For the first time since 2019, large crowds gathered at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Remembrance Day 2022 to pay respect and remember those who have served and those currently serving.
“[Veteran] sacrifices led to our freedoms, and I do hope people will take time to reflect upon this, today and always,” said Royal Canadian Legion Dominion President Bruce Julian.
That they did. Under overcast skies and in mild weather, thousands of young and old faces surrounded the iconic memorial arches and stretched down Elgin and Wellington streets. They silently watched and listened to the sound of the parade marching closer as the Colour Party and pipes and drums arrived in formation.
The parade, filled with veterans from all branches of the military, appeared to represent the demographics of the current Canadian Armed Forces: more diverse than previous years and generations.
Veteran Tom Riefesel, president of the Royal Canadian Naval Benevolent Fund, was pleased to see the return of a larger-scale, in-person ceremony. He placed a wreath at the foot of the memorial and said it’s an honour to be a part of the commemoration.
He made friends easily and, according to his mother, could tell jokes for hours.
Busloads of students and parents with infants dotted the crowd, something Riefesel said is nice to see. It’s crucial that remembrance starts in schools and with education he noted.
In her remarks, Governor General Mary Simon also emphasized the importance of remembrance to children. “I urge young people in particular,” she said, “to take on the mantle of remembrance and to learn how the sacrifice of veterans has changed the world.”
Not only was this year’s ceremony about remembering the more than 120,000 men and women who have died in service while helping to change the world, it also paid special tribute to the 80th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid, where 916 Canadians and some 200 other Allied soldiers perished. It’s widely considered the bloodiest day for Canadians during the Second World War.
As a nod to the raid’s anniversary, a framed Red Ensign flag, recovered from the beaches of Dieppe in 1942, sat in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire and a Mustang P-51, all of which played an important role in the raid, flew overhead near the end of the ceremony.
Special guests of the service included Governor General Simon; Minister of Veterans Affairs Lawrence MacAulay; Usher of the Black Rod Greg Peters; Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs Paul Ledwell; General Wayne Eyre, chief of the defence staff; and 2022 National Memorial (Silver) Cross Mother Candy Greff.
Greff, who according to Julian is the “personification” of sacrifice, was honoured the previous day at a special luncheon at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in downtown Ottawa.
The Memorial Cross, often referred to as the Silver Cross, was authorized on Dec. 1, 1919, “as a memento of personal loss and sacrifice on the part of widows and mothers of Canadian sailors, aviators and soldiers who died for their country during the war.”
Greff’s son, Master Corporal Byron Greff, died on Oct. 29, 2011, when the armoured NATO vehicle he was riding in was hit by a suicide bomber driving an explosive-filled car. He was the 158th, and last, Canadian killed in Afghanistan.
Master Corporal Greff, a member of the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, based in Edmonton, was an avid hockey fan. He made friends easily and, according to his mother, could tell jokes for hours and was a bit mischievous, which people found endearing. Stories about a particular April Fools’ Day antic are well known, she said.
But when it was time for work he was all business and always focused, said his mother.
His military dreams started to come to fruition when he joined the cadet program in Red Deer, Alta., where he was honoured with the top recruit award. He went on to basic training in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., then to battle school in Wainwright, Alta.
He was driven by a strong sense of duty and service to his country.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was not in attendance as he was participating in summits in Asia and Africa. His wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and son Xavier accompanied government officials at the ceremony.
In a statement, Trudeau said the act of remembrance is important because Canadian veterans represent what it means to be Canadian and they allow Canadians to practise shared “values of peace, freedom and democracy.”
The ceremony started with the singing of “O Canada” by the Ottawa Children’s Choir, accompanied by the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces. The anthem was followed by “Last Post,” performed by bugle player Sergeant Chris Gerdei.
As the clock struck 11 a.m., and the first shot of a 21-gun salute thundered through the air, silence fell over Ottawa. Little could be heard as the next two minutes were spent in quiet reflection.
The silence was broken by the sound of the second gun, which was followed by “The Lament” and “The Rouse,” then a flyover of CF-18 Hornets as the Act of Remembrance was recited in English by Julian, French by RCL Grand President Larry Murray and Innu-aimun by Master Corporal Collavan Penusi-Ishpatao.
Chaplain General Guy Bélisle led the crowd in reflection as he specifically recognized those who took part in the Dieppe Raid and wished for peace and healing for those dealing with psychological and mental wounds. He also highlighted No. 2 Construction Battalion, whose “contribution is only now being recognized by all.”
No. 2 was comprised of Black soldiers who wanted to serve king and country during the First World War, only to face racism and mistreatment at home and overseas. Their stories went largely untold in history books. The prime minister made an official apology to the descendants of the battalion this past July.
Although unique in their suffering and sacrifice, military personnel are not alone and weren’t the only ones appreciated during the ceremony. “We are forever grateful for the families who have supported and suffered along with service members,” said Captain (N) Bonita Mason, deputy chaplain general. “They are a source of strength and care that is indispensable.”
“To be here today is something important.”
As the choir sang “In Flanders Fields,” the special guests placed remembrance wreaths at the foot of the memorial. A wreath honouring Queen Elizabeth II’s service as a mechanic in the British military during the Second World War was included among those placed by members of the public.
In a passionate benediction, Rabbi Idan Scher spoke of the sacrifices made for freedom and duty to veterans. “What had happened? What had we sacrificed? And more importantly, for what purpose? The answer is as simple as it is painful…veterans sacrificed every last bit of themselves.
“We express our commitment to our beloved veterans and their families not by simply saying thank you, not by supporting [them] through words,” said Scher, “but, rather through action, with our time, with our attention and with our resources.”
For the first time in 70 years, “God Save the King” was sung at a Remembrance Day ceremony, the first ceremony since King Charles III’s ascension to the throne two months earlier. The anthem was followed by the flyover of vintage warplanes, which had everyone looking upward.
As per tradition, members of the public, special guests and veterans approached the memorial to place their poppies onto the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the end of the ceremony. It wasn’t long before the tomb was covered in a thick red blanket of poppies.
Everyone’s reason for remembrance is slightly different. For Kevin and Lauren Taylor, who came from Hamilton, the military is a family affair. Their son, Master Corporal Vernon Taylor, was one of the sentries standing guard of the memorial. Their other son Jeremy is with the Canadian Special Operations Regiment. And Kevin’s uncle Glen was a gunner on a Lancaster during the Second World War. He died serving in the Netherlands.
“To be here today is something important,” said Kevin, who throughout the ceremony couldn’t help but think about his father, and the impact the military played in his life.
“I know that I went on this journey with my family with the loss of my uncle,” he said. “My dad and I went to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum where they have a Lancaster. The guy let my dad in to see it. I remember he didn’t speak for the rest of the day.”
It’s emotions and connections like Kevin’s which drew families from all over to the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Remembrance Day 2022.
As for Lauren, she wasn’t just thinking of her own family. “We’re here celebrating and honouring our son who is still here, but there are so many who are honouring their family members who aren’t here,” she said. “I felt so emotional thinking about it.”