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A Year Of Remembering



Clockwise from top left: Silver Cross Mother Claire Léger (second left) is flanked by husband Richard and Governor General Michaëlle Jean; poppies are placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; two veterans remember in silence.

For the Canadians who served in places like Ortona, Caen, Kap’yong, Nicosia, Bihac and Kandahar, the 2005 national Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa was a historical moment in an important year, the Year of the Veteran.It was a classic ceremony, full of all the familiar rituals. The 30th Field Regiment’s howitzer barked a cracking salute, members of the Central Children’s Choir of Ottawa sang in their high, soft voices and, in perhaps the most meaningful display of remembrance, the largest crowd in recent memory–more than 25,000–surrounded the National War Memorial to pay respects on a blustery autumn day.

From where the veterans were stationed, near the base of the memorial, there were crowds as far as the eye could see. The spectators were squeezed tightly together, standing shoulder to shoulder up Sparks Street, massed around the Parliament Buildings and lined way down Elgin Street. It was an impressive sight. “I don’t know if there’s any better place to pay tribute to the fallen than here. Ottawa just shuts down. Everybody stops to remember,” said Albert Vollick, a member of Long Branch Branch in Toronto who served with the Royal Canadian Artillery in battles from Monte Cassino in Italy to Apeldoorn in the Netherlands.

Not only did the crowds pay tribute to the fallen, they also recognized the living. Thousands of veterans, cadets, RCMP and Canadian Forces members took part in a parade past the assembled crowd. The clapping and cheering echoed around the square.

Besides the cold wind, sprawling crowds and proudly marching veterans, there was some real Canadian history made this Nov. 11th in Ottawa. With the dedication of the Seventh Book of Remembrance, newer generations of the fallen have made their way into the Peace Tower’s Memorial Chamber and into Canada’s official memory. The book now lists the names of 1,300 Canadian Forces members who died in the service of the country since 1947.

The ceremony to unveil the book took place prior to the Remembrance Day ceremony. The venue was the Hall of Honour inside the Parliament Buildings. Though Canada’s new Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, performed the official dedication, it was Silver Cross Mother Claire Léger and husband Richard who gave the event its strong significance.

Moments after the unveiling, the parents were led to the book where they looked at their son’s name and wept. “The opening of the Seventh Book of Remembrance, for me, is most memorable because our son’s name is there,” said Claire, whose son Sergeant Marc Léger was killed near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2002 when his unit was mistakenly bombed by an American pilot. “Marc always said that Canadians had no idea what peacekeepers did and so this is very, very special because it shows that people will remember our peacekeepers and that they got their rightful place–they’re going to be in the Peace Tower for everyone to see and remember them and that’s very, very important for me.”

For Claire, who was selected by The Royal Canadian Legion to be the Silver Cross Mother, the burden of representing all Canadian mothers was apparent on her face throughout the ceremony. With her husband at her side, and the Governor General providing support, Claire’s teary grief clearly portrayed the great tragedy of war. “We’re grateful and extremely sad for all the parents that have lost their son or daughter,” said Claire. “It’s almost like a big weight on your shoulders because you know you’re standing there for their daughter or son. It’s like a funeral and I grieve for all of their children as much as ours.”

During the ceremony, the Légers stood front and centre. They were flanked by Prime Minister Paul Martin, the Governor General, Dominion President Mary Ann Burdett, Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier, Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri and House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken. As the ceremony went on, each member of the viceregal group placed a wreath before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Also standing front and centre were the seven young men and women selected by the Legion to represent youth at the ceremony. The four winners of the Legion’s national literary and poster contests–Nathan MacLeod, Mari Sakamoto, Angela Malec and Melanie de Andrades–joined Canada’s three top cadets, namely Sea cadet Christine Robidoux, Army cadet Shannon Potvin and Air cadet Danilo Jankovic. Together they placed a wreath on behalf of Canada’s youth.

Apart from the ceremony, there were a number of other events being held in and around Ottawa during the week of remembrance. In addition to the unveiling of the Seventh Book, there was a candlelight vigil, a special veterans’ luncheon attended by the prime minister, and the arrival of a Via Rail Remembrance Day Train, a one-of-a-kind journey that brought 275 veterans to Ottawa (page 24).

Adding to the sense of occasion at this year’s ceremony was the first-ever broadcast of the new Canadian War Museum’s poignant once-a-year solar event. The silent crowd surrounding the National War Memorial watched on the big display screens as the sun–at precisely 11 a.m.–illuminated the lone artifact in the museum’s Memorial Hall: the headstone of the Unknown Soldier from WW I.

This Remembrance Day marked the 87th anniversary of the end of WW I. Though five Canadian veterans of that war were still alive, none could make the trip to Ottawa. Despite that, there were thousands of WW II, Korea and more modern-day veterans at the ceremony. It was clearly a time for unity. “It doesn’t matter where you serve,” said Vollick. “When you volunteer your life, it doesn’t matter where you end up.”

