They all looked sharp in their specially tailored commemorative jackets. They responded to the atmosphere of being away from home on a field trip with not unexpected exuberance; they looked pretty pumped. But when several of them spoke publicly the other night in Ypres, Belgium, I could tell these teenagers had changed even in the few days we’ve been away.
One of them, Sam Futhy, a Grade 10 student from Uxbridge Secondary School, noted a visit to one of the Great War cemeteries.
“When I saw the number of grave stones,” he said. “I don’t know. It just hit me.”
Earlier this week, in the town where I live, there was a little incident on the main street. A car jumped the curb and ended up sideways in front of a few shops. I noticed it because the police were there. I ventured closer and saw a woman, I think the owner of the car, sitting on a storefront step. What intrigued me was that everybody gathering around had the same first reaction.
Sometimes, achievement comes in very small packages. And sometimes it arrives when you least expect it. In this case, a friend of mine, a teacher who’s been working diligently to pull together a major event this weekend, was in the middle of something else. Suddenly, one of her students interrupted to show her his latest piece of work.
“He was completely covered in sawdust,” my teacher friend Tish MacDonald said, “and he showed me this wooden silhouette he’d been working on. It was incredible.”
The silhouette is the outline of a soldier, a First World War Canadian soldier, whose figure will join the décor and displays that, in a few days, will transform the local high school in Uxbridge, Ont., into the site of “The Samuel S. Sharpe Gala” fundraiser.
The group gathered as instructed at the end of a long walkway in the Pennsylvania woods near Uniontown. We waited for a few moments and he joined us – complete with ochre-coloured polo shirt and pants and a hardwood walking stick – to begin our tour. He seemed a rather young man to be guiding us through something as prestigious as this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house. But the moment he began to speak about this place called “Fallingwater,” we sensed we were in the hands of a master tour guide.
“Just the way my arm rests across my walking stick,” he said, placing his forearm at right angles to the stick, “is the cantilever design that Wright used to build this home for Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann.”
Sam helped Tyler make it through. But when he needed the same kind of assistance – nearly 100 years ago – there was no one there to help Sam through. Tyler Briley, from Port Perry, was in Ottawa last Thursday. The minister of veterans affairs was unveiling Briley’s latest creation, a wax sculpture of Sam Sharpe.
“It’s been a form of therapy,” he said. “I’ve just gotten well in the last year, in part, because of my work on this.”
It was a time when every man wore a hat, or as one historian described it, “silk toppers for the privileged, cloth caps for working men and straw boaters for the younger rakes.” It didn’t matter which one Canadians were wearing, 100 years ago this week, since most of them were airborne during the first week of August. Hats were in the air in celebration because Canadians had heard the news from Europe. Here’s the way the Toronto Telegram described it:
“A booming roar … rose and fell in the narrow canyon of streets,” the newspaper reported in August 1914. “It was the voice of Toronto carried away with patriotic enthusiasm. Britain had determined to give the bully of Europe a trouncing.”
In short, it was exactly a century ago that Canadians learned their nation of eight million citizens would follow Mother England into a war to end all wars against Germany. In fact, when I did some research for this column on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I learned a great deal. I discovered, for example, that instead of reporting events surrounding the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the archduke and duchess of Austria-Hungary on June 28, 1914, Canadian newspapers quite unabashedly fomented public opinion in support the war.
Not only that, but the papers quite literally beat the drum of war in Canadian city streets. Pierre Berton noted in his book “Marching as to War” that in Hamilton, the Spectator newspaper projected slides on the exterior walls of its downtown building pointing out the good English King and the villainous German Kaiser. In Winnipeg, demonstrations resulted and they led young men to the local military barracks to enlist. And in Quebec, where I thought nobody wanted to fight in a war to defend the King of England, La Patrie, a Montreal newspaper, editorialized this way:
“There are no longer French Canadians and English Canadians. Only one race now exists, united by the closest bonds in a common cause.”
