Senate Committees


Proceedings of the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs

Issue 3 - Evidence - April 9, 2008

OTTAWA, Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence met this day at 12:07 p.m. to study on the services and benefits provided to members of the Canadian Forces, veterans of war and peacekeeping missions and members of their families in recognition of their services to Canada.

Senator Michael A. Meighen ( Chair ) in the chair.

[ English ]

The Chair: I call the meeting to order.

Welcome, members of the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs. My name is Michael Meighen. I have the pleasure of chairing this subcommittee. With us are the Deputy Chair, Senator Joseph Day from New Brunswick, Senator Nancy Ruth from Toronto, Senator Roméo Dallaire from Quebec, Senator Percy E. Downe from Prince Edward Island and Senator Tommy Banks.

We have before us witnesses representing the Merchant Navy Commemorative Theme Project, that is the MNCTP. It is the national initiative dedicated to educating Canadians and the international community on the contributions and sacrifices made by the Merchant Navy veterans during World War I and World War II and to promote them as part of Canada's and the world's rich maritime heritage.

To expand on these issues in addition to our witnesses today, we will be hearing next week from the Merchant Navy Veterans Association. Hopefully, that will give us a complete picture. To talk to us about the program they are proposing, I would like to welcome the Executive Director, Mr. Stéphane Ouellette, who is accompanied by Colonel John Gardam (Ret'd), an honorary member of the Board of Advisers.

Mr. Ouellette, will you make the presentation?

Stéphane Ouellette, Executive Director, Merchant Navy Commemorative Theme Project: I will.

The Chair: Are you available for questions, sir?

Colonel (Ret'd) John Gardam, Honorary Member of the Board of Advisors, Merchant Navy Commemorative Theme Project: Yes.

Mr. Ouellette: I have prepared a presentation and will read from that.

As children we were told stories on Remembrance Day of our military heroes, how they fought and died for our freedom, for our country and for our right to live without fear. What rarely has been mentioned is that it was not just the army, the navy or the air force that won us our world; it was also a group of brave hearts known as the Merchant Navy that allowed these other forces to operate. This put us in a privileged position of belonging to a country that is recognized worldwide as one that embodies freedom.

During the war, the capriciousness of the sea and the unpredictability of the elements meant that risk and danger were always present in a seafarers' mind. Despite assurances from their superiors that all was well, I doubt that these gallant people, whom we are attempting to pay tribute to, were concerned with anything other than getting the job done. They were, I am sure, motivated by the purest of intentions. In so doing, they were continuing a tradition that has its roots in the ancient annals of maritime history.

How they responded was a test of sheer determination not to leave their fellow countrymen unassisted and true courage, courage that deserves to be acknowledged and recognized.

We all know that death knows no divisions or political views. It knows no distinction between uniforms or battle grounds. Death unites the fallen into God's care and it heaps grief and loss, in equal measure, on all those who are left to mourn.

For many years, we celebrated Remembrance Day and, for many years, our Merchant Navy veterans were not given the recognition or the accolades that their fellow military combatants received. Now, they are part of that Remembrance Day. Now, they even have their own day.

On these days of remembrance, we put aside our own schedules and to-do lists to spend time remembering those who have risked all and have lost all in service to this nation. It is a day to recall their bravery, their commitment to duty, their strength and their humanity. It is a day of tribute to them and to their families to whom we owe so much.

However, I was not in the merchant navy, nor was my father, brother or any of my cousins. I am one of those whose life is free because they fought, because they sacrificed, because they wanted to do whatever was necessary to allow me this privilege of freedom.

Please allow me to quote a merchant navy veteran, Mr. Francis Edison Yeadon, who completed one successful North Atlantic convoy before being captured at sea while transporting a ship load of arms to India. He remained aboard a German raider for several months, finally being turned over to the Japanese at Yokohama.

A lot of the Canadians don't even know what the merchant marine was all about, especially during the war. If it wasn't for the merchant marine, the Germans would have taken England easily. Because they tried with their submarines to starve the British, but they didn't succeed, thank God. The merchant marines kept England alive. You know, when the ship was sunk our pay was cut off. We never got any money. And when we got home, we never had any. . . We were in the Battle of the Atlantic long before any of those fellows even stepped on a ship or went to war and a lot of our fellows, a good many of them are lost. It was very dangerous waters, the Battle of the Atlantic. I feel sorry for the ones that were lost at sea because, you know, we have no markers, no gravestones for the ones that are lost at sea, and there is a good many of them.

