Adorned with more than a dozen medals for his time serving in the Second World War, Gerald Gaudet smiled softly as he collected donations for poppies inside a Surrey shopping centre this week.
Some people shuffled by without so much as a glance.
But others stopped and with warm smiles, took the decorated veteran’s hand into theirs.
“What an honour,” said Priya Jeyasegar as she shook Gaudet’s hand. “Seeing a veteran like yourself, it gives me that peace of mind, and hope.”
Jeyasegar told Gaudet she had also personally experienced war, albeit from a different perspective.
She recalled being just eight years old when she had to be locked in a room for three days, during Sri Lanka’s civil war.
“Canada is that safe haven,” she said. “And you guys fought for it. Thank you. That means a lot.”
The two got to talking about both of their life stories. Smiles were exchanged, as were a few solemn looks.
Soon after Jeyasegar left, a young man asked permission to shake Gaudet’s hand.
“Thank you so much for your service,” said Tristan Tsang, bowing his head ever so slightly. “Thank you so much for your sacrifice.”
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Little did either of them know, Gaudet is a genuine knight, having received the Order of France in 2014. The honour was celebrated in Surrey’s City Centre area with a parade that some 200 people attended.
“They closed traffic in town here,” Gaudet modestly recalled. “They had a speaker from France here to present it. I had about 20 RCMP in their Red Serge parading. It was quite the day, a day I never forgot.
“A big day.”
Asked what Remembrance Day means to him, Gaudet paused.
“That’s a good question,” he replied, taking another moment.
“I remember way back when, shortly after the war, and I started in the glass industry in Alberta, Nov. 11 was just another day, everybody working,” Gaudet said.
“It was not recognized. I joined the union to fight that. That was one of my projects, to get Nov. 11 to be a holiday. That’s back in ’47, ’48. Still, every day, I think about how hard it was to get Nov. 11 to be acknowledged by everybody.”
What made it so challenging?
“The problem with Nov. 11, and the war, it was never taught to the kids at school,” Gaudet explained. “In Europe, Belgium, Holland, every kid in school knows all about the Canadian army in the war, but no kids in Canada were ever taught about it.”
But he’s proud to have been part of the effort to have the holiday, now, a part of nation’s fabric.
“I get calls quite often to go speak at school around Nov. 11,” said Gaudet. “Their questions knock me down, it’s like a sponge, all those kids want to know more and more.”
Gaudet was born in New Brunswick and said he was 17 when he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Engineers. He first served in Alberta, surveying land to build a camp for prisoners of war. He was sent overseas in 1944, unaware he was bound for Juno Beach.
Gaudet was also in the Battle of Caen, one of the largest battles after D-Day. He was tasked with building new bridges across rivers and canals in Belgium and Holland, so Allied forces could advance.
In all, his service earned him more than a dozen medals, the German Star and French Star among them.
“It was another job in the service. It was no special thing, but you done it day to day,” Gaudet said.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but you’re part of it.”
Gaudet is one of the oldest – if not the oldest – veteran of the Whalley Legion’s roughly 700 members. But he doesn’t let that slow him down.
Ninety-six years young, Gaudet chuckles as he explains he still likes to go bowling, still drives and still lives independently, in his home which, yes, he also cleans himself.
“My wife passed away 15 years ago and I still live in the same house that we did. Still do all the chores by myself and enjoy life,” he remarked. “Try to keep as busy as possible.”
You’ll be able to see Gaudet this Sunday, at the Whalley Legion’s parade and service, which he attends faithfully.
“I usually lay a candle on the cenotaph they have for the veterans, different branches, the navy, the army, the air force,” he said.
“I lay candles there.”