For the first time, Canadians commemorated Remembrance Day without a Canadian First World War veteran. With the passing of John Babcock, Canada’s last surviving soldier of the Great War, so passed the live memories of those who served in uniform during that time. Yet Canadians do not forget; at the National War Memorial, more than 30,000 came to honour the service and sacrifice of all the generations of servicemen and servicewomen who have fought to win, preserve or maintain peace. It was the same story elsewhere across Canada, where huge crowds paid their respects in big cities and small towns.
People came to honour lost comrades or in remembrance of relatives or friends who served. Merchant navy veteran James Hodgetts, 80, of Barrière, B.C., saw service in the Pacific during the Second World War. And although he attended the National War Memorial service “to honour the guys of the merchant marine who served and died in brutal service in the Atlantic,” he was also there to honour his next door neighbour’s uncle, who died in the First World War.
Roly Armitage of Dunrobin, Ont., an artillery observer who fought through Normandy, Belgium, Holland and into Germany during the Second World War, attends each year. “I think of all those who lost their lives.”
John Eggenberger, who served with NATO forces in France, Germany and Canada, was there to honour his uncle, Laurence Thordarson, of the Royal Canadian Engineers, buried in Ravenna War Cemetery, Italy.
Some came in groups. Maryellen Gibson, 16, of École Secondaire Lacombe Composite High School in Lacombe, Alta., was one of 14 Grade 11 and 12 students on a remembrance tour of the capital. She made good use of her time, visiting the Library and Archives Canada where she researched a relative, Charles Frank Gibson, who died in Italy near the end of the Second World War. “I lost some relatives in the war, and Remembrance Day is a time to reflect on that.”
Classmate Justin Dutchak, meanwhile, was honouring James Pratt, a friend’s grandfather. “I’ve seen him sitting there with tears in his eyes, remembering the friends and relatives he’s lost.” Teacher Christa Henderson wanted to thank the Legion’s Lacombe Branch and Alberta-Northwest Territories Command for ongoing donations in support the annual class trip. Also at the ceremony were the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, whose pre-game practice was cancelled so staff and players could attend. “Some things in life are more important than a morning skate,” associate coach Rick Bowness told the media.
Many others were there with their children.
“I was born in Hong Kong and Canadians defended the city in the Second World War,” said Willy Wong who occupied a good viewing spot with his 10-year-old son, Russell. “I’ve always felt something special for the soldiers. I have come so my son can be exposed to this.” The two also planned to visit the new Hong Kong Veterans Memorial Wall and the Canadian War Museum.
Some came as reverent observers on significant anniversaries. Among them, Korean War veteran Robert Ranger of Richmond, Ont. He was touched to be at the ceremony during the 60th anniversary of that war. “I was there for 14 months. For some time it was known as the Forgotten War, (but now) people appreciate what we did, which they didn’t before.” Perception has changed, he says, and “younger people now understand what the war in Korea was about.” Ranger’s grandson, Eric, has just returned from service in Afghanistan, the fifth generation of Rangers to have served his country.
Master Seaman Sean Preston, who is normally based in Esquimalt, B.C., but now working with the combat and construction engineers at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier, Que., was pleased to be on assignment nearby so he could attend the ceremony. “I’m very proud to be serving during the 100th anniversary of the navy and very proud to be here.”
These people were among the thousands who came “to laud and remain in awe of these historic Canadians [who] put their lives on hold and at great risk to eliminate tyranny, defend liberty and promote freedom for everyone,” said Rabbi Reuven Bulka, Honorary Chaplain of The Royal Canadian Legion’s Dominion Command, during his benediction.
As the final trumpet notes of the Last Post faded in the air, the clock in the Peace Tower began tolling the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. A howitzer fired by the 30th Field Regiment marked the beginning of two minutes of silence, a silence so profound that the flags at half-mast could be heard waving in the breeze.
A second gun ended the silence, and as the Canadian Forces piper played the lament, four CF-18 Hornets flew overhead in missing-man formation, a traditional Air Force farewell. Following the rouse, Dominion President Pat Varga read the Act of Remembrance in English which was also read in French by Legion Grand President Larry Murray, and in Cree by veteran Norman Henderson.
With his words punctuated by the booms of a 21-gun salute, Canadian Forces Chaplain General, the Reverend Karl McLean, began his prayer with a poem written by nine-year-old Alexandria Grace Parker, daughter of Colonel Geoff Parker who was killed in Afghanistan in May. “We remember and give thanks for those brave Canadians who…stood against oppression and gave their all in the name of freedom, justice and peace,” he said in prayer.
