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Honouring, remembering & reimagining

Local initiative organizes new home for Whistler's cenotaph as world marks D-Day and honours veterans everywhere

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Honouring, remembering & reimagining — Local initiative organizes new home for Whistler's cenotaph as world marks D-Day and honours veterans everywhere - STORIES BY BRADEN DUPUIS, DAN FALLOON, LYNN MITGES
  • Stories by Braden Dupuis, Dan Falloon, Lynn Mitges
  • Honouring, remembering & reimagining — Local initiative organizes new home for Whistler's cenotaph as world marks D-Day and honours veterans everywhere

As the world recoils at yet more terrorist attacks in England and elsewhere, there can be no doubt that war and the ravages it brings are part of Canada's fabric

The nation has not remained untouched by such tragedies in recent years — Canadian soldier Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, shot and killed by a lone gunman at the National War Memorial in October 2014 — six dead in an attack on a Quebec mosque in January of 2017.

Today's war on terror may not reflect the deadly battles most are familiar with in the great wars, but the suffering of victims — those who serve and all citizens — is just as real.

Honouring those who lost their lives in war is traditionally done at a community's cenotaph. For many years, that has taken us to the monument in the parking lot of the fire hall in Whistler Village. And though the Nov. 11 Remembrance Day ceremony has always been a highlight in the way we recognize our soldiers and others there has been, for the last few years, a feeling that we needed a place where people could pay their respects all year round.

As you will read in this feature, a group of passionate citizens have made this thought a reality and the cenotaph will be celebrated, along with those who serve, in a new location in November 2017.

As we celebrate this, we also remember D-Day in a moving essay by writer Lynn Mitges.

And lest we forget that battles are fought every day by front-line soldiers and others, reporter Dan Falloon shares the story of some veterans who are working to live with post- traumatic stress disorder.

As you read this week's feature, celebrate the passion of citizen action and honour the spirit that lives inside democracy through all Canadians.

Lonely Memorial Whistler's cenotaph is often buried in snow and inaccessible in its current location at the back of the fire hall parking lot. - PHOTO BY BRADEN DUPUIS
  • Photo by Braden Dupuis
  • Lonely Memorial Whistler's cenotaph is often buried in snow and inaccessible in its current location at the back of the fire hall parking lot.

 

Lest We Forget:

The grassroots effort behind the relocation of Whistler's cenotaph

By Braden Dupuis

Every year in November, it seems, the conversation starts anew.

Should Whistler's cenotaph be moved from its near-invisible perch on the side of the parking lot at the fire hall, where it has loomed since the 1980s?

Old Whistler friends discuss it amongst themselves, Letters to the Editor are drafted and published in the pages of local papers, but year after year, the memorial remains in the same location.

In 2016, there were preliminary plans at municipal hall to finally relocate the cenotaph, but the project was nixed from the annual to-do list after discussions between council and staff.

Asked about it at the time, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said she didn't see the need to move it.

"I'm not sure where the initiative is coming from to talk about moving it," Wilhelm-Morden told Pique at the time.

"But probably as long as I'm around it's not going to move."

In the rigid medium of print news, the nuance of the quote was lost — a sentence spoken with a hint of a smile came across as cold and unmoving.

But the discussion continued, and when the proposed 2017 municipal budget was unveiled, there was a $40,000 line item related to relocation of the cenotaph.

"The thing that made me change my mind was (that) quite a number of people made a point of saying that I was wrong. OK, that's fair," Wilhelm-Morden said with a laugh, in a recent interview.

But the change of heart was spurred by one meeting in particular with two long-time locals who reminded the mayor of something she had written several years before, after the construction of the Pan Pacific hotel across the street from the fire hall.

"I'm not sure if it was a column or if it was a Letter to the Editor, but it was after a Remembrance Day ceremony, the first one after the Pan Pacific across the street was finished, and how, you know, it really does block the view of Fissile and that valley," she said.

"And one of the things about Remembrance Day is it's a time for contemplation, and what a lovely way to be contemplative... to be thinking, and remembering, by looking upon beautiful scenery?

"And that was kind of obliterated by the Pan Pacific — not that the Pan Pacific isn't a beautiful hotel, it is — but it's not the view of the mountains and of peace and tranquility the way we used to have that view."

