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Lest we forget: in honour of our war dead

By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register

“Patriotism is not dying for one’s country, it is living for one’s country — and for humanity. Perhaps that is not as romantic, but it’s better.”

Agnes McPhail, the first woman elected to Canada’s House of Commons, said those words. She was a young teacher just out of the normal school in Owen Sound, Ont., when the First World War broke out and all the boys left. She was still a young woman when just a few of them came home.

The war formed McPhail even as she taught farm boys and girls arithmetic and English composition. She went on to represent Canada at the League of Nations on the disarmament committee.

The war formed her generation — a generation that gave Canada its sense of itself. We were then a young nation mourning a lost generation.

The wounded country that remembered its 66,665 dead and cared for its 172,950 wounded is still with us in every town and village where the war’s toll is memorialized in cenotaphs, which were almost always erected near the centre of town.

There are at least 220 war memorials in Ontario alone. Throughout Saskatchewan and Manitoba many towns and villages have memorials. They vary from simple stone tablets to elaborate sculptures. But it would be difficult to find a single cenotaph that celebrates war, or proudly proclaims a triumph.

It may have been Pope John Paul II who first said, “War is always a defeat for humanity.” And Pope Francis has repeated those words again more recently. But it’s a truth McPhail and her generation — the ones who lived through the Great War — would have recognized at once.

For this Remembrance Day The Catholic Register decided to take a look at how the Canadians who lost their brothers and fathers a century ago chose to remember. Pictured here are just several of the numberless cenotaphs across Canada.

In addition to the names of the dead, almost every cenotaph mentions God. “Dedicated to the Glory of God and to those who served their Country. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them,” reads the Macdowall, Sask., Branch #241 cenotaph, constructed in 1979.

The cenotaph in Humboldt, Sask., is “Dedicated to the memory of our heroes who fell in the World Wars I and II.” Whether it’s the cross atop the war memorial in North Portal, Sask., or the inscription in the Goderich, Ont., memorial, Canada’s cenotaphs do not celebrate war. They mourn the dead.

“All that this Earth can give they thrust aside. They crowded all their youth into an hour and for one fleeting dream of right they died,” reads the Goderich memorial.

We must now remember not just the dead but the generation they were taken from. We must remember, and honour, how they remembered.