They gave their to­day for our to­mor­row

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - EDITORIAL -

It’s easy to for­get, if you’re at a Mon­treal Alou­ettes foot­ball game at Per­ci­val Mol­son Me­mo­rial Sta­dium, that you are in­side a me­mo­rial to the Great War. It’s easy to for­get that New­found­land and Labrador’s only uni­ver­sity, Me­mo­rial Uni­ver­sity, was built and named to hon­our the war’s dead.

It’s easy to for­get, if you’re snap­ping a fam­ily pic­ture in front of the Par­lia­ment build­ings in Ot­tawa, that the most prom­i­nent thing in the photo, the Peace Tower, is a First World War me­mo­rial.

In­side Par­lia­ment, the Se­nate cham­ber is dom­i­nated by eight enor­mous paint­ings re­call­ing Canada’s role and suf­fer­ing in that war. And at the cen­tre of the build­ing is the Me­mo­rial Cham­ber, where each day, the pages are rev­er­ently turned in the books con­tain­ing the names of Canada’s war dead. The big­gest book is the one from the Great War. From coast to coast to coast, this coun­try is dot­ted with memo­ri­als to a war that ended 100 years ago, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Al­most ev­ery small town has one.

Be­neath a cross of sac­ri­fice or on a sim­ple stone ceno­taph, the lo­cal dead are named. The lists are shock­ingly long; a Canada that then had just eight mil­lion peo­ple lost more than 66,000.

Some mon­u­ments speak of what Cana­di­ans of a cen­tury ago thought it had all been for: King, coun­try, em­pire, God, free­dom, jus­tice. Other mon­u­ments are more cir­cum­spect. “To our hon­oured dead,” they read. “Dy­ing yet be­hold we live.” “Their name liveth for ev­er­more.”

Some list only the names of those lost. Oth­ers quote from “In Flan­ders Fields.”

John McCrae’s poem was writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of “We are the Dead.” And be­fore the war was over, its au­thor, a sol­dier and physi­cian com­mand­ing a Cana­dian hos­pi­tal in France, would be counted among them.

His poem is part mourn­ing and part call to ac­tion. The last stanza com­mands the liv­ing to “take up our quar­rel with the foe,” be­cause if we fail, the Dead “shall not sleep.”

To­day, that part un­der­stand­ably sounds off to many read­ers. How­ever, the poem was writ­ten dur­ing a war that the au­thor un­der­stand­ably wanted his side – Canada – to win. He gave his life for that cause. But that war is now long over.

A cen­tury later, the great­est of Canada’s po­ems of re­mem­brance can also be taken as a com­mand to the liv­ing to give mean­ing to the sac­ri­fice of the dead by con­tin­u­ing to strug­gle for a bet­ter world, and a bet­ter Canada. Mr. McCrae did not want his read­ers to re­main in the past, mourn­ing. He wanted Cana­di­ans to look to the fu­ture, and to act.

“To you from fail­ing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.”

It’s why the peo­ple of New­found­land hon­oured those who “short days ago lived, felt dawn, say sun­set glow” with a prom­ise to strive for a bet­ter fu­ture, by build­ing not just a me­mo­rial to the dead but a Me­mo­rial Uni­ver­sity for the liv­ing.

It’s why Canada’s best men’s ju­nior hockey teams play each spring for the Me­mo­rial Cup.

It’s why that war me­mo­rial tow­er­ing over Par­lia­ment is called, hope­fully, the Peace Tower.

And it’s why Per­ci­val Mol­son en­dowed a mon­u­ment not to loss but to life, and to the things he loved most. A sports star, he was named the best ath­lete at McGill Uni­ver­sity three years in a row. He won the Stan­ley Cup with the Mon­treal Vic­to­rias in 1897. He set a world record in the long jump in 1900. He rep­re­sented Canada in the 400 me­tres at the 1904 Olympics.

He was also from one of Canada’s wealth­i­est fam­i­lies. Nev­er­the­less, when the war came, he signed up. In the sum­mer of 1916, he was hor­ri­bly wounded at the Bat­tle of Mount Sor­rel, struck in the face by a bul­let that sliced through his mouth and shat­tered his jaw. He re­turned to Canada to re­cover. And then he went back to France. On July 5, 1917, he was killed in ac­tion near Vimy Ridge.

In his will, he gave $75,000, an enor­mous sum at the time, for his uni­ver­sity to pay for the sta­dium, so that the liv­ing could go on liv­ing.

But in liv­ing, per­haps also to pause for a mo­ment from time to time to re­mem­ber those who gave their to­day for our to­mor­row.

Lest we for­get.

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