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The Silver Cross Story

MemorialCross_Current.jpgThe faces have changed over the years, their somber duty has not.

Every November 11th, at the eleventh hour, around the eleventh minute, one Canadian woman makes a short, laboured journey to the foot of the National War Memorial in Ottawa on behalf of all bereaved mothers.

For more than six decades now, a national representative tasked with carrying the burden of all Canadian families.

This Remembrance Day, as another National Silver Cross Mother lays a wreath in Ottawa, you might want to take note -- to remember not just Canada's sons and daughters who fell in war, but also the women who many believe sacrificed those children. They belong to Canadian history just as much as the country's war dead.  And have a legacy all their own, one rarely examined and unique to this country.

The year was 1916.  Canada was deep at war.  And a fierce patriot - novelist and essayist William Alexander Fraser - formulated an idea.  He proposed a tribute to mothers.

Fraser penned a letter published in the Toronto Star, suggesting a silver cross for the grief-stricken. "The mothers are the heroines of the bitter home trenches", he wrote.  "They suffer in silence with no reward but the sense that they have answered the call with their heart's blood - their sons".

WilliamFraserLetter1816.jpgIn the vernacular of the day, Fraser explained, "Men could take off their hats when they met a woman with this medal on her breast; they could get up, even if tired, and giver her a seat on a crowded car."

Ottawa author and researcher Suzanne Evans says Fraser "put this idea of a noble, honourable sacrifice within a very accessible frame of reference, an every day frame of reference for a very war weary country."

Fraser's idea did strike a chord, and after following up with a letter to then Prime Minister Robert Borden, a tangible token of a mother's loss slowly took shape.

In 1919, the Great War over, the government of Canada instituted an award to both mothers and widows of Canadian soldiers who had died in active duty or whose deaths were later determined to be the result of active duty.

Officially, the memento is called the Canadian Memorial Cross.  In everyday conversations, it's become simply, the Silver Cross.

"It's the medal no one wants," says Evans.  "But if you've gone through (a death), you don't want the memory of your child or husband or wife obliterated.  So this is a public representation to honour their memory."

Eric Fernberg, a self-proclaimed enthusiast of Silver Cross history, calls it a "hometown story" unique to Canada.

As a specialist in wartime dress and insignia, Fernberg personally manages the collection of Silver Crosses at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.  While lauding the Cross's Canadian roots, he explains the idea has also been borrowed by other nations.

In 1947, New Zealand adopted a cross almost identical to Canada's. Then, a few years ago, Fernberg says, the Canadian War Museum hosted a fact-finding delegation from Great Britain. The result -  the "Elizabeth Cross" was instituted in 2009.  Similar in design to Canada's Silver Cross, it is bestowed on family members of British Armed Forces personnel killed since the Second World War.

"It's a legacy that is Canadian," says Fernberg. "And it's something we should all be proud of".

Canada's Silver Cross has changed its basic look only twice since 1919, each time with the coronation of a new British monarch.  At the same time, every single Silver Cross is distinct, because the reverse is engraved with the name of the man or woman who died in service.

Patricia Braun is wistful as she fastens a cross over her heart.  It bears the name of her son, Cpl David Braun, killed in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in the summer of 2006.

"It's almost overwhelming to think how many thousands of women have worn this pin," she says, acknowledging a remarkable history. "There's such a long line of them."

Braun is this year's National Silver Cross Mother, a role she calls an honour, "I'm doing this for all us mums", she says.
David Braun with Mom.jpg
The Royal Canadian Legion began naming a National representative for all Silver Cross Mothers in 1950, but not before thousands of bereaved Canadian women had already  made their mark on the country's psyche.

Suzanne Evans points to the Canadian mothers who made a pilgrimage to Vimy France in 1936, their chests covered with silver crosses and the medals of their fallen sons, husbands or both. 

Among them, Charlotte Susan Wood from Winnipeg, a woman Evans calls an "iconic figure".

The exact details of the children Wood lost to war have faded with history, but some aspects of her story have not, the Winnipeg Free Press reporting on her meeting at the new Vimy Memorial with King Edward VIII:

CharlotteSWood-7.jpg"I wish your sons were all here," said Edward gravely. "Oh! Sir," cried the old woman, "I have just been looking at the trenches and I just can't figure out why our boys had to go through that". Replied Edward quickly, "Please God, Mrs. Wood, it shall never happen again."

A few days later, the pilgrimage continued to London, where Charlotte Wood was chosen to place a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey on behalf of all bereaved mothers of Canada.

With the Second World War and the increasing number of war dead, local associations of silver cross women were formed across Canada, serving a real need in society, according to Evans.  She says these women would get together to raise money for charities or to help each other, at a time when many had lost the main breadwinners in their families.

Times have certainly changed.  And today, of course, it's not just mothers and widows who are eligible to receive the Silver Cross, it's fathers, husband, and others too.

The regulations that govern eligibility were amended a couple of times in recent years.  And now the Silver Cross can be issued to up to three people as named by every service man or woman in Canada.

For now though, it's still a bereaved Silver Cross Mother you will see taking those symbolic steps to lay a wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Remembrance Day.

"One thing I think is interesting," says Suzanne Evans, "In that wreath laying ceremony, the Silver Cross Mother is second only to the Royal Representative.  She comes ahead of the Government of Canada.  So that's placing that role on a pretty high level for us to honour."

National Silver Cross Mother Patty Braun understands the weight of history that comes with the role.  And son David never far from her thoughts, Braun pays tribute a special relationship. "There's something about mothers and their children," she says. "There is a bond like no other."