As a relatively young Canadian, I remember the sailors, the soldiers and the air force were always presented to my classmates as heroes, as people who risked all to keep Canada and her people free, and rightfully so. However, I am forced to feel the shame of knowing that neither my teachers, my history books nor my country ever insisted that I learn about the "fourth arm." It was never emphasized.

The integral role that these "ordinary" men and women played has never been used as an example to illustrate that the seemingly smallest of efforts often results in the greatest of gains. It is almost as if we are reluctant to include them. Yet history clearly points to the fact that, without them, our world would not be the one we know.

I believe it is incumbent upon us, the generation that has most benefited from the sacrifices of our grandparents, to focus the light of the torch on all served; to realize that we are today's Canada; and to give thanks to all who made it possible for us to be here today.

Our goal is to ensure the inclusion of the Merchant Navy in the acknowledgement of the services that allowed us victory. The men and women who served as members of the Merchant Navy must be properly acknowledged, celebrated and thanked by us in the same way and with the same respect that their fellow service vets have been.

In closing, I would like to share with you the lyrics of a song from my beloved Cape Breton Island. I feel it speaks to the message I am trying to give. It is called "We Rise Again."

When the waves roll on over the waters

And the ocean cries

We look to our sons and daughters

To explain our lives

As if a child could tell us why

That as sure as the sunrise

As sure as the sea

As sure as the wind in the trees

We rise again in the faces of our children

We rise again in the voices of our song

We rise again in the waves out on the ocean

And then we rise again

When we rise again I suggest we attempt to find a way to fully recognize all of our countrymen that have spent their lives trying, not just to keep us free, but able to pursue dreams that, without them, we would never be able to explore. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you before today.

The Chair: Colonel, is there anything you would like to add to that?

Col. Gardam: I met this young fellow when I was working on the peacekeeping monument for the Department of National Defence. He was assigned the task of producing a video about the peacekeeping monument. Of course, he knew nothing about the project or the military. I started helping him then and I have been helping him ever since on all the projects he gets involved with.

I was born and raised in England and was there for the whole of the Second World War. The food on our table was at the mercy of the merchant ships getting through to England. When I retired from the Army, I went to work for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as the Assistant Secretary-General. Within the first month, I realized that there was part of our overseas force that was treated totally different. That was the Merchant Navy.

It came to pass that a family had lost a merchant sailor during the war in a port in Bermuda. They received no benefits. What really hurt them is that his headstone was not an official Veterans Affairs Canada headstone. I said, "How can this be?" They said, "Go over to the Ministry of Transport because they keep the cards on all the merchant sailors. You can find out the story."

This fellow was in port and they were loading cargo when the slings slipped. The cargo fell on top of him and drove him down into the bottom of the hold. However, he was not in hostile waters. Therefore, according to the rules, he received no veteran's recognition for what he had done. From that time on, I have been really interested in how this one group could be treated so differently.

There is a book out by Commander Watt who was Royal Canadian Navy in the First and Second World Wars. He wrote the book, In All Respects Ready . He ran a Naval boarding service in Halifax throughout World War II. They used to inspect the merchant ships before they sailed to take a cargo overseas. He was checking if the ships were safe to sail and many of them were not. They were just filled with cargo with a hope from the owners that they would be sunk or fall into the water when they were going over and they would get the insurance money.

I have written about the merchant sailors and it is a crying shame that this young man here, all on his own, has been trying to get recognition for the Merchant Navy in the first week in September each year. That is when the Athenia was sunk, the first merchant ship to go down.

That is why I am here. I am supporting Mr. Ouellette.

The Chair: Thank you. That was very well said. If you would be prepared to take a few questions, no doubt there will be some.

Senator Day: Colonel, Mr. Ouellette, welcome. This is not the first time have you been before this committee. I know that the Merchant Navy Veterans Association has been here before.

