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Okotoks Legion recognizes Vimy Ridge with small-scale ceremony

The COVID-19 pandemic did not stop Malcolm Hughes, chairman of the Okotoks Legion, from honouring Canadian soldiers who fought on April 9, 1917 to take Vimy Ridge and change the course of the First World War.

OKOTOKS — A pandemic wasn’t about to stop a Foothills veteran from paying his respects on Birth of a Nation Day.

Malcolm Hughes, chairman of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #291 Okotoks, stood alone in Frederick Pryce Memorial Park on April 9 to honour those who fought at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 on behalf of his comrades.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge resulted in more than 10,000 injuries and 3,000 deaths as Canadian forces took the high ground and turned the course of the First World War.

“For the first time, Canadian forces worked with one another under Canadian command, separate from British command or French command, and succeeded,” said Hughes. “The high ground there at Vimy dominated the entire front at that time, and it was by taking that and successfully holding it that Canadians opened up the end of World War One.”

Following the war, Brigadier-General A.E. Ross declared, “In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation,” and since then Canadians have celebrated Birth of a Nation Day on April 9.

Despite COVID-19 squashing plans for the annual march of the colour guard from the municipal centre to the cenotaph, flags in Okotoks were at half-mast and Hughes was on-site for a one-man ceremony to commemorate the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

It’s important to remember the men who lost their lives and brought a nation together, he said.

“I make no apologies for being out. My wife is not very happy with me, but I make no apologies for being here and doing it,” said Hughes. “We’ve got to do it.”

As a veteran of the British forces and a proud Canadian citizen, he said he feels strongly about maintaining awareness of history and ensuring people understand the impact the military has had in Canada – not just during the First World War, but before and since those battles.

Hughes had a front-row seat to the sacrifice and dedication of Canadians during the Second World War. Living in Yorkshire, England at the time, he saw the bomber planes of the No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) taking off from their nearby base.

His father was too old to fight in the Second World War, but was an airfield maintenance worker and Hughes had some opportunities to accompany him on RCAF bases and meet the Canadian soldiers.

“We watched then taking off, and you’d see a plane coming back all shot up,” said Hughes. “They used to be in terrible shape coming back, but they kept going.

“I watched Canadians fly away and be killed on a daily basis. They suffered incredible casualties, just as they did at Vimy.”

He said everyone needs to know how vital the Canadian forces were to both the First and Second World War efforts, as the first to come to the aid of the Mother Country (Britain) during both conflicts.

Vimy Ridge is something every Canadian should be proud of, and Hughes said he wishes the country would show more of that pride.

“Canada suffered, basically for other people – and I guess that’s what we are,” he said. “In this country we work for other people and we don’t do it much for ourselves.

“We’re not as nationally-inclined as we should be. We should have a great national pride, and we try to show it in the Legion of course, but sometimes it gets lost.”

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