WW II veteran celebrates 100th birthday in Whitehorse

Joseph Novak, 100, stands among Canadian Rangers on Sunday in Whitehorse. Several people gathered at Whistle Bend Place to celebrate his birthday. (Virginie Ann/CBC)

When asked about the secret to a long life, 100-year-old Joseph Novak of Whitehorse says he owes it to his late wife Mary. 

“We were married for 73 years,” said Novak, who doesn’t hesitate to share anecdotes or talk about Mary’s best qualities with anyone.

“I think most people should be as happy as we were. It was just a happy life.”

The retired lance corporal celebrated his 100th birthday on Sunday at Whistle Bend Place — a continuing care facility in Whitehorse — along with families, friends and Armed Forces members who came to honour the Second World War veteran.

For the occasion, a very special flag was raised in front of the facility.

Joseph Novak’s Canadian flag, given to him after Expo 67, is now flying in front of Whistle Bend Place. Novak says he kept it for more than 50 years wondering where it could hang permanently. (Virginie Ann/CBC)

Novak was gifted the Canadian flag decades ago, after he participated in Expo 67, the pinnacle of Canada’s 100th anniversary.

“I was waiting 56 years to know where to hang that flag,” Novak said. “And finally, I ended up in Canada’s paradise. Believe you me, it’s not ‘Yukon.’ It’s Canada’s paradise. And nobody can try to convince me otherwise.”

Novak’s flag will now permanently fly outside Whistle Bend Place. The centenarian hopes that it serves as a reminder of those who fought in wars to protect their country.

“I’m always hoping that people will remember, you know, because the only time you hear anything about the veterans is on November 11,” he said.

“I’m always concerned that there’s not enough emphasis put on the accomplishments of the Canadian Army in Europe.”

Honouring the military man

Novak, of Polish descent, was born in Montreal. The Second World War veteran is now among the thinning ranks of those who served overseas.

He enlisted with the Canadian military when he was barely 20. He landed in Normandy, France, on June 9, 1944 — three days after D-Day — and joined thousands of American, British and Canadian soldiers to liberate France from the German army.

Novak was made a knight of the French National Order of the Legion in 2021 — the highest decoration in France.

Joseph Novak, right, and his friend Terry Grabowski stand together for a photo on Sunday. The two men have forged a close bond throughout the years, despite a 54-year age gap. (George Maratos/CBC)

For long-time friend Terry Grabowski, seeing Novak’s flag flying up high this past weekend was an emotional moment.

He says the gesture is another positive step toward providing better recognition to veterans.

“Even though our age difference is 54 years …we’ve connected and we’re just true friends,” Grabowski said.

“It was always an education session for me and what I hope that I have gained more so from him, is just his compassion to give back to the community and give back to others which he has absolutely in the Yukon,” Grabowski said.

Novak donated more than a million dollars to the Yukon Hospital Foundation in 2021. He also created a bursary for Indigenous students in communications.

“He deserves it all,” Grabowski said. “The light needs to be shone on him and for what he’s done, not only for the Yukon, but for all of Canada.”

A report from Virginie Ann

Related stories from around the North

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Iceland: Nordics should aim for common approach to China’s Arctic involvement says report, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Norway strengthens its Arctic military in new defense plan as security concerns grow in the region, The Independent Barents Observer

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