Launch of Heritage Week 2014

Remembering the First World War: Ontario in transition

Thomas H.B. Symons, C.C., O.Ont, FRSC, LL.D., D.Litt., D.U., D.Cn.L., FRGS, KSS – Chairman, Ontario Heritage Trust

As Chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust, and on behalf of its Board of Directors, I am very happy to welcome you to the launch of Ontario’s Heritage Week celebrations for 2014.

Each year, Heritage Week provides communities across the province with an opportunity to reflect on the importance of their heritage, and to recognize those individuals and organizations that devote valuable time and energy to its preservation and commemoration.

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. It is appropriate to take this opportunity, at the start of Heritage Week, to launch a year of commemorative activities centered on the theme of Remembering the First World War: Ontario in transition.

It is also appropriate – indeed, particularly appropriate – that this event should be held here at Canadian Forces Base Borden – a site of great importance to Canada’s First World War effort, which has continued to occupy a role of fundamental importance to our country’s defence and military activities ever since. Camp Borden is of great importance, too, to the local community, and to the countless families and individuals – myself included – who have strong personal connections to this site and to its rich and colourful history.

It is also perhaps fitting to acknowledge today the statesman in whose honour Camp Borden is named. Sir Frederick William Borden, the brilliant Nova Scotian doctor, farmer, businessman and successful public servant – a forgotten giant of Canadian history – who sat in the House of Commons for 32 years and served in the Cabinet of Sir Wilfrid Laurier for a record 15 years as the Minister of Militia and Defence. He laid the groundwork for Camp Borden and lived to see it opened.

Camp Borden was established in 1916 as a major training centre for the Canadian Expeditionary Force battalions. The following year, the site’s role was expanded to include military aviation training and it became the first flying station for the Royal Flying Corps Canada.

There was not yet a Canadian air force at the time of the Great War, and many young Canadians joined the British Royal Flying Corps that became, in due course, the Royal Air Force. In fact, something like one-quarter of the pilots in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War were Canadian. My father, Harry Symons, was one of them, flying appalling and frequently bizarre battles above the trenches in his tentative Camel or Sopwith Pup against the Red Baron and often impossible odds. He was shot down over French lines on dawn patrol, but luckily survived, was sent to a convalescent hospital for Canadians in Wimbledon, where he met and in due course married a young Canadian nurse, a daughter of the family who had turned their home into a hospital for the duration of the war. A piece of my father’s plane has survived and is here in the Camp Borden Museum, presented by his godson, Wing Commander Peter O’Brian, after whom he named his plane Godson. It was indeed a different war and a different time!

Borden soon developed into one of the finest aviation centres in the world. The training and innovation that took place here – involving thousands of Canadians – has had a profound and long-term impact on both military and civilian aviation in Canada.

During and immediately following the First World War, Canada in many ways came into its own – asserting its autonomy, fashioning and expressing its unique identity, and generating institutions and infrastructure that would propel the young nation forward. What occurred here at Camp Borden was a significant part of that process.

The years surrounding and following the Great War were a period of tremendous accomplishment – as is evidenced by the diverse training and activities undertaken at this site. But, of course, it was also a time of profound adversity, hardship and sacrifice. Suffering and loss afflicted Ontarians on a scale never before experienced.

The war’s impact was immense and its consequences are still very much with us today. In short, it shaped the 20th century.

As citizens of a still-young country so greatly shaped by that war and its consequences, it is our responsibility, and our opportunity, to remember and learn from the experience.

Throughout this week – and this year – we should take the opportunity to examine how individuals, communities and the province at large experienced the war. We can gain much from a consideration of the changes that took place as a result of the war, and from an examination of how these impacted the identity and development of the province. The war left an enduring legacy that should be fully explored as we reflect on how it continues to remain relevant and to touch our lives.

I would like to extend my gratitude to the officers, members and civilian staff of Canadian Forces Base Borden for having us here this afternoon. It is an honour and a privilege to be among you today.

Thank you.