by Tom MacGregor
From left: Wreaths were placed at the town cenotaph immediately after the church service; Memorial Club member Courtney Clayton visits with Veterans Place resident George LeBlanc; veterans join in singing O Canada.
The white T-shirts and red windbreakers are as familiar to the veterans at remembrance services in Yarmouth, N.S., as the red tunic of the Mounties or the uniforms of those serving in the military or The Royal Canadian Legion. They are the dress of the young people who belong to the Memorial Club, an innovative group of middle and high school students who are not afraid to show their respect of country, veterans and seniors.
These students were out in full force at this year’s Remembrance Day ceremony despite inclement weather that closed schools and forced the main service to move indoors because of high winds and an expected storm.
The students’ own activities had been hampered by weather. A presentation scheduled for an assembly at the Maple Grove Education Centre where the club was formed was cancelled when the school was closed due to one of the heaviest snowstorms to hit the province in a century.
Still there was another ceremony held at Yarmouth High School where another branch of the club meets. It featured talks from veterans and the usual performance by club members whom some Legionnaires may remember from the 2000 dominion convention in Halifax. Their performance included the chant that is music to veterans ears.
“Give me a C.
Give me an A.
Give me an N.
Give me an A.
Give me a D.
Give me another A.
What does that spell?
Whose country is it?
Who fought for our country?
Who died for our country?
Our war dead.
Who is going to remember them?
Proud Canadians do proud things.”
It is a busy few days around Remembrance Day in the southern most transportation centre in Nova Scotia. But by November the Scotia Prince and the Catamaran ferries that operate between Yarmouth and the dock at Portland, Maine, have stopped running for the season. Air Canada has announced that flights to the town will be halted in the new year while local politicians try to find another commercial airline to take up the route.
The Memorial Club, which operates year-round, has volunteers who visit Veterans Place, the name of the veterans wing at Yarmouth Regional Hospital. Club members also attended the long-anticipated presentation of a wheelchair-accessible van to the veterans wing by the branches in Zone 12. And, of course, the club was involved in Remembrance Day services.
The group of enthusiastic teenagers is an off-shoot of a committee formed in 1985 by Joe Bishara who teaches a course on personal development and relationships, a core subject on the Nova Scotia school curriculum. “I became concerned about the apathy our society was showing towards our veterans and seniors,” he explains. “I just looked around and said, ‘How can people enjoy so much in this great country and yet can’t take one day to show their respect’.”
Bishara had been trying for a number of years to get a plaque installed at the school to commemorate Canada’s war dead. However, he failed to win any support until Gary Archibald was named principal of the Maple Grove Education Centre which is for Grades 7 to 9. “He just said go ahead and organize something,” says Bishara.
Students who were interested in a plaque were invited to a meeting, and from there the project snowballed to the point that the students who formed the committee wanted a real cenotaph at a cost of $8,000. The school agreed, but with a caveat: “We knew the Legions and businesses in the area would want to contribute. We said OK, but the students would have to raise 50 per cent of the cost.”
Roughly 30 students worked on the project, and raised money by putting on variety shows and selling lapel pins that read: Lest We Forget. The pins sold for $2.
The cenotaph was dedicated in November 1986 and flags for it were donated by then-Veterans Affairs minister George Hees.
Once the cenotaph was up the group stayed together and became a club later that year. One of its priorities was to participate in the Remembrance Day service. The students made their own posters and placards and waited for the veterans to march by in the parade. “When the veterans came around the corner and saw all those students waving signs of thanks, they (the veterans) just straightened up,” recalls Bishara.
The club became involved in other events such as the annual Apple Blossom Parade in the Annapolis Valley. Music teacher Gordon Rothwell asked if there was any interest in a marching band. Soon the group had a band and over the years it has participated in Nov. 11th ceremonies, including in 2002 when it was present at the Nov. 10 van presentation and the Remembrance Day service.
When the middle-school students moved on to Yarmouth High School, they maintained their interest in the club and eventually formed a high school branch. Today there are roughly 200 kids in the club, and 70 of them are in the high school branch.
Bishara describes himself as the proud son of Lebanese immigrants. He had two grand-uncles who were killed in World War I. His father was a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in WW II. “When I spoke of disrespect for veterans to my father, he said you cannot blame them for what they have not learned. I remembered that. It’s what pushed me to do something,” says Bishara.
His father has since died but the 53-year-old teacher says that respect is the key thing he hopes club members are learning. “My grandmother was a peddler. She travelled the countryside. She would stay with people where she was. Sometimes they would only offer her the barn to sleep in. I think teaching respect is the most important thing. Even here at the school when a bunch of students get a little rowdy in the corridors you have say ‘Show some respect’ and it all ends.”
Over at Veterans Place, 16-year-old students Bethany Fuldo and Courtney Clayton were visiting residents as they do a couple of times a week. “We help out with decorating for Halloween and special events,” says Fuldo. “We try to find out what interests the residents and then we talk about those things when we see them.
Among the residents they visit are Genevieve Durkee, 82, who drives her own scooter and has the freedom of the town. She also has her own car at Veterans Place and this makes it possible for her to visit Legion branches such as Carleton Consolidated Branch which serves several scattered rural communities. The branch is small, but its members insisted on hosting a turkey lunch on Saturday for all of the veterans in the community.
In her room at Veterans Place, Durkee is proud of a portrait that shows her in her RCAF (Women’s Division) uniform. “The kids come and talk to me at least once a week. They eat my candy but we talk about everything,” she says.
Down the hall is Carmine Ferretti, a life member of Loyalist Branch in nearby Shelbourne. He also keeps a stash of candy for visitors but says he really looks forward to visits from the young people. He served overseas, first in Scotland and then on to the continent, spending Victory in Europe Day in Germany. After that the engineer signed for the Korean War.
The visits are important for the veterans, but they are also good for the students. The young and the old get to know each other. “It’s difficult,” says Clayton. “Because you get to really know the residents. Sometimes you get very close to someone and then they die.”
The club has a close relationship with Legion’s 300-member Yarmouth Branch which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2002. “Each year we make a donation to the club and speak to them to let them know how much we appreciate what they are doing,” said Yarmouth Branch President Mark Stevens. He adds that the group played a big part in a ceremony earlier last fall where veterans who had served in the Netherlands in WW II received the Thank You Canada medal from Dutch representatives.
Though the fierce rainstorm actually hit in the wee hours of the morning, the announcement of the change of venue for the Armistice Day service had already been made. Sound equipment was in place at the Yarmouth Wesleyan Church and organizers thought it would have been too late to get the word out and move the equipment to the downtown cenotaph that features a WW I soldier on a pedestal.
Zone 12 Commander Bob Garron says that hasty decisions had been made in the past when weather proved too rough for gathering at the cenotaph.
This year, the event, organized by poppy chairman Corinne LeBlanc and First Vice Martin Coppes, went smoothly as the church put out 650 chairs for veterans and guests. The crowd, though, swelled to 1,300 in this small community of approximately 7,000. The veterans, including Garron who is a Korean War veteran, were given the centre spot while the Memorial Club members lined the precipice of the stage with their flags.
The service featured music by the club’s band and a young soloist singer. Many community organizations, including churches, businesses and political riding associations placed wreaths. Branch members later gathered up all the wreaths and took them to the cenotaph.
Afterwards Yarmouth Branch offered hospitality for the veterans. Some of the Legionnaires produced a 12-string guitar and mandolin for members to play traditional war songs and the anthem Farewell To Nova Scotia. This made the gathering all the more poignant.