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French consulate in Canada searches for WWII veterans to award the Legion of Honour

Though it’s been almost 80 years since the Second World War ended, the French government is still searching for Canadian veterans who served in the war to award them the National Order of the Legion of Honour. 

'It's a long standing tradition and ... a very well known distinction,' says Vancouver's French consul general

Canadian WW II veteran Joseph Novak was presented with this Legion of Honour award this year. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada)

WARNING: This story contains accounts from the Second World War that some readers may find distressing. 

Though it's been almost 80 years since the Second World War ended, the French government is still searching for Canadian veterans who served in the war to award them the National Order of the Legion of Honour. 

In 2014, the year that marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day (the day in 1944 when Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy and began the liberation of France), the French government started a campaign to find and recognize Canadian veterans who fought in the various operations that led to the liberation of France.

Nicolas Baudouin, the French consul general in Vancouver, who is also in charge of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Yukon, said the Legion of Honour is the highest distinction in France. It was created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte and recognizes the service of civilians and soldiers.

"It's a long standing tradition and a very well recognized and a very well known distinction," Baudouin said.

So far, 1,148 men and six women in Canada have been awarded the medal, and 91 of those veterans are from Alberta. One recent honouree is retired lance-corporal Joseph Novak, 98, who lives in Yukon. 

If Canadians have relatives who served in the Second World War and could be eligible for the Legion of Honour, Baudouin said to get in touch with the French consulate in Vancouver, their local Veterans Affairs Canada office or any local veterans' association. Baudouin said Veterans Affairs will cross-check the applicant's military service, and then the application will be sent to Paris for review before the medal is awarded.

'Better late than never'

Canadian veteran and Bonnyville, Alta., resident William McGregor was an army medic who landed on Juno Beach on D-Day in 1944. 

"Lots of casualties, you know, and if we weren't hauling casualties to the beach, we were picking up casualties from the front where the soldiers were fighting," he said of Juno Beach.

William McGregor, pictured here in 2015, was awarded the rank of Knight in the Legion of Honour in 2015 for his duty during WWII. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

McGregor was awarded the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honour in 2015. He said he's grateful for the recognition Second World War veterans are now receiving for their service. 

"It probably should have been done sooner, but it's better late than never."

McGregor, who turns 99 next March, still has memories of the war, though he said his "memory isn't as good as it used to be."

"I remember coming from the big boats, the big ships, getting down a rope ladder into these landing crafts … and we were sitting all the way around the landing craft because the seas were very rough. 

"We come in to shore, but as you come in, you could hear the shells from the guns, the ships, like those destroyers and cruisers and stuff sitting out in the ocean, and they were firing at the coast and you could hear them big shells going over top of us."

McGregor was 19 when he enlisted in the army. His service extended through to Germany, and after the war, he returned to Alberta to farm. 

A difficult search for veterans

Veterans Affairs Canada estimates the country's current Second World War veteran population is around 20,000, with an average age of 96. 

"The difficulty is to actually identify the veterans because some of them … are in home care. So they don't have always access to the information. And it's a challenge," Baudouin said.

It's important so that we don't forget the sacrifice made by our Canadian friends to liberate my country, France​​​​.- Nicolas Baudouin, French consul general in Vancouver

According to Baudouin, the French consulate relies on Veteran Affairs and other veterans' associations to help find veterans eligible for the award. He said it's important that information about the medal is spread so those who are entitled to the recognition can receive it. 

"It's important so that we don't forget the sacrifice made by our Canadian friends to liberate my country, France, and other European countries, to fight for freedom, for human dignity."

With files from Dave Gilson

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