Happy Canada Day. Condolences on Memorial Day.

It will not come as a surprise to anyone who sees and hears TV or radio that the island of Newfoundland, and a chunk of Labrador, is in a time zone of its own — Newfoundland Standard Time.  The island is three and a half hours from Coordinated Universal Time (CTU) or what used to be called Greenwich Mean Time.  That means time is a half an hour earlier on the rock, and only one example of how things are a bit different in the land of this writer’s birth.

Sometimes things in Newfoundland are also the opposite of what they seem and people say the opposite of what they mean.

So if someone said, “sure, Billy Pevie, he wouldn’t drink a thimble full,” it actually means that Billy Pevie would indeed drink a thimble full and, most likely, the whole bottle if the top was left off.

Every Canada Day another, more poignant, difference emerges. And no matter how many red maple leafs I see flying around me, I can never shake the feelings of mourning and loss on this day.

On July 1, 1916 the Newfoundland Regiment was nearly wiped out at the Battle of the Somme – 90% of the 800 men in the 1st Newfoundland Regiment were wounded or killed. The battle lasted less than half an hour for the Newfoundlanders. The total Allied causalities on the first day of the battle were 57,470 of which 19,240 were fatal.

July 1.  Memorial Day.  Every year.

In the Newfoundland of this writer’s childhood, there was no joyful celebration.

It was a day when my dear father dug out his World War II medals, put on a blue blazer and joined his friends from the Legion — war veterans — as they marched or shuffled, depending on their age, up and down the hills of Portugal Cove with rifles on their shoulders, on the way to the war memorial in a cleared out little space in the cove.

The War Memorial is a landmark.

“He lives up by the War Memorial.”

“The car ran out of gas by the War Memorial.”

“I saw them holding hands up by the War Memorial.”

The name Ralph Picco is on the memorial. He was lost at sea when his ship, the S.S. Empire Bison, while under the command of the British Ministry of War Transport, was torpedoed and sunk by u-boat 124 on November 1 1940. He also fought in World War I, but come home from that excursion. He was my father’s father. His youngest child, Mary, who was just a baby when he drowned, never knew him at all.

Every July 1st, my sister or I had the job of worming our way through the assembled crowd to lay a wreath at the foot of the war memorial.  The carnations, mums and daisies poked out of a mushy circle of moss wrapped in green plastic, squishy and heavy.  I remember heaving it up to the piece of stone and laying it there.  Then, head down, I’d push my way back through the crowd to take up my post next to mom and reflect on the idea that I wouldn’t exist if my father had died in the war.

Memorial Day was commemorated in Newfoundland from the First World War on, well before it joined Canada in 1949.  The rest of Canada celebrated Dominion Day.

In 1982, Dominion Day was re-Christened Canada Day and the serious fireworks and celebrations that are now universally held across the country, and sponsored by all levels of government, began to take hold.

One year, I spent Canada Day on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and have never seen such fire works lighting the sky against a backdrop of the historical Parliament buildings.  Another Canada Day was spent driving through Northern Ontario, spellbound by the lakes, trees and winding path of the Trans-Canada Highway. Yet another in downtown Toronto sitting on the front step with my children and a bowl of popcorn, waving little Canadian flags along with the neighbours, the majority of whom were not born in this country.

This writer loves the natural beauty and potential of our country, and every day feels grateful for having won the lucky draw of fate to have been born here.

Yet I also feel the pull of a place and time in Newfoundland.

Like Mole in The Wind in the Willows who, when he gets a scent of his former home, feels an indescribable longing for a place where he feels a familiar and shared history, my longing this Canada Day/Memorial Day is to be with those who share the part of my DNA that is rooted in the remembrance of young men and women who died in a horrible war so long ago.

My heart breaks at the memory of my father, along with the other men wearing their musty Legion jackets, carrying rifles on their soldiers and shuffling around Portugal Cove, and little girls laying wreaths to grandfathers they’ve never met.

The one solace is the idea that these men must surely rest a little easier, take a little comfort and maybe even smile a little smile to know their terrible sacrifice has helped make our lives so much easier than theirs. Surely they would feel that, wouldn’t they?

May they rest in eternal peace and may we, in our words and deeds, show their same selfless love.

Because however you mark this day, whether Canada Day or Memorial Day or both, we have to know that we didn’t get here by ourselves.

Our entire generation and everyone that has come since is hoisted up on the shoulders of cooks, captains, mess hands and able seaman. We owe them our unrelenting gratitude and love, this day and everyday.

Photo: The photo  was taken in mid July 1995 at the Portugal Cove war memorial with my son and daughter. My daughter is a little older that I was when I laid the wreath. You can see a few wreaths in the background, some of them getting withered from having been laid on July 1 1995.


Author Photo 01 Sandy Tam PhotographyGail Picco is a strategist who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 25 years. She is the author of What the Enemy Thinks, a recent novel set in the nonprofit sector, and is Chair of the Board of the Regent Park Film Festival. She also writes about baseball and F1 racing.

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  1. A very moving piece, Gail. Having read some books about Newfoundland, in recent years, I can better appreciate its uniqueness and the sacrifice of its people.

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