SARNIA — Wilma McNeill’s 27-year battle to have the federal government recognize Remembrance Day as an official holiday has finally been rewarded with a largely symbolic move by the federal Parliament.
Although the federal government doesn’t have the authority to make Remembrance Day (or any day) a nationwide statutory holiday, a bill recently passed by the Senate will make it a “legal holiday,” which is really a form of symbolic recognition.
“I hoped I would see this happen in my lifetime,” said the 86-year-old Sarnia resident, after Bill C-311, An Act to Amend the Holidays Act (Remembrance Day), passed third reading in the Senate on Feb. 13.
“I’m happy, but it’s not about me,” McNeill said. “It’s about the veterans.”
Introduced as a private member’s bill by Nova Scotia Liberal MP Colin Fraser, the legislation passed through the House of Commons and the Senate. “I thought this was a way to elevate and clarify the status of Remembrance Day,” Fraser said recently. “This puts Remembrance Day on equal footing with Canada Day and Victoria Day.”
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Except it doesn’t do that in Ontario: Even if C-311 becomes law, the federal government cannot force the provinces to make Remembrance Day a paid day off, because labour laws are a provincial responsibility.
Still, as the legislation awaits royal assent, its backers hope it will put pressure on Ontario and the other holdout provinces to give all employees paid time off on Remembrance Day. (The other jurisdictions that don’t recognize Nov. 11 as a statutory holiday are Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories, and Quebec.)
But McNeill hopes her home province will take the hint. “The Senate represents all of Canada,” she said. “It passed overwhelmingly … in my view, Ontario should look at it.”
For McNeill this day couldn’t have come soon enough. She picked up the Remembrance Day cause back in the late 1980s. She was working at the LCBO in Sarnia when liquor stores went from being closed on Nov. 11 to being open for at least part of the day.
McNeill thought it would show more respect to Canadian veterans if all workers had the day off. Since then, her dogged crusade to make Remembrance Day a holiday in Ontario has involved politicians of every stripe at all levels of government, and McNeill has reams of correspondence to prove it. She estimates she has written at least 3,000 letters and collected thousands of petition signatures. Meanwhile she has given too many media interviews to count.
McNeill said she was ready to call it quits at the 10-year mark, but decided to plug away. “People kept encouraging me, kept telling me to keep going, and so I did.”
She remains steadfast in the belief all businesses in the nation should be closed Nov. 11 — especially in Canada’s largest province — adding other countries do more to honour Canadian war veterans than Canada does.
“The people in Holland appreciate our soldiers more than we do,” McNeill said. “It’s a disgrace our largest province doesn’t recognize it.”
McNeill can recall two previous brushes with victory. She received a response to her campaign from former premier Bob Rae in 1991. Signed by autopen, the letter stated all LCBO outlets would be closed on Nov. 11.
But a couple of days later McNeill received a call from Rae’s office saying there had been a mistake. She was crestfallen. A local newspaper carried the story with the headline: ‘Elated now deflated.’
Later, Sarnia Progressive Conservative MPP David Boushy put forward a bill at Queen’s Park that made it to second reading, but it died on the order paper when the 1995 election was called.
At the federal level, Scarborough West NDP MP Dan Harris’s private member’s bill by was defeated in the House of Commons in 2015.
The Family Business
The seeds of McNeill’s fervour were planted early. As an eight-year-old in Prince Edward Island, she watched her older brother head off to serve in the Second World War.
Later she married into a military family. Her husband — a fellow Islander named Ed McNeill — spent 23 years serving in the Canadian Air Force in peacetime. When he was 16, he watched six of his brothers go off to fight in the Second World War. His older sister also served as a nurse overseas.
The importance of the military trickled down. One of McNeill’s sons spent 34 years in the navy. Another son served in the army for 15 years, spending six months under the command of Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda.
Some Canadian military service groups are in favour of giving Remembrance Day statutory holiday status, but the Royal Canadian Legion opposes it, fearing that Canadians will view the day as just another break from work rather than a solemn day of remembrance. The Legion also wants students to be in school Nov. 11, to mark the occasion by way of educational ceremonies.
McNeill contends the educational component can be completed prior to Nov. 11, adding the day off should be a “day of remembrance” not just a holiday away from everyday duties.
The signing of an armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, had ended the First World War. More than 66,000 Canadians died in that conflict, and 172,000 were wounded. In 1919, King George V encouraged countries in the British Empire to honour the fallen by marking Nov. 11 as Armistice Day.
In 1931, Parliament officially recognized the tradition of honouring the war dead with a moment of silence at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. In time, the Remembrance Day came to pay tribute to all who have served Canada in the military.
Presently, federal government workers are given the day off, as are most Ontario provincial government employees. Some private companies give their employees the day off but they are not required to do so under the Employment Standards Act, and most private sector employees have to show up for work on Remembrance Day.
Fraser, the sponsor of Bill C-311, has long had an interest in Canada’s military matters. He represents the federal constituency of West Nova, the location of CFB Greenwood, the largest Canadian base in the Maritimes.
When elected in 2015, the Liberal MP asked to be assigned to the veterans’ affairs committee. He was already in favour of putting Remembrance Day on par with Canada Day and Victoria Day. When he discovered McNeill and her passionate quest, Fraser said they made a good team. At Fraser’s request McNeill appeared before Canada’s Heritage Committee to make her pitch. (It was the second time she had done so.) “I looked them all in the eye and asked them, that on the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy if they could support the veterans,” McNeill said.
Fraser has nothing but praise for McNeill. “Wilma is incredible,” Fraser said. “It is through her hard work and advocacy that this has happened.”
Kevin Flynn, Ontario’s minister of labour and a Legion member, says he hears different views from veterans about whether Remembrance Day should be a statutory holiday. While Flynn says that there won’t be any immediate changes to Remembrance Day’s status in Ontario, the federal government’s bill will make people think about how to best mark Nov. 11.
“We’re planning to have some discussions now,” Flynn says. “When the federal government makes a move like that, the provinces, I think, are compelled to pay attention, maybe to restart that debate, go out and consult with folks around the province from the armed services and veterans community.”
Until Ontario makes Nov. 11 a statutory holiday, McNeill said her work remains undone. She vows to continue her campaign and even plans to write a book about her experiences.
“I’m asking God to give me the time to do it.”
Pam Wright is a freelance journalist based in Lambton County.
With files from John Michael McGrath.
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