When I was a young lad, I attended Remembrance Day ceremonies as a member of the Boy Scouts. The temperature readings on November mornings in northern British Columbia usually begin with a minus sign so we would bundle up in winter coats, scarves, mittens and tuques and then stamp our feet throughout the ceremony in a futile effort to stay warm.
While we fidgeted beneath multiple layers of fabric, the veterans at the front of the service were far less animated. Most conceded nothing to the weather, eschewing any form of winter outerwear that would detract from the purpose of the day. They wore blazers and berets and to keep the cold wind out, their chests were adorned with an impressive array of medals.
Most of those veterans in the late 1960s were from the Second World War, which had ended just 25 years earlier. However, their ranks also included a number of men who had served in the First World War, a conflict we knew little about since it took place in ancient time - you know, before our parents were born.
In the years since then, every Remembrance Day brings back memories of those old men in the snow, proudly defying Mother Nature herself to honour their fallen comrades and remind the rest of Canada of the sacrifice they made as young men.
Sadly, those flesh and blood reminders of our past are disappearing. When the cessation of hostilities in Korea - the war has never officially ended - took effect in 1953, Canadian soldiers went more than 35 years without becoming embroiled in a major military conflict. Most of our efforts during those years were spent in peacekeeping roles - noble work, but not the sort that draws much attention on the home front. As this took place, the Canadian veterans of past international wars grew steadily older.
The First World War veterans are all gone now and the roll call of veterans from the Second World War and the Korean War is dwindling rapidly. (Sorry Ottawa, the conflict in Korea was a true war and not a "police action" as your bureaucrats insist as a means of cheating the soldiers out of their benefits.)
As their numbers waned, their stories were each related one last time in the obituary pages of newspapers and then, like the veterans themselves, were gone. With the passing of the vets, the significance of Remembrance Day began a dangerous descent into "just another stat holiday" status alongside Victoria Day, B.C. Day and Labour Day. Just pin a poppy on your lapel for a couple of days, watch the national ceremony on the tube in the morning and then you're free to go shopping in the U.S.!
When I was in high school, joining the military was, to put it mildly, not high on the list when it came to future career options. The military had a low profile across Canada at that time and such a choice of vocations was more often greeted with bewilderment than appreciation from your peers.
Master Cpl. Gavin Flett understands this environment. He joined the Canadian military in 1995 during a low period for the Armed Forces. The first Gulf War was over, Canada's involvement in the Bosnian war was in a peacekeeping role and the federal government was debating the merits of downsizing the military. Flett, 37, grew up in the Lower Mainland and when he joined the military, he admits it was not a profoundly popular choice.
All that changed with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In the years that followed, Canada once again found itself involved in a major international conflict, primarily operating in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Flett was sent to Afghanistan in 2008, a tour that was cut short by severe injuries to his leg and ankle.
Since returning to Canada, Flett says he has been overwhelmed by the support from strangers for his service to his country.
"People are much more respectful and appreciative of the soldiers today," he says. There's a significantly greater amount of public support and it's apparent through people coming up to me and thanking me for what I've done."
Flett adds such expressions of good will and gratitude were surprising at first. To him, the real war heroes are the veterans he used to see on Remembrance Day. He sees himself as much too young to be counted among their ranks.
"It's kind of strange because in my generation, we look at the older World War II veterans and everybody thanks them for what they did," he says. "Now people are thanking me for what I've done and it seems strange to be in that position. It feels pretty good though."
Whether he accepts it or not, men and women like Flett are the new face of Remembrance Day in Canada. Like the old men in the snow I watched as a youth, the Canadians who fought for Canada in the First Gulf War, the Bosnian conflict and now Afghanistan are the living reminders of the sacrifice a few have made so the rest of us can enjoy the benefits of living in a free country.
As Flett aptly puts it, "Everybody who is living in this nation, whether they were born here or not, needs to know that the freedoms that they enjoy right now had a price and it was sometimes paid for with the blood of people like my grandfather and my great uncle."
While Flett does not include himself in the equation, he should. As time slowly claims the old veterans, Flett and his colleagues must take up the torch and put a face to the notion of what it means to serve one's country.
Flett's mother made sure all of her children understood the significance of Remembrance Day. On Nov. 11 each year, she made them watch the ceremonies followed by the fly-past of vintage military aircraft. For Flett's mother and others of her generation, the sacrifices of war were a very real thing. The price of that sacrifice was visible each time the family gathered without the fathers, brothers, uncles and nephews who never returned from war.
That message has gradually become muted over the past several generations as Canadians have been blessed with long periods of peace. That makes it all the more important we acknowledge the sacrifice being made today by young men and women, many of whom are at the same age as those old men in the snow were when they put their lives on the line for Canada.
"I think it's certainly getting more and more difficult for the younger generation to relate to what happened in World War II," Flett says. "And the gap is growing. For someone my age, those veterans are my grandparents. For the next generation, those are their great-grandparents and they often never got a chance to speak to them. They didn't hear any stories so they are a lot more further removed from it. So I guess guys who are my age who served will tell their children stories from their experiences in Afghanistan."