Strange too, since it had only been 15 years since 6,000 Canadians had served with distinction (four won the Victoria Cross) in the South African War. And by 1914, statistics showed that Canada’s regular army had shrunk to only 3,000 men. Still, in 1913, a full year before the assassinations in Sarajevo, Sam Hughes, the minister of militia, had invited Canadians to bolster the country’s militia. No fewer than 60,000 men showed up at training centres across the country to become so-called “weekend soldiers,” reservists preparing for what seemed an inevitable European war. Clearly the Canadian male population was either bored or eager for a fight.
Just look at this community as proof. As I discovered when I researched my book about the First World War battle at Vimy Ridge, (thanks to files at the Uxbridge Historical Centre) local lawyer and MP Samuel Sharpe had no trouble getting Parliament to give its blessing for the formation of the 116th (Ontario County) Battalion in 1916.
And when Col. Sharpe took his message of serving King and Empire in the Great War to towns and villages across what is now Durham Region, he couldn’t keep up with the flood of enlistment. Typical was teenager Lyman Nicholls. In 1914 he’d responded to a couple of recruiting sergeants from the Mississauga Horse to become a boy soldier playing trumpet in the regimental band. But the next spring, in June 1915 while in class at Uxbridge Secondary School, he really got the bug.
“We were having a French lesson,” Nicholls said. “Our teacher went out of the classroom for a few minutes and I stood up and started for the window. I said, ‘This is our chance, fellows,’ and climbed out the window. Seven others followed me.”
At the Uxbridge post office they took medical exams, signed enlistment papers to join Col. Sharpe’s 116th and went to the quartermaster’s office to pick up boots and uniforms. And even though his parents withdrew him that night because he was underage, Nicholls joined legitimately that summer when he graduated from high school. Later that year, when Sharpe’s volunteers conducted target practice with Ross rifles on a shooting range (along what is now the Brookdale Road) and were photographed in Elgin Park during a drill demonstration, they were 1,100 strong.
As part of their formal send-off, Uxbridge residents erected arches and banners over the downtown streets with religious and patriotic slogans, including: “God bless our splendid men” and “Send them safe home again.” Except that the recruiting of young men, tossing of hats and shouting of slogans did NOT keep them safe. Of the 1,100 members of Col. Sharpe’s 116th Battalion only 160 returned alive. Sharpe himself committed suicide, it’s said, unable to face the families of his county.
The death of a generation began 100 years ago this week.
At 22, Tim Laidler didn’t have a worry in the world. As a reservist in the 2nd Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in 2008, he felt confident he could accomplish his eight-month commitment in Afghanistan – guarding supply convoys in Kandahar Province.
This particular day, however, Cpl. Laidler had been assigned an additional task, guarding the gate at Kandahar Airfield. A civilian ambulance approached. He opened its doors for a routine check and was suddenly faced by an Afghan girl of 16. She’d apparently been forced into an arranged marriage and felt her only way out was to set herself on fire, to be saved by the Canadians, or die by her own hand. She died.
“What had the global community come to, that a young girl had resorted to kill herself in front of me?” Laidler asked himself. “I suddenly felt myself disconnect. I felt myself die inside.”
Nearly 30 now and a survivor of post traumatic stress disorder, Laidler spoke to an audience of MPs, senators, active and retired soldiers, and a number of invited guests (myself included) on Tuesday. The 1st Annual Sam Sharpe Breakfast (exploring Veterans’ Mental Health and Wellness) was arranged by Durham MP Erin O’Toole and co-hosted by retired Gen. Romeo Dallaire, now a Canadian senator.
As MP O’Toole described it, the gathering over a breakfast in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill was designed to bring together key advocates trying to help Canadian veterans coping with operational stress injuries (OSI). O’Toole explained that he organized the event in honour of one of the original sufferers of PTSD.
“Col. Sam Sharpe was a Member of Parliament (for Ontario North) who served on the battlefields of the First World War,” O’Toole said last week in the Commons, “before returning to Canada where he took his life struggling with his mental injuries.”