Eighty-one-year-old Robert Waudby lives in Lindsay, Ont., but is a longtime member of Peterborough Branch. The former member of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry who saw action in France, Belgium and Holland made the trek to the national Remembrance Day ceremony for the first time, and he did it for one reason: his son asked him to come.

For Waudby, Remembrance Day isn’t just a symbolic event, it’s a chance to respect his friends who never came home, guys like Corporal Schwartz from British Columbia who stepped on a mine near Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands.

Nov. 10 was also a very important day for the Légers and the seven youth. In addition to their VIP tours of the Parliament Buildings and the war museum, the Legion’s guests attended a special lunch in their honour at the Fairmont Château Laurier hotel. The cadets and contest winners received plaques and bursaries.

In her speech to the assembled group, Dominion President Burdett tied the two themes of youth and remembrance together perfectly. “Smokey Smith VC used to tell us that the real heroes are the fallen,” she said, looking at the Légers, “and your son is a hero, to all Canadians, forever.” Then Burdett turned to look at the cadets and contest winners, “and you, the youth, will make sure that sacrifice lives forever and no one ever forgets.”

For MacLeod, whose colour poster depicting a veteran’s eyes earned him the trip to Ottawa, keeping the spirit of remembrance strong among Canada’s youth is a mission he believes in. “This is the primary chance we get to honour the people who fought to make us free,” said MacLeod, who hopes to become an architect or industrial designer. “I’m not really sure that it has sunk in yet, that I’m representing Canada’s youth….”

Though all of remembrance week was busy for the Légers, they have been called on several times throughout the Year of the Veteran to attend events. Luckily, they have a passion for educating Canadians about the role and history of peacekeepers and that the Canadian Forces are still out there right now, struggling to secure the nation. Both parents feel not enough is being done to recognize the sacrifices that people like their son are making. “I think that unless it’s your loved one that’s killed, most Canadians don’t acknowledge that, they don’t realize what the peacekeepers are doing, unfortunately,” said Claire.

While the Seventh Book of Remembrance will help create greater recognition of peacekeepers, Claire agrees with Burdett that it is Canada’s youth who will really make a difference in remembrance. “It’s all about education, like everything else. Richard and I took it upon ourselves to go to schools and tell them what peacekeepers are doing and hopefully that will help, because children are very good at educating their parents and I have a lot of faith in our youth. But of course it takes more than that, it takes a lot more than that, but it’s a beginning and we’re trying and we know that Marc would have wanted that.”

In another sign of the changing times, this year more than any before the Légers acted as Silver Cross parents rather than simply a Silver Cross mother. While it’s true that Richard and Claire seem exceptionally close–they often finish each others sentences–both agree that raising a child takes two parents, so does mourning for one. “It’s very hard for me to be acknowledged and not Richard because we raised Marc together,” said Claire. “It’s not that we’re not appreciative, and it’s not that I feel I’m left out. It’s just that he’s our child,” added Richard.

“We raised him together,” said Claire. “We’re married 32 years and we’ve never been separated until now. We raised him as a couple. But tradition dies hard.”

This year’s ceremony also generated some controversy. There was a small group, including some veterans, lining the parade route who believed that Michaëlle Jean was not suitable to be appointed Governor General. These people, about 25 of them, turned their backs on Jean as she passed.

Well ahead of the ceremony, the Legion made its position clear on the issue of a Remembrance Day protest against the Governor General. “Such action would be a disgrace and an offence to Her Majesty as well as to the memory of our fallen veterans,” wrote Mary Ann Burdett in a well-publicized news release. “The intent of the national Remembrance Day ceremony is for people to pay their respects to Canada’s war dead, not to protest an appointment initiated by the Government of Canada regardless of how unacceptable it may be to some people. To turn one’s back to the Governor General is to turn one’s back on all that the office stands for and defiles the memory of the dead and the country for which they fought. The Legion believes individual protest is a right for which our veterans fought, but it also firmly believes there is a time and a place for protest and the national Remembrance Day ceremony is not one of them.”

In the end, however, this little incident did not faze Jean, whose fine and eloquent dedication speech for the Seventh Book surely pleased the veterans attending the ceremony. “This book is unique in that it will never close. It will be used to commemorate those who have given their lives for Canada for generations to come,” she said. “This (book) also carries an underlying note of hope, because it is a testament to the willingness of our military women and men to help bring peace and security to a troubled world.”

Gloria Frazer was another guest of honour at the unveiling of the book. Her husband was Captain Keith Mirau, who died along with eight other peacekeepers in 1974 when his plane was shot down over Syria. Frazer summed up the feelings of many of the peacekeepers, and others, in Ottawa on Nov. 11. This was an important Remembrance Day, not only for the veterans and their families, but a day that the best historians–the youth–will remember for years to come. “It took a lot of years for this recognition,” said Frazer, “but I’m very honoured to be here. This is real Canadian history, these are things my granddaughter will know about.”


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