I woke up yesterday morning and opened the pages of The London Free Press, our local paper. There was an article about Art Boon, a 90-year-old World War II veteran who had participated in the liberation of Holland. For all these years the Dutch people have revered Canadian troops for giving them their freedom.
Art has been invited to participate in the 70th anniversary of this momentous event and he wants his son Rick, an elementary school teacher in Stratford, Ontario, to accompany him, to share in the celebration and also assist with Art’s physical needs.
Rick’s school board has turned down his request for a 6-day unpaid leave. And the media storm has stretched across Canada. The article mentioned that there would be a town hall meeting on Thursday evening in Stratford to discuss the situation and possible solutions. I put down the paper and realized … I’m going. It felt right. It also felt strange. I have never been very political. But Art and his fellow veterans need to be honoured and to be allowed to stand beside their family members in Holland.
I arrived in Stratford and was advised to go to Bentley’s Restaurant for a good burger. I sat at the bar, beside a fellow who was on the edge of being drunk. Also, he appeared to have a memory problem, as he told me over and over again about working in a plastics factory in the 1970’s. But I enjoyed his company. I paid attention to him. I wonder how many people do that. What I was doing was nothing special, just honouring a fellow human being.
Chairs were set up in a large room at Stratford’s City Hall. On the stage, eight people took turns speaking: Art, a veteran of Bosnia and Afghanistan tours of duty, two representatives of the school board, an historian, a lawyer, a professional singer who lives in Stratford, and the chairman. We also heard from a 16-year-old student and the mother of one of Rick Boon’s students. I thought they all spoke well, with great sincerity and respect. It’s so tempting to look at this issue as “I’m right. You’re wrong,” but that’s not it.
I knew halfway through the proceedings that I would speak when the audience members were invited to do so. It was a natural sureness. No tension. Later, I stood in a line at the microphone, waiting for my turn. Now I was nervous, but I was fine with that. Long ago, I learned that the best public speeches are real. They don’t need to be polished, “professional”. They just need to come from the heart.
My turn. In the past I’ve often obsessed about how far my mouth should be from the microphone. Just a wee bit of obsession last night. Here’s approximately what I said:
“My name is Bruce Kerr. I live in Union, Ontario. I don’t really have an affiliation. I read about this meeting in this morning’s London Free Press, and I wanted to come.
There are two perspectives here, and I think that they’re both valid. However, one perspective can be “senior” to the other one – more valuable. I’m a retired teacher. I know something about collective agreements and I’m sure that working with them is difficult for school board members. I know that with my former board, the phrase “exceptional circumstances” showed up in our agreements. The other perspective focuses on the incredible gift that the Canadian troops gave to the Dutch people, and the value of father and son celebrating that together, and celebrating their love for each other. Also I understand that Rick assists with some of Art’s physical needs. I think this perspective is more valuable.
And I have a question: Concerning this issue, what are Rick Boon’s students learning?”
It was a rhetorical question. I sat down.
I’m glad I spoke. No fanfare. No reporter asking me afterwards for further comment. Just a natural speaking. I said hi to a couple of people, walked out the door, got in my car Hugo, and drove home.