The Prince Albert Legion went a different direction when they launched their annual poppy campaign on Friday, presenting the first poppy to Afghanistan veteran Ramsay Bellisle.
Bellisle had the first poppy pinned on him by Legion member and veteran Marie Mathers. Bellisle is an employee of Parkland Ambulance and second in command with the North Saskatchewan Regiment, as well as an Afghanistan veteran.
Bellisle said it was special to receive the first poppy from Mathers, someone he had known since he was in Scouts as a teenager.
“I have just known Marie forever and keep bouncing around and talking to her all of the time,” he said. “(You) come into the Legion and she is one of the first people (to say) ‘hey how’s it going’.”
In the past, the Prince Albert branch has followed other Legions and presented the first poppy to the Mayor. This year, the Legion decided to focus on younger veterans. Bellisle said he was honoured by the selection.
“There is lots of other veterans out there as well, so if the PA Legion is doing a new veteran every year that’s good,” Bellisle said.
The poppy presentation wasn’t the only thing that made Friday a special day for Bellisle. Thirteen years ago to the day, he was about to board a plane to fly out to Afghanistan when he received the news that Justin Boyce, one of his friends he served with in the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry, had been killed.
“Only some of us knew about it because we weren’t sure if all of the families found out yet or all of the notifications had happened,” Bellisle remembered. “By the time we got to Winnipeg, the Brigade Commander was there and let those of us who knew Justin know.
“You are not even into the fight yet or not even deployed yet and you are already losing friends. Then the next thing is we were hoping to get over, get into Afghanistan in time for Justin’s ramp ceremony.”
They did not arrive in time for the ceremony because of delays. Instead, they passed the plane carrying Boyce’s body in Cyprus.
“It’s difficult to explain being nervous, scared, upset now that, ‘hey, we are losing a friend. What are we going into,’ and then just trying to be there for him and we didn’t quite make it there in time,” he remembered.
Bellisle said he’ll use the next two weeks to remember not only Boyce, but all of those who lost their lives from the Prince Albert area and other parts of Canada.
“We had five people killed in our company overseas,” he said. “Every time we went on comms lockdown overseas you are like, ‘okay, what happened,’ because they are notifying, so it was either casualties or someone was killed.”
Serving in the armed forces was a family affair for Bellisle. His little brother was also stationed in Masum Ghar at the time he was deployed.
He said it was difficult to make friends, and then lose them.
“When I put the Poppy on, that’s the two weeks to remember,” he said. “Then, at the end of the service on the 11th when I leave my poppy at the cenotaph, then it’s time to move on until the next poppy time.”
Mathers is also a veteran. She was one of four girls from her small town who could speak German, so she worked at prisoner of war camp in St. Jean Baptiste Manitoba during the Second World War.
“As it is right now, I am the only one left of that group of girls,” she said.
Bellisle learned he was receiving the poppy from Mathers while he was in his role as parade commander for Remembrance Day.
“So we were talking back and forth about that and the she said, ‘oh by the way are you available to receive the first poppy from the Legion?’” he said.
He checked to see if he was available and Parkland Ambulance adjusted their scheduling to make sure he was available.
Mather said that Bellisle was always one of her favourites in Scouts. She has been lobbying for Afghanistan veterans to be recognized, and said the Legion is on board with the plan.
“Last year I wanted to have an Afghan veteran and I didn’t win,” she said. “This year they asked me, ‘you want to do the mayor? No, so that was final. Ramsay would be my number one.”
The Remembrance Day ceremony will be outside again this year at Memorial Square by City Hall.
“We will have everything except no band because it’s too cold for the music. Everything will be as regular, except we are just going to have no band, but we will have parade.”
The public is asked to arrive by 10:30 a.m. and bring their own chair. At 10:55 a.m., the colour party will march on the colours, 11 a.m. will be the playing of the Last Post followed by a minute of silence. This is followed by the Honour Roll, Act of Remembrance and Closing Prayer.
Bellisle is a fan of the outdoor service as well.
“It makes it cozier,” he said. “Besides the couple of times I have been in Sask Place when we ran the one within Saskatoon, all of the other Remembrance Days I have been to, except for the two overseas, were at the PA Armory.
“It’s more intimate when it’s outside. Yeah it’s cold, it’s shorter but it’s also more intimate and for a lot of the current veterans and the guys that are currently retired, it has more meaning that some of the inside larger ones” Bellisle said.
The Royal Canadian Legion in Prince Albert uses money raised from poppy sales to help veterans and their families who might be in need. They also make funds available if a reference comes from Saskatchewan Command.
The poppy was officially adopted in Canada in 1921 by the Great War Veterans’ Association, one of the predecessors of the Legion. They’re recognized as the national symbol of remembrance for Canadian men and women who gave their lives during military service around the world.