Wilma’s war

Sar­nia woman hopes 29-year quest to make Nov. 11 a stat hol­i­day com­ing to an end

The Observer (Sarnia) - - NEWS - CARL HNATYSHYN NEWS

Sar­nia’s Wilma McNeill has a re­newed hope af­ter nearly three decades of ad­vo­cat­ing for Re­mem­brance Day’s restora­tion as a statu­tory hol­i­day in On­tario.

McNeill is cau­tiously op­ti­mistic the new pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment will re­verse a 1982 de­ci­sion by for­mer premier Bill Davis and turn Nov. 11 back into a statu­tory hol­i­day.

“I have great faith that this is go­ing to hap­pen,” she said, sit­ting in her north Sar­nia home. “This is the last stitch on 29 years. I truly be­lieve that.”

Sit­ting next to her kitchen ta­ble, nearly over­flow­ing with old news­pa­per clip­pings, neatly kept notes, let­ters of sup­port and pho­to­graphs of McNeill speak­ing with a who’s who of Canada’s po­lit­i­cal class, McNeill said she has, af­ter pres­sur­ing ev­ery premier since Bob Rae, a feel­ing Premier Doug Ford will see things her way.

The is­sue is near and dear to her heart. The Prince Ed­ward Is­land na­tive’s late hus­band was a sol­dier, and her older brother was a sol­dier. As well, two of her sons and sev­eral of her in-laws served in the mil­i­tary.

McNeill be­lieves the cit­i­zens of Canada’s largest prov­ince should have a day off on Nov. 11 to pay the proper re­spect to those who made the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice.

“I think it’s very im­por­tant,” she said. “They sac­ri­ficed their lives for us and, if we can’t take a day and re­mem­ber, then there’s some­thing wrong with us. Most of the provinces in Canada rec­og­nize our vet­er­ans on Nov. 11 and we don’t rec­og­nize our vet­er­ans and I think that’s a pity. And I’m not go­ing away un­til we do.”

“Wilma’s War” be­gan in 1989 when she was an em­ployee of the LCBO.

“I was work­ing at the liquor store and they de­cided they were go­ing to open the store on Re­mem­brance Day,” she said. “I didn’t agree with that, and that’s the day I started my cam­paign.”

On Nov. 18, 1989, she wrote a pointed let­ter to Rae ask­ing him to en­sure all liquor stores in On­tario would be closed on Re­mem­brance Day. The premier promptly wrote back, as­sur­ing her they would be closed in the fu­ture. McNeill was de­lighted with the re­sponse. But a few days later, she re­ceived a phone call from some­one in Rae’s of­fice telling her the premier’s as­sur­ances had been a mis­take. Liquor stores would con­tinue to be open on Nov. 11.

“And I re­mem­ber I had told my story to the news­pa­per and the head­line on The Ob­server af­ter that was ‘Elated now de­flated’,” she said, laugh­ing.

There have def­i­nitely been more val­leys than peaks dur­ing McNeill’s 29-year cru­sade.

In 1995, with her ful­some sup­port, for­mer Sar­nia-Lambton MPP Dave Boushy in­tro­duced a pri­vate mem­ber’s bill to make Nov. 11 a statu­tory hol­i­day. Boushy’s bill passed sec­ond read­ing but was ul­ti­mately killed, McNeill said, thanks to machi­na­tions within then-premier Mike Har­ris’s of­fice.

In 2015, Scar­bor­ough South­west MP Dan Har­ris in­tro­duced a pri­vate mem­ber’s bill in the House of Com­mons that would have given Re­mem­brance Day the same fed­eral sta­tus as Vic­to­ria Day and Canada Day. McNeill trav­elled to Ot­tawa and spoke in per­son to the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Cana­dian Her­itage, but that bill was nar­rowly de­feated.

But the tide has started to turn, said McNeill.

In March, West Nova MP Colin Fraser’s pri­vate mem­ber’s bill in the House of Com­mons to turn Nov. 11 into a le­gal hol­i­day be­came law. While the vic­tory was mostly sym­bolic – Ot­tawa can­not force the provinces to make Re­mem­brance Day a statu­tory hol­i­day – it pro­vides di­rec­tion for Ford, she said. And with the elec­tion of Ford’s gov­ern­ment and re-elec­tion of Bob Bai­ley as Sar­nia-Lambton’s MPP, McNeill be­lieves it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore Nov. 11 sta­tus as a statu­tory hol­i­day in On­tario is re­stored.

“I’ve had the sup­port of ev­ery MP, ev­ery MPP who has served here in Sar­nia – ev­ery one of them from Ken James down to Mar­i­lyn Gladu,” she said, “and I have the great­est faith in Bob. He worked with politi­cians across the aisle when he was in op­po­si­tion and got pri­vate mem­ber’s bills passed.”

When con­tacted, Bai­ley said he would be in­tro­duc­ing a pri­vate mem­ber’s bill at Queen’s Park shortly.

“I in­tend to in­tro­duce a pri­vate mem­ber’s bill over the com­ing weeks with re­gards to turn­ing Re­mem­brance Day into a statu­tory hol­i­day,” he said. “I don’t know how it’s go­ing to go or where it’s go­ing to but I do in­tend to in­tro­duce it.”

While McNeill is acutely aware of some of the op­po­si­tion to the stat hol­i­day – many mem­bers of the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion op­pose the move, be­liev­ing chil­dren will ig­nore Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­monies – McNeill said those fears are un­founded.

“You­cantalk­a­boutRe­mem­brance Day any day of the year from Grade 1 to Grade 12. Give them the in­for­ma­tion and let them, if they so de­sire, at­tend the ser­vice,” she said. “My hus­band was in the mil­i­tary for 23 years and then he taught col­lege in Lon­don, taught in Sar­nia here and al­ways ar­ranged the Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­monies. You can have (th­ese cer­e­monies) lead­ing up to Re­mem­brance Day and then let the stu­dents have that day off and let them go to the ceno­taph if they want to.”

Pat Cornect, di­rec­tor of the lo­cal chap­ter of the Royal Cana­dian Naval As­so­ci­a­tion, said he and many of his col­leagues agree with McNeill’s po­si­tion.

“The work she’s done so far is re­ally im­pres­sive if you think about it. She’s fully ded­i­cated to this ef­fort. We’re im­pressed with her work and if there’s any­thing we can do to help her we will,” he said.


Wilma McNeill holds up a Sar­nia Ob­server news story from No­vem­ber 2000 doc­u­ment­ing her fight to make Nov. 11 a statu­tory hol­i­day in On­tario.

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