Why white poppies?

Seen as an alternative or addition to the traditional red poppy, white poppies take remembrance one step further.

Every November, millions of Canadians wear the red poppy flower in the days leading up to Nov. 11 as a symbol of remembrance in respect for the veterans who died in the First World War. Sporting the poppy has been a practice in Commonwealth countries and the United States since the early 20th century. 

It was originally inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, a Canadian doctor and soldier who was inspired by the sight of poppies growing in a battlefield following his friend’s death. The donations that the Royal Canadian Legion raises through the distribution of poppies are used to support Canadian veterans and their families. 

That’s the red poppy in a nutshell, but you may also have spotted white poppies this Remembrance Day. A symbol of  remembrance for civilian casualties, the white poppy can be worn as an alternative or addition to the red poppy.  Vancouver Peace Poppies describes the white poppy initiative as a means to end the normalization of war and the glorification of the military, and work towards a global message of peace. The goal is to delve deeper into the topic of war and consider the full effects it has on people, the environment, and society at large. 

Despite its controversial nature, the white poppy is a welcomed addition for many. Personally, I appreciate that the white poppy aims to challenge the commonly-accepted discourse around war and inspires complex conversations.     

The white poppy was first distributed by The Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1933. This United Kingdom-based pacifist organization was dedicated to working-class issues, and therefore had a vested interest in civilian affairs. Since they began promoting the white poppy, it has been especially popular in the UK, with thousands sporting the symbol. 

Naturally, this practice has stirred controversy. Some consider the white poppy disrespectful and argue that the idea is reductive. It has raised questions surrounding the issue of copyright, seeing as the Royal Canadian Legion has trademarked the poppy symbol. In terms of ideology, it could be argued that the white poppy piggybacks on the red poppy, and that the original should be left alone.

The red poppy itself is often contested too, however. Robert Fisk, a British journalist and correspondent in the Middle East, argued in Independent that the red poppy has become a racist symbol as it only acknowledges Western soldiers and not the many casualties in foreign countries. I do agree that the culture of Remembrance Day can feel a bit absolute at times, with no room to discuss issues such as the one that Fisk presents. 

While remembrance is important, and the sacrifice of veterans should be acknowledged, the conversation should not end there. We need to begin speaking more in depth about topics such as the military, causes of war, and conflict-resolution. 

Next Remembrance Day, you may notice more white poppies. Maybe you’ll even choose to wear one. 


Thousands come together in support of Palestine in Downtown Montreal

Downtown Montreal was flooded with supporters for Palestinian liberation.

As war rages on between Israel and Hamas, demonstrators in Montreal banded together to show support for Palestine.

This war has prompted pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Montreal and across the world. On Oct. 13, protesters gathered in downtown Montreal to show their support for Palestinians. 

“We all know of Israel’s occupation,” said Emna Maaref, a woman of Tunisian origin who was attending the protest. “It is only normal that the people of Palestine would want to be freed.”

The war started on the morning of Oct. 7 when Hamas launched an offensive against Israel. The day after, Israel officially declared war against Hamas. Since then, there have been approximately 3,500 casualties and 12,500 wounded on the Palestinian side. Around a million Palestinians have also been displaced because of the conflict. While Israel had 1,400 casualties and 120,000 people displaced.

The demonstration drew people from many backgrounds, not just middle eastern people.

“I have full solidarity with Palestine,” said Richard Davis. “Canada should stop aiding Israel with imperialism.” Davis was among the many who decided to go out and voice his support for the liberation of Palestine.

Many protesters refused or hesitated to speak to the media at Friday’s demonstration. Many even hid their faces to protect themselves from the media.

“It’s not a new conflict,” said a woman of middle eastern descent who wished to remain anonymous. “For us, it’s not a political issue, it is more of a compassion thing. We are proud that Palestinians are doing something to liberate themselves.”

She argued that no country has ever won their independence peacefully. “I grew up with Palestine being everywhere in my life, love for Palestine, my father talking about Palestine. Palestine is etched to our hearts.”

“Hearing about Palestine throughout my life made me want to participate,”said Yasmine Rahmani, who was one of the participants in the demonstration, said that the reason she decided to attend was to make a difference beyond the bounds of social media. 

She criticized Canada for not doing enough to help Palestine, but also thought that maybe it is for the best to not get involved. “Western countries should not include themselves within this conflict, since it is their fault anyway that this conflict even exists.” 

The demonstration went on peacefully, as its chants filled the streets of downtown Montreal. Protesters united their voices and sang: “Justin Trudeau you will see, Palestine will soon be free!”


Animal victims of war Purple Poppy Ceremony

Animal Protection Party candidate Kimberly Lamontagne helmed the first commemoration ceremony of animal victims of war in Montreal

On Friday, Nov. 11, people gathered at Parc Lahaie to commemorate the animals whose lives were lost in war.

This was the first ceremony of its kind in Montreal, organized by Kimberly Lamontagne. Lamontagne is an animal rights activist and a candidate for the Animal Protection Party of Canada.

With the sound of the rain in the background, Lamontagne set up some candles around the space. She then stood up among the participants and gave a speech. 

“This event is a part of the Animal Alliance of Canada’s Purple Poppy Campaign, started in 2015 in Victoria, British Columbia. This ceremony is held in recognition of the millions of animals’ lives lost in war, to condemn their ongoing use in war and oppose the act of war internationally,” Lamontagne said.

At the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Lamontagne held the same ceremony earlier that week.

“Steps away from this memorial, in Confederation Park, is an underwhelming animals in war dedication that honours animals that served alongside their human comrades in war,” Lamontagne recounted.

Lamontagne made a point in addressing that there are no such statues located here in Montreal. 

“I choose to hold a vigil here as the equestrian dedication is underwhelming; it is not as inspiring as the display in London England’s Hyde Park,” Lamontagne said. “I want to highlight that our purpose here is to recognize the animals as victims of war; not heroes and not to valorize them.”

As Lamontagne emphasized, these animals’ lives were taken and not given. Purple poppies were being sold so that participants could commemorate the animal lives that were lost.

“We fully recognize that many soldiers were forced into war themselves. Animals cannot consciously decide to engage or abstain from war. Animals are still used by the Canadian military and in modern warfare,” she said.

After the ceremony concluded, Lamontagne offered two minutes of silence to reflect upon the animal lives that were lost.  Lamontagne also gave people the opportunity to come up and speak. 

The Purple Poppy Campaign is complementary to the Red Poppy Campaign. The Purple Poppy is not meant to undermine the Red Poppy or reject its symbolism of the human lives who served and died in the war.


Universities unite with Montreal community to welcome Ukrainian refugees

Many small efforts contribute to helping the incoming refugees after millions flee the war zone

Following Montreal’s first solidarity rally to support Ukrainians facing the Russian invasion,  Montrealers are proactively preparing for relief efforts to help Ukrainians. The rally was organized by McGill and other universities on Feb. 24. 

On the evening of March 9, Concordia University and Université de Montréal joined together to help the McGill Ukrainian Students’ Association (MUSA) make perogies (a popular Ukrainian dish) and donuts for a fundraiser scheduled the next day. 

All the money collected went to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) and the Canada-Ukraine Foundation. 

McGill Ukrainian Students Association’s perogie and donut sale to raise funds for the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal. CATHERINE REYNOLDS/The Concordian

“What can we do as students right now?” asked Julia Hukowich, social and cultural director of MUSA. “You know, it’s small; we can probably only raise a couple of hundred dollars from this, but it’s something,” Hukowich added. 

By the end of their fundraiser, the MUSA collected close to $900, with over 65 students attending the fundraiser showing support.

Annika Pavlin, a first-year international development student at McGill, shared her disappointment towards McGill while in line. 

Concordia, along with McGill, shared their positions regarding the war in Ukraine in recent emails. Both universities defined Russia’s invasion as “conflict.” 

“I’m here to support the private organizations, the clubs that have had to do what McGill is refusing to do, which is raise money, raise awareness,” said Pavlin. 

Vitalia Khmil, president of the Concordia Ukrainian Students’ Union (CUSU), shared the same frustration as Pavlin. 

“They just sent us an email […] they’re trying to stay inclusive. They didn’t mention anything about a war per se. They said ‘conflict,’ and it’s really important to get the vocabulary right because it’s clearly a war going on,” said Khmil. 

Along with Khmil, Markel Reva, VP Finance of the CUSU, agreed Concordia can and should do more to help.

“They provided us with links to psychological care here and helplines, stuff like that, but that’s literally it”, said Khmil.

The current situation in Ukraine is very distressing for students like Khmil and Reva, who are trying to focus on midterms while their extended family is currently in Ukraine. 

“We are trying to contact our universities to see how can we help Ukrainian students because we have midterms, we have exams, we have quizzes, and with all [that] happening […] I couldn’t read a single thing on my paper,” said Reva. 

On Wednesday, Reva met with Andrew Woodall, Dean of Students at Concordia University, hoping to get more help.

“It is still very unclear on the position that Concordia is taking regarding the Russian aggression and the war in Ukraine.”

Woodall suggested that Reva speak with Graham Carr, President and Vice-Chancellor of Concordia University.

Though Reva can’t do much at Concordia right now, he and his family have offered their help through donations to St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. 

Among the many churches turning into donation centres for Ukrainian refugees, St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church has been accepting donations for refugees since Feb. 26, the third day of the Russian invasion. 

St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church is now receiving a large number of donations every day. 

Donation boxes filled the floor of St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. CATHERINE REYNOLDS/THE CONCORDIAN

About two weeks ago, Reva’s family opened their home in the South Shore to collect donations 24/7 and bring them to the church. This included medication, clothes, food, hygiene products, sleeping bags, and more. 

With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new program to facilitate the immigration process of Ukrainian refugees, Montrealers have been helping newcomers through the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) Montreal Branch. This organization represents around 42,500 Ukrainians in Quebec. 

The UCC helps in different ways, working as volunteers to help newcomers find housing, jobs, assisting with documentation, English tutoring, and more. The Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program will accept an unlimited number of Ukrainians who want to come to Canada temporarily. 

“It’s a huge undertaking that needs to be done, and we really appreciate the collaboration that we have with the city of Montreal in particular,” said Michael Shwec, president of the UCC Montreal Branch. 

“We’re in a tight connection with the city to put together a robust plan to welcome them and make sure that they have a safe and warm place to stay,” Shwec added. 

The UCC also provides a link on their website to donate money through the Canadian Red Cross. 

All Montrealers donating to the Red Cross and helping fund medical supplies and other forms of humanitarian aid are making a powerful impact on Ukraine’s ability to defend its people,” said Bogdan Lytvynenko, former news editor for The Concordian

“Every dollar is critical. It is heartwarming and inspiring to see Montrealers donating and joining the rest of the world against the Russian aggression even despite being thousands of kilometres away from the warzone,” Lytvynenko added.



PHOTOS: Montrealers organize in solidarity with Ukraine

Last week, numerous demonstrations across Montreal showed support after Russian forces attacked Ukrainian territory

See photos from Sunday’s rally (Feb. 27).


“Freedom for Ukraine!” solidarity rally

Hundreds gather at Place du Canada on Sunday

Blue and yellow flags were raised and could be seen through the snowflakes as chants of liberty were heard: “UK-RA-I-NA! UK-RA-I-NA! UK-RA-I-NA!”

Michael Shwec, president of the Quebec chapter of the Canadian Ukrainian Congress, organized the event to raise awareness within the Montreal community and show solidarity to his compatriots in Ukraine.

“They are under tremendous stress, they’re suffering out there, the country’s been bombarded, all areas of the country,” Shwec said, “and we want to show them that the Ukrainian community of Montreal is definitely behind them.”

Shwec also wishes this demonstration will help unite the Montreal-Ukrainian community.

“Most people here have family in Ukraine and we need to congregate, stay together in our own community to show support to one another,” he said.

His daughter, Adelia Shwec, was also present at the event. “We’re here today because Ukraine believes in peace and a democratic future, and it’s a sovereign country,” she said. 

“Our people are dying so the least we can do is come support them at this protest.”

Adelia Shwec denounces the attacks of Putin on her population as hatred towards Ukrainians.

“Our aggressive neighbor wants to destroy all of Ukraine and its people, its identity,” she said.

Ivanna Skotar, a family friend of the Shwecs, agreed. “It’s not part of Russia, it never will be,” she said.

Skotar was also present to show support to her community. “We’re Ukrainian, we wear our hearts on our sleeves,” she said, holding up her Ukrainian flag proudly.

Michael Shwec acknowledged the outpour of support that has come from the Canadian population over the last few days and called on the people to increase the support they can lend to Ukraine.

“The arena of the battle is Ukraine, but it’s really a world problem. Democracy is really at stake here,” he said.

On Feb. 26, Canada and other western allies announced that Russia was removed from SWIFT, a “global member-owned cooperative and the world’s leading provider of secure financial messaging services.”

Shwec said this is a good move, but insists on all governments of the world to show support by creating a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

“If you can stop the Russian bombers from bombing kindergardens, hospitals and civilians then it’ll make a tremendous difference. So, I think that’s really the next step,” Shwec said.

The Canada-Ukraine Foundation already had a team stationed in Ukraine for humanitarian purposes prior to the war. They are scaling up what they usually do to lend a hand to the people trying to evacuate the country and offer support for those staying behind.

“We’re getting ready for immigration to Canada,” Shwec said, “As a community in Montreal, we’re gearing up to help anybody who might want to come and be with us here in Montreal.”

Even though the Canadian government match of $10 million has already been met, the Red Cross is still accepting donations.

According to their website, the Red Cross’ support “could include preparedness, immediate and ongoing relief efforts, long-term recovery, resiliency, and other critical humanitarian activities as needs arise, both in Ukraine and surrounding countries, including supporting populations displaced.”

“At home, you can share the right information with your friends and family, because there’s a lot of disinformation coming out from Russia,” Shwec said.

“He won’t get away with this, it’s ours, it’s our country […] our grandparents fought for this. We’re not handing it over easy, it’s not happening,” Skotar said.


Concordia student trapped in Afghanistan, forced to delay studies

Due to the Taliban takeover in August, one Afghan student is unable to leave the country

Arzou*, a 19-year-old Afghan student, was set to begin her first year at Concordia this fall studying political science and economics. However, following the Taliban’s military invasion of Kabul, the nation’s capital, Arzou could not flee Afghanistan and had to set her university education aside.

Since May 2021, the terrorist group has made military advancements in over 200 districts of Afghanistan and took full control of Kabul on Aug. 15. This conquest put an end to the 20-year war between the Taliban and the United States, as the former President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, escaped the country and the U.S.-backed government collapsed.

The Kabul airport became the last source of hope for both Afghan citizens and foreign nationals, who desperately tried to escape the country before the airport was shut down. In an exclusive interview with The Concordian, Arzou shared her memories of the day she will never forget.

“Everyone was rushing to the airport, including those without a passport or a visa. The traffic was incredibly bad. I saw with my own eyes how the Taliban was celebrating on the streets and preventing civilians from reaching the airport. […] They were being very violent towards everyone, even the women and children.”

On Aug. 27, over 100 civilians and U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing outside the airport, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Earlier that month, locals were also seen holding onto a U.S. Air Force plane during take-off as panic erupted on the runway.

As of now, there are no passenger flights to the outside world from the Kabul airport, making it a dead end for Afghans who are trying to escape. Due to the Taliban’s iron grip on the airstrip, only domestic and humanitarian aid flights are currently permitted.

“It was the reason that I couldn’t attend Concordia this fall, sadly. I was very excited to start a new chapter of my life,” said Arzou.

The student explained that her rights are at serious risk in Afghanistan, as the Taliban announced it would only grant women rights “within the limits of Islam,” based on the group’s own interpretation of Islamic law.

At Kabul University, female students were told they are no longer allowed to leave their residence without a male guardian. Meanwhile, women’s beauty salons in the capital have been vandalized with spray paint, in order to cover the models’ faces on storefronts.

“Women are forced to wear the chadari, which covers the woman’s entire body from head to toe with a slight opening in the eye region — something I would call a prison cell,” said Arzou.

