Rededication cements connection with sappers

Published: November 09, 2009 4:00 PM
Updated: November 09, 2009 4:20 PM

The historic connection between Chilliwack and Canadian military engineers is once again set in stone forever.

The rededication ceremony Saturday for the refurbished All Sappers' Memorial Park was attended by a crowd of uniformed officials and supporters who braved the relentless drizzle to be there.

Under the protection of trees or tents, they listened intently to impassioned speeches imbued with gratitude, the synchronized marching feet of parade members, as well as the sombre, rhythmic drone of the pipes and drums.

One of the four inscriptions on the newly sandblasted cenotaph summarized its essence: "In Memory of All Sappers of the Empire who have given their lives in the Service of Their Country."

"What a great occasion to start off a memorial week of remembrance," local MP Chuck Strahl said in his address. "We have so much to be grateful for as a free nation."

The monument recognizes the sacrifices of military engineers — called sappers — in both peacetime and in war.

"It could have been their efforts during war, it could have been during the Flood of 1948, or it could have been the numerous acts of kindness," said Strahl. But it all led to local cultivation of a "special relationship" with sappers.

The formal rededication ceremony on Nov. 7 was a way to ensure that all Canadian military engineers who made the ultimate sacrifice did not do so in vain.

Construction on the $1.5 million cenotaph project by Canada Lands Company wrapped up last week on the city-owned property, which formerly housed CFB Chilliwack.

Clint Hames called it a "great honour" for him to speak on behalf of Canada Lands as a newly appointed West Coast member of the CLC board of directors.

"As a former mayor of Chilliwack, I am proud to say that I was involved in the restoration plan for the All Sappers' Memorial from very early on in the process."

CLC worked closely with retired and active personnel in Chilliwack to ensure the process would honour and preserve the local military history, and the role of the engineers.

"Congratulations to all involved," he said.

"The All Sappers' Memorial, and other monuments like it, represent a vital part of our national memory," Hames continued. "These monuments remind us of the sacrifices of our soldiers, sailors and members of our air force who, at times of crisis, took on difficult and dangerous missions.

"They did so, not for the sake of military glory, but to serve the cause of peace."

The 42-tonne stone monument originally quarried from Harrison Lake, was established on the former CFB Chilliwack site after the end of the Second World War. Lieutenant-Colonel Coulson Norman Mitchell, commander of Camp Chilliwack at the time, oversaw the original design and the construction of the park, which opened in 1946.

Canada Lands Company has been the custodian of the cenotaph site on the south side of town since the closure of CFB Chilliwack in 1998. The site will be turned over to city to be maintained in perpetuity as the All Sappers' Memorial Park.

Acting Mayor Sue Attrill accepted the "wonderful gift" of the park from the Department of National Defence and CLC.

"This beautiful park with its peaceful setting is a destination our residents and visitors will come to for reflection on any day of the year, not just on Nov. 11," she said.

"On behalf of the City of Chilliwack, thank you for this gift for which we can remember the sacrifices of all sappers and commemorate their bravery."

Sappers always at the 'pointy end'

Cornelia Naylor The Times Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When retired sergeant-major Jim Harris caught wind of a proposed plan to expand roads into All Sappers' Memorial Park back in 2004, he went to the Canada Lands Company and told them if they tried to take land away from the cenotaph, they could count on 800 retired military people lying in front of their bulldozers.

Chances are, most of them would have been sappers.

As Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon MP Chuck Strahl said at the park's rededication Saturday, Chilliwack has developed a very special relationship with sappers since 1942 when the first two trainloads of soldiers rolled into town to build the A6 Canadian Engineer Training Center.

From 1942 to 1997 Chilliwack was Canada's sapper central, and all military engineers in the country were trained here.

Strictly speaking, "sapper" is the lowest rank of the Canadian Military Engineers, but there's more to the name than that.

"Regardless of what rank you achieve, you are always a sapper," said Harris, who served from 1961 to 1994 and went on to found the CFB Chilliwack Historical Society.

Sappers, whose job is basically to build things and blow them up depending on the circumstances, are united by a common bond expressed in their unofficial motto--first one in, last one out.

"They're always at the pointy end. They're always in the lead," said Harris explaining it's the sapper's job to clear the way for other troops.

It's dangerous work.

Thirteen out of the 133 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan since the mission began have been sappers.

Major-General Daniel Benjamin, Canada's top ranking military engineer and reviewing officer at the All Sappers' rededication on the weekend, said sappers are vulnerable in Afghanistan because it's their job to remove the Taliban's most effective weapon--the improvised explosive device (IED).

