Je Me Souviens

January 4, 2009 by Tom MacGregor
White doves held by (from left) Josée Verner, Mayor Régis Labeaume and Premier Jean Charest are released. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]
White doves held by (from left) Josée Verner, Mayor Régis Labeaume and Premier Jean Charest are released.

A distant call to remembrance seems natural in Quebec City, especially for those gathering around the Cross of Sacrifice for the annual Remembrance Day service. Dwarfed by the walls of the Citadelle, the fortification that dominates the old city, the cross adds a sombre presence to the grounds around the National Assembly, the provincial legislature building.

It is at the entrance to that building under the provincial coat of arms that architect and Assistant Commissioner for Crown Lands Eugène-Étienne Taché had carved the motto “Je me souviens”—I remember.

History has not recorded why the architect chose those words in 1883. It may have been a line from a Victor Hugo poem or a tribute to a bygone era of Quebec’s past but it became the motto for the province when its coat of arms was officially adopted in 1939. The laconic phrase was also adopted by the Royal 22nd Regiment, Québec’s famed regular force infantry unit and it also adorns the provincial licence plate.

Verner places a wreath assisted by Georges Lasnier. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]
Verner places a wreath assisted by Georges Lasnier.

Banners as well harked back to the past throughout the downtown area celebrating 2008 as the 400th anniversary of the city’s founding by Samuel de Champlain (Bonne fête Quebec, May/ June). But it was the more recent past that those who gathered on November 11 came to remember. Memories of the wars of the last century and the current insurgency in Afghanistan were on the minds of the veterans and young men and women in uniform who marched behind the Royal 22nd Regt. band up the Grande Allée, the famed street leading into Old Quebec. While the veterans thought of the Second World War and the Korean War, others thought of the at least 10 Canadian Forces members stationed at nearby Canadian Forces Base Valcartier who are among the nearly 100 soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2002.

Morning snow on the Plains of Abraham had disappeared with the rising sun and although there was snow in the air, the sun occasionally peeked out during the short ceremony attended by approximately 1,500 spectators.

Georges Lasnier assists Charly Forbes in placing a wreath. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]
Georges Lasnier assists Charly Forbes in placing a wreath.

The sound of a nearby clock striking at the 11th hour was followed by O Canada, and in turn by the guns of the 5th Canadian Light Artillery Regt., Last Post, Reveille, the lament and the Act of Remembrance. Alcide Maillet of Lt.-Col. Charles Forbes Branch in Loretteville acted as master of ceremonies for the service in both official languages. Overhead three Griffon helicopters from Valcartier and two CF-18s from Bagotville performed a thunderous flypast.

First to place a wreath was Premier Jean Charest, taking time out from the election called just a week earlier. He was followed by branch member Elsie Godin, representing Silver Cross mothers. Josée Verner, the federal minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and local member of Parliament, and Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume followed, each placing a wreath on behalf of their governments.

The Legion was represented by Charly Forbes himself. A distinguished veteran of both the Second World War and Korea, the 87-year-old remains active in many military and veterans functions around the city. He was accompanied by Lt.-Col. Charles Forbes Branch President Georges Lasnier.

Charest inspected the troops and talked to veterans. Dozens of wreaths were placed as a children’s choir sang and the band played selected hymns. When the wreaths were placed, schoolchildren with Maple Leaf flags and cardboard poppies came out and placed them in the earth around the cross.

An especially stirring moment came at the end of the ceremony after a cage of 30 white doves was brought forward. Birds were given to Charest, Verner and Labeaume to hold until the signal was given for their release. The frightened birds scrambled away from their holders to flutter above the crowd before dashing over the wall of the Citadelle to their own peace and freedom.

Joe Bilocq leads veterans in the parade. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]
Joe Bilocq leads veterans in the parade.

Soon the parade marched off and veterans and soldiers were treated to hot drinks and sandwiches in the gymnasium of the Citadelle. Many later found their way back to the branch in Loretteville, to share memories as the day wound down.