I would like to declare a personal interest in that I sponsored Bill C-411 that created the Merchant Navy Veterans Day. We brought it before this committee. This committee was and continues to be very supportive, as does the Senate. Mr. Ouellette knows the Senate is very supportive of the recognition of the Merchant Navy veterans. It has been a long, tough struggle over many years.

I think senators here would like to know if this commemorative theme project, which you are here to tell us about, is supported by the Merchant Navy Veterans Association.

Mr. Ouellette: Supported in what way; in terms of moral support or finance?

Senator Day: Tell us about both of those. Is this a project separate from the Merchant Navy Veterans Association?

Mr. Ouellette: I put the Merchant Navy Commemorative Theme Project together about five years ago. The impetus was Senator Day's bill. I started by wanting to ensure that, after the bill passed in 2004, we started the ceremony.

However, in terms of answering your question, senator, I do work with the MNVA, in some limited capacity. However, there is no official affiliation with the group, per se. I do deal with a handful of veterans. I have dealt on a number of occasions with the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association, but sometimes they are very selective in what they support publicly and so on. Therefore the greatest support I have had is on an individual basis in terms of that official affiliation.

Senator Day: We will be meeting with that association and we should know, did they enthusiastically embrace your concepts or are they lukewarm to what you have been telling them?

Mr. Ouellette: In the past, when I first did the day in 2004 and to get support from Veterans Affairs Canada to carry out the event, I did get their official support saying that, for that particular year, I was designated as the representative in Ottawa to be able to do that.

There was a different president back then. Since that time, the new president has supported it but not in any official capacity. By that I mean he was at some points reluctant for me to use previous letters of support I had to determine the mandate of this project.

When I say "an organization," I want to make sure that it is not an official organization in the sense that it is not incorporated. It is run strictly on a volunteer basis. There has been little to no funding given. The support we have received has been from Veterans Affairs Canada, for example, providing logistical support and so on. However, this has been mainly run through volunteer efforts.

I would say they are lukewarm to the project. I would say that, over the last five years, the acrimony I felt from the two main associations has faded. Things have been getting better. They are seeing that people actually do care. However, anything related to the post-war era is not the area that I focus on. One of the main reasons is that I do not want to appear to be encroaching on anyone's territory.

The main focus of this project is to ensure their history is preserved through commemorative themes and other products we can develop to capture that history and to make sure it is properly researched and documented. The two organizations do have very separate mandates in terms of that.

Senator Day: Did you say there are two main veterans' organizations?

Mr. Ouellette: Yes, there is the League of Merchant Mariners and also the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association.

Senator Day: We are all supportive of recognizing the contribution of the merchant navy, which is long overdue. However, I am still not comfortable in understanding the commemorative theme project of the organization.

Veterans Affairs Canada would have a list of veterans' associations. Would this theme project be listed with Veterans Affairs Canada as a veterans' association initiative, or would it be listed as a group of individuals, non-veterans, who are interested in helping to preserve the memory of veterans?

Mr. Ouellette: I would say the latter.

Senator Day: That is helpful, thank you.

Senator Dallaire: Are any of the companies that owned those ships during the Second World War still in existence today?

Mr. Ouellette: I believe that Canada Steamship Lines is one of them, but I could get back to you on that.

Senator Dallaire: I am just wondering if you have established a link with the owners in advancing your project.

Mr. Ouellette: Not as of yet.

Senator Dallaire: Let us say you are looking for a full-time research person or professor to work on this history, a chair even at RMC is at least $1 million to keep going as an endowment. I am just wondering if there might be a sense of involvement by these firms.

The other thing is the Great Lakes — and I am not talking about the War of 1812 here, which we won, of course. They came and burned down York or Toronto, but we went and burned Washington so we won on that one.

On the Great Lakes, on the army side, we had two divisions deployed throughout the country — air defence, coastal defence, artillery. We had units deployed in the whole Niagara Peninsula. My father-in-law commanded one of those units during wartime and they got recognition as veterans. For the people involved with the air side of the house, all the tens of thousands that were trained on the air side, there was a certain recognition of volunteers.

For the merchant navy on the Great Lakes, which must have moved a lot of stuff during that time frame, were they ever equipped or armed or put into any of the equations of defence at the time?

Mr. Ouellette: I am unable to answer that question with historical accuracy. I can get back to you on that; but in terms of their historical involvement, I am not familiar with that.

