9. September 2023

What visiting Juno Beach taught me about Canadians

It’s fascinating how our minds selectively process information, especially when we’re on the cusp of major life changes. For instance, ever since my wife and I made the decision to move to Canada by year’s end, it feels like life has amped up the frequency of random moments that connect us to our future home.

One such moment occurred just a few days ago. We were on a road trip through France, visiting Normandy and Brittany, to make the most of our remaining vacation days before our work contracts in Germany come to an end. My wife, familiar with these regions, wanted to show me what I had been missing out on. While our trip included quaint towns, historical landmarks, and breathtaking landscapes, we felt an obligation to also visit a D-Day landing beach. After all, you can’t explore Normandy without confronting its painful history.

When it came time to choose which beach to visit, my wife asked, “Which one do you want to see?” I replied, “Which one haven’t you visited yet?” It turns out she had never been to Juno Beach, so that’s where we headed.

Upon arrival, the first thing we noticed was that the museum and memorial site were operated by a Canadian non-profit organization. Intrigued, we learned that this section of the Normandy coast was stormed by Canadian forces on D-Day. This Canadian lens shaped our understanding of the day’s events as we embarked on a guided tour led by young Canadians — about the same age as the soldiers who had landed on the beach decades earlier. The fact that my eldest son is 22, within the age range of these young soldiers, made the experience even more poignant.

The museum provided further context. We discovered that Canada, despite having a population of just 11 million during WWII, saw over one million people serve in the military. Furthermore, the museum highlighted Canada’s understated approach to remembering the war. It wasn’t until 2003 that this memorial was built, thanks to Canadian veterans who felt their significant contributions had been overlooked.

Another striking feature was the museum’s emphasis on collective effort. Rather than merely celebrating Canada’s role, the displays educated visitors about the Belgians, Italians, French, and Brits who were essential to the Allies’ success. The museum also shed light on the contributions of women and First Nations people to Canada’s war effort.

As we left the site, I asked my wife how Juno Beach compared to other D-Day memorial beaches. “Much, much quieter,” she said. American memorials, she explained, often feel engulfed in a sort of militant ‘RaRa’ atmosphere. In contrast, Juno Beach was characterized by calm, respectful commemoration. No flashy displays or loud music — just a subtle yet powerful acknowledgment of the sacrifices made and the collective effort that went into that crucial day.

Our visit to Juno Beach was an enlightening experience and a poignant reminder of the Canadian spirit: one that values collective achievement over individual glory, understated reverence over flashy showmanship, and meaningful education over jingoistic sentiment. It was a serendipitous choice to visit Juno Beach, and for that, I am incredibly grateful.

And, well, is there anything more Canadian than to almost “forget” to toot your own horn, to make it about everyone else first, to keep it somewhat quiet and symbolic instead of loud and proud and to focus on contributions rather than glory and victory?

Photo by Ravi Patel on Unsplash

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