Teenagers honour those who served with handmade crosses for Remembrance Day

Anyone under the assumption that adolescents are an uninformed bunch lacking respect and compassion would have done well to visit West Vancouver’s Capilano View Cemetery on Thursday morning.

Among the gravestones and beneath the raindrops there was a coterie of poncho-wearing teenagers, not vandalizing or imbibing, but placing small, white crosses atop the graves of veterans. Joined by their principal, the dozen-strong group were West Vancouver Secondary students, there to honour the sacrifice made by Canadian war veterans.

It is the fifth year the school has worked alongside the West Vancouver branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, to assemble more than a thousand small wooden crosses and plant them in graves in advance of the cemetery’s Remembrance Day service.

“It feels good to be doing something like this, and to do it with a community of people that also understands and respects the sacrifices that were made during the war,” said Miya Earland, a 17-year-old student volunteering her efforts for the second year in a row.

For Earland, dates printed above epitaphs brought on fresh perspective: Many of those who fought in the war had been teenagers just like herself. She said it made her realize just how lucky her generation is, to never have to fight or face such adversity.

“This whole thing brings a mixture of feelings really. It is sad, because you read the gravestones and see how young some of these people were, but it’s heartwarming as well, to know that you are making their families happy during a really hard time.”

The planting of the crosses piqued the interest of mourners and bystanders close by. One elderly onlooker delayed laying flowers on his departed wife’s grave to give a heartfelt thanks to the students. He told them he had served himself, was a refugee who had moved to Canada to flee war, and that their small act of kindness meant the world to men like him. In the end, the multi-generational group, bonded by the micro-moment of connection, laid the bouquet together.

Similar scenes will likely occur on Friday, Nov. 11, when the cemetery will host its annual Remembrance Day service. Organized by West Vancouver’s Branch #60 of the Royal Canadian Legion, the event sees Air Force Cadets and Legion members parade through Marine Drive before proceeding to the cenotaph at Memorial Park, where a ceremony is held.

Dal McCrindle, chaplain & service officer of the legion branch, organizes the service each year and has witnessed many students past and present pay their respects. He said the service is a stark reminder of just how many young men from West Vancouver served, and were able to return home to enjoy the peaceful world that they had helped protect.

Young people taking the time and effort to add the crosses “shows family and friends of veterans that the community has not forgotten the service given by their relatives," he said.

McCrindle, like countless other veterans and legion members, will be attending school observances in the week leading up to the service and Remembrance Day itself. There is much going on, with assemblies, talks, announcements and collection support for the Legion at schools throughout North and West Vancouver.

On Wednesday, Grade 4 and 5 students from Lynnmour Elementary will be placing handmade personalized plaques on veteran’s graves in the North Vancouver Cemetery. The young pupils embarked on a cemetery field trip last year, said the class's teacher Paul Best, and felt compelled to create markers after noticing the large amount of unmarked or dishevelled stones.

Students had researched the cemetery’s online interactive plot map to find who the graves belonged to, had verified the names online and checked the Canadian Government Library and Archives Canada website for any personnel records. In some cases, Best said, the only information they could find was the person’s name and the date they were interned – often mere days before the date of death.

“Remembrance Day is now much more important to my students because they have done something to make these veterans be remembered,” he said, adding how his students were aware of the concept of war, but most were unsure of the finer details – now all are eager for further education.

For some students the connection to war is through family members, making both education and empathy easier to access. One of Best’s students joins her dad in attending Remembrance Day services annually, in homage to her great grandfather who died in the Second World War. Earland’s great grandma had been a nurse during the Second World War. She suffered a shattered right ear and jawbone following a bomb attack, and the injuries that remained for the rest of her life would serve as a reminder to the West Vancouver student of the physical and emotional toll of war.

But for teenagers who have no familial ties, war can seem a foreign concept. When there is schoolwork and climate change as well as body image to stress over, Remembrance Day activities and war education can feel like tilting at windmills.

“For most people our age, war seems like something far away,” said 16-year-old West Vancouver Secondary student Maria Clara Rocha, whose attendance on Thursday had been her first introduction to the school’s event.

“There aren't many people that have further awareness of it, and it’s something that I wish was more talked about earlier on in high school, not just in the later years,” she said.

So how do we go about explaining the significance of war education to those who remain in the dark? Fellow classmate and cross-planter Ariel Andrusco-Daon suggests her generation look to the ongoing conflict in other countries, including the war ravaging Ukraine and the deadly protests in Iran. “There are all of these things happening and all these wars going on around the world, and we’re lucky that they are not happening here, but that doesn’t mean that that is impossible,” she said.

“Learning about that, and learning the history of wars that have occurred before, is the best way to prevent it from happening here at home.”

While Andrusco-Daon admits some of her contemporaries would “turn their noses up” at the prospect of visiting a cemetery in the rain to plant crosses for strangers who have long gone, she assures that, for the most part, teenagers are interested and empathetic and eager to learn.

Since McCrindle has been Chaplain he has seen the attendance at the Memorial Arch increase every year. In that crowd, he said, he has seen more and more young people attend.

The evidence against the notion is abundant, but those who still believe that adolescents are an uniformed bunch lacking respect and compassion would do well to visit West Vancouver’s Capilano View Cemetery on Remembrance Day. Among the white crosses and the crowds paying their respects will likely be a number of teenagers and young adults. Chat with them, they’re ears are open and they’re ready to learn.

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News' Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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Mina Kerr-Lazenby, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, North Shore News