PHOTOS: METROPOLIS STUDIO
The weather could hardly have been worse this year at the national Remembrance Day ceremony, but it didn’t seem to matter. It was bitterly cold and raining hard, but people still came by the thousands to honour the men and women who fought–and fight–for Canada.
Under a solid sea of umbrellas an estimated 25,000 people surrounded the National War Memorial in Ottawa. The crowds went on as far as you could see; they flowed out of Confederation Square, curled up towards Parliament Hill and down the side streets. They stood mostly silent in the cold rain. It was a remarkable turnout.
If you wandered among them to ask why they came out on such a cold and ugly Saturday morning you would have heard one word over and over again: Afghanistan.
The truth is this year wasn’t like other years. It was in fact a kind of year Canadians haven’t seen in a very long time. Thirty-four Canadian soldiers and one diplomat died in Afghanistan in the first 10 months of 2006. Hundreds were wounded. It’s a grim total, but it means something. If 2005 was the Year of the Veteran, 2006 was the year of war in Central Asia–the year of the soldier.
The special nature of 2006 was acknowledged in a whole lot of ways. Most symbolically by National Silver Cross Mother Alice Murphy, whose son Corporal Jamie Murphy was killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul in January 2004. Alice Murphy, from Conception Harbour, Nfld., placed a wreath on behalf of all mothers who lost children in the service of the nation.
But also this year there were many veterans from the war in Afghanistan seated front and centre, shoulder-to-shoulder with veterans from World War II and Korean War. Among them was Master Corporal Paul Franklin, who lost both his legs in a deadly suicide bombing in Kandahar in January 2006.
Brigadier-General Stanley Johnstone, chaplain-general to the Canadian Forces, also paid special attention in his speech to the ongoing fight in Afghanistan, saying it proves that Canadians are still ready to protect liberty and peace, to fight for a world that is free of hatred. “War has caused us grief and cost us the finest among many a generation,” he said. “But we acknowledge the need to protect and defend liberty.”
Johnstone also noted those who fought in past wars, saying they are today’s heroes. “For those who have served in the armed forces of our country in times of war and peace, throughout history and in our day, and who did not count the cost when the time came for sacrifice, we give you thanks,” said Johnstone. “May their memory be a source of courage and illumination for those generations yet to come. May we never forget them. And may we never fail to honour them.”
And it was an honourable ceremony, to be sure. Joining Alice Murphy in the viceregal party once again this year was Governor General Michaëlle Jean and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier. This year, for his first national Remembrance Day ceremony as prime minister, Stephen Harper brought his wife Laureen, son Ben and daughter Rachel to stand with him before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
With everyone standing front and centre the ceremony begins. The Ottawa Children’s Choir sings O Canada and for a few moments their faces fill the huge digital screens set up around the square. The trumpeter plays the last post and the first gun sounds its salute across Wellington Street. The gun–a howitzer from the 30th Field Regiment–fires again as the bagpipes begin. Smoke drifts up the side of Parliament Hill’s East Block. A World War II vintage P-51 Mustang flies overhead. With the war memorial serving as a backdrop, Legion Dominion President Jack Frost reads the Act of Remembrance. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them. Legion Honorary Grand President Charles Belzile then reads the act in French. The children’s choir sings In Flanders Fields as the Governor General places the first wreath. Murphy and Harper follow. Then the rest of the viceregal group place their wreaths, followed by Ottawa’s diplomatic corps and then hundreds of other groups and individuals.
With all the wreaths placed it was time for the march. And with the rain still coming down hundreds of soldiers, veterans, cadets and others strode past the crowd to strong applause. It was an orderly end to an honourable ceremony.
Of course, this wasn’t the only Nov. 11th ceremony of note. Across the nation, people of all ages gathered at local cenotaphs to remember the fallen, and those who have or are still serving, including men and women from their own communities. Further away–at Kandahar Airfield–about 500 Canadian soldiers gathered for a short ceremony in front of a grey stone cenotaph bearing the names and photographs of Canadians killed in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, Lloyd Clemett, 106, and Dwight Wilson, 105, two of Canada’s last known remaining WW I veterans, attended a ceremony at Sunnybrook Hospital’s Warriors’ Hall.
Though the war in Afghanistan would certainly seem on first consideration to be much different than WW I, it may be that the two wars do share some similarities. At least they do according to M.Cpl. Franklin, who describes the fight in Afghanistan as “WW I meets Vietnam. They do search and destroy missions, then dismount and do trench fighting, often against fortifications that have been around since Alexander the Great was in Afghanistan.”
Franklin’s got a point too. During Operation Medusa in September 2006, the Canadian Forces actually employed creeping artillery barrages to great effect, a tactic Canada’s army originally perfected at Vimy Ridge.