"It's a mouse and cat game," he said, "and the engineers are the ones who are playing it."

One sapper who understood that kind of danger was WW1 hero, Lt.-Col. Coulson Norman Mitchell, the only military engineer ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross and the man behind All Sappers' Memorial Park.

Toward the end of the Second World War, while Mitchell was Commandant of the Canadian Engineer Training Centre and Camp Chilliwack, an officer suggested a cairn be erected to honour fallen Canadian sappers.

Mitchell was inspired, but something bigger was needed--a memorial that would honour all sappers in the Commonwealth.

From start to finish, the monument was an engineering feat fit to warm a sapper's heart.

"It's a monument that was created by sappers for sappers," said Harris.

Blasted from a quarry near Harrison Lake, the 42-ton chunk of monzonite that was to become the obelisk was hauled by barge more than 35 kilometres down the lake and the Fraser River, almost capsizing several kilometres from its destination. The final product, a four-sided chamfered shaft that reaches almost five metres, took another nine months to cut and shape.

Since its dedication on July 14, 1946 by Gov. Gen. Harold Alexander, Viscount of Tunis, the cenotaph and its park, have become sacred to sappers, both retired and otherwise.

"In Canada we're one engineering family," said Benjamin. "We have one monument, and this is it."

"This is home; this is where I did my training," said Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Libby, a sapper in town for a military engineers conference that auspiciously fell on the same weekend as the rededication.

According to Harris at least eight families have spread the ashes of loved ones--sappers--near the base of the monument.

The CLC knew better than to ignore that kind of tradition, and after funding a $1.5 million All Sappers' Memorial Park renovation, will now hand the site over the City of Chilliwack for $1 to be maintained in perpetuity.

For their efforts to serve the military heritage of the area through this project and the Legacy Walk program, the CLC was awarded a Canadian Military Engineers Branch Commendation at Saturday's rededication ceremony.

Commendations were also awarded to Jim Harris and the late Col. Roger St. John--colonel-commandant of the Canadian Military Engineers from 2008 to 2009--for their work on the project.

Strahl summed up the sentiments of many at the rededication when he talked about how the renovation of All Sappers' Memorial Park has cemented the relationship between sappers and the city of Chilliwack.

"Sappers can know that they will never be forgotten here," he said.

© Chilliwack Times 2009

Cenotaph reno ‘a dream come true’

Published: November 02, 2009 9:00 AM
Updated: November 02, 2009 9:29 AM

Bring on the pipers, colours, and the dignified military veterans.

The cenotaph site at the corner of Vedder and Keith Wilson Roads has been lovingly refurbished, and a public rededication ceremony is slated for the morning of Saturday, Nov. 7.

Steeped in the rich history of Canadian military engineers, the large monument dedicated to “sappers” will become the focal point of the renamed All Sappers’ Memorial Park.

Construction on the $1.5 million project by Canada Lands Company is just wrapping up on the city-owned property.

“I think it’s a dream come true for everybody,” said Randy Fasan, CLC’s director of planning and land development.

They’re hoping some of the cutting-edge design elements — like the diverted sidewalk that takes pedestrians through the park — will lend the park new relevance for the 21st century.

Fasan called the ambitious project both “a gift and a legacy” from Canada Lands.

“And it is a very welcome gift!” chimed in Sgt.-Major (retired) Jim Harris.

The momentum for the changes started with the City of Chilliwack’s long-term plans to widen both Vedder and Keith Wilson Roads.

“That was the catalyst,” Fasan offered.

But the very idea of major change alarmed local veteran reps at first.

“This site, in its entirety, is considered sacred ground by many, and there was a sense that the cenotaph site should never be disturbed,” Fasan explained.

The reason is that at least eight families are known to have surreptitiously spread the ashes of deceased sappers on the grass around the memorial, added Harris, and consequently every effort has been made to protect the “sanctity” of the space.

New sod, benches and walkways are in place, and young maple trees have been strategically planted. A black, ornamental grass will surround the cenotaph.

When the topsoil was being removed during the renovation earlier this summer, the contractors were keenly aware of the “sacred” nature of it and the concerns expressed by veterans’ families, said Harris.

“They really took it seriously and were very respectful,” he added, noting they took special care to gingerly reintegrate all the topsoil around the cenotaph, ensuring it wouldn’t be stepped on or marched over.

Canada Lands consultant Greg Smallenberg worked closely with local military veterans throughout the process, soliciting their input during the effort to revitalize the memorial park as part of the Legacy Walk winding through Garrison Crossing. Smallenberg is known for his work on the Vimy memorial in France, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

Storyboards will be installed along the concrete wall to tell the story of the cenotaph and how it came to be.

