Remembrance Day at Juno Beach

By Andrea Bundon

Remembrance Day has been celebrated 59 times since Canadian troops landed on Juno Beach, but this year marked the first Canadian ceremony on the shores of Normandy.

The Juno Beach Centre opened its doors in the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer, France last June on the anniversary of D-Day. For many, it was a long awaited tribute.

“It was the Canadian army that liberated our town and on the soil of Normandy they had no centre, no monument,” said Roger Alexandre, Mayor of nearby Le Mesnil Patry and President of the Association of Friends of Juno Beach.

John McIntosh, a retired Chief Warrant Officer from Halifax, agreed.

“It should have been built 30 or 40 years ago,” he said. “It has to be here in order to honour those Canadians who gave their lives for this country, for Europe, for the cause of peace.”

Anne Levesque is an Alberta native and one of several Canadian students working as a guide and program coordinator at the centre. For her, the experience has provided an education she couldn’t find in any university classroom.

“I had never taken a military history class,” she explained. “Our training was extensive. We did the beaches of Normandy and we followed the path of the Canadians.”

The town members have also played a role in her education.

“Most of the people who are over 60 in this community were here on D-Day,” she said. “The have a lot of stories and they love to share them.”

The centre is more than just another war museum, it is a gathering place for Canadians abroad and, in the short time since its opening, it has become a pilgrimage site for many. Mary and Helen Henderson of Calgary gave their father a trip to the beaches of Normandy for Remembrance Day.

“He watched the opening [of the Juno Beach Centre] on Newsworld and he was just so fascinated,” explained Helen Henderson.

“He lost his dad who was in World War I to complications from mustard gas,” explained Mary Henderson. “He also had a brother in the air force in World War II.”

For the sisters, the trip has been a worthwhile experience, helping explore a part of history that has remained more of an abstract in their minds until this point.

“When you think of it,” said Helen Henderson, “Seventeen-year-old kids, high cliffs, a day like today… it’s not just moving, it’s visceral.”

John Westlake, from Moncton, also felt a very close connection to the Canadian combatants while standing on Juno Beach. He lost three uncles within four days in the D-Day campaign.

“We believe we are the only family in Canada to lose three brothers,” he said.

The family made a personal commitment to share their story and, several years ago, a park in Toronto was named after “the boys,” as Westlake affectionately calls them.

“We want everyone in the world to know the story,” he said. “We are not looking for anything. We just want everyone to know what some people did for their country.”

Last year marked Westlake’s first visit to Norm- andy and, after drinking a toast at his uncles’ graves, he and his brother headed down to the shore.

“We went down onto the beach,” he recalled. “We were where thousands had died and it seems to have been forgotten. We were down on our bellies, shooting at imaginary targets with imaginary guns. We were caught up in it.”

Even if most traces of the D-Day landings have washed away with the tide, the Juno Beach Centre will serve as a reminder of the Canadian contribution to both French and Canadians alike.

“It’s our duty to perpetuate the memory of those youths,” said Alexandre. “In 1944, our future was uncertain, our liberty was limited. It’s the duty of the French with regards to our Canadian friends who gave their lives for our freedom. With a centre like this, there will always be people who will come and visit.”

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