Good morning, everyone, and welcome. We gather today to remember Canada’s war dead and to honour the Fallen—our 24 Old Boys and 3 Masters who lost their lives in the Second World War. It is unfortunate that we are unable to gather in person, and I know that many of us are missing the opportunity to sing, particularly the School Hymn and its rousing “Alleluia” chorus. Along with the handful of people here in the Auditorium, we are joined online by many others, including students, faculty and staff, retirees, Old Boys, current and alumni parents, and friends of St. George’s. Your presence is palpable, and attests to our ongoing commitment to honouring the Fallen and all those who served and died for their country.
We pause to acknowledge that we are gathering on the traditional, unceded territory of the Musqueam First Nation. In doing so, we reaffirm our commitment to the process of reconciliation, as we continue to deepen our relationship with our Musqueam neighbours.
I also would like to take a moment to acknowledge our special guests: Coadjutor Bishop-Elect John Stephens ‘83, who is leading our Service, as his father did before him; Mr. Michael Skene ’85, the Chair of the Board; Mr. Prentice Durbin ’89, our Foundation Chair; Dr. Paul Mitchell-Banks ‘78, President of the Old Boys’ Association; and Mr. Martin Shen, President of the Parents’ Association. I also would like to warmly welcome Mr. David Young, our next Head of School, while thanking him for participating in today’s ceremony.
Remembrance Day provides us with the opportunity to acknowledge those Canadians who fought and died in the two world wars, as well as in subsequent conflicts. In World War I, more than 650,000 Canadians served in the armed forces, and 66,000 lost their lives. In World War II, more than a million served and approximately 45,000 were killed. We also are reminded of war’s “unspeakable horror.” More than 40 million men, women, and children died in World War I, and as many as 60 million in World War II. Included in that number are the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
In reflecting on the significance of Remembrance Day, the words of Elie Wiesel come to mind. A Holocaust survivor and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel is one of the most powerful voices in modern history. Speaking at the White House in 1999, he delivered one of his most compelling speeches, “The Perils of Indifference,” in which he argues that indifference is the greatest threat facing humankind. In his view, the indifferent mindset is a strange and unnatural state, and I quote—“a state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.” Indifference is dangerously seductive. “It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes….”
According to Wiesel, indifference is both “a sin and a punishment.” When we choose to be indifferent to the suffering of others, we allow for more suffering, more discrimination, and more grief. We also undermine our own humanity—for it’s our ability to be empathetic that makes us fully human. Even when the odds are overwhelming, indifference is never defensible. “There may be times,” he declares, “when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Had it not been for the indifference of ordinary people, Wiesel’s parents and sister, along with six million other Jews, could have been saved.
So, how does this apply to St. George’s, both past and present? To start with, it’s important to recognize that our community was far from indifferent during the Second World War.
Both overseas and on the home front, we stepped up in a big way. 170 of our 200 Old Boys served in the armed forces, and, along with 3 Masters, 24 of them didn’t return home.
If we were to transpose those numbers to 2020, about 680 of our current Senior School students would have enlisted, and more than 90 would have been killed.
Those who served overseas were not motivated by a naïve sense of adventure. Unlike World War I, in 1939 everyone understood that it was going to be a long and bloody conflict, and that many of those who enlisted would not return home. My research indicates that our Old Boys and Masters were motivated by a desire to preserve what many termed ‘the Canadian way of life.’ To quote Headmaster John Harker: “We are fighting for everything that each of us fundamentally believes in, for justice and humanity, as opposed to savagery and brutality…for a free government by a free people…for a world free of hatred, tyranny, and injustice.” Our Old Boys served in all three branches of the armed forces, and an impressive number received special recognition, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Order of the British Empire.
