Albert Edward Foster, or Bert as he was known, was my grandfather. He was born in England, immigrated to America, married, and had a family in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1940, telling Evelyn, his wife (and my grandmother) that he was going north on a fishing trip, he drove to Toronto and enlisted in the Canadian Army. Family lore has it that he stretched his torso skyward and defiantly stood on tip toes to pass the minimum height requirement during the physical.
When my grandfather returned home to say his farewells before reporting for duty, my grandmother was shocked and none too pleased that she was to be left alone with two young children. It was not America’s war, but she understood my grandfather’s fierce loyalty to Britain and his never-wavering belief in fighting for what was right. My father tells me, Bert kissed Evelyn goodbye, and promised he’d be home in six months.
Six months turned into five years. Bert fought with the 48th Highlanders infantry regiment, and spent much of the war in southern Italy. He was assigned to a joint U.S.-Canadian Special Forces unit but we don’t know much about that because he refused to share many details. In fact, apart from a small collection of medals, details about my grandfather’s service are scant. My father remembers being twelve years old and asking my grandfather, newly returned from overseas, to regale him with tales of battle. As the story goes, my grandfather’s eyes turned steely as he stared at my father and said, with a slow and serious voice, “Never ask me about the war again.”
I always think of my grandfather on Remembrance Day. Although he died more than thirty years ago, he was a positive force in my life growing up, and continues to be my touchstone when we honour our veterans on November 11th. Not everyone has a personal connection with war, and with the passage of time, more and more young people experience Remembrance Day as a ceremony honouring a distant past and abstract ideals.
Like some school communities, however, ours includes parents, grandparents and staff who are veterans of recent wars. We also have a faculty member who is a Navy Lieutenant in the reserves. I am acutely aware that for these individuals and their families, the notion of service and sacrifice is neither distant nor abstract. It is very real and often still painful, so it is important to me that we take time on November 11th to reflect on what our country fought for, and that we impress upon our students that the fight to protect these values is now theirs to take up.
I was reminded of the importance of honouring what our veterans fought for when our local Minister of Parliament Celina Caesar-Chavannes spoke these words at Whitby’s Remembrance Day Service: “During times of war and conflict, the 117,000 fallen didn’t care what their fellow soldier looked like. Our veterans who came back with visible and invisible wounds didn’t care about race, creed, or religion. They fought together, they looked out for each other. If our veterans and soldiers could look out for each other irrespective of difference in times of war, why can’t we, the living, the beneficiaries of their sacrifice, humble ourselves enough to look out for each other in times of peace?”
Bert Foster would have applauded these words. After he returned from the war, he continued fighting for the rights of others. Prior to WW2, Bert had been a labour organizer who helped lead the first sit-down strike at Cleveland’s Fisher Body Plant. After the war, he continued working for the UAW and fought for plant safety, equal pay for women, and job security for workers. He lived the rest of his life upholding the values and principles he fought for during the war.
I suspect my grandfather would approve of the work we do at the Castle. We encourage our students to approach differences with respect and curiosity, we challenge them to speak out against cruelty and inequity, and we remind them of our collective responsibility to build an inclusive and caring society. In doing so, I hope we make the abstract more real so that they understand those we honour every November 11th.