Small group ensures Island observance of Decoration Day

Piper Dave Beaton joined Royal Canadian Legion Branch 177 Little Current President Ruth Eadie Little, Jim Woods, past president of Legion Branch 514 Western Manitoulin, Roy Eaton, vice president of the Manitoulin and North Shore Navy Veterans, Linda Bowerman, past president of Branch 177 Ladies Auxiliary and Mike Terry, master of Doric Lodge 455, at the main cenotaph memorial following wreath-laying ceremonies.

MINDEMOYA – The pandemic has curtailed most gatherings, forcing many veteran organizations to postpone or severely truncate Remembrance ceremonies, so it is with the Island’s Decoration Day ceremonies.

“Our traditional Decoration Day ceremony has been postponed until Sunday, September 19,” confirmed Roy Eaton, who usually serves as master of ceremonies for the event. 

But members of Island Royal Canadian Legions and the Manitoulin and North Shore Navy Veterans, along with a member of the Doric Lodge, decided to hold a small ceremony at the Island memorials.

“Six of us ensured the service where our departed Manitoulin veterans are remembered and honoured would take place, even if it was just with a few of us in attendance,” said Mr. Roy. “Branch President Ruth Eadie of (Royal Canadian Legion) Branch 177 Little Current and Jim Woods, past president of (Royal Canadian Legion) 514 Western Manitoulin laid wreaths at the main memorial (located at Monument Corner in Spring Bay).”

Mr. Eaton, as vice president of the Manitoulin and North Shore Navy Veterans laid a wreath at the Merchant Marine memorial, while Linda Bowerman, past president of Branch 177 Ladies’ Auxiliary laid a wreath at the Women’s Memorial and Mike Terry, master of Doric Lodge 455 laid a wreath at the Youth Memorial. 

“Dave Beaton, piper, poignantly played different laments at each station,” said Mr. Eaton. “We also appreciated the unexpected but welcomed attendance of a few members of the public.”

Decoration Day has long been celebrated on Manitoulin Island, despite being superseded in most Canadian communities by the country’s official day to remember our nation’s war-fallen, Remembrance Day.

Decoration Day’s provenance extends much further back in time to the days following the Fenian Raids, when Irish nationalists fresh from participation in the US Civil War sought to seize British North America in order to exchange the territory for Ireland.

The Fenians were members of a secret Irish nationalist society that was outlawed in Great Britain, where they were known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Following the 1865 British successes in crushing the movement in Ireland, many Irish Americans (including many well-armed and trained veterans of the recent US Civil War) were sympathetic to the Fenian cause. Even a few thousand Irish Canadians were members of the movement.

In response to the threat posed by the Fenians, 10,000 Canadian volunteers were called up for active duty—a number that was later increased to 14,000. A number of Island residents joined the effort and the Fenian threat was eventually defeated.

In what might be seen as an odd turn of events considering what followed a few years later, it was Metis leader Louis Riel who repulsed the last Fenian incursion into British territory in North America. The Fenian leader and hero of the Fenian victory at Ridgeway (near Fort Erie), John O’Neill, slipped into Canada in October 1870 expecting support from Mr. Riel. With the Metis rallying to defend the territory from the Fenians instead, the would be conquerors of Canada fled back to the US where they were arrested—finally ending the threat from south of the border.

Canada later hung Mr. Riel as a traitor following the ill-fated North West Rebellion.

The first Decoration Day began on June 1890. Originally, the celebration was actually a form of protest, as veterans of the Battle of Ridgeway felt that their contribution to the protection of Canada during the Fenian Raids was being ignored by the government. The Fenian Raid veterans and their supporters placed decorations at the Canadian Volunteers Monument near Queen’s Park in Toronto on the 24th anniversary of the battle. The following year the crowds attending the accompanying parade had swelled to 30,000, with some 50,000 watching the parade.

As years went by and subsequent wars increased the number of Canadian veterans, Decoration Day grew to include veterans of the North-West Rebellion, the Second Boer War and the First World War. In 1931, the Armistice Remembrance Day Act established November 11, Remembrance Day, as the official day commemorating military service in Canada.

But Manitoulin remembers, and Decoration Day has been observed on the Island since its inception—a day in which to remember those who have fallen in service to their country and often observed through the decoration of veteran’s graves and memorials.