National Cemetery Designated By Federal Government

May 14, 2009 by Tom MacGregor

Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa will be designated as the national cemetery of Canada, with legislation supported by all parties easily passing through the House of Commons in March.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who is also responsible for Parks Canada, introduced the bill in the House of Commons on March 5 and followed with a brief ceremony at the cemetery that day.

“Our government is proud to take this historic step,” said Prentice. “Our legislation today provides our country for the first time with an official resting place for our national leaders and other great Canadians who have shaped our history.

“Over the years, Beechwood Cemetery evolved into a place of national historic importance, culminating in its designation as a national historic site of Canada in 2002. The establishment of the National Military Cemetery in 2001 and the RCMP Memorial Cemetery in 2004 further nourish the concept of a national cemetery for Canada.”

Governor General Michaëlle Jean opened the National Memorial Centre at Beechwood in April 2008. The centre is a nine-sided building that can be adapted for ceremonies and special events fitting any faith. There is also a Hall of Colours for the laying up of regimental colours that are no longer being used. The Hall of Colours was supported by a donation of $50,000 from Dominion Command of The Royal Canadian Legion (Hall Of Colours Pays Tribute To Regiments, July/August).

Beechwood Cemetery was established in 1873 on a 160-acre tract of land on what was then the outskirts of Ottawa. Now surrounded by the east end of Ottawa, the cemetery is a strong example of the type of rural cemetery design that proved popular in the 19th century. It features winding roads, wood groves and picturesque vistas as well as monuments and markers of architec­tural interest.

Its multi-faith aspect is reflected in monuments to Our Lady of Fatima and a pagoda for the large Chinese section of the cemetery. Plans are also being developed for an Aboriginal Tribute Garden.

Among those buried there are former prime minister Sir Robert Borden, former Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas and former governor general Ray Hnatyshyn. Military leaders buried there include Andrew McNaughton, Henry Crerar and Charles Foulkes.

The National Military Cemetery has many of Canada’s fallen soldiers from Afghanistan, including Captain Nichola Goddard of the 1st Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. Goddard, who died in May 2006 during a firefight with insurgents in Afghanistan, was Canada’s first female combatant killed in action.

There is also a Poets’ Hill where the Confederation poets Archibald Lampman and Wilfred Campbell are buried along with con­temporaries such John Newlove who won the Governor General’s Award for poetry and died in 2003.

With the opening of the National Memorial Centre, the cemetery has an ideal location for state funerals or the laying in state of prominent leaders and military figures such as future recipients of the Victoria Cross.

“We received the designation as National Historic Site in 2002 and this was a logical continuation,” said Beechwood’s Executive Director Sylvia Ceacero. “I hope it will give Beechwood a higher profile and people will know it as a symbol of unity. It is a place for all Canadians, from the greatest heroes to the common man.”

Liberal Member of Parliament Mauril Belanger, who represents the federal riding of Ottawa-Vanier where the cemetery is, has been a longtime advocate for the designation. “This just didn’t happen overnight. About 10 years ago, I became interested in designating a national cemetery and over the years I think things have developed to the point where it was the next step.

“There had to be the military component, the veterans component and then the RCMP. As well, it had to be fully bilingual and appeal to all faiths,” said Belanger. “This is not just a military cemetery. It also serves the scientific, political and literary communities.”

Belanger introduced a private member’s bill in the last Parliament to make it a national cemetery. That bill died when the 2008 general election was called. “I didn’t want this to be a partisan thing. We heard in the fall the government was interested in making it a government bill. I was very supportive.”

This year the cemetery is expected to be the site of a large memorial service to mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day. The National Memorial Ride, a not-for-profit organization of motorcycle enthusiasts, is planning a parade through Ottawa to the cemetery where it will have a memorial service in honour of Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen and women who have made the supreme sacrifice. The organization is expecting about 2,000 people to attend.

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