Sudbury·Audio

What diminishing numbers of WWII veterans means for the future of Remembrance Day

The number of Second World War veterans in Canada is steadily shrinking, posing a difficult task for future generations to preserve their stories.

'We lost two [veterans] through the course of the year'

Maj. Shawn Pettis was first deployed in 1998. Most of his service was spent on crisis response missions in the Middle East. (Submitted by Maj. Shawn Pettis)

The number of Second World War veterans in Canada is steadily diminishing.

From the estimated one million Canadian soldiers who left their homes beginning in 1939, Veterans Affairs Canada estimates that roughly 39,700 remain. Of those who remain, Veterans Affairs Canada says the average age is 94. 

Jennifer Huard, the president of the Royal Canadian Legion in Lockerby, in Sudbury, says the loss has been great, even in her own branch. 

"At the beginning of the year we had five World War II veterans remaining at our branch," she said, "We lost two through the course of the year. And we are down to three." 

Jennifer Huard's grandfather Denis Thompson served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War. (Submitted by Jennifer Huard)

For Huard, the loss is deeply personal as her grandfather, Denis Thompson, was a World War II veteran as well as one of the legion's founders. 

She says while there is some fear that as more veterans pass on, their firsthand accounts could be forgotten, she's confident that Canadians will work hard to have their memories and their experiences live on. 

You hear the gun fire, you smell the burning, you hear the warmth of the sun just baking on your skin ... it's chaos.— Maj. Shawn Pettis

"It saddens me to see them go, but I can tell you that there is a whole new generation of veterans — in fact, 96 per cent of our veterans are of that new generation — and they will keep remembrance alive."

Maj. Shawn Pettis says he comes from a long line of veterans who have been deployed across the globe — from the First World War, to the war in Afghanistan to the Arab Spring. 

'You're there and you fear that you could die'

Carrying that legacy with him, he says, helped him on various crisis response missions throughout the Middle East. 

When he closes his eyes, it's almost like he's still there. 

"Most of my missions were in the Middle East, I [could] definitely smell fire in the air," he said, "You hear the gun fire, you smell the burning, you hear the warmth of the sun just baking on your skin ... it's chaos. You're there and you fear that you could die."

An photograph of Maj. Shawn Pettis' grandfather and uncles before the Second World War. (Submitted by Maj. Shawn Pettis)

Pettis said taking the time to listen to the firsthand knowledge and experiences of veterans is important in moving forward as a country. 

"If we don't have an understanding of what our soldiers of [gone] through, how can we maintain that compassion?," he said.

It's about getting as much as we can, and understanding that it won't be everything.— Maj. Shawn Pettis

Regrettably, as time passes on, he said, losing some of the stories from veterans is inevitable.

"Not all soldiers are able to talk about what they went through," he said, "But it's the way in which we preserve what actually happened, what reasons were we there for? Were they good reasons? What things did we do good, what things did we do bad will continue to come out in the collection and education of our past." 

"It's about getting as much as we can, and understanding that it won't be everything." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Juric

Reporter

Sam Juric is a CBC reporter and producer, through which she's had the privilege of telling stories from P.E.I., Sudbury and Nunavut.

now