Members of the Royal Canadian Legion in Sainte-Thérèse gathered on Labelle Blvd. outside the branch on May 8 – the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Allied forces during World War II in Europe – for the unveiling of a military monument and historic plaque to honor the memory of the more than 45,000 Canadian soldiers who perished in history’s deadliest armed confrontation.
In a brief speech prior to unveiling a plaque standing in front of a 1980s-era M-109A4 Howitzer mobile artillery unit (an improved version of 1960s military technology), Marc-Aurèle-Fortin NDP MP Alain Giguère pointed out that when the legion branch first opened just after War War II, the membership consisted largely of men less than 30 years of age.
“Paradoxically we are reliving this situation now with a very large number of veterans from Iraq but mostly from Afghanistan who are less than 30 years old,” he said. “These are people who must be cared for and who must be provided with help. These are people who often have suffered scars not only to their bodies, but also to their souls.”
The ‘100 houses’ area
In this sense, Giguère noted, the Legion’s role is becoming more important than ever as a leading provider of care to veterans just as it was following World War II. “We are saying that the problems you are living right now, we lived the same thing in the past and we are here with love to extend a hand when you need it,” he said.
It’s no coincidence that the decommissioned artillery unit will now sit squarely in a neighbourhood of Sainte-Thérèse known as the Quartier des Cents Maisons. Around the time of the Second World War, the federal government built tens of thousands of new houses across Canada for workers toiling in munitions plants and other types of factories producing material for the war effort. Nearly 100 such houses were built in the area of Sainte-Thérèse around the Legion on streets such as Bertrand, Chatelier, Lamarque, Lacroix and Hertel.
Better late than never
According to Branch 208 president Jean Denis Nantel, the artillery unit was a gift from the Department of National Defence in 2012, although it was only delivered this past March. “Three years later after numerous delays, we are proud to see that it has finally arrived,” he said, while adding that it was also fortunate that the unit’s arrival coincided with the 70th anniversary of VE Day. The monument is the property of the branch and is one of nearly a half-dozen similar installations all over the province.
The commemorative plaque says the artillery piece served at CFB Shilo, a Canadian Forces operations and training facility in Manitoba, until 1991. Historically, the base, which has been active since World War I, has served the forces for artillery and munitions training. The artillery unit (not to be mistaken for a tank, since it is lighter and not as heavily armoured) also served Canadian Forces personnel stationed in Germany during the 1990s. It was withdrawn from service after last being used at CFB Petawawa northwest of Ottawa.
According to the plaque, the U.S.-made M-109 is the most common type of mobile artillery unit, and Sainte-Thérèse is said to be one of the few places in Quebec where one can be seen. The one on display was withdrawn in 2005 from the Canadian Forces’ inventory of active equipment. Peter MacKay, who was Canada’s Minister of National Defence in the Conservative cabinet in 2012, gave his assent for it to be converted for use as a war monument and to be donated to Legion Branch 208.
Nantel pointed out some of the M109’s characteristics: it weighs 24 tons, has a top speed of 56 km/h, seats six personnel and can fire shells a distance up to 24 kilometres. “That means it could reach as far as Mount Royal,” he said. While the M-109 is impressive and will no doubt encourage tourists heading north along Route 117 to stop and get a closer look, the commemorative plaque is written entirely in French without an equivalent English translation.
The oversight comes as somewhat of a surprise considering that the donor was the officially-bilingual federal government and that many of Canada’s veterans took part in military engagements to uphold the country’s values. Questioned by the North Shore News, Giguère had no explanation for the unilingual plaque, except to point out that since M-109 is the property of the legion branch they may use it as they see fit without the constraints of federal language regulations.
Branch president Nantel, who is thoroughly bilingual, had this to say: “I know, but we’re in Quebec and the City of Sainte-Thérèse is 95 per cent French. It was decided by our committee. As you can see I speak English, so it is not a matter of being federalist or not. It’s just that we decided to put it in French.” Asked whether having English on the plaque was considered an option, Nantel didn’t rule out the possibility of adding it.