Senator Dallaire: It is not that they were targeted, but if we have people defending the locks in Niagara or all the aluminum factories in Arvida, it seems to me our internal shipping capacity also would have been a possible target. However, you do not know the history of that group, is that correct?

Mr. Ouellette: I do not know the history of the Great Lakes. All we know, and what we know here today is the Battle of the St. Lawrence — the ships during 1942-44. It amounted to about 22 ships torpedoed during that time. However, the inclusion of the Great Lakes in terms of defence during the war is something I am not familiar with. It is certainly something that, as broadening the theme, should be included.

Senator Dallaire: I think it is part of the whole exercise because we moved massive amounts of material through the Great Lakes. It was a huge industrial complex there.

The Chair: I am wondering how you see us helping you, other than keeping what you have said in mind when we talk to other witnesses and we consider the whole picture.

You have Senator Day's bill, which has been passed by both Houses.

Senator Day: Five years ago.

The Chair: We have an official day for the merchant marine, which is —

Mr. Ouellette: September 3.

The Chair: In terms of commemoration, your efforts, as I understand it, are directed toward merchant mariners and members of the public, perhaps focusing around this official day and other events during the year. I suppose merchant mariners were certainly involved in the Battle of the North Atlantic, and there is the Battle of the Atlantic Day.

Mr. Ouellette: Yes, they were.

The Chair: Is there anything in particular you would see this committee doing to assist your efforts?

Mr. Ouellette: I would like a clear mandate. I have been doing this on a volunteer basis — the Day of Remembrance ceremonies — and it has become a very large responsibility. We need to identify funding sources and to give a more official direction, perhaps through Veterans Affairs Canada, and maybe bringing other departments on-line that would help manage the activities of this project.

It is quite massive; it is more than what is actually here. There has been a lot done in terms of songs being written and music videos produced. There is a partnership with Ottawa University that provides me with students who conduct research; so there has been a lot done, but it has been done mainly on a volunteer basis.

An official body needs to be created that would support or assist. Or there could at least be a direction to Veterans Affairs Canada, for example, on how they could be more officially integrated. Then the responsibility of organizing the event, which they are eventually proposing to do anyway, could be turned over.

The Chair: Tell me if I am on the wrong track or I do not understand. If I were the person in the Department of Veterans Affairs Canada — or whomever you were talking to — I would say, Mr. Ouellette, before we get down to talking about getting department resources behind commemoration celebrations, I would have to be assured that the Merchant Navy Veterans Association, the League of Merchant Mariners and your organization were all singing from the same songbook. In this mythical scenario, would you be able to bring that about or is that an unreasonable request?

Mr. Ouellette: We are all familiar with the history of the merchant navy in terms of their post-war struggles and the type of sentiment that has created. I am not an expert in these areas. Even when they were fighting for their contributions, the political realm reflected that exactly.

I think that why I have been successful is that I have not really been trying to demonstrate that I want to take them over. One of the things I have encountered is that they are very protective of whatever they have. If I did not tread very cautiously, they could see me as potentially trying to take over, which is not at all what I am doing. I have been very clear to that effect.

The Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association has been very supportive, in terms of not trying to cause any problems. They did bring me down in 2005 to speak at their AGM and they footed the cost for that, so there has been some work achieved in that area.

I do not want to speak on any authoritative capacity. I am just telling you what I have been told, which is that a lot of these organizations were not supportive and were very competitive with one another. I have tried to stay away from that and tried not to be dragged into the post-war aspect. I am saying we have to make sure your history is known, that the sacrifices are known and we can achieve that by whatever means possible.

Whether or not there is an official affiliation — if we could say all our ships are sailing in the same direction — that has always been a challenge. History establishes those difficulties.

When I first did the event in 2005, I was criticized in the Ottawa Citizen by a certain individual. I was instructed to stay clear of it because it would have become a letter-writing campaign.

My motivation is that I strongly believe in the project and have been doing it, on and off, for 20 years. The project stems from something in Cape Breton and that is why its scope is huge. Not wanting to lose direction, I would like to say that it has been a privilege to work with some of these veterans. Many veterans who are not part of the associations are the ones from whom I have received a great deal of moral support and encouragement to continue. Obviously, it would be fantastic if a consensus could be achieved between other organizations and me.

