I had the pleasure of emceeing a fantastic, three in one event last week, held in the Port Perry library.
Organized and arranged by Member of Parliament, Erin O'Toole, three events were rolled into an emotional and rewarding afternoon.
The first event was a presentation made by Lieutenant Colonel Martial de Reviers, a French liaison officer attached to the embassy in Ottawa. He made the trip to Port Perry to present the distinguished Order of the Legion of Honour award to four distinguished veterans of World War II. The medal is the highest honour France bestows on anyone, and is equal to our own Order of Canada. Since the award's inception in 1802, by Napoleon, several Canadians have been its recipients, including Billy Bishop, Jean Charest, and Celine Dion.
Last week's ceremony presented the Legion of Honour medals to those who served in the liberation of France, during World War II. The recipients were George Emmerson and Edward Groves of Port Perry, Arthur Elgar of Bowmanville and Louis Lyle of Hampton. Lt-Col de Reviers was introduced by MP Erin O'Toole and was elegant in his traditional presentation. Standing stately at well over six feet, de Reviers, addressed each veteran, awarded them the medal, took them by the shoulders and placed an emotional Faire la Bise (the art of the Parisian double air kiss) on each cheek.
It was a pleasure to chat with each one during the emotional event, and I realized the amazing impact Canadian soldiers had and continue to have on securing peace and freedom in many other countries.
The event also called for the presentation of Community Service awards to local residents who have given more to the community than was ever asked. The awards were presented jointly by MP Erin O'Toole and Scugog Mayor, Tom Rowett. The recipients were totally surprised and quite stunned as their names were called. Paul Arculus, Terry and Christine Vos, Tyler Briley, Joyce Kelly all of Port Perry, and Keith Mackay of Hampton, were the well deserving recipients of this prestigious local honour.
Erin O'Toole, a veteran himself, was our Minister of Veteran Affairs in the former government, but just because he no longer holds that title does not mean he has no interest in the well-being of Veterans. Several years ago he began an undertaking to restore Lt-Colonel Sam Sharpe's military existence back into the record books.
Sam Sharpe was a Member of Parliament for North Durham, as well as serving as town solicitor in Uxbridge. Born in Zephyr and a graduate from Osgoode Hall School of Law, he successfully ran in the 1908 election, and was re-elected in the victorious Conservative Party under Robert Borden in 1911. In 1915, soon after Britain declared war on Germany, Sharpe began recruiting friends from the area, and formed the 116th battalion.
He was a big believer that the war against the Kaiser was just and necessary for the security of Canada, and demonstrated excellent leadership skills, caring for the welfare of the troops under his command.
After being trained in England, the 116th was dispatched to the frontlines in France in early 1917. They witnessed their first action in Vimy Ridge a few months later. The battalion's next encounter was a raid on an important trench in Avion. Scrambling through bomb blasts, machine-gun fire and poisonous gas, the men of the 116th reached the German line and fought hand to hand combat. Nearly 200 Germans were killed or captured, and the battalion's reputation quickly circulated through the ranks of the British Army.
The 100 casualties within the unit hit Sharpe hard, especially as he had personally recruited many of the men. In October of 1917 the battalion fought at Passchendaele and Sharpe was re-elected to parliament in abstentia. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for gallantry under fire, but was hospitalized due to his growing stress from what was then known as shell-shock. Succumbing to his depression, Sharpe jumped to his death from a hospital window, soon after arriving in Montreal.
Sam Sharpe was all but erased from Canadian history. His portrait in the regiment office was taken down, and only in the official 'Book of Remembrance', kept in Ottawa's Peace Tower, was his name retained. Shell-shock was considered a weakness at the time.
Member of Parliament, Erin O'Toole, began a successful mission to resurrect the heroic leadership of Sam Sharpe. He co-founded the True Patriot Love Foundation as a support for military families and veterans, started the Sam Sharpe breakfast, held annually in Ottawa, to explore Veteran's Mental Health and Wellness, and recently commissioned Port Perry artist, Tyler Briley, to create a bronze sculpture of Lt-Col Sam Sharpe. The sculpture was unveiled at last week's event, and remained in our library for five days, before travelling to Ottawa where it is to receive a permanent resting place in the Parliament buildings.
The 200 lb. bronze sculpture is amazing, and captures the agonizing look of a broken hero, filled with despair. Tyler Briley out did himself when he created this legacy. After meeting him, I realized where this passion came from. Tyler, a firefighter, was injured on the job over twenty years ago. Faced with guilt about not being able to work and depression over all the suffering he had witnessed, he sank deep into a world of darkness. It was after many years of suffering and deteriorating health, that Tyler decided one day to retaliate. Forcing his diagnosed PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) into the background, he fought back against medication, pain and ailments to rise back to his former self.
The commission to create the Sharpe sculpture gave him purpose and a desire to survive, and survive he did. Tyler is currently training for a triathlon and at a fit, 165 lbs. is a much healthier version of his 400 lb. former self.
A few days ago I was humbled by being invited to the third annual Sam Sharpe breakfast in Ottawa. Held in the Parliamentary dining room in Canada's Peace Tower, it was a virtual who’s who of Canadian military. I had the pleasure of meeting such dignitaries as Lt. General Romeo Dallaire, retired General, former Senator and former commander of the UN forces in Rwanda, Brigadier-General MacKay who is the Commander Canadian Forces Health Services Group, Television personalities Michael Landsberg and Joe Tilly, the Minister of Veteran's affairs, Kent Hehr, local author Ted Barris, Kent Farndale, a driving force behind the creation of the sculpture and of course, Port Perry's own Tyler Briley.
