What does it mean to “remember”?

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This blog has been adapted from the address I gave to my school, during our Remembrance Day Assembly, on November 8, 2019. Changing the tone, from a spoken word product to print, has been a bit difficult for me. But I have tried.

By sheer coincidence, another writer also took notice of Pte. Eddie Namaypoke, mentioned in the last of three stories of remembrance I share, below. He visited a few years after I, but wrote about it first. It is well worth your time to read Taylor Prestige’s piece in Maclean’s, Thanking Pte. Eddie Namaypoke, Canada’s forgotten soldier. I think I subliminally lifted a few ideas from his piece, as well. But they were good ideas.


In another life, when I’m not teaching, I’m a traveller and a photographer and a story teller. I’ve travelled around the world twice with my family, and along the way, I’ve collected some stories and many pictures. What I’d like to do in this Blog is share some of those stories, on this day of Remembrance, that shed light, give insight if you will, on what the idea of Remembrance means to me. And why I think it’s important.

Like many students, I grew up with the yearly procession to the gym, silent and solemn, and with the admonishment that we should be respectful of the ceremony of Remembrance. And although it made a sort of sense to me, I’m not quite sure I fully understood it. Then, or perhaps even now.

The journey towards gaining some sort of appreciation for this — the WHY — began many years later, for me. I think it began here, in Riga.

Riga is the capital of Latvia, small northern country of two million people, on the Baltic coast of Europe. In a weird coincidence, my great great great grandfather was once the harbour master of this port city, an important post, appointed by the Tsar of Russia in the 19th century. My father’s side of the family comes from hereabouts: Poland and Lithuania mainly, but also, it seems, Latvia.

But In its thousand year history as a nation, even with its unique language and culture and traditions, Latvia has experienced precisely fifty one years of sovereign, independent rule. 

Many countries have taken turns ruling here – Germany, Poland, Sweden…  and most recently, the former Soviet Union. Latvia enjoyed a brief period of independence after World War One, but then came the second. 

In 1991, Latvia broke free from Soviet influence, and began its current era of freedom. It’s been 27 years now, and counting.

In 2004, just thirteen years after independence, I visited Riga, and quite by accident, on a miserable, rainy day in July, came across this scene, an Honour Guard at the Freedom Monument.

The Freedom Monument is guarded nine hours a day, every day of the year, rain or shine. 

If it rains, the guards are soaked to the bone. But they stand at attention with solitary, solemn purpose; to remember that they are a free people. And perhaps, to remind themselves to never take that for granted.

Now look at their faces. These are not battle hardened veterans seeking glory or adventure or a thrill. There must be a higher purpose for them.

This was the first epiphany for me for what the idea of remembrance REALLY means. And not surprisingly, it means a bit of sacrifice.

In much of the world – and this might be hard for many Canadians to understand – people have had first hand experience with the destruction and the loss that comes with war. Here in Canada, we’ve been privileged to have never had to endure war on our own lands. 

At least not in our living memory. 

My own students will have heard me talk of the privilege we possess by living or having been born in this country; this is part of what I mean.

In much of the rest of the world, that privilege is absent, and the memories of combat and destruction and loss are only a generation away. Even shorter, in places as near to us as Europe, or as far as Africa or the Middle East. War happening right now.

Latvians choose to remember in this symbolic and highly visible way. And they take it seriously.

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My travels have  brought my family and I to many places in Europe that were devastated by World Wars. Anyone who’s been to Europe cannot escape noticing; you don’t even have to look hard to see the bullet holes in this wall.

In Athens, at Syntagma Square, in front of the symbol of the world’s oldest democracy, the honour guard are called Evzones; they are guards of the President of Democracy. They stand in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and they too, take their jobs seriously. 

In 2001, for example, a molotov cocktail was thrown at one of the guardhouses, and the Evzones on duty beside it, remained in place, at attention, until his officer gave him the order to withdraw.

You see, Greece, despite having invented democracy, or perhaps because of it, has lost a great many of its men and women to defendig the ideal of democracy. Even in the kilts they wear  – they’re called fustenella – they remember; there are four hundred pleats, one for every year of Turkish occupation. 

Remembrance comes in different ways.

What you see here is not a demonstration of military might or threat, or even defence, but rather, the ACT of remembering. They do this every Sunday, and it’s not for the tourists.

But it is on the Island of Crete, still in Greece, where my second story comes from. This is the Suda Bay War Cemetery.

For some background, you should know that there are, scattered around the globe, 2500 of these cemeteries in 170 countries, in which lie the remains of fallen soldiers of the British Commonwealth. 

Canada is represented – that is, Canadians are buried – in many of them. Like this place, a pebble beach on the north shore of an island in the eastern Mediterranean SeA. 

We came here, my family and I, with the purpose of finding five Canadian soldiers who had fallen in defence of Crete, and who were buried here.