Forbes said he was thinking of eight Belgian volunteers that were part of his unit in the Maisonneuve Regt. while fighting for Wacheren Island in the Battle of the Scheldt. “Even though the British had liberated Antwerp in September (of 1944), not a single supply ship had been able to get through. This was the end of October and we needed supplies,” Forbes recalled.

The only way Allied ships could get safe passage along the estuary was for the Canadians to clear the German forces out. The British ordered the area flooded. “But the Germans were smart. They put their guns on top of the dikes. Even though the land was flooded, the guns still fired.”

Forbes, a lieutenant at the time, was ordered to move forward over the dikes but his unit had been greatly diminished in the fighting after Normandy. “We had eight Belgian volunteers who were working in our kitchen,” he recalls. “They came to me and said they had volunteered to help us fight. They had German guns and wanted to be in the fight. I said get them out of the kitchen. We dressed them in our uniforms. If they were ever caught, they would have been shot.”

Silver Cross Mother Elsie Godin (left) prepares to place a wreath. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]
Silver Cross Mother Elsie Godin (left) prepares to place a wreath.

It was for the battle that followed that Forbes was recognized with the Netherland’s highest medal of honour, the Militaire Willems Orde. “We had been shot up pretty badly on a dike. It was about 1,000 yards long and 60 yards wide. But the only way the Germans were going to get across it was go over top of me. I shot the first one that came at us with my pistol and we still had a machine gun that kept them back,” he recalled.

Later in the war, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands gave nine medals in the Willems Orde to be distributed among the Canadians. He was one of the recipients. It wasn’t until the 1960s that he found he had been invited to a function along with recipients of the Victoria Cross. “It was only then that I learned we were affiliated. I had been wearing that medal and no one in Canada knew what it meant—including me!”

Still Forbes said on Remembrance Day he wished the Belgian fighters who were beside him could have been recognized, but that will never happen.

Others at the branch told stories of their years with the military. Veterans in the group were quick to notice Claude “Joe” Godin’s Medal of Bravery, the civilian award for bravery in hazardous circumstances. He was a sergeant with military police at Canadian Forces Base Bagotville, Que., on Nov. 27, 1982. “I woke up one morning to find out the trailer home across the street from me was on fire. The mother was outside but frantic that her 17-month-old boy was still inside,” explained Godin, who is now 65. “I went inside and got to the crib and grabbed the boy and got out. We barely walked out when the whole thing went poof!”

Though he was busy seeing to dozens of details after the ceremony, the day had been a success for Branch President Lasnier. “The ceremony has always been organized by Citadelle Branch in the city but they have found that they can’t go on. It was up to us to take over the ceremony for the first time,” he explained.

Lt.-Col. Charles Forbes Branch is a new branch which officially opened in 1995. In 2007 it purchased a former country-and-western bar in Loretteville, 11 kilometres from the city centre, and turned it into the branch hall—a vast improvement from the second-floor apartment that had been its home previously.

For Citadelle Branch member André Côté the day was one of recognition that responsibility for holding the Remembrance Day services had been passed on to the new branch. “Membership was down to about 80. Our members were getting older, many were in the hospital. And the fire was one of the reasons we decided we could not go on.”

The fire Côté was referring to was the spectacular all-night fire April 4 that destroyed the historic Quebec Armoury (Journal, July/August). Built between 1885 and 1887 and also designed by Taché, the building was home to the country’s oldest French-Canadian regiment, the Voltigeurs de Québec. It was Citadelle Branch’s home base and had been used by cadets and other groups.

The fire destroyed the dry wood interior and the roof leaving only the outside walls and turrets standing. Its proud history is still told on a historic sites plaque on the drill field in front of the building.

It is yet another reminder of Quebec City’s rich military heritage which has obviously continued by the turnout for the service. While the members of Citadelle Branch felt it was time to wind up its operation, it found another branch and another generation willing to take up the torch.

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