‘These people were really important’: Sask. town honours veterans with banners, storytelling

All along the highway leading into St. Walburg, tall red banners hang two-by-two from telephone poles.

Each banner has the picture of a war veteran, along with their name and where they served.

For this town, it's a way of honouring the people who served and keeping their stories alive for a new generation.

Gabriele Trotzuk remembers the first time she saw a veterans banner project, three years ago, when she was visiting Battleford.

"When I saw them, I actually had to pull over on the side of the road," she said. "It stopped me in my tracks, and I realized how much more of an impact there was to actually see a face rather than just know that 'oh, yeah, it's Remembrance Day.' "

In 2021, she decided to bring the project home to St. Walburg and get some friends on board.

They encouraged veterans' families to sponsor banners for their loved ones, and collected community donations to sponsor them for veterans without family nearby. Once the banners go up, they remain on display for four weeks at a time, in advance of Remembrance Day.

Driving through town and looking up at the faces is an indescribable feeling, Trotzuk said.

"I don't even know how to explain it; it just gives me goosebumps."

This year, as the banners return to St. Walburg for a second time, the response from the community has been "just incredible," she added.

"We have a Facebook page, the St. Walburg Veterans Banner Project, and we've got new members joining all the time. Families are so spread out across Canada and other places, so it's a way for them to connect with the project."

Trotzuk uses the Facebook page to share each veteran's life story — their connection to the community, where they served, whether they made it home. Those stories have also been printed in a booklet and shared with students at the local school.

Through this project, the town has also rediscovered moments in local post-war history.

"Maple trees were planted after the Second World War, in honour of the veterans," said mayor Nancy Schneider. "And what Gabriele discovered is that there is only one of these trees left in St. Walburg. So we're going to splice it and start a new tree, to keep honouring the veterans."

Over the last two years, the veterans banner project has become "a big thing in our town," Schneider said.

"Everybody loves hearing the stories. There's a lot of buzz around town, and everybody looks forward to seeing the banners. People are coming in from lots of different places to look at them."

Though many of the veterans from St. Walburg are no longer alive, Schneider said the banners help ensure they will never be forgotten.

"These people were really important," she said. "They were important to our town, and they were important to our country."

This year, the town — home to under 600 people — has fielded nearly 60 veterans banners. Nearly everyone in town is connected to at least one, and often more, of the veterans represented.

"I'm very proud of the project," said Trotzuk. "It's not to glorify war or anything like that — I'm very much against war — but it's just to understand what has happened, and what these men and women gave up."

Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix