Politics

The honoured heroes of Sunnybrook Veterans Centre remember

In a year when 50 of them will turn 100, they are ready for Remembrance Week

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They have lived through so much.

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They have survived so much.

Average age : ninety-six.

“Here I am at 96,” chuckled war veteran Selena Webster as she sits in Sunnybrook’s Veterans Centre. “And I thought I would never make it to that. But I am still hanging in there.”

They are all hanging in.

Webster will be among Canadian heroes beaming with pride inside the Centre as they peer through their windows at 30, 000 Canadian flags on the grounds Remembrance Day.

The gesture – Operation Raise a Flag – will honour their sacrifices serving Canada at war.

Webster joined the Army at 18 and worked as a driver and administrator for the Royal Canadian Army during the Second World War.

“I remember. It’s sad at some parts because I have seen people die. I learned a lot and grew up mentally by what I saw and I will never forget,” Webster said in recorded video comments provided by the Veterans’ Centre, as it maintains COVID protocols.

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She is among nearly 300 residents.

“It’s been a hard nineteen months, but we have amazing staff,” said Dr. Jocelyn Charles, Medical Director at the Centre – who has been there for 30 years.

She says the pandemic has taken an emotional toll in the rooms and corridors at Sunnybrook.

“It is hard not to see family, particularly when you are in your nineties and your family means so much to you,” she said.

Remembrance Day and the entire week always have incredible significance for residents.

After twenty months of strict pandemic limitations, there is continuing personal pressure among staff.

Among their deep fears: “The anxiety of not wanting to be the one that brings COVID into the facility,” Dr. Charles said. “So being very diligent when you’re not at work, being very diligent with washing your hands, wearing your mask.”

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For months the Centre has relied on technology to link their decorated veterans with relatives who could not enter the facility.

“So we had IPads floating around,” Dr. Charles stated. “And for some veterans they loved it because they were now connected with family and friends across the country.”

The everyday endeavour at the Centre is to maintain a secure, caring environment.

Residents are all triple-vaccinated – among the earliest recipients of booster shots.

Staff members are in the process of receiving their third shots.

“It is a privilege to care for the veterans,” Dr. Charles said. “And we took that privilege very seriously.”

This year’s flag campaign will also include work designed by an Indigenous artist – a symbol honouring the sacrifices and contributions made by First Nations, Inuit and Métis vets.

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Joseph Lariviere, 89, is of Indigenous heritage with the Ojibway First Nations and is a member of Nipissing First Nations.

“We remember the boys that went over-seas and gave so much,” said the Army veteran of the Korean War. “What we have to offer these boys is this day of remembrance and to feel totally grateful.”

Gratitude is what George Branchaud, 80, holds in his heart.

“Remembrance day has always been something to our family and we always remembered,” said the Royal Canadian Navy vet who was a marine engineer and was also attached to NATO for many missions.

“I think Canadians should remember the sacrifices that men and women made in world war one and world war two, Korea, peacekeeping. There were tremendous sacrifices made by individuals. And I think that is what we should remember.”

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Where Branchaud now lives – at the Veterans Centre – is the largest of its kind in Canada.

It opened in 1948.

It is the recognized leader in caring for veterans no longer able to live at home independently.

Fifty heroes living here will be turning 100, this year.

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They remember those who fell so young – alongside them – in battle.

“Remembering the people – what they did. Some that didn’t come back. But the end result is really what we needed,” said resident Rene Cornelissen, 95.

He served in the Second World War with the Royal Netherlands East Indies Air Force.

After the Americans liberated his area of Holland, he joined the fight, training in Australia and was stationed mostly in Indonesia.

“We should never forget what the people did,” he said. “And make sure that we teach our children – be kind.”

That kindness will be on display this week.

Under their windows.

30,000 planted Canadian flags.

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