A lesson in valour from Juno Beach

Jaime Watt Navigator Ltd.
Executive Chairman
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This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on June 9, 2019.

On the Normandy coast, the few remaining brave veterans gathered, their numbers depleted by the unrelenting ravages of time. They were joined by politicians from every nook and cranny of our country, military brass, and serving soldiers, sailors and airwoman and men.

And thousands upon thousands of everyday Canadians and French. All gathered to commemorate, and remember, the 75th anniversary of the largest combined military operation in history and, arguably, the crucial turning point in the Second World War: the Allies D-Day landing.

The air was filled with an almost partylike atmosphere. The weather was glorious. Event planners from Veterans Affairs Canada efficiently checked guests off lists and issued colour-coded wrist bands. Along the route, French authorities closed roads and provided motorcycle escorts.

The French stood by the roadside and, all these years later, expressed their enduring gratitude with quiet and solemn waves. Canadian flags, along with those of our allies, flew everywhere — not just from public buildings but from homes and apartment balconies.

Friends greeted friends. They made plans for dinner. It felt peculiar, almost surreal.

As we took our seats for the start of the ceremony, that feeling didn’t change. As lovely as it was, it all felt, in many ways, no different from many other ceremonies. Bilingual. Inclusive of our Indigenous sisters and brothers. Anthems were sung. Music was played. A thoughtful speech was given by our prime minister. It was all, well, appropriately Canadian.

And then everything changed.

From the beach came 359 young Canadian and French boys, each one representing a Canadian who was killed on that day 75 years ago. And from that beach those kids kept coming and coming.

Each carried boots or flowers or a helmet in remembrance but it was their age, roughly the same as those who lost their lives, which made the greatest impression of remembrance on me.

It was at that moment that I truly understood the difference between valour and courage.

Courage, of course, is the ability to do something one finds frightening, while valour is strength, determination, heroic bravery in the face of unimaginable danger.

Part of the act of remembrance is to remember that these were boys — kids we would call them today — who fought a war which was not their own. They were volunteers, every last one of them, who understood that the duty of a free citizen is the willingness to fight to preserve that freedom.

They took the beaches, many of them in their first military engagement, and remained fiercely committed to holding that ground as the world fell apart around them.

And the beach was only the beginning.

Their belief in a better world drove them further and further — from the beaches of Normandy to the heart of the continent and beyond. Caen, where Canadian flags flew this week alongside the tricolore, was a turning point on this road to salvation. A city martyred for peace and the enduring belief in something better.

And like the city itself, that hope has endured. The veterans who spoke on Thursday told a story that books never could. A story of valour but also the insanity of a time when young people were sent into the world with Canadian emblems sewn not onto their backpacks but rather the shoulders of their uniforms.

And when the war was done and they came home, they went on to be, in the words of journalist Tom Brokaw, the “Greatest Generation,” for their resolve coming of age in the Great Depression and their sacrifice in the Second World War.

Standing on Juno Beach, I came closer to understanding the power of that resolve, realizing how the discipline of one step forward can carry a person — and a generation.

And closer to understanding just how important Laurence Binyon’s words from his poem, Ode of Remembrance, are.

As he said, “we will remember them.”

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