Banff in November is a vision of a winter wonderland. At the town limits the snowy mountains stretch instantly upwards into rocky peaks and people clank down the main street in ski boots and it seems like every single Banffite wears a toque all the time no matter what. It is cold, after all.
Banff is one of Canada’s most famous places, stuck high up in the mountains in Alberta’s Banff National Park; the town of about 7,000 permanent locals is the country’s highest at an altitude of 4,800 feet.
The Remembrance Day ceremony here is not exactly traditional, not exactly textbook, but where it may dispense with formality it excels in so many other ways that it’s impossible to deny the event’s allure, or its success. They still place wreaths, play the Last Post and have minutes of silence and stand at attention, but it’s different. If there’s solemnity, it isn’t forced.
The day is about remembrance to be sure, including a visit to the great warriors of a nearby ghost town, but there are lots of smiles too. And dancing.
This year, Remembrance Day in Banff began just before 11 a.m. with a large parade forming up outside Col. Moore Branch at the south end of the main street. The crowd is small, perhaps by tradition, and because of what is about to happen next.
The parade moves up Banff Avenue right through the whole length of Banff, the Calgary Police Service Pipe Band loudly leading the soldiers of the Calgary-based 746 Communications Squadron, cadets, Legionnaires, Scouts, Guides and townspeople in a growing procession, heading toward the local elementary school.
What started as a crowd of several dozen becomes exponentially larger as the parade moves through town, the thundering music signals the moment to move and the people respond—Banffites stream out of stores and restaurants, down the side streets, seemingly out of nowhere, until there are hundreds and hundreds walking alongside, forming their own auxiliary parade. And it keeps growing. It seems like the whole town is marching down the street behind the parade. And it kind of is.
When the mass of official marchers and townspeople get to the school’s gym they file in and keep filing in—hundreds and hundreds and hundreds—until there are no seats left anywhere and then they stand at the back of the gym in a thick crowd and wait to see what will happen next.
And what they see is an impassioned performance by Banff Park Church pastor Norm Derkson, the official chaplain of the Col. Moore Legion.
Derkson, an energetic 44, does not give an average sermon. He is not punching the clock up there on the school’s stage. The man is prepared. He has a plan, and you can’t help but think that his plan was to make everyone in the room cry. And he pretty much does.
He tells stories. He presents a slideshow of all the Canadians killed this year in Afghanistan. And then tells more stories. “Has this moment found you? Where you sit?” he asks the crowd. “Do you realize the very real cost that very real families are paying right now?
“Every year we find ourselves as a community gathered together on this day to remember. Yet it is difficult to feel that pain until it touches our lives. Most of us have watched friends suffer as they have lost family to death. But until it is our family, our deeply loved son or daughter, how can we feel it?”
After the sermon, the whole town is invited back to the Legion for free hot dogs, chili and drinks. The band comes too, and soon there is dancing and the place is packed and it feels a lot like a party.
However, the day is not done. In the early afternoon the buses arrive and activity at the branch is splintered for a short time as a big group leaves to perform one more ceremony.
Bankhead was a mining town up in the mountains just a few kilometres outside Banff and it is now a ghost town. It was shut down by the government in the years after the First World War but not before a war memorial was raised to honour the local boys who died.
And so it was that on the afternoon of Nov. 11 a large group of soldiers and Legionnaires arrayed themselves on the quiet mountain road in ranks, facing the trees and the hills and the hardly visible cenotaph that marks the place where the men of Bankhead used to be. The sight is charmingly peculiar, a ceremony in the wilderness to mark the death of the men of a place which has also died, honouring the vanished men of a vanished town.
Jim Wheatley, an assistant chief judge in the provincial court of Alberta, placed a wreath during the Bankhead ceremony. “My family and its roots were from here,” he said shortly after the ceremony. It turns out that Wheatley’s grandfather, Frank, a veteran of the Boer War, raised his 10 children in Bankhead and was a proud Legion member there. Remembering his grandfather, and his uncle Ken, a Second World War flier for whom he is named, is why Wheatley still comes up here.
With the Bankhead ceremony over, all that remained was to return to ‘the club’ as all the Legionnaires called it, to resume the festivities. The only question remaining is this: how does a tiny Legion with less than 400 members pull off an all-expenses-paid ceremony like this?
Well, there’s pretty much a one-man answer: Randy Van Dorsten. This is a guy who’s not kidding around about Remembrance Day—the man is a serious organizer, a professional at his craft.
Dorsten, 46, is the branch’s affable poppy chairman and he’s been arranging the ceremony for something like 12 years. He’s a 3rd generation Banffite, which he notes proudly as such lineage is rare in the transient resort town, and he’s a captain in the air force reserves. There is nothing about the Remembrance Day event Van Dorsten hasn’t organized, from writing hundreds of letters appealing to local businesses for support to reading the Act of Remembrance. But still, he isn’t too focused on formality, which is probably what gives the event its unusual grace. “Before it was more the procedure, and now it’s more the moments themselves that have meaning,” he explains.
Of course, Van Dorsten is not alone in his quest for the ultimate Remembrance Day ceremony. From longtime President Paul Thickett to past president Jim Santa Lucia to Derkson, it’s a strong team working to ensure Banff never forgets.
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