A fitting tribute

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OTTAWA, Ont. – Wreaths were gently laid across many tombstones at the Arlington National Cemetery and it was a sight so remarkable that it was hard to forget.

Craig McPhee, a retired warrant officer with the Royal Canadian Air Force, was so moved by the display honouring American veterans, he immediately went to the office at Arlington and asked how each wreath found its way to the cemetery.

McPhee learned that Morrill Worcester was responsible for the wreaths he saw, and after acquiring his address, McPhee drove from his home in Ottawa to Maine so he could talk to Worcester.

McPhee discovered Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company, had a surplus of wreaths toward the end of the season and he decided to donate them to the cemetery – a tradition that he and a number of volunteers have kept alive for over two decades.

“I told Morrill that I would take care of the north, from British Columbia to Newfoundland,” said McPhee, and so far, he has been true to his word, taking small steps with Wreaths Across Canada – joining the Newfoundland branch that just had its fifth ceremony.

On the first Sunday of December, McPhee and a number of volunteers gather at the Beechwood National Cemetery in Ottawa to lay wreaths on tombstones – a practice that has is slowly growing in numbers since the first ceremony was held in 2011.

“We tend to zero in on the veterans buried overseas, but we don’t do a lot to honour the memory of veterans buried in Canada beyond November 11,” McPhee said.

This year, 2,900 wreaths were laid in Beechwood National Cemetery.

“It will take time for people to hear about what we are doing,” said McPhee, who stressed that each year the organization hopes to expand and reach each of the 235,000 veterans buried in Canada.

“I would like to see more veterans involved – we run things just like we did while in the military,” McPhee said. This approach, according to McPhee, helps the non-profit group stay organized and focused, allowing it to teach young Canadians about the brave men and women who have fought for Canada.

The wreaths that adorn the cemetery are made in Sackville, N.B. and are picked up and delivered to Ottawa by Jade Trucking, which the Perth, Ont., which the company does without charge.

“We rely on the help of volunteers and donations,” said McPhee.

Rob Penner, executive vice-president and COO of Bison Transport – who is also heavily involved with the Truckload Carriers Association, which leads the Wreaths Across America effort – became interested in the organization.

“I was interested in trying to help get a similar effort off the ground here in Canada and much to my surprise, I learned that Wreaths Across Canada had already been founded,” said Penner. “I knew that I had to help and that I would also have the backing of Bison Transport, so here we are, looking to help the founders grow this into something our entire nation can support and get behind.”

According to Penner, it is vital the purpose of Wreaths Across Canada is recognized as differing from Remembrance Day.

“Military families make many sacrifices and some make the ultimate sacrifice. The first Sunday in December signifies a kick-off to the holidays, which is a tough time for many people,” Penner said. “By laying a wreath we have yet another way to pay our respects to those who have kept us safe in times of peace and war, and who have helped build our great country. Whether those we have lost were felled in battle, accidentally or of natural causes, the families will know that we are thinking of them and that we are thankful for their service. Current and retired members of the military should also know that we will always appreciate them and never forget all that they have done to help build the greatest country on earth.”

While Bison did not play a role in this year’s ceremony, the company has committed to joining the non-profit group for next year’s ceremony, which will be held on Dec. 7, 2014.

“It was a spectacular and moving event, on a perfect wintery day in Ottawa. The 2,900 wreaths laid stood out in stark contrast to the fresh white snow and made a very powerful statement of remembrance and gratitude,” said Penner. “I was privileged to have been able to take part. I will be taking part next year but not likely in Ottawa. Bison will help launch Wreaths Across Canada in the west and ideally I will be helping out in Winnipeg, Edmonton and wherever else we can spread this.”

Penner also enlisted the help of his wife, Kathy Penner, associate publisher of Truck News.

“It was an honour to be there,” she said. “It was a very emotional day and I was happy to have been a part of the ceremonies. The heroes who fought for the freedom of our country should never be forgotten.”

For more information, to volunteer or make donations, visit www.wreathsacrosscanada.ca

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