Adorned with more than a dozen medals for his time serving in the Second World War, Gerald Gaudet smiled softly as he collected donations for poppies inside Central City Shopping Centre on Wednesday.
Some people shuffled by without so much as a glance.
But others stopped and with warm smiles, took the decorated veteran’s hand into theirs.
“What an honour,” said Priya Jeyasegar as she shook Gaudet’s hand. “Seeing a veteran like yourself, it gives me that peace of mind, and hope.”
Jeyasegar told Gaudet she had also personally experienced war, albeit from a different perspective.
She recalled being just eight years old when she had to be locked in a room for three days, during Sri Lanka’s civil war.
“Canada is that safe haven,” she said. “And you guys fought for it. Thank you. That means a lot.”
The two got to talking about both of their life stories. Smiles were exchanged, as were a few solemn looks.
Soon after Jeyasegar left, a young man asked permission to shake Gaudet’s hand.
“Thank you so much for your service,” said Tristan Tsang, bowing his head ever so slightly. “Thank you so much for your sacrifice.”
Little did either of them know, Gaudet is a genuine knight, having received the Order of France in 2014. The honour was celebrated in Surrey’s City Centre area with a parade that some 200 people attended.
“They closed traffic in town here,” Gaudet modestly recalled. “They had a speaker from France here to present it. I had about 20 RCMP in their Red Serge parading. It was quite the day, a day I never forgot.
“A big day.”
Asked what Remembrance Day means to him, Gaudet paused.
“That’s a good question,” he replied, taking another moment.
“I remember way back when, shortly after the war, and I started in the glass industry in Alberta, Nov. 11 was just another day, everybody working,” Gaudet said.
“It was not recognized. I joined the union to fight that. That was one of my projects, to get Nov. 11 to be a holiday. That’s back in ’47, ’48. Still, every day, I think about how hard it was to get Nov. 11 to be acknowledged by everybody.”
What made it so challenging?
“The problem with Nov. 11, and the war, it was never taught to the kids at school,” Gaudet explained. “In Europe, Belgium, Holland, every kid in school knows all about the Canadian army in the war, but no kids in Canada were ever taught about it.”
But he’s proud to have been part of the effort to have the holiday, now, a part of nation’s fabric.
“I get calls quite often to go speak at school around Nov. 11,” said Gaudet. “Their questions knock me down, it’s like a sponge, all those kids want to know more and more.”
Gaudet was born in New Brunswick and said he was 17 when he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Engineers. He first served in Alberta, surveying land to build a camp for prisoners of war. He was sent overseas in 1944, unaware he was bound for Juno Beach.
Gaudet was also in the Battle of Caen, one of the largest battles after D-Day. He was tasked with building new bridges across rivers and canals in Belgium and Holland, so Allied forces could advance.
In all, his service earned him more than a dozen medals, the German Star and French Star among them.
“It was another job in the service. It was no special thing, but you done it day to day,” Gaudet said.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but you’re part of it.”
Gaudet is one of the oldest – if not the oldest – veteran of the Whalley Legion’s roughly 700 members. But he doesn’t let that slow him down.
Ninety-six years young, Gaudet chuckles as he explains he still likes to go bowling, still drives and still lives independently, in his home which, yes, he also cleans himself.
“My wife passed away 15 years ago and I still live in the same house that we did. Still do all the chores by myself and enjoy life,” he remarked. “Try to keep as busy as possible.”
You’ll be able to see Gaudet this Sunday, at the Whalley Legion’s parade and service, which he attends faithfully.
“I usually lay a candle on the cenotaph they have for the veterans, different branches, the navy, the army, the air force,” he said.
“I lay candles there.”
Final ceremony at ‘historic’ Whalley Legion
With construction soon set to begin on the Legion Veteran’s Village at the Whalley Legion property, it will be the last year the Remembrance Day ceremony and parade will take place there.
“We would like to invite the public to help us commemorate and honour our fallen soldiers,” said Tony Moore, President of the Whalley Legion Branch 229.
The Surrey Fire Fighters Pipe and Drum band will be part of this year’s parade for the first time.
The Whalley Legion’s Junior Band will also participate, as will volunteers from the Surrey Crime Prevention Society and many other groups, with complimentary refreshments served at the Legion.
“We’ve been serving the community for the last 71 years and we are excited to look ahead to new beginnings and new services we will be offering to veterans and first responders with our new Legion Veterans Village,” Moore added.
Where will future ceremonies be held? “We’ve talked about maybe using City Hall Plaza, or maybe Holland Park,” Moore replied. “Or put the cenotaph on a trailer and bring it to the corner of 108th (Avenue). But we’ll definitely have a parade. We’ll always hold one.”
The Whalley Legion was founded in 1947 when about 40 veterans gathered to start a local branch of the Canadian Legion in the Whalley area. One of the first organizations in Whalley’s Corner, next to the Ladies Community Guild, the originating members held their first meetings in local church basements and members’ garages.
In 1951, the first Remembrance Service was held on the grounds of the Grosvenor Road School, and a cenotaph built nearby. The existing location was built in 1960 after unprecedented growth in the area through fundraising, donated materials and labour.
Today, the Whalley Legion gives away nearly $100,000 a year from poppy sales and other initiatives.
“We give it all back to the community,” said Moore. “Kinsmen, schools, the hospital, our cadets, it’s a very valuable part of the City Centre of Surrey.”
The Whalley Legion is currently exploring several options for its temporary operating location, while the Veterans Village is under construction. Their Cadet activities will be supported in temporary locations during construction.
“We’re in negotiations,” said Moore, noting the legion has been considering a former Japanese restaurant in the area.
“We’re also looking to maybe have a trailer in there or something for the cadets,” he said, which are currently housed in a building also on the Legion’s property.
The Legion Veterans Village has passed fourth reading, with the City of Surrey approving the rezoning and subdivision plan at the Oct. 1 council meeting.The next steps are for developer Lark Group to put a number of approvals in place with the city and the land titles office to complete and execute the subdivision plan.
Demolition of the existing Whalley Legion and ground-breaking is expected to commence in spring 2019, with completion slated for the winter of 2021-22.
The $66 million Legion Veterans Village (rendering pictured above) was initiated by the Royal Canadian Legion BC/Yukon Command (BC/Yukon Command), the Whalley Legion Branch 229, and the Lark Group. It will be Canada’s first Centre of Excellence for veterans and first responders that focuses on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mental health. It will also be an “Innovation Centre for Rehabilitation,” offering clinical rehabilitation services, research and the delivery of health care programs, services and trauma counseling for PTSD and mental health, which includes advanced evidence-based services and programming in health, science and engineering, including innovations in robotics, assistive devices and technologies for injured veterans and first responders. Moore said the project will be a “real game-changer,” not only for veterans, but also for the wider Whalley community.
“We’ve got hundreds of veterans in the Lower Mainland,” said Moore. “We have lots of young veterans, Afghanistan and different services, so there’s a real need for this PTSD clinic.
“Would love to get Prince Harry to come and open it,” Moore added. “He knows about it.”
As for Whalley?
“It’s the oldest part of Surrey, a heritage area,” Moore said. “I think it’ll help get it back to its former glory,” he added, referring to many projects, including Tien Sher’s planned development along Whalley’s Flamingo Block that aims to achieve a “Yaletown” feel.
“I think in a few years down the road, we’ll be like Davies or Kitsilano. It’ll be the place to live.”
With files from Tom Zytaruk