Senator Banks: My questions stem from complete ignorance so I want to ensure that I understand correctly. The Merchant Navy Commemorative Theme Project is, in effect, you.

Mr. Ouellette: Yes.

Senator Banks: There is neither an extant organization nor registered society.

Mr. Ouellette: There is not.

Senator Banks: However, the League of Merchant Mariners and the Merchant Navy Veterans Association are incorporated.

Mr. Ouellette: To my understanding, they are incorporated.

Senator Banks: Are they competitive with each other for members?

Mr. Ouellette: I would not be able to answer that.

Senator Banks: Do both organizations have members currently serving in the merchant navy?

Mr. Ouellette: No, they do not, to my knowledge. Of these two organizations, the CMVA is the larger with 1,000 plus members. The League of Merchant Mariners has about 150-200 members.

Senator Banks: Are all of the members veterans of merchant navies in World War II?

Mr. Ouellette: Yes.

Senator Banks: One could say, then, that the aims of these three are entirely consistent. You have had conversations with the veterans association, so why would it not gladly welcome this initiative and take it on under its wing? One of the mechanical difficulties is that we cannot initiate expenses or write a cheque. However, if someone could write a cheque today, to whom would one make it payable if there is not an incorporated organization? Have you discussed with the MNVA the concept of taking on this project? What are their reservations?

Mr. Ouellette: It is complicated. I do not want to speak for anyone else but, in terms of their mandate, you would think that they would endorse what I am doing because the intent is to commemorate them. That is precisely what my effort is all about.

From a cultural aspect, these individuals are not always the easiest to talk to and some can be downright hostile. I truly believe in doing this and along the way, I discovered that I had a great uncle in the merchant navy that I did not know about. I have taken the project on as my responsibility. I have received some support from the CMVA but God knows why they do not fully endorse it. I am sure that the core of it goes back some 50 years. As well, maybe they do not believe that someone cares about their issue. I do not know. It has not been easy to gain the support of a unanimous body. That has not happened to date. On the many occasions when I invited the League of Merchant Mariners to attend the event over the last five years, in the first two years they were reluctant, although they did show up in the last couple of years. It has been done on an ongoing basis but it has no formal structure. I have avoided creating a not-for-profit organization because I did not want to deal with the headaches. I want to do the event for the sake of doing it and try to get as much support as possible on that basis without going through the red tape.

We have many support people, although the organization was brought together simply for one common objective. I have people that have lent their name and given me a lot of their time, such as Colonel John Gardam. We are a group of people but I have not taken it to the point where we have become an official body, and that is why I am sitting before you today. It needs to go to the next level.

For example, if I were to end my involvement, first I would want to ensure that someone else would take it on. This has been my dream for 20 years and if there is a way for me to continue and make some form of living out of it, then I would like to do that.

Senator Downe: Are merchant navy veterans eligible for full membership in the Royal Canadian Legion?

Col. Gardam: Yes, senator, they are eligible. When the Second World War ended, the Royal Canadian Legion decided to not accept the merchant navy and, lo and behold, certain merchant navy members joined. For example, a prison guard in Kingston joined and became the president of a RCL branch in Kingston. A fellow in Ottawa who was merchant navy joined the RCAF after WWII and served in Europe. He became a member.

In various ways, the merchant navy has been recognized within the Legion. The history of the Legion teaches us that when the First World War ended, the membership consisted of First World War veterans. When the Second World War ended, the First World War veterans were very reluctant to hand over to the Second World War people. The Korean war veterans, for God's sake, had to organize the Korean Veterans Association because the Legion decided it did not want these people who had served only one year in action.

Peacekeepers from across Canada have received virtually no encouragement to become members. I have been with the RCL for 28 years and it is now realizing its past mistakes. They are on a real drive now to get all the veterans to join the League of Veterans, under the control of the Royal Canadian Legion.

Our association is facing a great deal of reluctance on the part of its members. They said that they have been shunned long enough and we carry on their own organization. It is a pity, but the merchant navy got a bad deal at the end of the war.

The owners of the ships did not want the merchant navy to receive the same veterans benefits that the army, air force and navy veterans were receiving because their people would leave the ships and perhaps be able to live on the veterans' allowances. They were prevented from receiving any of the allowances due to them.

