POLITICS

National War Memorial Remembrance Day Ceremony Especially Poignant

11/11/2014 04:35 EST | Updated 01/10/2015 05:59 EST
OTTAWA - More than 200 years of Canadian military sacrifice was packed into one emotional hour Tuesday morning at the National War Memorial.

A national Remembrance Day ceremony that sprang from, and traditionally focused on, the great world wars of the 20th century sprawled out in 2014 to encompass everything from the 1814 Battle of Lundy's Lane to last month's deadly attacks in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.

"We have had sombre occasion in past weeks to ponder our identity as the very symbols of our peace and freedom were violated," Gov. Gen. David Johnston told a massive Ottawa crowd that police estimated near 50,000.

Johnston, in full military uniform, stood just steps from where Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, an honour guard at the memorial, was gunned down three weeks ago in an armed attack on Parliament Hill. Two days earlier, Warrant Officer Patrick Vincent died when he and another soldier were run down in Quebec by a man harbouring jihadist sympathies.

Their memories gave an immediacy to the well-versed solemnities of Nov. 11 — the piper's lament, the bugle call of the Last Post, the artillery salute and the recitation of the Act of Remembrance.

"It's meaningful to me because of the brothers and sisters I would have lost, especially Nathan Cirillo with the incident that happened here downtown, (and) Patrice Vincent," said Master Corp. Veronique Lavoie, who at age 29 already has a dozen years of military service.

"It's not only outside of Canada now. It's touching home as well."

The war memorial, first dedicated by King George VI in 1939, was rededicated with the new inscription: "In Service to Canada - Au service du Canada" and the dates of the Afghanistan mission and the South African War.

"Today, it is fitting that with this ceremony of rededication, we pay tribute to all those Canadians who in the intervening years have laid down their lives in the service of peace, justice and freedom, " said Princess Anne, the king's grandaughter, speaking on the Queen's behalf.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived for the ceremony after flying directly from a bilateral visit to Beijing, only to turn around hours later to wing back to New Zealand and Australia.

"We can never repay the debt we owe to the intrepid men and women who paid for our freedom with their lives," the prime minister said in a statement, "but we can remember their enormous sacrifices and pay tribute to their bravery and patriotism."

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, as well as the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. Canadian military aircrews, meanwhile, have just been deployed into harm's way over Iraq.

Gisele Michaud, whose youngest son, Master Cpl. Charles-Philippe Michaud, died of injuries suffered in Afghanistan in 2009, placed a wreath at the sun-dappled memorial as this year's Silver Cross Mother.

Many Canadian Forces members in attendance said it was the long, deadly Afghan combat mission that restored military pride among Canadians at large and reinvested Remembrance Day with fresh vigour.

Jordan Ochoski, who retired last month after serving five tours of duty — three in Bosnia and two in Afghanistan — said there was a time in the 1990s when Canadian Forces members didn't want to wear their uniforms in public.

"I've lost a lot of friends, so Remembrance Day is always a sombre occasion for me," said Ochoski.

"Since the Afghanistan mission, our popularity, I must say, went way through the roof. A huge shift."

Gun-toting security personnel could be seen on nearby rooftops and heavily armed security details barred the entrances to nearby Langevin Block, which houses the Prime Minister's Office — a visible reminder of the Oct. 22 attack by a lone gunman bent on destruction.

Although traditionally remembrance ceremonies have honoured military sacrifice collectively and somewhat anonymously apart from the Silver Cross Mother, the Ottawa event had a very contemporary and personal context.

Harper, the Governor General and even the chaplain delivering the prayer paid direct tribute to Cirillo and Vincent.

"We gather today with our emotions still raw," intoned Brig.-Gen. John Fletcher, the chaplain general.

He noted the memorial itself had been transformed into a place of sacrifice, "a place where an unknown soldier and a soldier now known to us all lay side by side in death having accepted to stand bravely on guard for our nation and for its values, rights and freedoms."

And he paid tribute to military sacrifices that spanned from Lundy's Lane in the War of 1812 to Panjwai district in Afghanistan.

As the morning unfolded, ceremonies were taking place across the country, including in Halifax's Grand Parade Square, where hundreds — including NDP Leader Tom Mulcair — assembled for the service.

In Hamilton, Ont., Cirillo's hometown, a huge crowd packed a downtown square, where the young soldier's legacy was top of mind.

"I think now that a lot of people can attach a name to what Remembrance Day is about," Lt.-Col. Rick Bialachowski said in Hamilton.

The Canadian men's rugby team, currently on tour in Europe, took part in Remembrance Day ceremonies in France on Juno Beach, where Canadians charged ashore on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

"Just to go where the Canadians landed was quite an experience, that's for sure," said centre Ciaran Hearn of Conception Bay, N.L.

More than 60,000 Canadians lost their lives in the Great War and another 45,000 in the Second World War, some sobering context in this age of terrorist threats.

Serving military in Ottawa appreciated Tuesday's public outpouring, while keeping their eyes on the big picture.

"We answered the call then and we continue to answer the call now," said a crisply uniformed Lt.-Col. Peter Scott.

— With files from Stephanie Levitz and Terry Pedwell

Follow @bcheadle on Twitter

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version contained an incorrect date for when the memorial was dedicated.

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