The commander-in-chief's first duty is remembrance



As his term of office reaches its second month, Canada's latest governor general faces topmost, among key duties ahead, remembrance and military issues as the country approaches a huge anniversary of nationhood.

Occasions and events include 100 years marking 1914's opening guns of the First World War, and later the anniversary of that much-acknowledged nation builder -- the globally heralded victory in the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge. Canadians will also see, in 2017, their country's 150th year of Confederation.

A young Canadian Army lieutenant at Vimy Ridge, Greg Clark, later a well-known journalist, observed following the Vimy battle, "As far as the eye could see -- south and north along the miles of the ridge, there were Canadians.

And I experienced my first full sense of nationhood." For his first act as commander- in-chief of Canada's forces David Johnston, with his wife Sharon at his side, offered roses and a prayer at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National Memorial in Confederation Square.

October's viceregal moment at the cenotaph revealed a connecting point with a predecessor -- a reminder of one of the initial acts of longtime friend, the vicereine appointee in 1999, Adrienne Clarkson.

Upon taking office before the turn of the century she gave assurance that the aforementioned Tomb of the Unknown Soldier would be situated in the homeland; and the following year the casket, borne by a horse-drawn gun carriage, passed through Ottawa streets and in a mistyeyed ceremony was laid to rest at the national cenotaph.

In touching closing moments, the site was voluntarily showered by Canadians gently casting their remembrance poppies on the windswept scene. The moving poppy dedication remains an annual Remembrance Day occasion.

Hearts were warmed, particularly for veterans, to see that Clarkson, along with her successor, Michaëlle Jean, who also saw significant service as commander-in-chief, attended Johnston's investiture activities.

Since I stepped back into "civvies" from active service in 1945, no commander- in-chief has stood as tall as Clarkson in outstanding honour and devotion to Canada's veterans and remembrance.

This would include even the great warrior, Lord Alexander of Tunis, whose reign was marked occasionally and in part by comradeships developed at the Toronto Mens' Press Club (as it was then called), where a bottle of Bushmills Irish was held sacrosanct for his unannounced visits.

My passion is remembrance.

It's a subject, according to national polls, that suffers diminishing awareness among Canadians, and I am moved by the need to help restore the national memory to its former stature. I have no doubt that Clarkson, during her term, had in mind the suggestion by prime minister Lester Pearson, himself a veteran of the First World War, that the nation's soul is particularly evident in war.

In an op-ed in 2005 upon her retirement as governor general, I pointed out that Clarkson had given great energy to ensure that bravery of our men and women would not be forgotten. Here in the homeland, and at Canadian Forces stations along with precious grave sites abroad, she attended to military ceremony with a professional touch, and cared for all matters involving veterans, and public communications generally, with a warm personal approach.

She has spent Christmas and New Year's with Canadian Forces in the field, thousands of miles distant from the cosy seasonal hearth of Rideau Hall.

As Clarkson prepared to depart in 2005, the Year of the Veteran, she invited veterans and their families to a generous "Party in The Garden" on June 30, the eve of Canada Day; the keynote was remembrance and thanksgiving.

In an earlier time, the Rideau Hall garden's spacious beauty in the heart of the capital had been slammed shut to public activity by predecessor Jeanne Sauvé. Unthinkable! Holders of the viceregal office are not to be absent or hidden from view. And so, I suggest advisers will want to remind David Johnston that he is required to "see and be seen." For that, fair and adequate budgets must be approved; inadequate budgets can invite a continuation of inadequate attention to the mission of remembrance, in turn diminishing a major characteristic of the Canadian soul.

As it did for many in that year -- uniformed personnel, veterans and the public-atlarge -- Clarkson's reign was marked by the opinion of the Citizen: "Adrienne Clarkson reached out to Canadians like no governor general for decades." Exactly! That's what truly marked the highlight of her term. It was an indisputable fact of my experience in the postwar period.

As David Johnston's journey began, the moving occasion was heralded by coronation trumpets with redcoats all around, a horse-drawn landau, gonfalons, banners, flags, swearing-in, youthful singers, speeches, many children, -- all-in-all totalling pleasing pomp accompanied by appropriate circumstance.

For veterans, I suggest we have one who may prove to be a dedicated ally to enhance national memory for the benefit of all Canadians.

I sense when taking the measure of the honour and integrity associated with the appointment, the text of the book about to be read during David Johnston's term will match the book's promising and colourful cover.

Artillery veteran Jack Wilcox in 2003 received the Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation for his remembrance journalism. He lives in Merrickville


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