by Victoria Fulford
Bombardier Adam Pankratz stands guard during the ceremony.
An eerie fog blanketed Portage la Prairie, Man., on the morning of Nov. 11. It was a fog so thick that people and objects seemed to disappear. Some said it was fitting weather for Remembrance Day, considering the thousands of soldiers from across Canada who travelled to distant fields of battle never to return to their families.
The people of Portage la Prairie are well aware of how quickly the weather can change in their part of the world. As has been the custom for the last few years now, the Remembrance Day ceremony was held indoors at the Portage Alliance Church. “In Manitoba you never know what the weather is going to be like,” explained Marlene Nicholls, president of the Legion’s Portage la Prairie Branch. “One year it can be 10 or 11 degrees and the next there could be six feet of snow. As the veterans got older it just got to be too much for them to be standing outside for an hour.”
The ceremony attracted 700 people from the city of roughly 13,000, located less than 100 kilometres west of Winnipeg in the centre of Manitoba’s farming belt. Established on the site of what was Fort la Reine, its name reflects these voyageur roots and gets its meaning from the prairie portage early explorers endured with their canoes when transporting goods from the Red and Assiniboine rivers across to Lake Manitoba.
The city has a long military tradition and was the site of a Canadian forces base from 1940 to 1990. Now known as the Southport Aerospace Centre, the former base on the outskirts of the city is home to a Canadian Forces flying training school and the Canadian Aviation Training Centre. Representatives from the CF training school and 13 Field Battery were participants in the ceremony.
Further evidence of the city’s military roots was evident in the number of cadets on parade. Large contingents from 575 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets and 19 Corps of the Royal Canadian Army Cadets stood in orderly rows while two female cadets–representing both groups–placed a wreath in memory of Silver Cross mothers. Local scouts, girl guides and students also contributed to the impressive youth presence.
While young people took part in many aspects of the ceremony, it was the members, particularly the veterans, of the Portage la Prairie Branch who organized the event. “We had all the veterans doing all the key jobs and all of us, the younger ones, backing them up,” explained Nicholls.
It was Nicholls’ first Remembrance Day ceremony as president of the branch. A member for 10 years, she noted that guidance and advice from older branch members went a long way toward ensuring the event would be successful. The branch, which has more than 550 members, shares responsibility for the ceremony on a rotating basis with unit 13 of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada.
The crowd in the church stood as Legion and ANAF members, cadets, scouts, guides and members of the local detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police filed in and took their places. With Legion member Henry Romance leading the way, the colour party, carrying an American flag in recognition of the events of Sept. 11, stepped smartly in and took its place behind the portable cenotaph.
All remained standing for the singing of the national anthem and the sounding of the Last Post by Kelly Walmsley, followed by two minutes of silence, a time set aside to think about war, about peace and those willing to risk everything in the defence of Canada. The Lament marked the end of the silence and was followed by the sounds of Reveille. Parade commander Keith Richardson then stepped forward to read the Act of Remembrance.
Bob Hay read out the names of those who placed each of the 40 wreaths. Later in the program, the audience would hear his singing voice as he and daughter Violet Enns joined together at the microphone for a duet, leading the group in the singing of O God, Our Help In Ages Past.
Enns, a Legion literary contest winner, represented the youth of Manitoba on a Veterans Affairs Canada trip to Dieppe in 1982. It was a journey that affected her deeply. It continues to shape, in some ways, her relationship with her two sons, one of whom attended the ceremony with his cadet squadron. “(The trip) was a real cornerstone in learning the importance of carrying on these traditions and remembering that peace came at a cost,” she said. “We need to pass that on to generations after us.”
Following the wreath ceremony, air force cadet Sergeant Karen Dufresne read the poem High Flight by Pilot Officer John G. Magee. Heads were then bowed for a memorial prayer performed by Reverend Ray Willms, the pastor of the Portage Alliance Church who is also a member of the Legion. In his address, Willms noted that these days “it is more difficult to focus on where to keep the peace.” He described a world where terrorists can take over planes and direct them into the World Trade Center “like sparrows hitting the living room window”. This was not a scene from a science fiction movie, but part of our reality. In times like these, he said, the preservation of peace was more important than ever.
Constable Bob Johnston of the RCMP, who spent nine months in Kosovo helping to train and build a new police force, also addressed the gathering. He spoke about the little children he saw overseas, some as young as four, who went door to door selling items like tissues and candy to support their families. For them, school was a luxury. He told of families vacating their homes, to rent or sell to others. These people were forced to live without permanent shelter so they could have food to eat. “We as Canadians have so much to be thankful for,” he said. “Our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers paid the price for us. We as the younger generation have to be very vigilant in…ensuring that the peace they fought for and gave to us is maintained.”
At the end of Johnston’s speech, the congregation rose to sing a hymn. This was followed by Willms’ benediction and a rendition of God Save The Queen with Ladies Auxiliary member Beatrice Ferguson providing accompaniment on piano.
Following the ceremony many people drove downtown to the Legion hall to share a meal. It is a tradition that occurs every year no matter who is in charge and is probably most eagerly anticipated by those who didn’t have time to grab a bite before the ceremony. It can be seen as much more than a time for eating, though. “It kind of completes the whole day, the comradeship of everyone getting together is really important,” said Nicholls. Many stayed well after the meal to socialize.
While residents of Portage la Prairie enjoyed the warm glow that good food and friends provide, the statue of a brave World War I soldier kept watch at the cenotaph in the centre of town. A paper cross, fashioned by little hands at the Portage day care centre, rested against the foot of the memorial. Despite the November chill, monuments commemorating past wars and the graves of veterans in the cemeteries around the city were not forgotten by the residents. Caring hands left brightly coloured wreaths and poppies which stood out like beacons on this grey day of remembrance, marking these places for all to see.