She added, “I don’t want my many years of education to go to waste. I don’t even want to believe that the Taliban had taken control of my homeland — I remember all the stories from my parents who went through similar terror in Kabul 20 years ago.”

On Sept. 7, one week after the last American troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Taliban announced its new government — led by Mohammad Hasan Akhund, a former influential figure in the Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001.

The new, all-male government has already disbanded the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and instead founded the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice to enforce Islamic law. These actions have crossed the “fundamental red line” outlined by the UN Human Rights Council at the Geneva emergency meeting:

“[This line] will be the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls, and respect for their rights to liberty, freedom of movement, education, self-expression and employment, guided by international human rights norms,” stated UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Aug. 24.

The current state of Afghanistan has left Arzou angry not only at the Taliban regime, but also at the United States for its past actions. For instance, in an effort to negotiate peace talks between the former Afghan government and the Taliban, the Trump administration agreed to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in 2020.

“[This controversial decision] helped the Taliban start this extreme violence. The U.S. literally exploited our land and used our natural resources, and now left the country in this state,” Arzou exclaimed.

Nevertheless, Afghan women are actively protesting against the Taliban regime on the streets of Kabul, in pursuit of freedom, equality, and fair representation in the government. Despite the Taliban’s use of metal batons and whips against the demonstrators, such protests show no signs of slowing down.

“They aren’t the same women they were 20 years ago,” Arzou explained, “and we just won’t give up on our goals. I am hopeful that one day, I’ll also contribute to rebuilding my country.”

If circumstances allow, Arzou hopes to begin her studies at Concordia University in the winter semester of 2022.

*to protect the subject’s identity, we are using her preferred pseudonym.


Graphic by Madeline Schmidt.


Intricacies of a morally-conflicted mind

Brotherhood showcases the struggling humanity of a war-torn family

There’s a lot that could be said about Concordia Alumna Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood. The short film was nominated for an Oscar in the live-action short-film category. In its simplicity, the film showcases the deep disturbance and shifting family dynamics caused by the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Centred around a distrusting and hardened father, Mohamed, the 25-minute short follows the story of his moral conflict upon the arrival of his eldest son, Malik, who had left to fight in Syria with ISIS. Malik returned a year later with a very young and pregnant wife, clad in a niqab— forcing the father into a deeper conflict within himself.

There are a couple of things about the North-African and Middle-Eastern cultures that are important to know. Family is a founding value in this culture; a father’s responsibility towards his family is heavy and permanent. This responsibility is emphasized in the dialogue between Mohamed and his wife, Salha, where he says “I have slaved away my life for these boys.”

Salha, the boy’s mother and Mohamed’s wife, is mostly passively present; not so much taking part in the moral conflict that is set throughout the whole story. In a way, it’s reflective of the passive role of mothers in dealing with life-changing decisions. Although her role is not active, her presence certainly is; she welcomes Malik back without a second thought, expressing “as long as he’s alive, I’ll stand by him and defend him.” There’s a word in Arabic that perfectly embodies what a mother represents: hanan. It means tenderness. A mother’s love is never distrusting, always loyal to her children, and never-fading.

Watching this film was like reading a book—there was a lot left for imagination, for your own understanding. Nothing is said explicitly, nothing is forced upon you. There are a myriad of ways to interpret the struggles of Mohamed’s family. The underlying pressures of societal family values combined with this family’s faith and morality are all challenged when Malik left for ISIS. As an Arab, I think of what must have been going through Mohamed’s mind when Malik returned: he is my son, but he brought shame upon us. He is my son, but he joined an immoral killing machine. He is my son, but he impregnated a child. 

Mohamed’s inner struggle to accept the moral wrongs of his son is the core of Joobeur’s short. There’s a never-ending battle between unconditional love for his flesh-and-bone and loyalty to his moral grounds, and what he believes his religion, also his son’s, actually stands for.

