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A Day at Vimy I'll Never Forget

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From April 6, 2012 to April 10, 2012, our Canadian delegation participated in events at Carriere Wellington in Arras, France, a guided tour of the Vimy monument and the trenches and tunnels of Vimy, private wreath-laying events at the Sanctuary Wood Memorial, Passchendaele and the St. Julien Memorial in Ypres. For the wreath -laying ceremonies, we were privileged to be accompanied by Canadian Forces members, Patricia Varga the Royal Canadian Legion, Neil McKinnon Army Navy and Air Force veterans, Gene Heesaker The National Council of Veterans, Retired Colonel Robert O'Brien and Reno St-Germain Veterans NATO UN Group. The opportunity to honour the young Canadians lost in WWI reminds us how much we owe to the Canadians we remember, our peacekeepers, modern day veterans and the Canadian Forces of the present.

The guided tour of the Vimy monument tells a remarkable story of sacrifice and gratitude. On April 9, 1917, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps began their assault on Vimy Ridge. They had been preparing for the battle for many months. Concealed in the tunnels behind Allied lines, the Canadians strategized and prepared for the battle that would define us as a nation. Even though German defences had held firm for more than three years, against attacks mounted by other allied forces, the Canadian were victorious in this battle earning an independent signature on the peace treaty at the end of World War One. There were more than 10,600 casualties. The ground is rough and still bears the scars of the battle. Amazingly, the distance between the Canadian and German trenches was a mere 25 metres. No man's Land.

In response to the sacrifice of these young Canadians, the French government gave 260 acres to Canada in perpetuity to create a memorial to those who fought and died and to build the spectacular monument on hill 145 of Vimy Ridge to pay tribute to those who risked or gave their lives at Vimy and the many Battles of the Somme. The monument contains the names of 30,000 Canadians who have no known grave. I found the name of my Grand Uncle George Albert Mount who died at Vimy in 1917, at age 19. I remember the sepia photograph my grandmother kept of a sweet faced young man who never came home and whose fate is largely unknown.

Prior to the Government of Canada Ceremony of remembrance at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, our delegation travelled to Ypres, Belgium to participate in a ceremony at the Menin Gates. Every evening since 1920, the people of Ypres gather to place wreaths and remember the young men and women who were part of the liberating army that ended WWI. Because of the presence of the Canadian delegation, there was a special ceremony for Canadians on April 8th. It was ceremony number 28,811. The names of all soldiers who were never found are carved into the walls of the monument. We wondered aloud why we don't know more about these Menin Gate ceremonies in Canada and how faithful the people of Ypres are to the memory of those young liberators who died so long ago. The memory and reality of WWI and WWII are all around these towns along the Somme and lives within the people. It's a lesson for every Canadian.

The ceremonies at Vimy on April 9th were respectful and highly emotional; they marked our need as a nation to know our history and honour those who played such an important role in that history. Five thousand Canadians students, including students from Clarke Road Secondary School in my riding in London, Ontario, made the pilgrimage to the battlefields of the Somme and marched up the ridge to the commemoration, with pride and grace. The Governor General, the Canadian Ambassador, officials of the French government, the Canadian Forces band of the Royal 22nd Regiment and a Ceremonial Guard that included the 1st Hussars and the Royal Canadian Regiment from London, Ontario, were present and viewed with pride the participation of those 5000 Canadian youths. It was an honour and privilege to be a part of this experience, something I will always remember, just as we as a nation must always remember.