Friday, October 5, 2007

Well done Veterans Affairs Canada

It’s rare that I have something particularly good to say about any federal government department or agency, viewing most of them as bloated bureaucracies that do little more than extort their pound of flesh from me every payday in return for burdening me with unwanted and unnecessary legislation.

However I now have a far more positive view of at least one such organization - Veterans Affairs. This is a big change for me. My father, a World War II vet, lost a prolonged benefits battle with the Department and that coloured my perspective for many, many years. And there are still frequent news items where it appears the Department is more concerned about saving a buck or two than doing the right thing for the Canadians who fought (and are fighting still) for us on foreign shores. But at least one part of that organization is doing amazing work that remains hidden to most Canadians, and that’s the part that has responsibility for Canada’s war memorials abroad.

We delayed our trip to the First Word War battlefields for a few years so that we would be able to see the Vimy Memorial once its refurbishment was complete. We were not disappointed. Perched atop the Vimy Ridge, the memorial is first visible across the Douai Plain while still many kilometres away, and as one gets closer, the power of this monument and what it represents becomes almost palpable. It’s hard to find the right adjectives to describe this memorial to Canada’s war dead: imposing, magnificent, striking, arresting – all apply, but all seem somewhat less than adequate when one actually stands in the shadow of the Weeping Woman and gazes up at the twin, 100-foot towers.

Less spectacular in scale, but no less impressive, is the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, with the lone caribou, the emblem of the Newfoundland Regiment, looking out from his rocky perch over the battlefield where the Newfoundland Regiment took more than 80% casualties as they advanced on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

These sites, and others – sadly, too many others – are all beautifully maintained by Veterans Affairs Canada. Some have remnants of the original trenches still visible after all these years, and others still have the shell holes and mine craters to remind us of the horrors of that time so long ago. In addition the two largest sites, Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel, have interpretive centers staffed by knowledgeable guides – Canadian students – who are always willing to answer questions, provide tours, or just chat with Canadians from back home.

Having seen many, many such memorials over the course of our visit, there is no doubt that the Canadian memorials are a cut above, and being there among visitors from all over this planet made me proud to be Canadian and wishing the Canadian flag pinned to my jacket was just a little bigger.

Well done Veterans Affairs.

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