As the sun quickly drops, members of the 1838 Royal Westminster Regiment Army Cadets gather in clusters in the parking lot across the street from the legion on 224th Street in Maple Ridge. The clock strikes 6 p.m., the casual chats amongst friends quickly changes to the task at hand. Orders ring out.
It’s time to march.
Every Thursday evening, between 25 to 30 members of the cadets meet for practice drills. Repetition is king in the parking lot. Boots rise and fall on the pavement in harmony. A misstep never goes unnoticed. Lap after lap through the parking lot is met with the watchful eyes of the cadet commanders.
As nightfall envelops the parking lot, the mood of the cadet training takes on a more sombre tone.
Remembrance Day, a time where Canadians across the country honour the fallen and all veterans who have served in the armed forces, is the central focus as the cadets prepare for the annual parade.
For the cadets, it’s a tradition that goes back 75 years in Maple Ridge.
For Azaly Addam, this year’s Remembrance Day service will be his last as a member of the Royal Westminster Regiment. For the past seven years, he has been a member of the reservists. But Addam will age out of the program in January and leave behind his cadet brothers and sisters.
“It’s a bittersweet ending, for sure,” said Addam. “It’s been a huge part of who I am and shaped me into the person I’ve become, and I know it’s going to be hard to say goodbye. But I know I will be able to take all the skills I’ve learned over the years and start the next chapter in my life.”
Addam is also leaving behind his own history to the local cadet chapter. In the summer, he was named the top army cadet in the province. He was awarded the prestigious prize from the National Army Cadet League based on his cadet accomplishments, dedication to the program, school grades and letters of reference from their commanding officer, a school teacher and from a prominent member of the community.
While being named top cadet was a great personal accomplishment, Addams said it’s the work he’s done with his fellow members of the Royal Westminster Regiment that he truly cherished. Especially when it comes to Remembrance Day.
“Being part of this means I really get to become part of the community. It’s an honour to be part of this and it’s given me a deeper appreciation for all those who have served and fallen.”
For Clint Hopper, coach of the Royal Westminster Regiment Army Cadets drill team and leadership instructor, helping shape the lives of people like Addam is what drives him to keep coming back after more than 30 years of being involved. Hopper has led the Maple Ridge cadets to two consecutive provincial championships, despite having a much smaller pool to draw from.
“Today’s generation, they kind of have this reputation for not caring,” said Hopper, as he keeps a close eye on every footstep during the drill leading up to Saturday’s parade. “What we do here is try to make them care and take pride in the uniform they wear, from the cap badge they wear to their shoulder flash of their regiment on their jacket. And what that shows and what they represent goes back to those people that died so that they could wear that uniform.”
It’s a point reiterated by Jeff Davis, the cadets deputy commanding officer. He said over the 75 years the cadets have been part of the community, the goal has always been about the greater good of your fellow members, more so than individual accomplishments.
“It really gives you a greater sense of teamwork than anything you find playing sports,” said Davis. “There’s a real sense of self worth that’s instilled in cadets.”
He said you need to look no further than those who have graduated from the program.
One of those Davis highlights is Hopper’s step-daughter, Jennifer McGregor, a captain serving in the Canadian National Military’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), NATO’s strategic level headquarters of Allied Command Operations in Belgium.
She was inspired to join the cadets because of the long tradition that saw both her mother, step-father and grandparents dedicate decades of their life to the program. But she said she was also looking for something to be “my thing.” Her bother played hockey and her friends played soccer.
It wasn’t until she joined the cadets that she found what she was looking for.
“I wanted a place where I would feel challenged, in an environment of like-minded peers that would give me the opportunity to do something out of the ordinary, and something I would be good at,” said McGregor. Looking back, she said cadets exceeded her expectations.
“I was good at it, and I felt like I belonged their but I never really realized that it was setting the foundation for the rest of my life.”
She said the friends she made in cadets have formed a strong connection and feels they have come away as better citizens and adopted a lifestyle that is very service oriented.
She points to her friend Kristi Wynes, who joined the army as a combat engineer at the same time. Wynes’ served in Afghanistan and is now a full-time firefighter in Burnaby.
In addition, her close friend Lindsey Fisher, is now a constable in the RCMP. “The two of them are amongst my closest friends, and we owe that bond to cadets.” She looks back fondly on Remembrance Day ceremonies.