Honour Needs Your Voice
© 2017 FrontLine Defence (Vol 14, No 5)

Standing near the Cross of Sacrifice, Sabine Nölke, Ambassador of Canada to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, gave the following address (edited for space) to the crowd assembled at the Canadian War Cemetery in Bergen-op-Zoom on a damp October morning.

(Photos: Chris MacLean)

Welcome to the annual commemoration of the sacrifices made by members of the Canadian forces in the Liberation of the Netherlands. We are surrounded here by grave stones – 1,284 of them – 116 of those without a name. I see these stones, and similar ones, across this beautiful country, and I always ask myself the same questions: Who were the people these grave stones commemorate? And what would they tell us, if they had the chance?

Richard “Dick” Connor died on October 28, 1944 at the age of 21. He rests in Plot 7 C 2. His friend, Private Sheldon MacDonald, wrote to Dick’s parents to share his feelings about his friend’s death. He told them “What I admire most about Dick was his high sense of honour. I do not believe that you could find a chap that was as good a living boy than Dick”.

If there is one thing that I believe all these soldiers, all of these once “living boys” in this hallowed place, have in common, it is just that – a high sense of honour. Honour, not in death, but in living. 

Honour in doing what is necessary. Honour in doing what is right. Honour in going forward when the risk is substantial or, as in the case of Dick Connor and his friend Sheldon MacDonald, when the risk includes making the ultimate sacrifice. 

Sheldon survived; Dick did not. But they made the same choices. Choices that required character, and honour, and the willingness to take risks. Who among us would make such choices in the face of the threats we face today?

We live in a more complex time than those boys did, 73 years ago. We are faced with economic disparity that has resulted in record migration flows, and vicious conflicts that have displaced millions more. Violent extremism has brought death into public spaces, close to our door steps. 

In the wake of these upheavals, we have seen a resurgence of ethnic nationalism; hatred and fear have coarsened public discourse, allowing deliberately divisive voices to dominate. These forces have rejected the basic truth that diversity makes us stronger. They are shouting down divergent opinions, and they have weakened the commitment to democracy and democratic institutions throughout the Western world. 

Most distressingly, we have seen a rise in the very ideology that Dick Connor and all those other “brave chaps” that surround us here were fighting against, back in 1944. Images of people marching under Nazi flags, the resurgence of anti-semitism, and the questioning of the fundamental rights and freedoms that these “brave chaps” won for us, are becoming all too common.

Many of us, though, are too busy, too occupied with our own daily race for success to speak out. But here we are today, gathered in a moment of reflection, and so I ask you to look at these 1,284 gravestones and to ask yourselves: What would the men who lie here consider “a high sense of honour” today? 

Edmund Burke said that, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Richard Connor and his friend Sheldon MacDonald are no longer here to fight our battles for us. But we may not need their weapons to defend our ideals, or to stand up for what is right. 

What we do need is voices. Their voices – speaking through us – taking forward their commitment to a world that is free of discrimination, of division, of hatred, and of fear. 

Honour demands it. Theirs and ours. 

Sabine Nölke is the Ambassador of Canada to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.