Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, members of the committee. It is a pleasure to be here today.
I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land from which Paul and I are talking to you is the traditional and unceded territory of the Abegweit Mi'kmaq first nation.
On this day 104 years ago, at 3:45 a.m., the 27th Canadian infantry battalion advanced over an open plain under heavy shelling towards the town of Fresnoy, France. While most of the battalion was stopped short of the objective, Lieutenant Robert Combe led five men across the line. Using his opponents' own grenades, he cleared the trench and captured 80 enemy soldiers. Once his position was secured by reinforcements, Lieutenant Combe continued to advance until he was killed by an enemy sniper. He had been in France for two weeks.
Lieutenant Combe was laid to rest in the field cemetery at Acheville, France, which was later destroyed in the fighting. His name, along with the names of 11,284 other Canadian soldiers with no known graves, is inscribed on the Vimy Memorial.
I've told you this story because it is our privilege and obligation to continue the sacred tradition of remembering and honouring all those who have served and given so much to Canada and Canadians.
This has become much more challenging during the past year. The pandemic has continued to test the mettle of all Canadians, including veterans and their families, members of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. The Department of Veterans Affairs and many organizations that support veterans have shown their resilience and flexibility by adjusting their approach in the face of the pandemic. I am proud of what we have accomplished.
In May 2020, we marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands and the end of the Second World War in Europe. An overseas delegation was planned, including the participation of a veteran delegation at a number of ceremonies in Europe. Sadly, this had to be postponed to a later date.
However, to recognize this important anniversary, we produced a virtual ceremony. The video received over 125,000 views on Facebook. We also reached out to schools, youth and community groups across Canada and distributed bilingual learning resources with a focus on the liberation of the Netherlands.
For the first time in history, in 2020, Veterans' Week was held virtually. Through livestreaming ceremonies, online learning resources, Faces of Freedom podcasts, and streaming videos of the Kipnes Lantern and the virtual poppy drop, we were able to bring Canadians together.
The candlelight tribute ceremony, which also takes place every year during Veterans' Week, was held virtually. The video featured veterans in long-term care facilities across Canada and was viewed over 64,000 times.
In March, we highlighted the contribution of women in uniform on our social media channels. We ran a campaign that focused on sharing the stories of more than a dozen women veterans from diverse backgrounds during the “They proudly served” series. This sparked meaningful conversations about their experiences in the Canadian Armed Forces.
One of our objectives is to educate youth to ensure that they continue to carry the torch of remembrance. Previously, youth representatives were an important part of our overseas delegations for significant anniversaries. We have had to find new ways to keep our youth connected and engaged.
The commemoration division's learning unit has connected with over 57,000 educators and youth leaders interested in receiving our learning materials. We continue to send information to educator partners on new materials, events and anniversaries related to remembrance throughout the year, so that they can be shared with young Canadians.
The Minister of Veterans Affairs awarded commendations virtually this year to 67 recipients. These are usually awarded in person to individuals who have contributed in an exemplary manner to the care and well-being of veterans or to the remembrance of the contributions, sacrifices and achievements of veterans.
Last year, our commemorative partnership program approved over $1.6 million for 158 projects across the country. The department continued to support organizations with initiatives that honour those who served in Canada during times of war, military conflict and peace.
For example, the program funded the Niagara Military Museum's exhibit on the Black military history of Niagara. The exhibit featured personal stories of service from various conflicts, including the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, and Afghanistan. The project included online materials, study guides and fact sheets, and has travelled to a number of schools across the region.
I want to take this opportunity to provide the committee with our vision of the future of commemoration. The department developed a 10-year commemoration strategic plan in partnership with the ministerial advisory group on commemorations. This plan outlines how we will help Canadians understand how service advances peace and global security, inspire Canadians to actively recognize the services of sacrifices of all who serve, and preserve memorials and grave markers in a sustainable and dignified way.
Through 2021, the department will consult with veterans and other Canadians to seek their views on our approach and hear their ideas on how best to remember Canadian military missions and recognize those who have served our country in war and in peace.
At Veterans Affairs Canada, despite the pandemic, we are continuing to connect with Canadians in new ways to ensure we recognize our veterans, their sacrifices and their service to our country. We are using these new approaches, adopted out of necessity, to change the way we honour our past and commemorate in the future.