Author Topic: Niagara is home for National Veterans Rendezvous this weekend PETER CONRADI/Bul  (Read 1606 times)

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Niagara is home for National Veterans Rendezvous this weekend


Mike Blais is on pins and needles. Months of phone calls, e-mails, letters and  personal visits to military bases and politicians ? it all comes down to this weekend. What?s the result going to be?

?Whatever happens, it won?t be for a lack of trying and work,? he says.

Blais, a Niagara Falls resident, is the founder and president of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy. He was the national organizer of the Canadian Veterans National Day of Protest last November. And his latest project is the National Veterans Rendezvous taking place this weekend in Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie.

?I don?t know how many people to expect, but I want as many as we can get. Just come. Show your support. Bring your families. It?s going to be a fun weekend for everyone. The weather?s going to co-operate ? let?s all take advantage of it. Just come.?

Blais is a Canadian veteran who served for 17 years, the majority of his military carrer with the 1st and 3rd battalions, The Royal Canadian Regiment. After sustaining a lower back injury while on United Nations peacekeeping operations in Cyprus in 1984. He received a medical discharge in 1993.

He became a veterans advocate in 2010 upon learning of the hardships many former soldiers face ? financial, medical, housing. The Canadian Veterans Advocacy is dedicated to improving the quality of life of veterans, particularly those who have been wounded in Afghanistan since 2006 and are subject to the ?substandard financial policies? of New Veterans Charter.

Canada?s soldiers were in Afghanistan for nearly 10 years as partners in the American effort to topple the Taliban and hunt for Osama bin Laden, and then as part of a NATO contingent in Kabul. It was in Kandahar, the last place that Taliban fled after the 2001 American attack and among the first places they tried to take back starting in 2006, that Canadian soldiers were under fierce attack.  Canada suffered 150 of its 157 casualties in Kandahar since 2006.

The Rendezvous is designed as part of a national series of CVA encouraged rallies to commemorate the end of the Canadian combat mission in Afghanistan and welcome home Canada?s soliders ? as well as paying tribute to Canadians who served in World War II, the Korean War, 33 United Nations peacekeeping missions, the Cold War, Gulf War 1, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia. But mostly it?s about Afghanistan.

Canada formally handed over its battle zone in southern Kandahar to an American battalion on Tuesday, which could make part of this weekend particularly poignant.

?Our timing couldn?t be better,? Blais said. ?Of course, we?re still going to have 950 Canadians on the ground and still in danger, we lost 157 men and had countless wounded. But this weekend will be important to send a message recognizing their sacrifice, to say, ?Yes, it was a job well done and yes, we?re proud of you.? That?s important.?

The weekend starts Friday with a concert by Canadian country music star Julian Austin at the Gale Centre. It?s free and it starts at 6 p.m.

Saturday highlights include a Support the Troops Rally beer tent, inside and outside musical entertainment, an assortment of food and beverage vendors, marching bands, a motorcycle show and shine, a display of vintage military vehicles as well as a variety of activities for everyone. Most of it takes place at the Gale Centre.

At 10 a.m. there will be a  special veterans motorcycle poker run taking place from Queenston Heights Park, with stops at Fort George, Clare?s Cycle and Sports, Ball?s Falls, and ending back at the Gale Centre.

Canadian and American veterans motorcycle units are encouraged to ride to Niagara for the poker run.

At 3:30 p.m. an official ceremony will include Minister of Veterans Affairs Steven Blaney and retired chief warrant officer Guy Parent, Canada?s Veterans Ombudsman. Fireworks will cap off the day at dusk.

On Sunday at 10 a.m. a special memorial ride will take place along the Niagara Parkway from Niagara-on-the-Lake Legion Branch 124 to Fort Erie. A short memorial service will follow at Mather?s Arch to honour the 157 Canadian soldiers and almost 1,600 Americans killed in action in Afghanistan.

The CAA Winter Festival of Lights is heavily involved in the organization and running of the Rendezvous. Executive director Dino Fazio said it was a ?no-brainer? for his organization.

?How do you say no to something like this?? he said. ?It?s been a ton of work. Normally you?d need a year to organize something like this, and we?ve put it together in just a few months. But we?re proud of our involvement and looking forward to seeing it all come together.?

More information on the Rendezvous is available here.

Anyone attending will be able to park in lots at the Skylon Tower or the old Wal-Mart on Dorchester Road and take shuttle buses into the Gale Centre. The Gale Centre lot will be open, but spaces are limited and traffic in and out on Fourth Avenue can be a problem.

This weekend also marks the official launch of CVAs Pennies for Veterans Campaign. The program is designed as a nation-wide, community-friendly program where individuals, service and social clubs, schools, businesses and veterans associations can collect pennies to be used for the purchase or construction of facilities for veterans.

Visitors to Canadian Veterans National Rendezvous are encouraged to gather pennies and haul them to the event, where they will be collected at the main entrance to the Gale Centre. For those who are unable to attend, donations to the Pennies for Veterans initiative can be made through the Bank of Montreal. The account number is 0005 1143271.

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