Unlike Uxbridge’s own Col. Sharpe, Tim Laidler found help before harming himself. A former comrade-in-arms recommended he participate in the Veterans’ Transition Program, a research initiative at the University of British Columbia, connecting veterans with other veterans struggling with OSI. At first, Laidler said he resisted saying he didn’t need counsellors telling him what to do. But he learned to open up to his peers and that in turn opened up a brand new career.
“Otherwise,” he said, “I’d have gone off to a little corner of the country and disappeared.”
Laidler is now a Masters student at UBC as well as executive director of the resulting Veterans’ Transition Network. He explained that VTN all started with about a dozen guys in 1999, and has grown to about 400 volunteers whose goal is to launch similar programs across the country by 2015 allowing VTN to one day assist 150 veterans a year. Through his own story, Laidler emphasized that help had come from his community, from his buddies, from his family, but not from either the local or national offices of Veterans’ Affairs Canada.
Laudable for community, I thought, but not for the federal government or its civil service whose job is to help the veterans constituency. Indeed, VAC via the government’s current Veterans’ Charter has in some cases paid veterans lump sums to eliminate them from being a long-term drain on federal pension budgets.
Co-chairing the information breakfast with O’Toole this week, Senator Romeo Dallaire offered his own take on the growing PTSD problem. In 1994, Gen. Dallaire had commanded the United Nations assistance mission in Rwanda. The genocide he witnessed in the African nation became the subject of his 2003 non-fiction book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. The resulting PTSD had forced Dallaire’s release from the Canadian Forces in 2000, when he turned to lecturing and conducting research on conflict resolution.
During the Tuesday morning session, Dallaire lamented that despite the end of the Afghanistan operation last year, Canada “is still taking casualties. Not just the walking wounded,” he said, “but those taking their own lives.”
I asked Dallaire about the elephant in the room at Tuesday’s Sam Sharpe Breakfast. Why wasn’t the body most responsible for veterans’ welfare, Veterans’ Affairs Canada, present and accounted for at the breakfast?
“Canada’s veterans are an unlimited liability… and (caring for them) is a lifelong covenant,” he said.
“What about the Veterans’ Charter?” I asked. “Isn’t paying veterans lump sums instead of living up to that unlimited liability, cutting them out of the system, violating the covenant.”
“We can’t talk about the charter,” he rationalized. “It’s still before Parliament.”
It appears, nearly 100 years after the Ontario Regiment was decimated at Passchendaele, Belgium, sparking Col. Sam Sharpe to take his own life in 1918, that just like it was back in the Uxbridge colonel’s day, the fate of Canada’s veterans lies more in the hands of family, community and fellow soldiers than it does in Veterans’ Affairs Canada, the body most responsible to service that unlimited liability.
A veteran friend of mine and I happened to be comparing notes about an upcoming overseas trip we’ll be taking together. We were itemizing some of the clothing he might need for the climate where we’ll be travelling. I reminded him about the possibility of rain at night and the likelihood of warm temperatures in the daytime. I used some reliable advice:
“Pack layers,” I suggested, “so you can add or subtract as needed.”
“Why do you think I take several days to pack?” he pointed out. “I like to plan these things.”
“So that’s the secret,” I kidded him. “You take almost as many days to pack as we will be travelling.”
A few months ago, my wife and I were invited to a meeting in downtown Toronto. We thought it was about planning our European battlefield tour for next spring. So, we arrived at the Merit Travel agency on schedule. We were then escorted through a rabbit’s warren of office cubicles and into a boardroom and introduced to a member of the agency staff whom we didn’t know.
“This is Sue Parkinson,” we were told. “She’s got something for you.”
In the fall of 2001, a man dropped by the original location of the Grenadier Militaria store in Port Perry. It wasn’t long after the store had opened its doors for the first time. Although he didn’t know Dave Zink, the proprietor of the store, Dave Robinson asked a favour. A production (by the Borelians Community Theatre) needed military props and uniforms to authenticate an upcoming show. Robinson, then a history teacher at Port Perry High School, wondered if Zink might loan some of his unique artefacts to the production. Robinson couldn’t believe what happened.
“He said, ‘Yes,’” Robinson said. “And right away, I knew Dave Zink was a valuable asset to the community because he was so supportive.”