This is a real can of worms, it really is. For Mr. Ouellette to have stuck with it all these years is commendable. Merchant navy veterans on pilgrimages, which you and I were on, were sort of an afterthought. One old character, some 14 years ago, was marching around with us all over Europe with his merchant navy flag and getting a ride on a bus with us because he had no transportation. I think it is time for a shakeup before all the merchant sailors are gone. All of the Royal Canadian Navy gunners who served on the merchant ships received their benefits but the merchant sailors on the same ship received nothing.

Senator Downe: I think you are right. Your analysis and my analysis is that the merchant navy veterans had to fight the establishment for so long that their spirit of cooperation on all projects may have been totally depleted. They are fighters rather than cooperators now. I asked because I was wondering if you approached the Legion about assuming some responsibilities for these events that you are trying to organize?

Mr. Ouellette: Not in an official capacity. When we have had the events, we invited them and so on. That is certainly something that we would want to do.

Senator Day: Colonel Gardam, you gave examples that sounded like joining the Royal Canadian Legion by stealth as opposed to an outright change in their constitution that welcomed merchant navy veterans. Can you tell us if there is now a clear, open policy for the Royal Canadian Legion to accept veterans of the merchant navy as full members?

Col. Gardam: Absolutely. Without any question at all.

Senator Day: Is it the same for the Army, Navy and Air Force Association In Canada veterans?

Col. Gardam: Yes, it is.

Senator Dallaire: I do not see why you do not want to move into areas like Ms. Verner's Department of Heritage Canada. It is a hard sell with National Defence to get their historians to do this, and it may even be a hard sell with a maritime-focussed university, although I think people like Ron Joyce might want to help fund the chair to do the historic aspect. The history of this is part of our history. We have gutted our maritime skills in regards to merchant navy and building ships, and the heart of this is this whole historic exercise. It seems to me that between Heritage Canada and some other university, which could include RMC, which I think is a good idea and might be the right place to go, there should be a way forward. Without that history and with everyone dying, if you do not get them on video soon, you will lose all that. I know all the regiments have done it, so it is a worthy cause to go after.

Mr. Ouellette: We had started last year something called the Oral History Project where we wanted to start interviewing veterans. Unfortunately, that fell through because, once again, much of what we had been doing was strictly on a volunteer basis. We are at the point now where we need to get funding. I would like to have the opportunity. If more details are forthcoming, I could do that. That gives the full scope.

The activities I put in this backgrounder were the salient points I wanted to raise for the committee's consideration, particularly this upcoming Veteran's Day ceremony where I am proposing a gala event and so forth. There is not much more time to plan, so that is where more formal support would be appreciated. What I really wanted to bring before the committee today for initial consideration was whether or not the committee gives directions to Veterans Affairs or suggest to other departments to support this initiative.

The Chair: Thank you. We have to close now because we are not allowed to continue our hearings while the Senate sits. I think the committee has gained an understanding of what you have been doing for these twenty years. Congratulations to you for sticking with it, particularly on a volunteer basis. It is remarkable. As you know, we will be hearing from the Merchant Navy Veterans Association, and we will be better armed to ask them some questions thanks to your presence here today. Out of it all I hope will come some support for the worthwhile objectives that you have in mind. Thank you for making yourselves available.

Col. Gardam: I would like to offer an invitation to this committee any time they would like to come as a group or singly to the Perley and Rideau Veterans Health Centre here in Ottawa. I am leaving the three volunteer committees I have been on for over 12 years this May. I think it is important that you see eye to eye the 250 veterans who are living there. We get fabulous support from Veterans Affairs Canada. The community, of course, does not get the support from the Ontario government to the same degree. For those of you who have not been there, I think it would be a real eye opener.

The Chair: We have been to Perley-Rideau, and we have been to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue and Colonel Belcher in Calgary, and we have been to Sunnybrook. I may be am missing one or two. We do not get them as frequently as I like. Our last visit to the Perley-Rideau goes back at least two years. Thank you for reminding us of that. It is certainly part of our mandate. The care and welfare of veterans who are in those homes, including my father in law, is important. We will do that.

The committee adjourned.

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