A GRASSROOTS EFFORT

But the inclusion of the project in the 2017 budget doesn't tell the whole story.

The relocation of the cenotaph is an old-school, Whistler-grassroots effort, brought about by a group of passionate locals.

Sometime after the annual relocation discussion in November, a different conversation was sparked.

"I approached Gary Watson, Arthur De Jong and Doug Forseth, who were all really keen," recalled Anne Townley, who spearheaded the effort.

"We got together, and of course (G.D. Maxwell) was there, more on background initially... right off the bat we sort of felt the Olympic Plaza was the best place for it."

After a walk around the plaza, the ideal location was easy to identify: near the flagpoles on the plaza's northern corner.

"The flagpole (area) just... answered every concern," Townley said. "We're not taking up space for Olympic Plaza programming, it's dead space, we've got the stage there for the Rotary after social, or, if they wanted they can go back to the fire hall, but the stage is there if it's inclement weather, it just answers every other question."

At this point the grassroots group was expanded, bringing on engineers Jon Paine and Tom Barratt to sketch up some initial designs and ballpark a cost estimate — originally set at $40,000.

"We didn't want to go to the muni and say 'we want you to pay for this,'" Townley said.

"We wanted to have a full plan and go forward with that, not expecting anything but cooperation from the muni. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to jump onboard."

For the purpose of grant writing, a charitable organization would be of much assistance, and so the next stop was the Rotary Club of Whistler — the group responsible for the placement of the original cenotaph — where Townley presented the concept.

"They were onboard right away. It was wonderful," she said.

To this point the folks at municipal hall were unaware of the grassroots effort to move the cenotaph, but with a senior member of staff and a municipal councillor in attendance for Townley's Rotary presentation, the time had come for a meeting with the mayor.

On Guard For Thee The Remembrance Day parade marches down Village Gate Blvd en route to the ceremony at the fire hall. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • On Guard For Thee The Remembrance Day parade marches down Village Gate Blvd en route to the ceremony at the fire hall.
A BREATH OF FRESH AIR

One of the main reasons Wilhelm-Morden didn't want to see the cenotaph moved, she said, was the concern that the annual Remembrance Day would lose some of its intimate appeal.

"I wanted to ensure that we didn't lose that kind of 'down home' locals feeling that we've had with the Remembrance Day ceremony all of these years," she said.

"And when people said Whistler Olympic Plaza... I would think, 'Oh great, we'll have it up on the stage and it will just be a performance,' and that's not what this group had in mind at all."

At the meeting with Townley and Maxwell, Wilhelm-Morden was shown the rough sketches and the grant applications, and before long she was fully onboard with the project.

"By locating it at the other end of the plaza, by the flag poles, it will give people a better view of the ceremonies themselves and of the colour parade marching in, and of course the beautiful views of the mountains, so I think I've come around 180 degrees," she said with a laugh.

“By locating it at the other end of the plaza, by the flag poles, it will give people a better view of the ceremonies themselves and of the colour parade marching in, and of course the beautiful views of the mountains, so I think I’ve come around 180 degrees…” - Nancy Wilhelm-Morden

And the way the project has come about — through a group of passionate community members looking to affect change — hearkens back to a Whistler way not often seen these days.

"It's pretty cool. Quite a number of things have been built by way of enthusiastic community members, going back to playground equipment, Dandelion Daycare facility, our first library — there was a time when there would be a community project almost annually," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"And then of course we grew to the size we are, and the municipality kind of took over, so it's wonderful to see a community group raise awareness and actually take the initiative. It's a breath of fresh air."

The $40,000 in this year's municipal budget is earmarked as bridge money, to be used if necessary and reimbursed when possible.

The group's initial estimate of $40,000 has climbed to $70,000, but a number of grants have already been confirmed — including commitments of $10,000 from the American Friends of Whistler and $15,000 from the Community Foundation of Whistler/Community Fund for Canada 150 — or applied for ($10,000 from the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation, $25,000 from the Veterans Affairs Commemorative Partnership Program and $3,500 from the Real Estate Association of Whistler).

If all goes according to plan, the project will be fully funded by grant money. If not, the group may look to individual community members for additional support.