Tilley spoke about the loss of his son, a member of the military who passed away by suicide, just over a year ago. Landsberg talked about living openly with his depression, and promoted his new website 'sicknotweak.org’, and Romeo Dallaire spoke about Wounded Warriors of Canada, a group formed to help CAF members (past and present) who have been wounded or injured in their service to Canada.
Dallaire himself has suffered from PTSD since his role as Force Commander for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda where he witnessed the country descend into chaos and genocide, leading to the deaths of more than 800,000 Rwandans.
Erin O'Toole did a superb job of hosting and organizing the event. Being a resident of Port Perry, I was honoured to witness our permanent place in history due to the efforts of many, and the artistic creation of our own Tyler Briley.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a photographer, author, columnist and key-note speaker. Follow his adventures at photosNtravel.com
Anyone who lives in Durham Region will have crossed paths with Erin O’Toole, at one time or another. He currently serves as our Member of Parliament and is very involved in our community. So let us take a look at this man, who is constantly under the microscope and always in the public eye.
Erin was born in Montreal, which is a surprise to many, but his father, John O’Toole worked for General Motors and was transferred to St. Therese, where Erin was born. The family moved back to Oshawa when Erin was at an early age.
History was one of Erin’s favourite subjects, no doubt as a result of the influence from his mother, who simply loved the subject. His mom, a teacher, won the highest award for high school history in Ontario and passed her love for the subject on to Erin.
Sadly, Erin’s mother Molly, passed away when he was nine. His dad moved the family to Port Perry, where Erin attended elementary school and later, Port Perry High School. He became an integral part of the community, enjoying sports, clubs and all that our town has to offer.
Living on the island was a bit remote for 5 kids, who had to be taken to all sorts of activities, most of which were a great distance away. After ten years, the family moved to Bowmanville and Erin joined the military, applying (and being accepted) to the Royal Military College, in Kingston. “It was an amazing opportunity to see Canada, while giving back a little to my country. It also offered me a fantastic university education,” Erin explained.
Bootcamp for Erin was in Chilliwack, British Columbia and once completed, he spent his time in Kingston at the RMC. Summer months saw him out west, training for the Air Force and the rest of the year was pursuing a History and Political Science degree at the college.
After four years, Erin graduated with an honours degree and Queen’s commission and attaining the rank of second lieutenant. Erin’s first official posting was in Trenton as a rescue coordinator, where he spent his time planning search and rescue operations for the Canadian Government. He had always wanted to be a navigator, and eventually had an opportunity to transfer to Kingston and follow that calling.
It wasn’t long before Erin received his wings and was officially an Air Navigator. He then was posted to Shearwater, near Halifax, and flew Sea King helicopters, lending naval support to the North Atlantic and the Caribbean.
After nearly ten years in the military, Erin thought it was time for a change. In 2000, Erin married his sweetheart Rebecca and transferred to the reserves working as a training officer running flight simulators. He left the military with the rank of Captain, and receiving the Canadian Forces Decoration for faithful service to Canada, as well as the Sikorsky Helicopter Rescue Award for the rescue of an injured fisherman at sea.
He had wanted to pursue law. After graduating from Dalhousie University he practiced corporate law, first for a Bay street firm and later for Proctor and Gamble as their in-house counsel.
Erin has always been active and enjoys being involved in not-for-profit organizations. He started True Patriot Love, a charity which supports members of the military, veterans and their families. He has also served as a Director and dinner co-chair for the non-partisan Churchill Society, where he helped raise over $125,000 for educational programs about our parliamentary democracy. Erin has also helped raise funds and awareness of Canadian history, as a Director of the Vimy Foundation and is part of the foundation’s 2017 – Century of Vimy campaign cabinet. Until his election to Parliament, Erin also served on the Board of Governors of the Royal Military College of Canada, his alma mater.
In addition to practicing law and being involved in charitable events; helping out in his dad’s office and enjoying time with his family was most important.
John O’Toole served as a member of Provincial Parliament, no doubt where Erin had his first taste of politics.
In November of 2012, Erin ran in the bi-election, after Bev Oda’s resignation and won with a huge margin. He spent a few months serving as a back bencher, but after a short eight months took on the role of Secretary to the Minister for International Trade (the role was that of Undersecretary).
In 2015 Erin was appointed Minister of Veteran’s Affairs and he was a natural for the job. The youngest full Cabinet Minister in Parliament, Erin wasted no time getting to work. He quickly began to implement new policies, which benefitted our veterans and servicewomen and men.
“One of my greatest honours was to host King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, at the National War Memorial, where they laid a wreath commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands by Canada.”
In the election of 2015, Erin was re-elected and after PM Harper’s resignation, was one of six candidates for the role of interim Head of the Conservative Party. Most of the work he began as Minister of Veteran’s Affairs is being carried on. Three years ago Erin, in conjunction with Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, started the Sam Sharpe breakfast, which addresses post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
“The purpose is to bring together key advocates trying to help Canadian veterans coping with operational stress injuries,” Erin explained. The result is fantastic, and great inroads are being made into understanding and helping victims of PTSD.
Erin O’Toole serves Canada and the people of Durham in a selfless, giving way. How does he successfully accomplish all he does? Spend some time with him, and you will see that not a minute is wasted. Durham region is grateful to have such a dedicated patriot as Erin O’Toole.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a photographer, author, columnist and key-note speaker. Follow his adventures at photosNtravel.com
Jonathan van Bilsen
Join Jonathan van Bilsen in the Standard as he begins a series of feature articles on prominent residents of North Durham in his new column, The Story Behind The Person.