Hannah placing a poppy at the Catholic Education Centre Photo by Evan Boudreau

Veterans help students understand why we remember

By 
  • November 11, 2012

TORONTO - Gerry O'Pray served his country in the armed forces for eight years and now he wants young people to understand why.

"We have to stand up for our values that citizens have fought and died for," said O'Pray. "Remembrance is good but maintaining and living our values is the best way to honour those who've served."

O'Pray was speaking to 55 Grade 8 students from St. Gabriel Catholic School on Nov. 6s. The students placed paper poppies inscribed with personalized messages at a memorial set up at the Catholic Education Centre.

"Thank you for fighting for our peace and our lives," said one note.

"May your neighbours respect you, trouble neglect you, angels protect you and heaven accept you," said another.

"Because of our soldiers I may stand tall and free, not having to worry about a gun and having to flee," said a third. 

Collins leads people through vespers and lectio divina once a month at Toronto's St. Michael's Cathedral.

Gerry O'Pray speaks to 55 Grade 8 students about why he served.

- Photo by Evan Boudreau

O'Pray, who turns 71 this Remembrance Day, joined the Canadian Forces in 1959 at 18 after graduating high school in Truro, Nova Scotia. Two years later he was in the Congo serving in a peacekeeping role with the United Nations — a mission that saw 256 peacekeeping soldier casualties, including two Canadians.

"When I was on the Congo mission, there were 37 countries as part of that mission," he said. "It was then that I realized how much I appreciated my country. The Congo mission ended in 1964 (and) unfortunately we left a really brutal dictator in charge."

Following that two-year tour, O'Pray returned home until deploying to Egypt for a year. He ended his eight years of service safely in Canada and transitioned back into civilian life. But he's never forgotten why he served.

Remembrance Day fell on a Sunday this year, outside of school hours, but the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) was intent on remembering the men and women who've served the nation. That long list includes one of the board's own, Second Lieutenant Christian Cieplik, a graduate of the Toronto Catholic school system.

Collins leads people through vespers and lectio divina once a month at Toronto's St. Michael's Cathedral.

Second Lieutenant Christian Cieplik tells students on from St. Edward Catholic School about his 2010 tour in Kandahar, Afghanistan on Nov. 8.

- Photo courtesy of the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

Cieplik was one of three veterans invited to speak to students at the Catholic Education Centre during the week. Two years ago, while a member of the 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment, he received about 800 letters from students of his alma mater, Our Lady of Victory Catholic School, while deployed in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

"That was a huge gesture on their behalf and it was really cool because, depending on the age group, they tell you everything about themselves," said Cieplik.

Participating in Remembrance Day services is more than a tribute to those who've risked their lives for our freedoms, said Bruce Rodrigues, the board's director of education. It's also an expression of Canada's commitment to transforming the world.

"Because Remembrance Day falls on a non-school day this year, we wanted to ensure that we took the time within our school communities to reinforce its importance," said Rodrigues. "That importance would be to honour all of those who have sacrificed for peace and those who continue to serve our country."

Cieplik credits his time in Catholic school for preparing him for his stint in Afghanistan. He said it instilled him with a sense of service, respect and sacrifice.

"Being able to connect with people of different backgrounds and beliefs, that helped a lot over there," he said. "Especially dealing with locals and our interpreters. The Afghan National Army, they're all Muslim or Shiite, but I was still able to respect that faith and it was reciprocated. That helped a lot."

Cieplik, who joined the Canadian Forces in 2006 after graduating from York University where he studied political science, wants to give back to the school board. He began last school year with a speaking engagement at Our Lady of Victory, where students gave him a hero's welcome.

"Last year when I went to my old elementary school they were cheering, the kids were cheering, they went nuts," he said.

"The area I grew up in has grown more violent over the years in Toronto and you're just kind of showing that there is another option, that violence doesn't have to rule or dictate how you turn out or it shouldn't really affect your morals and ethics in a negative way."

Cieplik connected so well with the children that the board asked him to speak this year at the Catholic Education Centre during Veterans' Week. Before his address to more than 50 students from St. Edward Catholic School, the 31 year-old soldier said he'd stress that all war did not end in 1945, rather, a type of war ended.

"Everything has been engrained in their minds that it's poppies and white crosses, like older forms of wars in Europe," he said.

Rodrigues reiterated this.

"It's not about the past. It's about the present and about ensuring the future," he said.

Remembrance Day is as much about a moment of silence as it about learning from the voices of the past, Rodrigues said.

"Having someone who's had the experience puts a real face on the event," he said. "The veteran will often do that with students so they can understand here is a real human face that has lived this experience and is not telling it from a story perspective but rather a real life experience."

Collins leads people through vespers and lectio divina once a month at Toronto's St. Michael's Cathedral.

Word War II veteran Stan Egerton, who reached the rank company sergeant major, speaks to an auditorium full of students at Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School on Nov. 7.

- Photo courtesy of Tim Stewart

Veterans visited several schools during Veterans' Week. Second World War veteran Stan Egerton was at Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School and told students how, like many surviving WWII veterans, he lied about his age to join the service.

Egerton served under his brother George, a sergeant, for about two years in Europe before an artillery shell claimed his brother's life on Sept. 4, 1944. About a month earlier Egerton's other brother Frank, a private, was also killed in action, leaving him the family's sole surviving, son.

Often Remembrance Day services focus on the dead, the fighting and the destruction. But the TCDSB wanted a diverse range of veterans to teach students that there is more than one way to solve a conflict and fighting is always the last resort.

"Youth need to understand that there are other ways to solve conflict," Rodrigues said. "Today we wouldn't necessarily resolve conflict through fighting but through collaboration and that sense of coming together to find a common solution that can be attained through conversation."

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