AN INTIMATE AFFAIR

Brian Buchholz has been organizing Whistler's Remembrance Day ceremony for longer than he can remember, though he's sure it's more than 20 years.

"I honestly can't remember the first year anymore. It might have been '95 or '96," he said.

And while things change slightly year to year, Buchholz tries to keep things generally consistent with the service — a community youth aspect, a military presence where possible, and an emphasis on respectful reflection, no matter the turnout.

"While it's always nice to have a nice, large community turnout, it's not a sign of 'success,'" Buchholz said.

"There is no 'success' on the day, it's just to have a nice service and a good presentation, hope the weather is good and that people appreciate and learn some lessons from the day."

Like Wilhelm-Morden, Buchholz appreciates the intimate, "down-home" feel of the current location on Remembrance Day.

"I've always found the facility that we use for Remembrance Day fantastic," he said.

"I think the intimacy there, and even the crowdedness of it, is interesting and rewarding, and we're all together, and we're crowded but not claustrophobic — I think that's a neat thing."

But the fact remains that for 364 days of the year, the cenotaph sits in a parking lot, out of sight and mind and often buried in snow.

Bringing the monument out into the open will help relate the story of Canada's history to those who visit Whistler.

"We don't beat our chests or overtly celebrate our records in wartime," Buchholz said, noting that that's not what this is about, but rather giving people the opportunity to ask questions.

"'What's the cenotaph? What's Remembrance Day?' People who are from Europe would go 'Of course we know that Canadians came and fought on our behalf,' but people from Asia or maybe some people from South America, Americans, don't know our history.

"So here's a physical demonstration of that history, and maybe they'll ask a few questions. The information booth will be able to point people in that direction."

That said, Buchholz said he would be remiss if he implied the cenotaph must be moved, or the current location is an aberration.

"It wasn't, but I think the move is timely and is being well handled and it will be well received as well," he said.

And when the first ceremony takes place at the new location this Nov. 11, Buchholz hopes the intimacy remains.

"We don't put up barriers, we don't put up 'stay-behind-this-line tape' and so forth like that. The closest thing I have to security is where I ask the Boy Scouts to make a line so that the marching party can come in," he said.

"I certainly want to continue that."

A NEW TRADITION IN WHISTLER

When the cenotaph is officially unveiled in its new location on Nov. 10, it will be the same stone adorned with some fresh plaques.

One will replace the current plaque, adding recognition for the war in Afghanistan, and another will identify the cenotaph in both French and English.

The updated monument will also feature a plaque dedicated to United Nations peacekeepers.

Though final designs are still in the works, the plan is to incorporate lighting, planters and benches as well.

Concrete pouring, landscaping and the physical relocation of the cenotaph will take place in August and September.

"In the new location, tourists, visitors from around the world, will be able to walk past and see that Whistler recognizes and remembers its past, and Canada's past, and the piece that it has played in the past wars and the past conflicts — that we are respectful of that," Townley said.

"Sitting behind a bunch of dirty snow in the fire hall doesn't show any respect whatsoever, as much as the current day of service is wonderful and it's an amazing community service, the new location will show that, as much as we are a community of playful, sports people, that we are recognizing that there is a community and we are respectful of our history.

"And I think that's really important. There is another side of this community."

All told, the efforts to move the cenotaph included about 20 Whistlerites who volunteered their time or talents.

Talking about the process invoked a favourite quote of Townley's, by American anthropologist and author Margaret Mead:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

"My takeaway is that if you see need, and you think it's important, just go ahead and do it. Get people that are similarly interested and move forward," Townley said.

"You don't have to rely on somebody else to do something... grassroots groups of people can move forward."

 

Working Together The attendees of Wounded Warriors Canada's Tribute to Your Service program are shown in front of Nita Lake Lodge. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WOUNDED WARRIORS CANADA
  • Photo courtesy of Wounded Warriors Canada
  • Working Together The attendees of Wounded Warriors Canada's Tribute to Your Service program are shown in front of Nita Lake Lodge.

Wounded Warriors: Canada helps veterans with PTSD

By Dan Falloon

Though they may not have experienced the stresses of combat firsthand, military spouses are no strangers to the challenges of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

So when Wounded Warriors Canada (WWC) provides programming for veterans suffering from the affliction, spouses must attend as well.