It took a while; there are fifteen hundred soldiers interred here, over half of them unidentified. From Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, India… and five from Canada.

• Joseph Alexander Goyer

• William Walter Duncan

• William Jeremiah Porritt

• Edmond David Fleishman

• Lawrence Edgar Matthews

These are the grave markers of our Canadians soldiers. This is what they look like. They are real; they’re not just pictures in a slide show.

Although I cannot say what their motivations were, for signing up, I might guess. I suppose it could have for adventure or a thrill, but I don’t think so. Nor do I think it was to exact revenge on some hated enemy, far away. I can imagine that they felt some sense of duty or responsibility to serve. Four of these five men were officers, so they would likely HAVE been volunteers. They chose to leave their homes for an uncertain future.

But whatever their motivations, they definitely did not sign up so that they might be buried in some far off corner of the world, to be remembered only by the odd Canadian family passing through on their trip around the world. 

On November 11, 2014, my family and I came here to find these five young men, and we did. We had come prepared, thanks to the Canadian embassy in Athens, with poppies and commemorative quarters, the ones with the red poppy in the middle.

We tidied their graves – they didn’t need much, they are very well cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – but we left our symbols of Remembrance behind, and had ourselves a moment of silence. 

As I wrote in my journal that day, “Today, we remembered these five young men by laying our poppies at their graves. Today, they were not alone.”

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My final story comes from the ancient city of Rome, Italy. Just behind this two thousand year old pyramid,  lies the Rome War Cemetery. You can see it just behind there, in the corner.

426 soldiers, casualties once again of the Second World War, are buried here, including 22 Canadians. As I wandered the grounds, I found many of them. 

Canadian tombstones are distinctive, with a circular Maple Leaf Emblem carved into limestone.

Looking at these memorials, and upon the grounds, one is struck by their simplicity and grace. It is quiet here, peaceful.

Places like this were donated by the Italian people to the United Kingdom, and accepted on behalf of the Commonwealth countries who gave so many of their youth to the wars in Europe and Asia. 

They are beautiful and elegant. But even so, our young men and women did not make the choice to die and be buried in places like this.

And so in my final moments here, in Rome, I was struck by one marker in particular, this one for an E. Namaypoke. 

Such an unusual name, I thought, of neither English nor French origins, or at least it seemed to me.

The E, it turns out, was for Eddie. Eddie Namaypoke.

Private Namaypoke was Anishinaabe – Ojibwe –  from northern Ontario. A member of the Manitou Rapids Band of the Rainy River First Nation. A place in the far northwest corner of Ontario, along the TransCanada Highway. 

It is, coincidentally, a place I’ve been to, and remember it quite well. It’s a striking spot, along a stretch of the highway that parallels the Rainy River, and once you’ve seen it, you remember it, as I did. 

Again, Remembrance comes to us in different ways. 

Eddie would most likely have been a student of the Indian Residential School system, probably, St. Margaret’s School in Fort Frances, not far from the Reserve.

Again, we cannot possibly know the motivations that led Private  Namaypoke to enlist, in what he may have thought to have been an imperialist war, in some far away land. Something of no direct consequence to him or his family. Or his Nation. 

But he did; he volunteered. We know he volunteered because back then, Indigenous people were not subject to conscription and to deployment abroad.  

He chose to go to war.

Maybe he enlisted to gain the temporary right to vote; Indigenous people at the time did not have the right of suffrage. But if they joined the military, they were allowed to vote as long as they served in active duty. It was a privilege removed, though, when they were demobilized and sent back home to the Reserve.

I wonder if maybe he enlisted to escape. To escape the demons wrought by the residential schools themselves, to many, an unbearable agony of genocide, only to fight against a different genocide, in a far away land.

We just won’t know these things.

We’ll never know what motivated Eddie Namaypoke, a Private  of the Peel, Dufferin and Halton Regiment, Royal Canadian Infantry Corps, but I think we can be certain that it was not with the intent of dying being buried in some far away land. In a place visited and remembered by few people, and even fewer Canadians.

My hope in sharing these stories, was to try to express some personal sense of what it means to remember. You see, we all have our own reasons for being here today. Some of us have had relatives or friends who served. Perhaps they were injured or even died in service. My own grandfather fought in, and survived the second world war in Europe. 

And afterwards, he brought his wife, and their eight year old daughter – my mother – to Canada in 1956.

We all have our own reasons for remembering, and for what Remembrance means. I know that many of you here, are here because you have to be. I know that some of you think that this is a kind of burden that you have to endure every year, without really appreciating the whys and wherefores of our time together.

And I wanted to share these stories with those of you in particular, who might question why remembrance is so important.

Because 45 years ago, I was that student, I was you. A little bored, restless, unconvinced. A little bit ignorant. It’s taken me 45 years to begin to figure this stuff out, and to make a personal connection with this time, and this place.

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month.

Remembrance Day.

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