It is bright and clear and the air is crisp as the first people arrive, many laden with blankets and cushions, more than two hours early to stake out their positions for the Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial. In the end, one of the largest crowds ever–some 30,000 people–gathered in the sunshine around the memorial and on the slopes leading up to the Parliament Buildings.
Some came to remember those who have died or served in past wars; others to honour serving members of the Canadian Forces; and some to pass the torch to future generations. “My granny was seven when the war started,” said six-year-old Gianna Cox. Her parents, Matthew and Cathie, brought Gianna and four-year-old brother Barton to the ceremonies to cement the lessons from school and home about the importance of remembrance. “Their grandparents lived through World War II,” explained Cathie. “And they’ve been hearing about Remembrance Day at school, and we thought it was a good idea for them to find out about it.”
Honouring those fighting today “is as important as remembering the men and women who gave their lives in the past,” said Tootie Gripich of Cranbrook, B.C., who timed a visit to her daughter to coincide with Remembrance Day so she could participate in the national ceremony. “I’ve been to memorials all over the world and I’ve visited my grandfather’s grave in Belgium. I thought this would be a good place to be today.”
Ben Wright travelled 1,900 kilometres from Atlanta, Ga., where he works for the Atlanta Thrashers NHL hockey team, to see his brother, RCMP Const. Matthew Wright, do duty as sentry during the ceremonies. “My brother served in the Canadian Forces for 12 years; he was a peacekeeper in Bosnia with NATO. I’ve come to pay respect for the work he’s done.”
Const. Wright, 35, hails from Wolfville, N.S., but has been posted to Chilliwack, B.C. Ben also wants to honour the boys he knew as a camp counsellor on Prince Edward Island–young men who entered the service and who are now returning from duty in Afghanistan. “Canada is known as a leader around the world when it comes to diplomacy and peacekeeping and goodwill,” he said. “And when those things don’t work we need to do what we can to help resolve issues so our peacekeepers and diplomats can go to work. Unfortunately, there are times you need to use force to bring about peace.”
Master of ceremonies Pierre Allard, director of The Royal Canadian Legion’s Service Bureau, noted in his welcoming remarks that Canadians across the country were gathering at cenotaphs and memorials to pay respect to those brave men and women who laid down their lives in war and military operations. “From the early days of our history to the service of our troops today in Afghanistan and other corners of the globe, we solemnly remember all those who offered the supreme sacrifice for our country.”
And that price has been high; more than 118,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and merchant mariners have laid down their lives for Canada in times of war and peace.
The theme of service and sacrifice was picked up later in a prayer by Brigadier-General Stanley Johnstone, chaplain-general to the Canadian Forces. He noted Canada has been shaped by sacrifice in battles like Vimy Ridge, Dieppe and Normandy. “May the memory be forever strong of those who preceded us,” he said. But sacrifices are still needed in order to preserve peace and protect our way of life, he noted. “We are paying our own debt for the future of our children with bravery and determination that befits the duty. But never with exaltation.”
“We love and venerate our veterans,” and “yearn for the safe return of our troops. We love our troops,” said Rabbi Reuven Bulka, honorary chaplain of Dominion Command of The Royal Canadian Legion. “Let’s say it together: We love our troops.” The invitation was taken up by the thousands and applause rippled through the crowd as the rabbi continued. “We love our troops because of their selflessness; we love our troops because of their bravery; we love our troops because of their dignity in combat.” It’s our responsibility as members of a “sacred partnership” to give meaning to the freedom our veterans have won for us and our troops maintain for us by creating a respectful and inclusive society. “That is the Canadian way,” he said.
The ceremony was sombre and dignified, although the sunshine contributed to a lighter atmosphere than in recent years, when people braved rain, snow and freezing temperatures. Pipe and drum heralded the arrival of wave upon wave of veterans, members of the Canadian Forces, cadets and RCMP–hundreds of men and women, young and old, the able-bodied and those in wheelchairs and with canes, a tribute to the Canadians who have died in service to their country, and those today who pledge to risk their lives to protect Canadian ideals.
A hush fell over the crowd as the five ceremonial sentries marched to the front of the National War Memorial, then assumed their vigil, hands resting on arms reversed and heads bowed–a reverent position they retained during the whole of the ceremony. The hush remained as Governor General Michaëlle Jean arrived with her husband Jean-Daniel Lafond and their daughter Marie-Éden, and continued while they were introduced to the rest of the viceregal party. With the Governor General stood Prime Minister Stephen Harper, accompanied by his wife Laureen and their children Ben and Rachel, 2007 Silver Cross Mother Wilhelmina Beerenfenger-Koehler of Embrun, Ont., whose son Corporal Robbie Beerenfenger was killed in Afghanistan in 2003. There too were Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier, Speaker of the House Peter Milliken and Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson.
Also on the red carpet were representatives of Canada’s youth, the senior winners of the Legion’s national literary and poster contests–Hee Ra Kim, 17, of Surrey, B.C.; Corley Farough, 17, of Taber, Alta., James Welke, 18, of Pincher Creek, Alta.; Natalie Lloyd, 16, of Guelph, Ont.–and Canada’s top cadets of the year–sea cadet Chief Petty Officer First Class Courtney Davies, 18, of Regina; army cadet Chief Warrant Officer Katie McKenna, 18, of Charlottetown, and air cadet Warrant Officer First Class Lisa Davidson, 18, of Ancaster, Ont., who delivered wreaths to the viceregal party.