Earlier this month over four days, more than 50 Canadian Armed Forces members, veterans, first responders and their families gathered at Nita Lake Lodge to relax, reflect, rekindle and enjoy the great outdoors as part of their journey in dealing with PTSD. It was a chance to meet other veterans and their families and talk about their experiences.

One of those at the retreat was retired Royal Canadian Navy engineer Stéphane Marcotte, who served for 28 years. Over the years he found himself acting aggressively — out of character — as a defence mechanism to keep others away, all the while unaware of the toll it was taking on his wife, Susan.

"A lot of times, the spouse thinks it's their fault because we react towards the spouse, but that's not what it is at all," explained Marcotte during a break in the Nita Lake Lodge lobby. "That's just the person who's right there, right now."

It wasn't until 2010 that the Marcottes, who live in Victoria, received Stéphane's PTSD diagnosis and could finally get on a road to recovery.

"I had to go to the hospital with a panic attack. I thought I was having a heart attack. But after a while, with all the symptoms, I got diagnosed with PTSD," he said, his demeanor calm and speaking in a matter-of-fact-tone.

"You just snap at everybody. I wasn't the guy I am now. I realized that's not who I wanted to be. That's not who I am."

After serving on various missions over his nearly three decades of service, including the War on Terror in Afghanistan, Stéphane described how these tense moments add up as the decades of service pile up.

"It's more accumulation of stress," he said. "It's not one particular (moment). It's like you add a drop of water to a cup. Eventually, the cup will overflow.

"Some missions we do are to make sure that Canada is safe, and sometimes, that doesn't mean we are in a safe situation."

In the thick of the confusion, Susan felt like there was nowhere to turn. Today, it's a different story thanks to Wounded Warriors Canada (WWC). Through the organization she has been able to find camaraderie with others in the same position.

"You feel very isolated when you're not in connection with anybody else," she said, while sitting across from her husband."You feel, 'this is only happening to me.'

"When you participate in any program run by Wounded Warriors Canada, you realize you're not alone and you have somebody else you can chat with that's the same!

"We become each other's support group."

For the husbands and wives of those in first-responder positions, or those who serve, a different kind of stress can build up, according to WWC ambassador Kathryn Linford, the engaging wife of Lt. Col. (retired) Chris Linford. One of the major goals of the program is to shift spouses out of the caregiver role and get the relationship back on equal footing.

"A lot of spouses of people with PTSD do absolutely everything. They're working full time, (caring for the children), paying the bills, absolutely everything," said Kathryn. "If there's a chance they don't have to do everything anymore, it's encouraging."

As ambassadors for the program, the Linfords attend a number of WWC events every year. Tribute to Your Service is an entry-level program, in a way, as those participating in it are encouraged to keep going with programs like equine therapy and COPE (Couples Overcoming PTSD Everyday).

"We meet people that are feeling desperate and they think that this is as good as life will get for them," said Chris.

"We like to tell a bit of our story because we've struggled with PTSD as a family for 22 years. We have had some very dark, very depressing and sad times within our home where we thought our relationship would fail and everything would be at a loss.

"We like to tell people that we've been able to come back from that, and the way we came back from that was raising our hand and asking for help, and then going and getting the help.

"We found that the better and stronger our relationship as a couple was, the more room and energy we had to be healthy again as a family and as individuals."

Program director Phil Ralph estimates WWC will provide $2.1 million in programs for veterans and first responders, all free of charge for those interested in participating.

"Once you've made the decision to get help or participate in the program, we want to remove the barriers, so that's why they're at no cost," Ralph said.

The organization receives no government support, so all of its funds come from businesses and individuals who believe in the cause.

“Once you’ve made the decision to get help or participate in the program, we want to remove the barriers, so that’s why they’re at no cost…” - Phil Ralph

"It's another message that we deliver to those who come to our programs — if you don't think that Canadians care, Wounded Warriors Canada is proof that they do because they give to us and they care about you," Ralph said.

Two more Tribute to Your Service events are planned for Eastern Canada later this year to maximize access for those who need it.