The attention to detail on the project is impressive and impeccable, Harris noted.

“Canada Lands really stepped up big for this one. And speaking for the retired military in this area, we are so very grateful,” he said.

The cenotaph was sandblasted and cleaned, and stunning fibre-optic lighting has been installed.

“The whole thing will glow like it’s floating,” Fasan said.

The area has been completely opened up visually with the new design, with the removal of the boxwood hedges, as well as Caroline the Tank, which was relocated.

The monument was originally the brainchild of Lt.-Col. Coulson Norman Mitchell, who wanted a way to honour all the sappers in the Commonwealth who made the ultimate sacrifice, said Harris. Mitchell was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery during the First World War and later became the base commander at Camp Chilliwack. The cenotaph was first dedicated in a ceremony in 1946, which attracted thousands of bystanders and the attendance of the Governor General.

A couple of years ago the city originally took over the centotaph and park from DND and it was transferred to the city’s park inventory for a dollar.

“This rededication ceremony we’re planning is a call to all active and retired Canadian military engineers to return to the site, and to pay homage once again to the memory of all the fallen sappers,” Harris said.

New All Sappers Monument called a ‘Jewel in the necklace’

Published: June 04, 2009 5:00 PM
Updated: June 04, 2009 5:14 PM

Jim Harris can’t help but smile.

The need for a right-turn lane at Keith Wilson and Vedder Road has led to a little-noticed military monument at the corner being transformed into what will be a shining, eye-catching vision.

Designed by the same architectural firm that built the spectacular Vimy Memorial in France and the inspirational Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, the All Sappers Monument in Chilliwack is going to be something more than just a place visited once a year on Remembrance Day.

“It’s going to be phenomenal,” says Harris, a retired Sgt. Maj. representing all the sappers who served at CFB Chilliwack.

If Harris is smiling, chances are they are, too.

It was the thought of some very unhappy sappers that led to the $850,000 the Canada Lands Company is providing to renovate the site.

There was talk of removing the monument to make room for road widening, but cooler heads at Canada Lands saw that idea was not going to fly with the sappers.

Instead, the agency came up with the funds to refurbish the whole memorial site and “bring it up to the standards it deserves for another 60 years,” says Randy Fasan, CLC’s director urban design and planning.

If the Legacy Walk that winds through the CLC’s nearby residential development pointing out the area’s military history is “a string of pearls,” he says, then the All Sappers Memorial “is going to be the jewel in the necklace.”

The memorial will dominate the corner, he says, and walkways and lighting are being designed to draw the public into the site and remind all of the sacrifice the sappers made on their behalf.

“We wanted this to be a place that’s visited 365 days a year, not just on Nov. 11,” Fasan says.

The sappers had tried but failed to get the memorial dedicated as a national historic site, “but in their hearts and minds that’s what it is,” he says.

CFB Chilliwack was home to the military engineers from 1942 until the base closed in 1995, but the memorial designed by the base’s first commandant still holds a place in sappers’ hearts.

Harris says some families have even buried their loved ones ashes at the foot of the 40-ton block of granite quarried in the Chilliwack River Valley.

For that reason, GEMCO supervisor Kerry Norman says his workers are leaving the “sacred soil” undisturbed as they remove the grass around the monument.

Harris says he’s seen the workers stop heavy equipment and get down on their hands and knees to work around sites where ashes or urns might be buried.

“They’re treating the site with great respect,” he says.

Norman says he’s worked on bigger commercial projects, but none as special as this.

“I don’t think I can be prouder,” he says. “It’s a great privilege.”

He says the new memorial will be a “park-like setting” when it’s finished with sidewalks along Keith Wilson turning into the site where there will be benches for people to “sit and reflect” or for university students from the nearby UFV campus to catch up on homework.

At night, the site will be awash in the glow of iridescent lights.

“It will be very peaceful when it’s done,” he says.

The monument was designed by Lt.-Col. Coulson Norman Mitchell, a genuine WWI hero who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery during the Battle of the Somme.

Harris says Mitchell held off German infantrymen after he and six other sappers had removed enemy explosives from under a bridge.

Sappers take their name from the French “sappeurs” who dug under enemy fortifications to blow them up, he says, thus “sapping their strength.”

“This was his baby,” Harris says about the monument dedicated to all sappers throughout the Commonwealth.

The new memorial site will be rededicated on Nov. 7, hopefully by Governor General Michaelle Jean.

Norman says he’ll work over-time if he must to complete the project by that date.

“I’ll be on the end of a shovel, too,” Harris says.

Back to News