The Ottawa Children’s Choir sang O Canada, their bright red outfits contrasting with the uniforms of the veterans and soldiers. The national anthem was followed by the Last Post and as the last notes faded, members of the 30th Field Regiment fired the first gun, beginning the two minutes of silence. The clock in the Peace Tower tolled 11 times, calling to mind sacrifices made by Canadians from hometowns across the 10 provinces and territories.
And then the crowd was called back from the halls of memory by the sound of the second gun, which rattled the windows in the square and down the block. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,” said Legion Dominion President Jack Frost, reading the Act of Remembrance. “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 read the act in French.
As the Governor General placed the wreath on behalf of the people of Canada at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the choir began to sing In Flanders Fields.
The Silver Cross Mother placed a wreath on behalf of all Canadian mothers who have lost sons or daughters serving in the military or the merchant navy. After the remainder of the viceregal party had placed their wreaths, dozens more were placed by diplomats and representatives of veterans, military and aid organizations.
Then the ranks of veterans, troops, cadets and others broke to march past the Governor General and the Silver Cross Mother onto the surrounding streets, to be met by cheers and applause. Soon the dignitaries filed out too, and at last, at about noon, the memorial became the province of ordinary people, who pressed forward in the thousands to pose for pictures under the towering memorial or to place their own wreaths, poppies or mementoes on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Natalie Lloyd, senior winner of the Legion’s black and white poster contest, said grandfathers on both sides of her family served in WW II. “They never wanted to pass on any horror of the war, but they did want to pass on the importance of remembering what the soldiers did.” In the background of her poster, a wounded soldier is supported by a sergeant; in the foreground, a veteran has his hand on the sergeant’s headstone, relating the story to a grandchild. Not enough Canadians have received the message, she says. “I don’t think a lot of people realize it’s a real war we’re in now and there are people over in Afghanistan dying to make sure we stay free.”
To some of the younger generation, “Nov. 11th is seen as an obligation,” said essay winner James Welke. “It seems distant; not many of us are affected directly.” In his essay he wrote that “the right to express our opinions and promote our personal values has been bought at a very steep price.”
No one knows that better than Beerenfenger-Koehler, who learned about the death of her only child, Cpl. Robbie Beerenfenger, 29, from television.
Cpl. Beerenfenger and Sergeant Robert Short, 42, were killed near Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 2, 2003, when the jeep they were in hit a landmine or buried shell. “They notified me just after 9 a.m.,” says Beerenfenger’s widow, Tina. “By 9:30 the children were on their way home from school, and before 10 the news was being aired.”
Beerenfenger-Koehler was away from her office that day, attending a course. “I heard two people talking, saying two soldiers were killed. I asked ‘do you know who?’ and they said no. So I worried all morning.” The group heard there was going to be a big news conference at 12:30 about the deaths, so they found a television set and switched it on. With no warning, she heard the name of her son listed as one of the two killed.
Whenever she hears about the deaths of other soldiers she cries. “I thought it would be over for me, like I don’t have to worry any more, I don’t have to feel for it anymore. But I cry for the mothers because I know what they’re going to go through.”
For a long time, she said, Canadians have thought of war as “something to be studied, not lived.” Her son lived it. “He saw it as an adventure and he wanted to do his duty,” she explained. “He was proud to be a soldier and proud to be Canadian.” For her part, she said, “I am honoured and proud. I’m proud for the mothers of other sons. (Canadian troops) are doing good over there.”
Her two older grandchildren, Matt, 14, and Kristopher, 10, want to follow in their father’s footsteps. It’s important for them, and their little sister Madison, who was a baby when her father died, to know Robbie Beerenfenger was “a good man, a good father, a good friend.”
The same great grace and dignity Beerenfenger-Koehler displayed during the placing of the wreath on Remembrance Day were in evidence the day before when the Legion hosted VIP tours of the Parliament Buildings and Canadian War Museum, held a wreath-placing rehearsal and luncheon to honour Beerenfenger-Koehler and the winners of the Legion’s literary and poster contests and outstanding cadets.
Inside the Memorial Chamber of the Parliament Buildings, Wilhelmina and Tina watched as the page was turned in The Seventh Book of Remembrance to Cpl. Beerenfenger’s name. The two women he left behind embraced each other and shed tears together, then composed themselves and turned back to their public duty.
The young cadets in the group, meanwhile, are planning futures that will involve serving their country. Davidson wants to attend the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., and become a pilot; Davies hopes to become an RCMP officer; McKenna would like to attend RMC and is also intrigued by a career in the Cadet Instructors Cadre, who train the country’s nearly 56,000 sea, army and air cadets in more than a thousand corps and squadrons across the country. McKenna was the winner of the $500 Order of Saint Joachim Educational Bursary. It is presented to one of the outstanding cadets of the year and is rotated annually among the navy, army and air cadet leagues.
The accomplishments of the seven young people were celebrated during the luncheon at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel, hosted by Dominion President Jack Frost. “I look out over the audience and see tomorrow’s leaders,” he said.
But there was recognition for the parents, too. Behind every aspiring young person is someone to guide–and sometimes push, said Frost. “To those parents…I commend you because you’ve done an outstanding job.” Dominion Secretary Duane Daly, too, had kind words. “These young people could not have accomplished what they have without the inspiration of their parents,” he said, who foster such values as honour, remembrance and reverence for heritage.
In his Remembrance Day remarks, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said November 11th is a time to mourn. “It is also a time to celebrate the proud military traditions of our great country. Canada has always answered the call to stand up for freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law.
“I know I speak for all Canadians in expressing unequivocal support and heartfelt gratitude to all our troops and their families. We are holding the torch high. The Canadian Heroes who lie beneath the poppies in Flanders fields can rest in peace.”
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