Here in Whistler, activities like ziplining and ATVing were planned for the week. The Marcottes primarily took the time for themselves because of Stéphane's knee and back injuries, instead walking around Alta Lake and enjoying all Whistler village had to offer alongside service dog Sarge, who sat at Marcotte's feet for the entirety of the Pique interview.

"We soaked in the outdoors and the greenery and the lake," he said.

Added Susan: "Away from the city."

"Just to sit there in the quietness — no beeping, no nothing, just quiet — was good," Stéphane finished.

More information can be found online by visiting www.woundedwarriors.ca.

 

On D-Day The assault on the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944 was one of the most impressive undertakings in military history with almost 200,000 troops moving into German-occupied France. - PHOTO BY SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Photo by shutterstock.com
  • On D-Day The assault on the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944 was one of the most impressive undertakings in military history with almost 200,000 troops moving into German-occupied France.

A day of courage:

By Lynn Mitges

John never thought he'd see his next birthday.

At the time, he was a 22-year-old Canadian Army engineer coming ashore on D-Day in German-occupied France.

Along with 200,000 other young men, he was thinking about surviving the next minute during the Allied invasion on that historic morning on an 80-kilometre stretch of sand in Normandy.

John Mitges - PHOTO SUPPLIED
  • Photo supplied
  • John Mitges

He was with the 18th Field Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers. It wasn't enough to just survive the invasion — his platoon then had to clear land mines along the way.

It was the so-called Longest Day. But he lived to see his 23rd birthday and the liberation of France.

Second World War veterans don't often talk about D-Day and those endless days that followed. He says there were several brigades already ashore before he landed on Juno Beach just before noon under cloudy, grey skies.

"What I remember most was that everybody in front of us was doing such a good job," he says, a response indicative that nothing was singular — it was a collective of young men.

"We trained, as a group, to stand up for each other. That's how we worked."

As the reconnaissance sergeant on D-Day, he moved out with the lead troops, and was assigned to report back to his unit on what lay ahead.

Within days he was wounded in the head, chest and leg and evacuated to a field hospital. Ten days later he hitched a ride to return to his unit because he didn't want to end up being posted to the infantry.

"Infantry always had the most difficult time," he says. "There were few replacements for them."

Only in rare moments, decades later, did he mention the horrors: Witnessing your fellow soldiers felled by bullets right next to you. He says you'd want to stop, but couldn't.

From France, he and his company moved on, across the Rhine River and toward the Baltic Coast for more mine clearing. Toward the end of the war he was again injured when a mine detonated. He later rejoined his unit for the return to England, and came back to Canada in 1945.

He once said that the D-Day reenactment in the movie Saving Private Ryan was the most accurate recreation of what that day was really like. He watched it only once. Seemingly insignificant moments could trigger post-traumatic stress syndrome, such as the cloying darkness of night with a view of far too many trees outside his home: he'd want to see the sky, which would allow his anxiety to ease and his breathing to calm.

Or it would be talk of new books about the war, of which — for a time — there were many as avid readers fed their fascination with literature about the Canadians' role in the Second World War and D-Day.

At those moments, he simply could not go on. He would calmly say: "I have to stop talking." It was a painful cue that the past threatened to engulf the present.

In 2014, he was awarded the highest decoration of the Knight of the National Order of the French Legion of Honour — among fewer than 75,000 upon whom this has been bestowed since Napoleon created it in 1802.

When notified that he'd receive this prestigious award for his role on D-Day, he said: "I am honoured. But I am reminded of those who did not survive the day."

He was a gracious and brilliant man. He could fix everything from a bike and a car to an anxious heart. Christmas Eve jitters that were getting the best of his young daughter were banished only when he sat on the edge of her bed and taught her all the words to "Winter Wonderland."

He was tall, strong and everything he did, he did well. He was an engineer with enviable linear thinking — something that seemed to elude his young daughter who wailed at algebraic equations as he tutored her. He was a lifelong athlete — a runner, a skier and a graceful hockey player.

He had a wonderful self-deprecating way, an easy smile and always a kind word. The war, perhaps, made him wiser, braver and more resilient. But he was likely all of the above long before he stepped onto Juno Beach on a day when luck was on his side, too.

He lived for 73 more birthdays, each one of them a gift. He passed away earlier this year at the age of 95.

He was my father.


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