The film is raw, and not very easy to watch. The very opening scene sees Mohamed and his middle-child, Chaker, looking at a flock of sheep that had been attacked by a wolf—a sheep was bleeding profusely, and the father and son went to kill it. The togetherness of this act strengthens father-and-son narrative, while also highlighting the contrast between the two characters—the father as a hardened man, and the son, sensitive and hesitant to kill. This contrasts directly the idea of Malik killing with ISIS— something Mohamed accused him of in one of the scenes, even though Malik said he never killed anyone.

The soundtrack consisted of wild sounds, setting a rural and haunting environment for viewers, forcing them to listen to the tension that is almost palpable on screen. In a scene where Malik takes his two younger brothers to the beach, a moment of confession ensues: “I regret going to Syria,” Malik told Chaker. “Promise me you will never go.”

It’s reflective of how misconceptions and false propaganda hurts people. 

In parallel to Malik’s confession, Mohamed makes a call. An argument between him and Salha leads Malik’s young wife, Reem, to confess that the baby was not his—she was forced to “marry” many fighters. In other words, she was raped by ISIS terrorists and got pregnant, and Malik, while running away, chose to help her even though he knew it would only make things worse with his father. That call was to authorities to take Malik away, a deed Mohamed instantly regretted as he ran towards his sons at the beach, calling for Malik in breathless shouts—only to realize it was too late.

Something that stood out to me was the portrayal of different facets of Islam: Joobeur sets a clear and hard line between the supposed “Islam” of ISIS, and that of a normal, rural family. The Arabic language has a different name for ISIS that recognizes their work isn’t that of Islam—something that Western languages never did. It’s called Daesh. There is no mention of the religion of Islam in this title. This is significant for a simple reason: a name reflects the identity of what it is that you’re introducing, dubbing a terrorist group as an Islamic state automatically associates Islam to terrorism. No matter how many times someone can say “this is not representative of Islam,” there’s no way the stain of that title can ever be removed.

Brotherhood, in asserting the difference between the Tunisian-Muslim family and ISIS, very subtly says that ISIS is not Islam. I’ve read great reviews of the film, but none of them recognized this—most of them related the strain between Mohamed and Malik to the latter leaving family responsibilities, and none highlighted the fact that he left to join a terrorist group, and that was the source of Mohamed’s moral conflict.

ISIS shook the Middle-East and North-Africa. It shook the world of Islam and only fed Islamophobia further, it justified the West’s pre-existent bias and discrimination. Brotherhood depicts how torn families suffered the aftermath of such a phenomenon in the rawest and most simplistic way—strictly humanized, embellished in nature, and thriving in moral conflict.

 Brotherhood can be watched online, on




Collage by Laurence Brisson Dubreuil.


Simply Scientific: Mutual assured destruction

After World War II, all of humanity crossed their fingers, dreading the recreation of another deadly war in a not-so-distant future.

During that time, political tensions escalated again and we brushed up against the possibility of annihilating the human race. According to an article in the Global Research,  the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is why humanity is still here today.

This week, Simply Scientific dives into political science and explores the implications of the MAD doctrine.

Prior to the creation of nuclear weapons, traditional warfare was straight forward: two opposing camps fight in a deadly face-off until one group is defeated and the other emerges victorious. This could take hours, days, or years, but it eventually resulted in a clear winner and a loser.

However, during the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were confronted with the possibility of a lose-lose outcome. Actually, a lose-lose-lose outcome, according to some political scientists. Some hypothesized the extinction of life on Earth from radioactive fall-outs.

MAD goes as such: countries possessing weapons of mass destruction aim to hinder the use of such weapons, out of fear that initiation would prompt retaliation of the same nature from their opponent.

In other words, engaging in an attack is signing your suicide note.

Therefore, the destructive potential of some countries coupled with the fear of personal annihilation is what saved humanity from extinction during the Cold War.


Feature Photo by @sundaeghost

Student Life

Lest We Forget

Reflecting on the effect WWII had on one family

In 1918, Nov. 11 marked the day the Allies and Germany signed the armistice that ended World War I (WWI), supposedly around 11 a.m. Now known as Remembrance Day, Nov. 11 is a day to remember the sacrifices made by those in the line of duty, the lives lost during times of war and lives still being lost today. It’s a dark memorial day for many, and each person’s familial ties with both WWI and World War II (WWII) will invariably differ. However, the act of remembering those enlisted, albeit willingly or not, who have lost their lives to political conflicts is an act of respect we should all put our personal politics aside for.

