Second World War veteran condemns anti-mask ‘freedom rallies’

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Since the pandemic began, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of anti-maskers have gathered in Saskatchewan’s biggest cities.

They meet at war memorials, at the Cenotaph in Regina and the Vimy Ridge Memorial in Saskatoon.

A veteran of the Second World War, whose father fought in the First World War, said “it’s not appropriate.”

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Bob Atkinson served in the 4th Canadian Armoured Division as a gunner and radio operator in a Sherman tank. He was shot in the arm and the leg, and suffered phosphorus burns to the back of his head, while fighting the Nazis in Germany.

He said anti-maskers shouldn’t meet at the memorial because it’s a tribute to those who died in service to their country.

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And he said those holding ‘freedom’ rallies shouldn’t have freedom as their slogan.

“Where these people get their reasoning for not wanting to wear a mask I have no idea,” he said.

“It doesn’t make sense to me.”

He called the recent children’s anti-mask event especially alarming. He said he’s worried for his grandkids and great-grandkids (his children are in their 60s and vaccinated).

He told Global News the COVID-19 pandemic reminds him of the fight against tyranny because the world is once again in crisis and once again united against a common threat.

“The virus is our enemy, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

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He compared the bleak outlook to the “the early years, 1941, ’42,” when the Third Reich and Japanese militaries were advancing across the globe.

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Atkinson told Global News he sees the same determination he saw in the ‘40s in healthcare workers – fighting on today’s front lines against the virus.

And this time, the key to victory is easy to see.

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“With enough people getting vaccinated and enough people following the rules, we can beat this one too,” he said.

He said that sense of duty that possessed the country meant everyone worked together, whether they wanted to or not.

“You had to follow orders,” he said.

“You didn’t question and say ‘well, I don’t like to do that,’”

He told Global News he enlisted because he had to, but he still felt “a deep sense of duty.”

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A historian said it was the same sense of responsibility to others and allies that motivated those who died in battle and for which the anti-maskers’ meeting place in Saskatoon is named.

“These people had an extraordinary ability to understand the need, leaving a farm, leaving a job to go and serve their country,” Ted Barris said.

Canada was forged in the fire that was the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Canadians succeeded where other Allied armies had failed, but at a cost of around 10,000 casualties.

Before the battle, Barris said, Canadians described and thought of themselves as British Commonwealth subjects.

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After, they were proudly Canadian.

“The Canadians from the east were to the right of me, the Canadians from the West were to the left of me. It was Canada taking the ridge!” he said, recalling a passage from the journal of a reporter-turned-soldier.

“That’s the first time anybody identified it was Canada taking the Ridge, not a colonial army.”

He described the cohort as “volunteers from the rank and file of Canada,” as farmers, labourers, students, young men and women in their 20s who left their homes to fight, like Gavin McDonald from Craik, Saskatchewan.

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“He recognized that duty called was duty required and he took the responsibility from the middle of Saskatchewan going to Europe.”

Barris said McDonald was a sapper, a harrowing role. Sappers dug tunnels underneath the trenches to get close to their enemies. They burrowed forward, in tightly confined spaces and with the limited technology available in the First World War, but relied on mathematics to plot their course and determine their position.

Aside from the bravery and sense of duty McDonald displayed, Barris pointed to another characteristic so vital in the trenches – compassion for others.

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“Now the battle’s ensuing,” Barris recounted, “and suddenly one of his members of his crew breaks down and falls apart because of a mental breakdown.

“And Gavin McDonald recognizes it and wraps his arms around him, recognizing the responsibility of his team and takes him to safety.”

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The historian told Global News victory at Vimy Ridge also wouldn’t be possible without science. He explained how Colonel Andrew McNaughton, from Moosomin, used sound plotting and flash spotting – and math – to triangulate the location of opposing artillery.

“75 per cent of the German guns were gone because McNaughton used science to defeat the enemy,” Barris said.

This, combined with the creeping barrage, where the infantry followed shortly behind a moving wave of fire, was vital to the Canadians’ success.

All these traits are perhaps best seen in the example of Grace McPherson, from Vancouver.

Despite possessing a drivers’ licence — in an era when many women didn’t — the Canadian and British Red Cross turned her down. She raised the money to book passage herself and won her own position with the ambulance corps at Vimy Ridge.

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“Grace McPherson didn’t have to go to war, and yet she sought after the position to be an ambulance driver, won that role and then practiced the most advanced medicine that was available,” Barris said.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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