Canadians were set to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day in ceremonies across the country on Thursday. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Toronto kicks off series of ceremonies marking 75th anniversary of D-Day

HALIFAX — Toronto Mayor John Tory called on Canadians to heed the “eternal lessons” of the Second World War as the city commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of France that turned the tide of the conflict.

In a ceremony on the front steps of Toronto’s Old City Hall early Thursday, Tory honoured the 14,000 Canadians — including what he called “many brave Torontonians” — who stormed Juno Beach in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.

“Their courage and their determination led to some successes in those early-morning hours, but that success came at a huge price,” said Tory, noting that 359 Canadian soldiers lost their lives on D-Day, including 50 from Toronto.

“It would’ve been hell.”

Canadians were set to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day in ceremonies across the country on Thursday, with the aged veterans who are the last living link to the largest seaborne invasion in history as the venerated guests of honour.

Capt. Martin Maxwell of the Glider Pilot Regiment, British 6th Airborne Division, shared his story in Toronto about being among the first to land in Normandy the night before the invasion.

“My D-Day started on June 5. Our commanding officer … came in and said, ‘Boys, we’ve trained for this for a long time. You’re the first ones in, so I have to tell you some of you will not be back,’” said Maxwell.

Maxwell, too, urged Canadians to keep the lessons of the Second World War in their daily thoughts — especially given the dwindling number of living people who experienced it firsthand.

“There’s so few of us left, so we’re handing over the torch of freedom to you. Hold it high so others can see how precious freedom is. And if ever you’re called on to fight for it, do it with everything you have. Because once it is lost, it’s almost impossible to get back.”

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other world leaders gathered in Normandy, Canadians across the country will turn out for wreath laying ceremonies, lectures and displays, with the main ceremony at Willow Park Armoury in Halifax. The location was switched from the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site due to weather concerns.

The Halifax commemoration ceremony will feature an act of remembrance and two minutes of silence.

Several veterans are expected to be introduced, with scheduled remarks by historian Don Julien, who will speak about Mi’kmaq soldiers, and Richard Tilley, who will speak about his father Harold Tilley, who is featured on the Veterans Affairs Canada D-Day poster.

Veterans expected to take part in the Halifax ceremony include Havelyn Chiasson, 98, who landed with the first wave of troops on Juno Beach as a 23-year-old with the North Shore New Brunswick Regiment.

Canada also contributed some 110 ships and 15 fighter and bomber squadrons to the D-Day assault, code-named Operation Overlord.

The ferocious fighting in Normandy would continue for another two months at a cost of more than 5,000 Canadian lives.

Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook said the recognition of the 75th anniversary is especially significant because the number of surviving veterans is steadily dwindling, with most in their mid-90s or older.

“We’re on the razor’s edge, I think of lived memory passing into history,” said Cook. “And that will change how we think about this war when we’ve lost our last eyewitnesses to it.”

He said estimates place the number of veterans who are still alive at about 30,000, from the 1.1 million who served.

“They were ordinary men and women who were pressed into service in extraordinary times and that is perhaps how we should see them as we move toward this period where we will soon lose them all,” Cook said.

Among the official ceremonies planned elsewhere Thursday include a wreath laying at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, and wreath layings in Lethbridge and Nordegg, Alta., and in Yellowknife.

In Joggins, N.S., a cenotaph re-dedication will honour 13 young men from the community whose names will be added to the memorial, and a candlelight ceremony will be held at dusk in Gore Park in Hamilton, Ont.

Commemorative D-Day ceremonies are also planned for Saturday in Winnipeg and Calgary.

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