Throughout my childhood, Remembrance Day was a day where I’d proudly watch my grandpa, Ryzard Guziak, address his fellow veterans at his branch of The Royal Canadian Legion in Toronto. Dressed to the nines in full uniform, adorned with pins and ribbons, him and his lifelong friends would oscillate between warmly reminiscing their youth and sadly remembering their fallen friends who were denied life beyond adolescence.

Nov. 11 is a day of remembering Ryzard’s sacrifices throughout WWII; about remembering my other grandpa, Roger Hutchins, and his decision to join the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1943, and the sacrifices that entailed. It should be noted, though, that Ryzard and Roger’s war stories are vastly different. Roger willingly joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and remained stationed in Canada until the war ended, before eventually transferring to the Fleet Air Arm by 1950. Ryzard’s story, however, is much more complex. Since both of them have passed away, all I have are my memories.

Remembrance Day is one where I remember the decisions they made for freedom; for the freedom of future generations. I think of my sisters and I—of my niece, Stella, who neither of my grandpas got the chance to meet—and of the privilege we all had of growing up in stable conditions. I think of the freedom we have in our everyday lives; the freedom to mobilize and express our thoughts. Nov. 11 is a day where I remember Roger and Ryzard’s lives—how WWII adversely affected them, both on and off the battlefields—and what theirs, and so many other sacrifices, mean to the liberties we’re accustomed to.

Ryzard Guziak, my mother’s father, was born in Krynki, Poland in 1923, and raised in Bródno, a town in the northeast section of the Warsaw borough. My great-grandfather, Karol Guziak, was chief of detectives in Bródno, according to my grandma, Evelyn Guziak. When WWII was declared in 1939, the Germans immediately invaded Poland due to the proximity of their borders. “The Nazis just walked in and took over everything,” said Evelyn. Karol, Ryzard, and his mother were caught by Nazis at the Polish border while trying to flee to Lithuania. Nazis took Karol away and imprisoned him somewhere in Poland. Ryzard and his mother never saw Karol again; it’s assumed he was killed while imprisoned.

Ryzard was 16 at the time, temporarily living with his mother under Nazi occupation. However, their house was seized by Nazis, their valuables taken from them and, eventually, my grandfather too. According to Evelyn, in 1940, the Nazis came for Ryzard and many other young men in the middle of the night and, within hours, he was forcibly put on a train headed for Siberia. For the next few years, Ryzard worked in extremely poor conditions in the Russian salt mines, while tensions grew between the Nazis and Russians. By 1942, Russia was knee-deep in combat against the Nazis, and released most of their prisoners working in the mines, Ryzard included.

With absolutely nothing, not even proper clothes to weather the harsh temperatures in Russia, Ryzard jumped from train to train in hopes of finding a Polish recruitment centre he’d heard rumours of somewhere deep in Russia. After eventually finding the recruitment centre, around 1943, Ryzard made his way by train from Russia to Egypt to join the The Polish II Corps. But when Ryzard arrived, already incredibly ill from malnourishment, he contracted a skin disease from a dirty razor, causing his health to decline even further.

After barely recovering, Ryzard joined The Polish II Corps to fight against the Nazis, mostly through Italy. He lost many of his close friends in the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. “It wasn’t a fun time,” said Evelyn. “He never told me the dark stories. He would always try to make a joke of it. That’s the only way they could deal with it.”

Evelyn recalled a story Ryzard once told her, which likely occurred during the Battle of Monte Cassino. He and his platoon partner were on patrol somewhere in central Italy, and took a break to go to the bathroom in the woods. Only a few feet from Ryzard, his friend stepped on a landmine. “I’m sure [Ryzard] got splattered,” said Evelyn with a shudder. Luckily, Ryzard came out of the Battle relatively unscathed, except for a knick on his chin from a sniper that barely missed him.

