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A Heartfelt Remembrance

by Ray Dick

From top: Nepean, Ont., resident J. Roger MacPherson, who served during peacetime with the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, looks on during the national Remembrance Day ceremony; the Governor General flanked by Silver Cross Mother Doreen Coolen and Dominion President Allan Parks.

The thousands of war veterans, military members and other Canadians who gathered at the National War Memorial waited patiently on the morning of Nov. 11 under threatening skies for the Remembrance Day ceremony to begin. Then, as if on cue, at the 11th hour they huddled under umbrellas and any covering they could find as a storm of wind and rain swept over the nation’s capital.

The solemn service, however, continued uninterrupted as dignitaries, including Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Silver Cross Mother Doreen Coolen, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and Royal Canadian Legion Dominion President Allan Parks placed wreaths at the cenotaph in remembrance of Canada’s 114,000 war dead and those who suffered while serving their country in uniform. The crowd of approximately 20,000 also honoured the more than 100 Canadian peacekeepers who have died in the line of duty.

And although dampened by wind and rain, people showed their enthusiasm by applauding loudly as more than 600 veterans, military units, marching bands and cadets paraded past the cenotaph to close out the ceremony. The crowd lingered long after the parade ended, covering the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the base of the memorial with poppies.

Legion organizers said it was one of the best-attended Remembrance Day ceremonies ever. The increased public interest in the military and remembrance was generally attributed to the heightened sense that terrorism can strike any time, any place. It was also tied to the possibility of war with Iraq and the recent deaths by “friendly fire” of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. One of those soldiers, Private Richard Green, was the son of the Silver Cross Mother.

It was also the first time since the Korean War that Canada has had recent war dead to mourn. “He was an only child, and my best friend,” the 41-year-old Silver Cross Mother of Hubbards, N.S., reflected before the annual ceremony got under way and before she placed a wreath at the base of the memorial on behalf of all mothers who lost children in the military service of the nation. “It has been a long year, and one in which my nightmare came true.”

Private Green, 21, was one of four members of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry killed in Afghanistan when an American aircraft accidentally bombed Canadian soldiers on a training exercise near Kandahar in 2002. The others were Sergeant Marc Léger, Corporal Ainsworth Dyer and Private Nathan Smith. All were remembered in speeches and with wreaths placed at the memorial and observances in their home towns.

One of the most powerful images during the ceremony was of a weeping Silver Cross Mother, hand firmly clasped in that of the Governor General as she stood in the rain along with other dignitaries waiting to place a wreath. “Richard had wanted to go into the military since his early teens,” said Coolen, adding that her only child was born when she was just 18. “He graduated in June of 1998 and went into the military in September. He was happy with his choice of career. Although he didn’t talk much about his service in Bosnia, he did say he wanted to go to Afghanistan. “My son was wise beyond his years. He taught me a lot. To lose a child is the worse thing in the world. He was everything to me.”

United States Ambassador Paul Cellucci placed a wreath for the victims of terrorism, and the prime minister issued a statement referring to the war in Afghanistan and the loss of thousands of lives in terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. It was also the topic of prayers and the benediction during the Ottawa ceremony. “Freedom is not free,” said Canadian Forces Chaplain Colonel Roland Murray. “The freedom we enjoy so recklessly was paid for with the blood of young men and women from communities across our land who down through the ages have answered their country’s call to serve at home and in far away lands.

“This past year our hearts were torn with the return of our injured and dead from Afghanistan as we realized once again the high costs of the privileges we enjoy in this country.”

And Rabbi Reuven Bulka, honorary chaplain for The Royal Canadian Legion, also made reference to the tragic deaths. “We remember the supreme sacrifice that so many Canadians made, and the supreme sacrifice that so many other Canadians were ready to make: Those who died by enemy fire, those who died by friendly fire.” Although the forces of hatred…tyranny and racism were defeated on the battlefield a generation ago, the war against these “ravishing intrusions on human decency” was not over.

The ceremony began with the singing of O Canada, led by the Central Children’s Choir of Ottawa. As thousands settled into vantage points and the aging war veterans sat umbrella-covered in the front rows, including 102-year-old World War I veteran Paul Métivier of Ottawa, a two-minute silence was observed.

As the 21-gun salute by the 30th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, continued to echo around Parliament Hill, all eyes turned skyward despite the rain and the low ceiling as three CF-18s roared overhead in the missing-man formation.

The Governor General placed the first wreath at the cenotaph, followed by the Silver Cross Mother, the prime minister, the American ambassador, Senate Speaker Dan Hays, Veterans Affairs Minister Rey Pagtakhan and Chief of Defence Staff General Ray Hénault. It was then the turn of the three young winners of the Legion’s national literary and poster contest and the nationally chosen cadet of the year to place a wreath on behalf of Canada’s youth.

The Dominion President, who placed a wreath on behalf of the Legion, was followed by the diplomatic corps and a steady parade to the cenotaph by various associations and the general public.