In a less dramatic way, the contributions of the St. George’s community on the home front are also noteworthy. All of our students, aged 12 and over, received military training through the Cadets, learning how to march, handle a rifle, and put on a gas mask. In response to the wartime labour shortage, the boys also worked hard cleaning their dorms, common rooms and classrooms, helping in the kitchen, and doing the laundry. One of the Saints community’s most significant contributions occurred in 1940 when our families ‘adopted’ 47 English children evacuated from London in order to escape the Blitz. Our most tireless volunteer undoubtedly was ‘Naggers’ Harker, the wife of John Harker. In addition to finding foster homes for the evacuees, she volunteered extensively with the Red Cross. At the end of the war, Mrs. Harker received the Medal of Service for helping to escort the wives and children of Canadian servicemen making the journey from the UK to Canada. A number of our families also contributed to the war effort by producing munitions and supplies. The most notable of these was the Wallace family whose shipyard on the North Shore is responsible for 109 of the 312 “Victory Ships” produced in Canada during the war years.
The world has changed since the days of the Harkers, but a willingness to step up and make a difference continues to characterize the Saints community. Initiatives such as the Hamper Drive, Reading Bear, and Each One Teach One reflect an ethos of care and a commitment to the larger world beyond our campus. Similarly, I’m immensely proud of the growing number of Old Boys who are doing their part in helping to make our world a better place—here are just a few examples.
Rene Cremonese, from the Class of 1978 and Canada’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe, is playing a leadership role in promoting gender equity in Africa. Recognizing that one third of all girls and women in Zimbabwe are victims of physical violence, he is partnering with local and international organizations to help empower girls and women at the grass roots level.
Duncan Copeland, from the Class of 1994, has combined environmental activism and an interest in technology to help establish an NGO that curtails illegal fishing in the world’s oceans. Using high tech surveillance tools, he provides both national authorities and international organizations with the intelligence required to apprehend ships fishing illegally. He works globally, with a particular focus on the waters off the coast of Africa where many countries simply don’t have the resources to track and apprehend the foreign ships decimating fish stocks.
From the class of 1996, Captain Jonathan Gormick, in his work with the Vancouver Fire Department, has partnered with local health authorities to develop a program in support of people suffering drug overdoses. Rather than simply reversing overdoses and leaving, the Fire Department now returns a few days later with an outreach officer providing information on addiction treatment, counselling and housing options. In the words of Captain Gormick: “Working with the most marginalized and disadvantaged in Vancouver opened my eyes to the enormous struggle that people in our own backyards face, including barriers that most of us can’t imagine.”
Refusing to be indifferent, these three individuals should inspire us and illuminate our path forward.
We live at pivotal time in history. Our world faces a complex array of challenges—everything from the pandemic and climate change through to systemic racism, political polarization, and increasingly blatant attacks on human rights worldwide. Within this context, I believe that we have an overriding responsibility. We have a responsibility to stand up for the ideals that inspired the Fallen—democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. We have a responsibility to live the Values that should define us as a community—empathy, humility, integrity, resilience, respect and responsibility. We have a responsibility to be active and engaged—to deepen our understanding of key issues—to recognize our own biases, as well as the biases of others—to get involved—to vote—to stand up for others when they are being maligned or mistreated. In a nutshell, we have a responsibility to reject “the perils of indifference.” As Headmaster Douglas Harker observed almost 60 years ago, “we live in troubled times, but we have nothing to fear except cynicism, apathy and indifference.”
In concluding, I want to share three passages echoing Harker’s sentiments. Writing more than 2000 years ago, Matthew reminds us of the importance of caring for the less fortunate:
For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.
In his 1986 Nobel Acceptance Speech, Elie Wiesel tells us that we always must speak up against oppression:
I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
And, most recently, Jack Layton, in his Last Message to Canadians, speaks about love, hope and optimism as the means through which we can build a better world:
My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.
Every year, at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, we gather as a community to remember the Fallen. We are inspired by the selflessness of our 27 Old Boys and Masters, and we recognize our responsibility to make our school, our communities and our world better places. We envisage a better world—a world in which we treat others as we would like to be treated—a world free of cynicism, apathy, and indifference. And our actions don’t have to be grand. In the words of Headmaster Alan Brown: “Few of us are destined for heroics and great deeds. But we all face unending choices in our lives… choices that touch upon our simple duty as human beings and citizens.”
And that, I believe, is how we should honour the Fallen—by doing our part, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, in changing our world for the better—Sine Timore Aut Favore!