By Arnold Malone
It had been a jocular evening. Canadas National Defence Committee, which I had the privilege to chair, was hosted by the town of Maldgem,Belgium to a night of fellowship on February 8th, 1992.
The all-party committee had been in Europe to re-assess our defence requirements given that the then- Soviet Union had recently elected a new and refreshing leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. The three-week investigation took us to numerous military and peace centres in a variety of European countries where we tried to ascertain any change in a perceived threat that might have arisen from a refreshed Soviet Union.
At the end of our second week, staff had booked us for a rest day following days of briefing at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. The committee, however, chose instead to visit a Canadian War Cemetery. Word of our visit reached a neighbouring town council, and they hosted an evening reception with sandwiches and cake that turned into a time of storytelling punctuated with laughter and joy.
What was evident that happy night was the extraordinary regard that the council held for Canadians. In fact, Canada, for them, was a place to honour.
The next morning we boarded a small bus to travel to the Adegem War Cemetery. The sprit of the previous evening continued with ongoing joy. That is, up until we drew nearer to the cemetery. Increasingly we grew silent until each was alone with the beating of their heart.
We were hushed as we disembarked and walked softly by the big gates, along the manicured hedges and among the perfect pattern of crosses casting eerie shadows upon the cool ground. We were struck by the size of the cemetery and the number of crosses that extended with diminishing form to the far-away corners beyond.
The low light of a late winter day made for a strobe effect as we passed the rows of markers. Our group dispersed; such moments are deeply private. Each of us was gripped by the perfect layout of crosses upon crosses upon crosses. It was a heavy moment beyond our capacity to absorb extended rows of crosses, so orderly in all directions, framed by trimmed hedges in a place of perfect neatness. It fell upon us that it is they who are at peace and rest together in a great communion and it is we who are the intruders, left to dwell on this immeasurable loss.
We walked among the rows and read their names with their ages burning into our hearts. James MacDonald, 19, William Neil, 22 and, from time to time, the sadness of the marking An Unknown Solider. Who was this solider? Back on home soil, who had worried, how long did hope endure and when did hope give way?
For more than an hour, silence rang in our ears as we walked, row upon row. Occasionally, there was a breezy whisper through the bordering trees. Later, a group of local school children arrived to lament with us. I was to address this group. Even with a group of 14-year-old boys and girls, silence was the message. These stoic children had such high regard for Canada and Canadians. Freedom had been regained; a nation had been saved, but so terrible was the price.
An hour and a half later, we boarded our bus. We returned to our hotel whispering our conversations. The next morning, the members of three political persuasions remained quiet, reflective and when we spoke, it was as if we might intrude on the orderly experience of yesterday. To this day, that event is a seminal moment that still seems too overwhelming to understand.
Humankind will continue to have disagreements. May we find a more civil way to resolve our differences.
Arnold Malone served as MP for Albertas Battle River and Crowfoot ridings from 1974 through 1992. He retired to Invermere in 2007.