular grave.
For some time, Brown had been concerned about the brass plaques that honour the veterans and branch members buried at the Kirkland Lake Cemetery. The plaques were mounted on a bulletin board near the cemetery’s entrance, right between two flagpoles. “We wanted to protect the plaques so we put a plexiglass cover on them,” he explained. “That kept out the weather, but it couldn’t keep out the sun. They were all faded. There was nothing you could do to save them.”
After returning from Europe, Brown started talking about building something that would shelter the plaques. He quickly earned the support of branch member Harlene Voros.
After exploring a number of ideas, the branch decided in 1997 to form a committee to create the House of Remembrance. “We were going to try to raise $20,000. And our goal was to do it in two years.”
It was a lot to ask for a mining town that was going through tough times. Kirkland Lake once had a population of 28,000, but that number dropped significantly as mines closed. In a move to try to help the economy, VAC moved its Ontario regional office from downtown Toronto to Kirkland Lake in the 1990s. Even though gold mining has started up again, there are still many vacant and boarded-up homes waiting to be sold.
Brown said the Legion started fundraising for the House of Remembrance in the spring of 1997. “We had more than $21,000 by (the following) November,” said Brown with pride.
Construction began in 1998 when a concrete base was poured for the ten-foot-by-ten-foot house. New name boards and name tags were created. An impressive interlocking brick sidewalk was installed and shrubbery was planted around the stone structure. Inside, hanging from the ceiling is a stained glass window featuring a poppy. And of course a beautiful case was built to hold a directory listing the names of those buried in the cemetery. There is also a guest book. “We held a remembrance service when we opened and cut the ribbon,” explained Brown. “We thought about doing Remembrance Day here but it didn’t seem practical.”
A newer plaque has been started for the names of more recently deceased veterans and those who were overlooked when the building was completed. Meanwhile, a separate plaque bears the names of associate members.
It was easy to see Brown’s fondness for the House of Remembrance project, especially when he points to the headstone that is reserved for him and his war bride wife Mary. “With the House of Remembrance, I just wanted a place where people could reflect,” he said.
Reflection, whether it is at the House of Remembrance or in front of the local war memorial, is obviously important to the people of Kirkland Lake as they remember those who served and died for their country.