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Passed From The Face Of The Earth

Whether it was quietly lining up to sign one of the Books of Reflection on Parliament Hill or attending a ceremony in the provincial capitals or at Ottawa’s National War Memorial, thousands of Canadians found time to mark the end of an era, the passing of the last of the First World War veterans.

April 9, Vimy Day, the 93rd anniversary of the battle which many say shaped Canada as a nation, was chosen as the day to mark the passing of veterans from that period. The announcement was made shortly after John Babcock, 109, died in his home in Spokane, Wash., on Feb. 18 (An Era Passes With Death Of Last First World War Veterans, May/June).

“We knew this day would come, so we began to develop a number of strategies,” Derek Sullivan, director general of Canada Remembers at Veterans Affairs Canada told journalists at a briefing two days before the events. VAC had been keeping a careful eye on the last handful of veterans from the war as it began to dwindle after 2005.

The House of Commons had unanimously passed a bill to hold a state funeral for the last First World War veterans in 2008. However, the sponsor of the motion, NDP member Peter Stoffer said in March that he and the other Parliamentarians were happy with the department’s response and that the ceremony would be a tribute to all Canadian veterans from the period.

Other ceremonies were held in some provincial and territorial capitals and at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France and the Canada Memorial in London, England, in Green Park across from Buckingham Palace.

In Ottawa, it was a bitter April morning when about 8,000 people gathered to pay tribute at the National War Memorial.

A Guard of Honour with representatives of all three services in the Canadian Forces, joined by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and cadets marched up Elgin Street to take their places before the National War Memorial. Re-enactors in First World War dress stood as sentries over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier while one Mountie and three members of the Canadian Forces took up positions around the war memorial.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, arrived followed by Governor General Michaëlle Jean. They were greeted by Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, General Walter Natynczyk and RCMP Commissioner William Elliott.

Dominion President Wilf Edmond of The Royal Canadian Legion represented veterans along with Gordon Marsh of the Army Navy and Air Force Veterans of Canada (ANAVETS) and Les Peate of the Korea War Veterans Association.
A fly-past of four CF-18s did the missing man formation with one of the aircraft pulling out of the formation while the rest of the aircraft carry on.

While much was like the ceremonies on November 11, this was distinct, as it started with a passing of the torch. The torch, which is owned by Dominion Command, and was created for Nova Scotia/Nunavut Command was first part of a smudging ceremony by aboriginal veteran and elder Willy Bruce, the lodge keeper of the Circle of National Learning Centre, the Elders’ Lodge at National Resources Canada in Ottawa.

Then, reminiscent of the 2008 Remembrance Day ceremony at the war memorial the torch was lit by ANAVETS Dominion President Gordon Marsh as the head of the oldest veterans organization. He held it high and walked it around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and passed it to Second World War veteran Hallie Sloan, a nursing sister with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps.

With the assistance of a cadet the torch was then passed Walter Conrad, a veteran of the Korean War, peacekeeping veteran John Gardam, North Atlantic Treaty Organization veteran John Jewitt, Gulf War veteran John Stuart and Afghanistan veteran Sergeant David Andrew Stewart.

The torch was then passed along to two Youth of Canada representatives, Mark Casanova and Collette Murphy, two students participating in that week’s Encounters With Canada program. The torch was then carried to a stand where it remained for the rest of the ceremony.

The sombre moments were then driven home as 20-year-old Sierra Noble of Winnipeg picked up her violin and played a song she co-wrote called The Warriors’ Lament. The song has come to have great meaning for Métis and
aboriginal veterans since she captured the hearts of the crowd and those watching on television when she played it at the Vimy Memorial during the 90th anniversary celebrations in 2007.

The Prime Minister and Governor General both spoke briefly. “While those Canadians who fought in that epic struggle may now have passed from the face of the earth, their legacy lives on all around us,” said Harper.

“I believe a ceremony like this has no meaning unless we who survive—and unless future generations—recognize that the memory of these men and women whose heroic acts determined the fate of all of humanity, including our own, is extremely precious. Precious because memory lasts much longer than we do, longer than stone monuments. Precious also because of the wisdom we draw from it, wisdom that lights the path before us, towards a world that is increasingly peaceful,” said Jean.

A more traditional remembrance ceremony followed with Last Post, the lament, two minutes of silence and the rouse, Edmond and Honorary Grand President Charles Belzile recited the Act of Remembrance in English and French respectively. The Commitment to Remember was read by two other students from the Encounters With Canada program, Antoine Flynn Laberge and Sarah Woloshuk. Chaplain-General David Kettle said prayers.

Instead of wreaths, flower tributes were placed at the war memorial. That was followed by dignitaries, including Speaker of the House of Commons Peter Milliken and Leader of the Official Opposition Michael Ignatieff placing cut poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

At the end of the ceremony 65 white doves, actually white homing pigeons like the ones used to send messages during the Great War, were released from the east and west sides of the memorial. They flew around the memorial and over by the National Arts Centre before heading back to their home across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Que. The doves, handled by Alain Laplante of Les envolees blanches, represented one for each 10,000 men and women who served in Canada’s Armed Forces during the war.

After God Save The Queen was sung, Jean and Harper moved to the north side of the war memorial to watch the veterans, Guard of Honour and cadets march past.

As the crowd broke up, individuals came forward to take poppies from their lapels and place them on the tomb.

An era had passed, but not the memory of those who fought in the muddy trenches of France and Belgium so many years ago.


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