Commemorative banners in St. Catharines tell human stories behind Canada’s war effort

Share:

Cecil Hall never knew war, but it scarred him just the same.

The Second World War claimed the life of a brother he never got to meet.

The closest thing to a memory he has of his brother Wilber is a recollection of the day in 1944 when, as an eight-year-old, he answered a knock at the front door of his family's Parkview Road home in St. Catharines.

It was their minister, making the visit every wartime family feared.

"What happened next has impacted my life, even up until today," said Hall, 81.

"My mother looked at him and said, 'The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord,' and she started to cry."

The Second World War inflicted terrible damage on the world. Approximately 45,000 Canadians died, according to Veterans Affairs Canada. Closer to home, 345 members of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment didn't come home, and another 1,200 were wounded.

When it ended in 1945, Hall said, "we had a parade around our streets and banged tin pans to make noise."

Time passes and memories — at least some of them — fade. He wants to make sure the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2020 is celebrated in a fitting way.

Inspired by the efforts of a small town in Newfoundland, Hall and his family purchased three commemorative banners that were erected outside St. Catharines city hall earlier this week.

They honour Hall's brothers — one for Wilber, an artilleryman who died in combat in Sicily at 23, another for James Leslie, or Les, who came home and lived a full life. The third celebrates both men.

Hall had hoped some banners could be displayed on Burgoyne Bridge, too. When he went to Niagara Region offices to look into it, transportation services director Carolyn Ryall was impressed.

She said Region staff "was very in line with the wonderful story that he brought forward" and is interested in working with Hall and the City of St. Catharines on it.

It also made an impression on her personally. She spoke with her in-laws, and the Waterfield family purchased its own banner honouring Leslie Waterfield, a bomber pilot who flew more than 70 missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He died in 2015 near Toronto, just short of his 99th birthday.

"Knowing him in particular," Ryall said, "it was quite a privilege."

Waterfield's banner is displayed near the others, at Church and James streets by St. Catharines city hall.

Hall and Ryall hope the program will grow, but the logistics — who pays for what, what role the city, Region and local business associations might have, where the banners will be displayed and stored and who will supply them — is still being worked out.

For now, people wanting to honour a veteran with a banner next year should email Olivia Hope at the St. Catharines museum (ohope@stcatharines.ca) and they will be informed as plans take shape.

Hall said banners like his are a way for families to become involved and give recognition to the men and women who took part in Canada's war effort, and for younger generations to know their stories.

It started earlier this year when his niece heard about Carbonear, a small town in Newfoundland where, he said, two years ago they had three banners.

"Carbonear is less than a thousand people, and last year they had 63 banners."

Originally, he hoped there would be enough to have six installed around St. Catharines downtown plus three more on Burgoyne Bridge and another near Brock University.

The place where the four banners are displayed now, outside city hall, is where the veterans gather each year to march on Remembrance Day.

Hall feels he had to overcome a lot of bureaucratic red tape to get the program to where it is now. Part of the confusion, he admitted, might be that some agencies thought he was asking them for money.

He isn't — the banners he ordered from a company in Hanover, Ont., cost about $175 each, with $10 of that donated back to families who lost a member in war. Whether that company or another would supply banners moving forward is another one of the details still to be worked out.

"It's 75 years next year, we have to prepare for it," Hall said.