It was a proud, but nervous day for youth representatives Naomi Cairns of Errington, B.C., Megan Jackman of Robert’s Arm, Nfld., Krystal Jacobs of Mount Pearl, Nfld., and their wreath bearer sea cadet Chief Petty Officer Kyle Hoffart of Abbotsford, B.C. Cairns won the contest and the trip to Ottawa in 2001 and in 2002 was the senior winner of the colour poster contest and the black and white poster contest.

Included in the tour for the Silver Cross Mother and the youth representatives was a visit to the Peace Tower where the government announced earlier in Veterans Week that a seventh Book of Remembrance will be created and installed in the Memorial Chamber. In announcing the planned addition, Veterans Affairs Minister Pagtakhan said: “There currently exist six Books of Remembrance commemorating by name those many thousands who died in support of Canada’s causes in wartime. However, there is one book missing…it will contain the names of peacekeepers and others who served and have died in the line of duty since 1947.”

The minister said the new Book of Remembrance would ensure that the contribution and sacrifice of Canadian servicemen and women, such as the four soldiers killed in Afghanistan, will be kept alive for all Canadians.

Outside, on the lawn of the Parliament Buildings, was another large tribute to Canadian service personnel. A 44- by 22-metre Canadian flag was staked down on the lawn, and each 15-square-foot piece was signed by students from 50 secondary and post-secondary schools across Canada and staked in place by a veteran and a representative of the school involved. “I wanted to show that students haven’t forgotten (the veterans’) accomplishments and sacrifices,” said organizer Peter Schiefke, a member of the Political Science Students Association at Concordia University in Montreal.

The rain that drenched the students on Sunday and limited the crowd at their flag ceremony on Parliament Hill did nothing to keep attendance down at the war memorial the following day. The downpour started to ease off as waves of associations, led by The Assembly of First Nations Veterans and the National Assembly of Veterans Association, placed their wreaths at the cenotaph, followed by waves of other groups such as the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada, peacekeepers and the Merchant Navy.

As wreaths from the public piled high around the base of the memorial, the crowd moved to the back of the monument where the Governor General, the prime minister, the chief of defence staff and Parks watched the National Dominion Command Colour Party, some 600 veterans, pipe and drum bands, servicemen, cadets and RCMP officers march past the reviewing stand. All were loudly applauded, including the trucks of the 30th Field Regt. pulling the guns used to provide the 21-gun salute. And it was a special day for members of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada. The regiment was celebrating its 140th anniversary. There were more than 140 Black Watch veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War in attendance from across Canada, along with about 100 members of the regiment from Montreal and 30 Black Watch cadets, also from Montreal. During the parade, they were led by Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Bolton of Montreal.

Leading the Dominion Command Colour Party for his 16th year was Legionnaire Jim Wiles, a retired member of the RCMP and a member of Montgomery Branch in Ottawa. The veterans parade commander, Korean War veteran Léonce Leblanc, has served in that capacity for Remembrance Day ceremonies since 1990.

The Ottawa ceremony was a culmination of a week of remembrance that included ceremonies at the Newfoundland Beaumont-Hamel Memorial and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.

The activities in Ottawa, across the country and internationally held true to the theme set by the government which was: Remembering Our Past, Preserving Our Future. The focus of Veterans’ Week, Nov. 5-11, was on the importance of youth taking part in remembrance activities and in understanding the sacrifices made by thousands of Canadian veterans and Canadian Forces members.

A candlelight vigil was held at Ottawa City Hall in which veterans and Canadian Forces members were paired with students to place lit candles to those who have served in war and peacekeeping. A special tribute was held in the Senate chamber for veterans and other individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving the lives of veterans. “It is an honour for the members of this chamber to host this ceremony to pay tribute to those veterans who have contributed so much to our nation in wartime, and who since their return from active service have continued to selflessly contribute to the quality of life of their comrades,” said Senate Speaker Hays. “We are also pleased to recognize other individuals who have dedicated themselves to improve the lives of veterans.”

Hays was referring especially to some 50 individuals out of 700 nominated who were presented with the insignia of the Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation. There were posthumous presentations to former Legion dominion president Chuck Murphy, former minister of veterans affairs George Hees and Hong Kong veteran Roger Cyr.

And the poppy, eternal symbol of remembrance, was displayed in record numbers during Veterans Week, despite a brief dispute at the start of the Legion distribution campaign among the public as to style over substance. The Legion has moved to black centres for their Remembrance Day poppies, but a sizable number of green-centred poppies remained in stock at Legion branches. Discarding them and bowing to public demand would have meant a considerable loss in revenues for Legion programs in veterans housing, educational bursaries and community projects.

It seems, however, that patriotic fervour from terrorist attacks and the possibility of a war with Iraq increased the demand for the poppies. The Legion ended up ordering a record number of 18 million for distribution, about three million more than in previous years. Legion distribution of poppies generated $12 million in contributions in 2000.


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