As for Franklin, he seems to be recovering well from the wounds he suffered last January in an attack that wounded two other Canadians and killed diplomat Glyn Berry. Though Franklin is quick to note that the Canadian Forces has been offering great support, he wants to draw more attention to the plight of Canada’s wounded soldiers. He’s worried that the wounded may end up falling through the cracks, that they may not be able to get the support they need, as recovery has become quite expensive. For example, Franklin’s titanium legs cost $38,000, while his wheelchair was $12,000 and the chair lift in his house was $15,000. These kinds of costs would be seriously daunting without considerable support.
Though Franklin says that in the past he always watched the national ceremony on television, this is the first time he’s been to one in person. He was flown in to be present at the ceremony. “I’m going to take a lot more from it this year,” he says. “I’m finding now that I have a lot in common with the older veterans, it’s actually amazing how much.”
Of course, forging a connection between the present and the sacrifices of past heroes is what Remembrance Day is all about. And the area around the National War Memorial gained a new dimension of remembrance this year with the Nov. 5 unveiling of the Valiants Memorial. These bronze statues and busts commemorate 14 valiant men and women who gave outstanding wartime service to Canada during the last four centuries (The Valiants Memorial, November/December).
Remembrance Day also provides an opportunity for the national senior winners of the Legion’s literary and poster contest to come to Ottawa to take part in the ceremony. This year it was Crystal Huang of Burnaby, B.C., Jung-Min Shin of Parksville, B.C., Maxime Turgeon of Magog, Que., and Rachel Bueckert of Eyebrow, Sask. Together, the four students placed a wreath during the ceremony on behalf of Canada’s youth.
In keeping with tradition, the literary and poster contest winners were joined by the nation’s top cadets: Chief Petty Officer Andrew Bruce of Tofield, Alta., Chief Warrant Officer Guylaine Archer of Shippigan, N.B., and WO1 Heather Shonoski of Winnipeg. They also participated in the ceremony as wreath bearers.
On Nov. 10, the group of seven youth spent the day rehearsing their role in the event and taking tours of the Parliament Buildings and the National War Memorial. They also attended a special luncheon where Dominion President Frost presented each of them with bursaries and awards.
The seven youths were joined on their tours and at the luncheon by the National Silver Cross Mother. Alice Murphy’s son was a member of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment battle group. He was five days away from completing his tour of duty when he was killed.
The attack came during a period of relative calm in the Canadian area of operations around Kabul. At that time, the Canadian Forces were still patrolling in open-topped Iltis jeeps. As Murphy’s jeep slowed to navigate a broken section of pavement, a man emerged from the crowded roadside, walked up to the open jeep and detonated himself. All four soldiers in the Iltis were wounded, though Murphy was the only fatality.
Alice Murphy is by no means over the loss of Jamie, nor are his sisters or his father. Jamie is by all accounts a person still greatly missed. “He was a very good boy to everybody,” she says. “I loved him very, very much. He was a very loving son. He loved playing jokes on people. He always had a smile for everybody and everybody in Conception Harbour loved him. He was very kind. He had a nephew and two nieces and when he came home he’d be on the floor playing with them the whole time.”
Alice keeps a locket holding Jamie’s picture around her neck. “It’s been very hard,” she says. “We haven’t gotten used to it. It’s tough to believe that he’s gone. It’s only now that we’re realizing he won’t be back, because it’s so hard. His father looks out the window and says we’ll never see him coming up in his car again. And he starts to cry. He can’t deal with it at all.”
Like many young men from Newfoundland, Jamie was drawn to military service because, first and foremost, it offered steady work and a chance to get ahead. “He and his two friends decided to join up to see if they could get work in the military,” she says. “Then he got a call one day from the military. He came out and said, ‘Mom, I’m going in the army. I’ve got two weeks to get ready.’ And I’ll always remember the day he left. It was Easter Sunday. He said to me, ‘Mom, what have I got myself into?’ ‘Boy,’ I said, ‘if you don’t want to go don’t worry about it. You can always come back.'”
Alice remembers clearly the last time she saw Jamie. “He came home just before he left, and he told me he was going. I said, ‘Jamie, it’s awful dangerous to go over to a place like that.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I could go out in my car and get killed.’ I said, ‘Afghanistan’s a lot more dangerous than you going out in your car.’ He said, ‘But I’ll have money when I come back.’ ‘What about your girlfriend,’ I said. ‘What does she think about it?’ He said, ‘she’ll enjoy the money.’ I said, ‘money is not everything Jamie’.”
Since Jamie’s death, Alice has found it hard to bear hearing news from Afghanistan. “Sometimes I turn the television off, I can’t watch it. Every flag draped coffin I see I know it’s another mother suffering the same way I’m suffering.”
As for her duty of placing the wreath on behalf of all mothers, she would not have asked for it, but she says it is an honour to do it. “All the mothers will be in my prayers. I’ll be thinking about them, and for their sons who died. For us. They really did die for us.”