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A big win for Wilma

Published on

Pam Wright

Persistence has paid off for Sarnia’s indefatigable Wilma McNeill.

The Canadian Senate voted last week to officially recognize Remembrance Day as a legal national holiday — a cause the Sarnia woman has championed the past 27 years.

“I hoped I would see this happen in my lifetime,” said McNeill, 86.

“I’m happy, but it’s not about me, it’s about the veterans.”

Bill C-311 was a private member’s bill introduced by Nova Scotia MP Colin Fraser. With Royal Assent, it will give Nov. 11 legal status under the Holidays Act.

McNeill’s battle cry began in 1989 when then Ontario Premier Bill Davis removed Remembrance Day’s legal status as a holiday. McNeill was working at the LCBO at the time and found it extremely disrespectful of Canada’s military veterans.

McNeill came from a military family in Prince Edward Island, and as an eight-year-old she watched her brother go off to fight in the Second World War.

She also married into a family in which six siblings served, including her beloved late husband Edward, an air force captain and 23-year veteran.

McNeill also has a son who was a naval veteran of 34 years, and another who, as a peacekeeper, served under Lieutenant General Romeo Daillaire.

And so it began. McNeill picked up her pen and launched a relentless campaign. It involved innumerable letters, petitions, media interviews and buttonholing politicians at every turn.

She scored a victory with the Bob Rae government, only to be told the next day it was a mistake.

Newspapers wrote stories about the mix-up and one carried a headline about McNeill that read, ‘Elated now deflated.’

“I’ve wanted to give up at times,” McNeill told The Journal. “But people kept encouraging me, kept telling me to keep going and so I did.”

Currently, only Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories do not recognize Nov. 11 as a legal holiday. Technically, neither do Manitoba or Nova Scotia, but both provinces have legislation allowing employees time off to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies.

The change has been resisted by the Royal Canadian Legion, which

argues schools are a better place to teach children about the sacrifice of Canadian veterans.

It’s unclear whether the federal bill will spur Ontario to change its law, but McNeill remains hopeful.

“The Senate represents all of Canada. It passed overwhelmingly,” she said. “In my view, Ontario should look at it.”

Fraser, who pushed McNeill’s cause, has long had an interest in Canada’s military. His riding includes CFB Greenwood, the largest base on the East Coast.

“I thought this was a way to elevate and clarify the status of Remembrance Day,” Fraser explained from his office in Ottawa.

“Wilma is incredible,” he added. “It’s through her hard work and advocacy this has happened.”

Fraser has invited McNeill to be in Ottawa when the Governor General gives the bill Royal Ascent. A date has yet to be determined.

“I will be there,” McNeill said.

And she’s not done yet. She intends to push for the Remembrance Day change in Ontario and hopes to write a book about her experience.

“I’m asking God to give me the time to do it,” she said. “This is big stuff and I’m just a little old girl from PEI.”


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