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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

House with a split personality

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BERNIàRES-SUR-MER

It's called La Maison des Canadians, or Canada House, one of the most important historical markers of Canada's role in the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, but it's in need of another rescue.

Located on the English Channel behind a seawall, it's believed to have been the first home liberated following the invasion, but it wasn't cheap. About 100 members of the Queen's Own Rifles, a Toronto-based regiment, were killed or wounded within sight of the house, which was used as a firing position by the Germans.

The battalion suffered the highest casualties of any unit on D-Day, with 61 killed and 76 wounded within an hour.

Canada House was made famous by contemporary photos and newsreel that showed it badly mauled by the fighting. It's still one of the most recognizable buildings from the fighting on June 6.

The home had belonged to the family of Herve Hoffer since the 1930s, but they were evicted by the Germans in 1940.

When our group of tourists approached the house, Gauthier Hebbelynck, a Canadian who has befriended the home and its owners, was sitting in the front yard. Herve Hoffer, a descendant of the original owners and who lives in the house, then came out and invited us inside.

Hebbelynck explained Canadian troops fought their way inside the house while some Germans retreated into the basement. Grenades were tossed down the stairs, putting a halt to the fighting.

Troops around the house then started taking fire from a sniper in a nearby church spire. He was captured, but begged for his life, knowing snipers were usually dispatched on the spot.

The sniper handed a soldier -- the same soldier who had earlier tossed grenades into the home's basement -- some French francs to spare his life. The soldier took him prisoner and kept the money.

Then, 60 years later, he returned to the house and offered the money to the Hoffers, apologizing for the damage he had caused to their home. Hoffer mounted the money in a frame on his wall.

Hebbelynck, a member of the British Columbia Regiment reserve who is trying to help preserve the property, explained the home needs donations to help with repairs and he offered T-shirts and other souvenirs for sale to the assembled group.

A foundation is being established to help with fundraising.

The house, unfortunately, is a duplex with a split personality. While Hoffer's half features a Canadian flag on the outside, the owner of the other half isn't interested in the past and doesn't want help in restoring his half, particularly if it draws the attention of more tourists.

As a result, the patriotic half of Canada House sports a new roof, while the disinterested half features an old roof, which is more evident from the rear.

The home receives thousands of Canadian and other visitors every year. More than 2,500 showed up on one day alone.

It is clearly a Canadian landmark, but it appears to be falling between the cracks. The French government is generous in supporting worthy projects, while regimental associations in Canada have been loyal supporters of overseas battlefield sites.

La Maison des Canadiens is not the only neglected Canadian military historical site, but it's the most visible and prominent building on Juno Beach that comments directly on the bravery of Canadians.

As with other undeveloped Canadian battlefield sites, Canada House raises the question: Whose history is it?

Canadians died here and left a huge legacy, but it happened in France. In the end, it's a shared history, but it seems Veterans Affairs or some government department should be more widely involved in identifying and remembering important sites, rather than relying on the French and aging regimental associations to do it all.

dave.obrien@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 J5

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