Forever Remembered

My apologies for the long delay in getting another post up. It’s been a rather busy last two months.

The following is a piece that I wrote for a course last year. Given the assignment to write about a certain place in Brantford (however, restaurants, bars & stores were excluded) I decided to take on a rather challenging subject – the historic, beautiful, and tragic war memorial.

A Canadian flag atop a long silver pole whips in the wind, blocking out all noise from the traffic on the busy intersection behind me.

Flowerbeds line the interlocked path that I am descending, though today they are empty and covered in a thin white sheet, evidence of the Canadian winter that just ended.

As I get closer, the eyes of the four women and three men standing tall in front of me seem fixed on me, or perhaps the armouries across the street.

Of course, that’s impossible. The lifelike and life-sized bronze statues–four of which signify the importance of women during the war, while the other three are replicas of soldiers from the army, the navy and the air force–have been frozen in these spots since being unveiled 18 years ago.

Between them, engraved into the towering grey structure, read the words: “They Lost Their Lives For Humanity.” Along the ground below the statues lies another flowerbed, which on Remembrance Day is filled with wreaths of all colours paying tribute to fallen soldiers; but on this February day, it sits empty.

Atop this foundation stands the focal point of the memorial: a towering slab of grey limestone rising upward, cutting into the clear blue sky.

The front half of the tower is defined by a thin cross, carved masterly into the stone, spanning the entire façade. Below it, at the base of the tower, lies a coffin made of the same grey stone, complete with flowers carved into the top. Though the flowers are indistinguishable, they look like they could be tulips, matching those that the Dutch give to the city to plant in the flowerbeds once winter ends.

Behind this centrepiece lies another walkway leading to a grey marble wall in which the sun’s reflection sears into my eyes. It stands 10 feet tall and spans the width of the memorial.

In its centre are the words, “To The Glory of God,” and a dedication to the 333 soldiers whose names are etched into the wall in row upon row in a fashion that I could only associate with the formation of a military march

In reality, soldiers only march at this spot one day of the year: November 11.

Regardless, its importance is priceless. Its role is to not only act in memory of those who lost their lives but also to educate on the impact these wars had on Brantford, and indeed, Canada as a whole.

In 1924, Walter S. Allward was commissioned with the task of building a cenotaph to replace the much smaller one located in Brantford’s Mt. Hope Cemetery. It was to be Allward’s second monument in the city, having completed the Alexander Graham Bell Memorial just blocks away 16 years earlier.

Allward’s greatest work was still in the process of being completed while he designed the memorial in Brantford, that being the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. Allward is said to have received the contract for Vimy because of the beauty of the design on the Bell Memorial, and therefore agreed to design the Brant War Memorial similar to the Vimy Memorial as a form of gratitude to the city that gave him his start.

A site was chosen along Highway 2, the main route linking Windsor with Montreal at the time, directly across from the Brantford Armouries, which houses the 56th Field Regiment.

As the entire country attempted to get by during the harsh economic climate that dominated much of the 30’s, the memorial also faced financial adversity. Allward’s original plan called for bronze statues – one depicting crippled artillery, another of a wounded youth, one of a figure praying, and one of a resolute mother – but funding was never achieved, and Allward’s design was never fully completed. The unveiling of the statue carried on as planned, and on May 25, 1933, the Right Honourable Earl of Bessborough, then Canada’s governor-general, officially unveiled the memorial.

As with anything that has survived the test of 77 years, the Brant War Memorial too saw changes throughout history.

In 1952, local architect Chas Brooks designed the Memorial Gallery which stands directly behind the original memorial, paying tribute to fallen soldiers from other conflicts such as World War II, the Korean War, and with two names under its heading, Afghanistan.

In 1960, the city was able to secure the final corner of land on the square and tear down a service station that stood there, marking the final step in naming the land around the cenotaph Memorial Square.

The committee for the memorial was disbanded later that year, and no changes came to the memorial for nearly three decades, until a new committee was appointed in 1988.

Their first order of business was to try to recognize completion of Allward’s original design, and they appointed sculptor Helen Granger Young of Winnipeg to design the seven bronze statues that stand at the memorial today.

Though the memorial physically sits in Brantford, it is considered the war memorial for not just the city, but also Brant County and Six Nations.

In today’s era of what feels like constant conflict between the two sides, perhaps the greatest significance in the memorial is its honouring of Six Nations people alongside those from Brantford and Brant County.

The memorial may not be more important to anyone than Don Spiece, the former Chairperson of the Brant County War Memorials Association and a veteran of the Royal Canadian Navy. He’s an intimidating man who stands 6’4”, with a white beard, and a face that resembles that of a wolf. Wearing a blue jacket bearing the Navy’s logo, the broad-shouldered man looks like he could still crush me as he states the importance to have all soldiers honoured together

“The thing that you don’t understand is when you put that uniform on, it doesn’t matter your skin colour, your background, your religion, the only colour that matters is red,” Spiece said. “I’ve had red brothers, black brothers, yellow sisters, we all fought together, we were one family.”

Though a memorial to Aboriginal soldiers does stand on the Six Nations Reserve of the Grand River, the Brant War memorial is still considered the official place of remembrance.

An equally important aspect of the memorial, and one that likely legitimized building such a magnificent statue, is Brantford’s strong military history.

During the First World War, the strong agricultural economy base in the city led to the massive businesses like Cockschutt and Massey-Harris sponsoring entire units of soldiers. Brantford was, and very much still is, a hard-working white-collar city, evidenced by the fact that Brantford has the highest per capita amount of soldiers serve in Afghanistan of anywhere in Canada.

The Brant War Memorial’s main function is to commemorate these people from Brantford, Brant County and Six Nations who made the “Supreme Sacrifice,” to help keep their memories alive and to educate others of that sacrifice.

“You had 100 veterans marching when I first became mayor in 94, and now we get 10-12, and we’re going to lose that tradition because they’re just passing on,” said Brantford Mayor Chris Friel. “And I’m just worried we’re going to lose the importance of all of this as they continue to go.”

This is where the memorial is essential, in keeping that importance alive. Friel discussed how he takes his kids to the memorial to honour two of their great-grandfathers, both of whom fought for the British Empire, to help keep that familial connection alive, and to ensure they are aware of that history.

Despite Friel’s concern over the dissipating importance, Spiece believes that the structure holds too much meaning for too many different people.

“Visitors to Brantford and Brant County  come see our memorial because not just how it was built, but also because it has a different meaning for everybody,” Spiece said. “Some see Vimy Ridge, Dutch people see their liberation, French people see freedom. It has different meanings for different people.”

To me, the meaning is almost overwhelming. Born into a family of police officers, I was raised to appreciate those who sacrificed themselves for the benefit of our country. As I look at the memorial, that appreciation overwhelms me, and always causes me to seriously think how lucky we all are to be here today.

Looking ahead to the future, the Brant War Memorial Committee is working towards putting a small memorial to honour Polish veterans somewhere in Memorial Square, in recognition of the large Polish family in Brantford and their work fighting alongside the Allies.

Brantford may have seen its economy fall, its downtown crumble, and its famous son move to the bright lights of Hollywood, but throughout all of the changes, this structure has stood strong, reminding us all of how we are able to live freely today.

Now it’s up to us to ensure that importance lives on.

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