WWII ended while Ryzard was still stationed in Italy, and since Poland had become communist throughout the war, he and his friends decided to stay in Modena for the time being. By the end of 1945, Ryzard’s station was moved to Britain, and eventually to Glasgow, Scotland, where he met my grandmother. At the time, Evelyn’s maiden name was McElroy. My grandparents met in a dance club called The Locarno, where they ballroom-danced the night away. Within six months, they were married. By 1952, they immigrated to Canada together, first docking in Montreal but eventually choosing Toronto as their final destination. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Feature image archive photo courtesy of the Guziak and Hutchins family.


Facing the horrors of war

Mental support for war veterans who are back in Canada has always been an issue, though not always a priority.

Mental health problems in returning soldiers have been an issue since officials first discovered such a thing could occur following a traumatic event. Nowadays, the problem is better understood and taken care of, but the current measures employed are still not enough; therefore, not all World War II veterans have been as blessed as the three gentlemen who go to Branch 108 every Thursday to share a beer.

In the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 108 based in Châteauguay, three former soldiers – one from the air force, the navy, and the army – believe the medical conditions and support system surrounding Canadian soldiers have dramatically improved since their time in the Canadian Forces. They did not want to divulge their names for privacy reasons.

The three veterans were in excellent shape for their age, both physically and psychologically – a testament to their full recovery since World War II.

“I had sufficient support, [but] there may be a 100,000 other guys that didn’t get it,” reminded the former airman.

One persisting issue that stood out for the former soldiers is the lack of staff at St. Anne’s Hospital, exclusively for veterans of the two World Wars and of the Korean War – younger soldiers who’ve been on peacekeeping operations or in Afghanistan are not eligible.

“They’ve got so much room there, there are so many empty spaces, but it was always hard to get in,” said the former army soldier. “Veterans have tried to get in and they say there’s no room. They don’t have the staff for it, I guess.”

As the hospital patients thin out year after year, the provincial government is planning to take it over and use it as a civilian hospital instead.

Nevertheless, the three men praise the government for having put “more effort and more money towards the veterans” in recent years.

“There’s more being done for the veterans today than there was being done 70 years ago,” noted the former navy soldier.

Yet, despite these improvements, some veterans of Afghanistan have spoken out on poor medical and psychological support they’ve received once back in Canada.

In recent memory, two major cases have brought significant exposure to the issue: the ongoing fiasco following Cpl. Stuart Langridge’s suicide; and the statement given by Cpl. Steve Stoesz to CTV after being forbidden to do so by his superiors.

Cpl. Stuart Langridge committed suicide in army barracks in Edmonton in 2008.

It was his sixth suicide attempt. The story sparked outrage as federal authorities seemed uncooperative and even apathetic towards the soldier’s grieving parents.

Later, an inquiry was called to find out if the military indirectly played a part in his death. The investigation revealed he was not on suicide watch, but had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Cpl. Steve Stoesz, on the other hand, made headlines earlier this year for going against a direct order from the Department of National Defense and speaking up about proposed cuts to mental health services for soldiers. He said he hadn’t been given the proper physical care upon his return and he wouldn’t accept it. Stoesz has been fighting against the medical system and Veterans Affairs ever since.

Amid this recent controversy, Federal Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced on Sept. 12 the defense department will invest $11.4 million more in mental health services for returning veterans.

According to MacKay, the money will fund the employment of four psychiatrists, 13 psychologists, 10 mental health nurses, 13 social workers and 11 addictions counsellors. More than 5,000 soldiers returning from Afghanistan are suffering from mental health issues, including over 3,000 diagnosed with PTSD.

“To compare World War II to Afghanistan is almost impossible,”  said the former air force soldier of Branch 108. “There are ages of difference.”

Though that may be so in some respects, the fear, the nightmares, and the other mental traumas have branded veterans of all wars. During World War II, proper help for psychological recovery was still in its early stages and macho attitudes regarding the subject ran high.

Although the current understanding of mental illness has pushed the boundaries and changed perceptions to give way to a better support system, there are still deficiencies as demonstrated by the Langridge case.

Hopefully, the Department of Defence’s new investment will be used efficiently, and become the first step in providing adequate mental health care support for our veterans.

Exit mobile version