The crosses are back on Memorial Drive. There are thousands of them, each white marker a stark reminder of the many southern Alberta soldiers to die in combat.
Murray McCann, whose McCann Family Foundation funds the project to erect crosses along Memorial Drive in honour of Alberta casualties of war, said the realization that “freedom isn’t free” spurred him to begin the project.
At sunrise each morning from Nov. 1 to Remembrance Day, a flag is raised at the field of crosses — just west of the Centre Street Bridge — in a solemn ceremony to honour the families who lost sons and daughters to war.
This year’s event is particularly sombre for Murray McCann, a private citizen and Calgary businessman who funds the project.
He’s mourning the loss of George Bittman, a navy veteran and former head of the Poppy Fund who died last December in a boating accident off Florida’s east coast.
Bittman was the public face of the field of crosses project, and a tireless advocate of veterans and their families.
“It’s hard to do it this year without George,” McCann said of his longtime friend. “He was just a wonderful man and we sure do miss him.”
Since 2009, the number of crosses has grown from about 800 to almost 3,000. Each cross is inscribed with the name, rank, regiment and date of death of men and women from across southern Alberta.
It’s an enormous project that requires the work of many volunteers who help pound stakes into the ground and assist with any needed repairs to the crosses.
This year, Bittman’s daughter, Laura Vanderkruk, is proud to be part of the organizing committee on behalf of her late father.
“Dad was an orphan and the first real family he found was in the navy. The military has always been very important to him,” she said.
“So when Murray McCann, his friend, asked him to put these crosses up, it was a natural fit.”
Among the fallen to be honoured at a sunrise service is Michelle Lang, the Calgary Herald journalist killed in December 2009 while reporting on Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
On the morning of Nov. 6, a flower spray with her name on it will be placed at the base of the flagpole during the ceremony.
Calgary Herald Editor-inChief Lorne Motley said next week’s service at the field of poppies will be a fitting tribute to Lang, the only Canadian journalist to die during the military’s eight years in the country.
The idea to erect a field of crosses in Calgary came to McCann a few years ago while driving through the U.S. town of Menlo, Ga., on Memorial Day.
He spotted a small group of U.S. veterans hammering crosses into the ground and decided to do something on a larger scale to encourage people to pause and remember the dead.
“The number of people to give their lives in that little town got me thinking of how many people we must have lost in southern Alberta,” said McCann.
“I’ve never had to go to war, and until that time I thought very little about it. This was an awakening for me. It made me aware that freedom isn’t free.”
The project will be funded in perpetuity through the McCann Family Foundation.
Members of the public are welcome to attend the ceremonies or visit the site at any time until it is removed after Remembrance Day. Public parking is available at the west end of the park.
Flags are raised each day precisely at sunrise and lowered again at sunset.