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Train of Heroes

Top panorama: The Remembrance Day Train was the longest passenger train in Atlantic Canada in many years; along the way WW II Canadian Women’s Army Corps veteran Edna Sampson, a member of North Rustico, P.E.I., Branch, and daughter Anita Mullins of Musquodoboit Harbour, N.S., take in the scenery from a dining car; the crowd at Truro, N.S. shows its appreciation of the veterans; West Nova Scotia Regt. WW II veteran Fred Gallant and wife Thalda of Summerside, P.E.I., stroll down the red carpet during the royal send-off in Halifax.

In a time of conflict, turmoil and terrorism around the globe, the Year of the Veteran struck a chord with Canadians. It resounded across the land in 2005, evoking an appreciation of Canada’s veterans as heroes, quite unlike anything seen here since the end of World War II.For our remaining WW II veterans, it was a case of being in the limelight in the twilight of their lives. Nowhere was that more evident than with Via Rail’s special Remembrance Day Train from Halifax to Ottawa for the national Remembrance Day ceremony on Nov. 11.

“That was just a great pile of fun,” declared WW II veteran Bill Jenkins, 89, of the Legion’s Colchester Branch in Truro, N.S. “It was a ball, all the way up from Halifax. I was amazed at the number of people that turned out at every station, just couldn’t believe it. In the middle of the night, midnight, we were coming through a place called Campbellton, N.B. I’ll bet you there were three to five hundred people out there waving flags. And it was a cold blustery night. That’s the kind of reception we received at every station stop we made from Halifax to Ottawa.”

Indeed, at Campbellton, town council, cadets and a pipe band greeted us. The mayor boarded the train and passed out municipal pins to passengers who had not yet turned in for the night. Rolling again minutes later, we slowed to a crawl through the tiny village of Tide Head, N.B., where four fire engines, several police cruisers and many vehicle headlights illuminated the pitch black as local residents disregarded the chill night, and the fact the train was running 90 minutes behind schedule, to demonstrate their appreciation to the veterans on board.

It was like that along the route. In Nova Scotia, the large crowds at Truro and Amherst included many schoolchildren, holding signs of gratitude. The most common was the Thank You sign published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald with a poppy replacing the “o” in You. Handmade signs were also in evidence. The signs appeared on station platforms and from clusters of waving bystanders at villages like Westchester Station and a number of level crossings in the countryside.

And so it went, through Sackville, N.B., to Moncton, where there was a decorated train station and a band and a parade of veterans boarding the train. Then we rolled on to Miramichi, Bathurst, Campbellton and beyond. Each stop took a little longer than expected and the train fell behind schedule, but much of the time was made up overnight as the train rolled westward through Quebec.

We had left Halifax just after noon on Wednesday, Nov. 9, with a red-carpet send-off featuring Lt.-Gov. Myra Freeman, the Stadacona Band of Maritime Forces Atlantic and a ceremonial passing of the torch from a veteran to a youth. The next morning, at St-Lambert, Que., we were again greeted by cheering bystanders. Paul Côté, president and chief executive officer of Via Rail, boarded the train here. He came on the intercom and thanked the veterans for taking the train and making this a special occasion. He then walked through a number of cars greeting the passengers.

Next came more bystanders at Dorval, Que. Then, through special arrangements, we transferred directly to the Montreal-Ottawa passenger train. More bystanders cheered us at Alexandria, Ont., on the final leg of the westward journey. After 24 stops, we reached the nation’s capital around noon on Thursday, Nov. 10. Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri, a band and a Legion colour party were on hand as several hundred cheering bystanders clapped the veterans into the station. It was a stirring moment.

The Remembrance Day Train is exceptional in a number of respects. With 33 pieces of rolling stock, it is the longest passenger train in Atlantic Canada for a large number of years, exactly how many no one was quite certain. In fact, Via Rail had to bring extra cars in from Western Canada and the Gaspé to achieve the final configuration of three engines, three dining cars, 21 sleepers, three coaches, a baggage car, a sky car and a dome car.

Via Rail gave passengers a message: “The railroad is the great symbol of Canada, the chain of steel rails and wooden ties that binds our land together. Canadian soldiers rode the rails east during the world wars for transportation to the battlegrounds of Europe. And now, today, surviving veterans and their families ride them west so that we as a nation can pay proper homage to their valour and to commemorate those who fell in war and those survivors who have fallen since.

“Let us not forget. Let us not forget the price paid by our soldiers to protect us from harm and ensure our freedom and prosperity. Via Rail Canada is honoured to host the Remembrance Day Train, and we are honoured by your presence. Thank you for all that you have done and all that you are.”

Aboard the train, an estimated 275 veterans are the heart and soul of the 460 passengers, plus about 20 media. There is a Via crew of 38, compared to the normal 10 on this run. “It’s a once in a lifetime thing,” said service manager Norma Babineau, the train boss.