As the red-clad members of the Ottawa Children’s Choir sang the words of Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae’s immortal poem In Flanders Fields, Governor General David Johnston placed the first wreath at the foot of the National War Memorial. Next was Silver Cross Mother Mabel Girouard of Bathurst, N.B., who placed a wreath on behalf of all mothers whose children have died in the service of their country. Following her was John Baird, leader of the government in the House of Commons, Noël Kinsella, Speaker of the Senate, Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Chief of the Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk.
Placing a wreath on behalf of Canada’s youth were the winners of the Legion’s national literary and poster contests, Shea Goreham of Bridgetown, N.S.; Michael Sullivan of St. John’s, Nfld.; Jan Sobotka of West Vancouver; Jonathan Brown of Guelph, Ont. Serving as wreath bearers were Legion Cadet of the Year award recipients: navy cadet Chief Petty Officer First Class Nadine Kelly of Old Perlican, Nfld.; army cadet Chief Warrant Officer Ashley Linehan of Mount Carmel, Nfld., and air force cadet Warrant Officer Second Class Sadiq Valliani of Calgary.
The Dominion President was the last of the viceregal party to place a wreath on behalf of veterans and The Royal Canadian Legion. She was followed by representatives of the Ottawa Diplomatic Corps, and wave after wave of representatives of veterans organizations. “We remember the supreme sacrifice so many beloved Canadians made,” said Rabbi Bulka during the benediction. “We therefore wear the red poppy with great pride. For today it is to remember, for tomorrow and onward it is to translate remembrance into celebration [to] embrace gratitude, veneration and [serve as] a warm welcome back from the battlefront….” He described remembrance as “a sacred trust: our immutable, unshakable, perpetual obligation….”
Following the service, members of the viceregal party greeted veterans before making their way to Wellington Street where they viewed the parade of veterans. Meanwhile, thousands waited their turn to place their lapel poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
It’s a sad thing that sacrifice should have to be part of defending our country and standing for peace, the Silver Cross Mother said in an interview with Legion Magazine. “It’s a great honour for me” to represent other mothers who have experienced loss. “I would say to them: use your courage and your strength; it gets easier [over time], though you will always miss them.
“There will always be a Remembrance Day,” she added, because there will always be servicemen and servicewomen willing, if necessary, to make the same sacrifice as her son. Robert Girouard, 46, was serving as the regimental sergeant major of 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group when he was killed near Kandahar, Afghanistan, Nov. 27, 2006, by a suicide car bomber. And she knows there will always be those devoted to service, not only because Robert’s three children are all pursuing military careers, but because she meets others like Sergeant Renay Groves, whom she met the day before Remembrance Day.
On that day, the Silver Cross Mother and youth representatives took part in visits to the Parliament Buildings and the Canadian War Museum and participated in a luncheon hosted by the Legion Dominion President in their honour.
The group visited the Memorial Chamber in the Peace Tower, where Mabel and Vincent Girouard saw the name of their son in one of the seven Books of Remembrance. In a brief ceremony, House of Commons Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms André Boivin presented them with a framed replica of the page on which their son’s name is inscribed.
At the war museum, the Silver Cross Mother shared a tearful embrace with Sergeant Groves who donated her book, Notes From Home, to the museum. The book is more than a foot thick, weighs about 20 kilograms and contains messages from 80,000 Canadians to troops serving in Afghanistan. It includes messages from former Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but perhaps the most precious signature was the last, that of Ry Secours-Francis, 4, whose father Captain Jefferson Francis died when his armoured vehicle was destroyed by a land mine in Afghanistan in 2007.
The luncheon at the Château Laurier gave the Dominion President an opportunity to thank the Girouards. “We honour their courage and their valour,” she said. “We thank them for their sacrifice; they lent us their son. I pledge today that we will always remember him.”
The contest winners and cadets received plaques and bursaries at the luncheon. Tokens of appreciation were also delivered to the sentries who maintain a vigil during the Remembrance Day service; retiring House of Commons Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms Boivin and a handful of Legion volunteers who have helped for decades with the organization of the national ceremony. Earlier in the week, a presentation was made to retiring Public Works employee Wilf Leblanc who for 34 years has helped with the national ceremony’s preparations.
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