Charlotte Girard and Romane Valée read aloud the names of Canada’s war dead at the Canada War Museum on Thursday. The two Normandy residents are members of the Westlake Brothers Souvenir Association, which visits Canada every four years to honour the Canadians who helped liberate France in 1944.
Bruce Deachman / Bruce Deachman
One by one, with just the right solemnity, the names of 7,000 of Canada’s Second World War dead were read aloud on Thursday at the Canadian War Museum.For the most part, the speakers were not themselves Canadian, nor were they even born when the last Canadian soldier fell to that war. But they remember nonetheless.The 30 young people, ages 13 to 24, were visiting Canada from France — specifically Normandy — and had come this far to honour the Canadians who 75 years ago liberated France from German occupation. They’re in Canada for nearly a month, travelling from London to Quebec City to take part in 20 official functions. Five of those events will mirror Thursday’s: In London, Toronto, Cornwall, Longueuil and Quebec City, the remaining names of Canada’s 47,000 Second World War dead have been or will be read aloud.Some among the group were also planning to take part in a celebration of life on Thursday evening at Beechwood Cemetery for D-Day veteran Bud Hannam, who died on June 29 at the age of 94. An honourary citizen of Basly, just eight kilometres from Juno Beach, Hannam spent 52 days in the area in June and July 1944 as a medic and stretcher–bearer.“It’s hard to put words on it, but we respect the fact that they came to Normandy 75 years ago,” said Anna Mainhagu, 22, from Coutances. “They weren’t French, but they came to serve our country.”“They came to give us freedom,” added Philippe Bosquain, 17, from Gonneville. “We owe a lot to Canadians for our liberties. I’ve always heard people talking about the Canadians. My grandfather wrote a book about (D-Day), so being able to meet some of them has been something I’ve wanted to do.”Over the past two weeks, the group has met numerous Second World War veterans, including on Wednesday at the National War Memorial.“I think we’ve touched them,” said Mainhagu. “You can see the emotion in their faces, to see they’re not forgotten.”“I feel that’s how some of them feel,” added Bosquain. “They feel like they’re being forgotten. But by seeing them now, we can put faces on the people that we’re proud of. And we can tell them that they’re our heroes, because that’s what they are.”Mainhagu and Bosquain are part of a 150-strong group called the Westlake Brothers Souvenir Association, which was founded in 2006 by Christophe Collet, a Caen high-school teacher who lives in Basly. A group of his students in 2004 asked him about how soldiers lived in 1944 — where they slept, what they ate, that sort of thing. They came up with 60 cards with questions on them for an imaginary soldier, which the Mémorial de Caen military museum passed along to 35 Canadian vets visiting Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. The students were invited to meet the veterans.“You couldn’t imagine the emotion,” recalled Collet. “It was incredible, this meeting of young people from today and young people from yesterday. It was like meeting old parents that you didn’t see for a long time.”That led to a number of Collet’s students dedicating a space in their school to the Canadian soldiers, and then, in 2006, a trip to Canada.When they returned to France, they formed the Westlake group. The objective of the association, named for three Toronto brothers — Thomas, Albert and George Westlake — who all died in Normandy over five days in June 1944, is “the promotion and preservation of the Duty of Remembrance owed to those Canadians who dared to cross the ocean … to liberate first our region, then France, and finally the whole of Europe, from Nazi barbarity.”This year’s trip to Canada is the third since the association’s formation: they’ve made similar journeys every four years since 2011.Collet recognizes that remembrance, in France and elsewhere, is a fading art. In Canada, he says, war remembrances often tend to be downplayed or overlooked because the conflicts didn’t take place on Canadian soil, and because Canada’s war history is not particularly well taught in schools. But in France, he adds, relics of the war remain everywhere, not just in museums, and history of the wars is a frequent and mandatory school subject. In Basly, which boasts a population of only about 1,100, two streets and three monuments are dedicated to Canadians.“In the next village, Anguerny (same population), there are five monuments and three streets dedicated to Canadians.“Some of the people here in the association can’t explain why they are here,” he adds. “Often they can’t explain. They say ‘We don’t know why we are here, but we can’t imagine being in another place when we do what we do.’”ALSO IN THE NEWS:More research needed on low-temperature liquid cremation, Public Health Ontario saysHelicopter flyover at RedBlacks’ Canadian Forces appreciation night‘They know they are not alone’: In Renfrew, community paramedics make house calls and change email@example.com