As daylight wanes and the temperatures dip to early November levels, sunlight throws long shadows through the Field of Honour at Port Alberni’s Greenwood Cemetery. The crisp breeze, carrying a promise of winter storms to come, whips dry leaves around the base of a cenotaph memorializing the city’s war dead.
The leaves—all points and curves painted in sepia, tea and clay tones—bring with them whispered stories from across time.
The oak tree that stands tall over the cenotaph grew from an acorn scooped from the battleground at Vimy Ridge in northern France. Robert McVie’s brother received two acorns in 1978 from a friend who had taken a trip to Vimy and shared one with his brother. Although he wasn’t much of a gardener, McVie, a veteran who served overseas as a Sergeant Major with the Third Medium Regiment of the Canadian Artillery, planted his acorn and nurtured the seedling until it had grown into a small tree in his Port Alberni yard.
“For 15 years it grew in our yard,” says Susan McCarthy, who is the youngest of McVie’s five children. The story of how the oak tree travelled from Vimy Ridge to the Field of Honour is poignant. “He was ill, so he donated it to the city,” McCarthy said. “He didn’t want anything to happen to it.”
McVie appealed to the Royal Canadian Legion in Port Alberni for assistance, and an arrangement was struck with the city.
“If we pass on or move house, it seems a shame that the oak tree might be killed or uprooted,” McVie’s wife Bessie explained to a writer in 1993. “So we spoke to the people at the Legion and the idea just mushroomed.”
Since McVie had served in England and France from D-Day to the end of the war, the tree is meant to commemorate Canadians who died in the First and Second World Wars.
Scott Kenny was the manager of Parks and Facility Operations for the City of Port Alberni when McVie approached the city with his idea to relocate the Vimy oak tree. “It was pretty special because it was a really good fit,” Kenny recalled. “At the time we were running the Field of Honour. We had done work over the past years replacing the crosses…the cairn had just been installed.”
City parks staff, led by Jacob Colyn, dug up the tree from McVie’s yard and prepared to plant it behind the cairn and memorial at Greenwood Cemetery in time for Remembrance Day 1993.
“The move was done in the fall, so it was a good time to move (the tree). The weather wasn’t that nice for the ceremony—it was cold and wet,” Kenny said.
Despite the weather back in 1993, the oak tree has thrived in its new location, McVie’s granddaughter Tricia Abbott said. “It really flourished after it was donated.”
The McVie family has strong ties to military service: McVie’s father and brother were both military, and a cousin served with the police force. Robert McVie also brought home a war bride. Bessie McVie, who is now in her late 90s and living in a seniors’ home out of town, was 18 years old and working in a bank in England when she met McVie. Then a Battery Sergeant Major with the Third MED Regiment RCA, it was the hijinks of some of his chums that brought McVie and Bessie together.
Two months after their first date, and just before McVie shipped out to France, they were married. Months later, after he was badly injured and spent time in hospital, McVie was shipped home to Canada. Bessie’s paperwork wasn’t complete yet, so she was left behind. Three weeks later, in 1945, she received word to pack her trunk and take a taxi to the repatriation ship Brittanic. After a 10-day cross-Atlantic tour, she arrived in her new home country.
Although McVie passed away many years ago, his family members traditionally attend Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Field of Honour to remember McVie, his brother and father—all military members—and to admire the Vimy oak tree.
This year, thanks to coronavirus pandemic health restrictions, they will stay away from the cemetery during the private Remembrance Day ceremony, and mark their families’ military sacrifices privately.