It was the first time since WW II that a train had three diners, and each diner had three sittings for lunch and dinner. Some passengers and media came to call it “the troop train.” By any name, a jovial atmosphere prevailed.

Wilf Clouthier, 83, of Arnprior, Ont., a WW II Governor General’s Foot Guards veteran, and wife Nancy, 78, took a train to Halifax to make the trip back to Ottawa. Their journey was a gift from their 11 children. “…My wife was a war bride and we wanted to go visit Pier 21 (where she arrived in Canada),” Wilf explained. “And along with that it’s our 60th anniversary…. The trip has been something else, unbelievable. The size of it and the way it’s organized. There isn’t a miscue anywhere. There’s nothing you want that you can’t get or isn’t put there in front of you. We are certainly enjoying it.”

In Ottawa, many travellers stayed at the Delta Hotel at a special rate, while about 75 stayed in the cheaper but spartan military housing at the Connaught Ranges outside the city. Veterans Affairs Canada provided busing to and from major events for these two groups. The remainder of the travellers made their own accommodation arrangements.

The train people attended the national remembrance ceremony at the National War Memorial on Friday the 11th, of course, and most toured the new Canadian War Museum that afternoon. On Saturday, they boarded another train for the return trip to their homes, with the trip ending at Halifax late Sunday afternoon.

The purpose of it all was to attend the national Remembrance Day ceremony in the Year of the Veteran. Attendance at the National War Memorial was much greater than usual with an estimated 25,000 spectators, so some did not have good sight lines despite two giant TV screens, but that did not dampen spirits.

“I found this memorial service fantastic,” said Jenkins, a WW II lieutenant with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and later president of Nova Scotia Agricultural College. “Emotional, of course, you can’t get away from that, but the organization of the whole thing. Whoever was behind this organization (Dominion Command of The Royal Canadian Legion) deserves a lot of credit. A lot of work went into it. Thousands of people gathered. I’ve never seen such a celebration like this in my life. …I think it was a fantastic show. …The weather was good to us and as far as I know this was one of the most memorable days of my life. It’s something you never forget and I’m sure I speak for veterans all over the country.”

Via undertook the Remembrance Day Train not for profit, but as a community-spirited project. The idea came to Ron Jackson, in-charge counter sales agent in Halifax, in February. The son of a WW II Royal Canadian Navy veteran tossed the idea around with colleagues and received requests for bookings when he tested the concept at presentations to several Legion branches and service clubs. Management was equally enthusiastic and work began to flesh out the concept.

Warren Hutt, Canadian Autoworkers Local 4005 president representing Via employees in Atlantic Canada, comments: “We thought it was a great idea right from the get-go…. It’s nice to see ordinary rank and file members having good ideas and the company embracing it…. Plus, it’s the Year of the Veteran and I think it touches almost every family in some way and we all knew that and thought it was a fantastic thing to do.” Hutt added an interesting observation: “A lot of the vets that came back from the war, this is how they got home.”

Many people and organizations helped to make it work, including VAC and the Salvation Army. Atlantic Superstore deserves special mention. Ron Jackson noted: “I approached them and within hours they were on board. They thought it was a feel-good thing. They didn’t hesitate. I asked for everything and they supplied everything. I wanted prime rib and salmon and chicken and more desserts than the guys could eat. Atlantic Superstore didn’t hesitate and they weren’t even looking for a lot. They said, ‘We don’t want flashy advertising. We want to keep the focus on the vet,’ which was our thought right from the beginning.”

An underlying theme for the Via organizers was the continuance of remembrance. Under the direction of Via ticket agent Nancy Risser, the Halifax train station was decorated 1940s-style: “…My first idea was the poppy in front of the station where the old clock used to be…and the rest just kept coming, with the three display sections, the army, the air force, the navy, and a little special attention to the women at war,” she explained. “And after that came the idea of the muffins and selling the coffee for a quarter, the shoeshine stand, the big mural, the 44-foot-long mural in the back. It started a little bit small and it just got bigger, bigger and bigger.”

Three local museums helped create the displays recreating the feeling of WW II and its troops trains, which were the principal means of transporting service personnel across the country. So, for older folks, it was a nostalgic feeling.

For the several thousand schoolchildren who visited the station in class groups, it was a learning experience. Many signed a guest book. The most frequent comment was “Thank you,” but there were many others, including: “Very nice. Great job.” “I will remember.” “I learned a lot. Thank you.”

The project was also appreciated by Via staff. Risser comments: “I just love it and I’m learning so much about it, that’s a great part and I’m having as much fun as anybody else. Yes, it’s work, but we’re loving it. I’m an emotional person and I meet with veterans and I have tears in my eyes and everything, so I love it.”

During the past 12 months, the catchphrase of Veterans Affairs Canada has been: “2005 is the Year of the Veteran: Celebrate. Honour. Thank. Remember. Teach.” Amazingly, the Remembrance Day Train achieved all five objectives.


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