POLITICS

Veterans say character of Remembrance Day shifts with passage of time

11/11/2014 04:25 EST | Updated 01/11/2015 05:59 EST
OTTAWA - Joan Barclay Drummond had a VIP seat at the base of the National War Memorial 75 years ago when it was unveiled by King George VI.

Just a girl then, she remembers the excitement of the crowd clustered at the granite and bronze monument, seeing people hanging out of the windows of the nearby Chateau Laurier hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of the king.

From nearly the same front row seat on Tuesday, Drummond, now 89, had a different view: instead of well-wishers, it was security personnel at the hotel windows, scanning the crowds.

"The attitudes have changed, that's for sure," Drummond said.

"We're living in a whole new world of people trying to scare people and I don't know, that episode, what happened here, I can't believe it happened in this country."

All around, an outsized security presence provided a tangible marker of Remembrance Day's changing nature in the wake of last month's shooting, which left a young honour guard dead at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The empty chair next to her, however, betrayed a more permanent change.

"There are far fewer of us left," said Drummond, who worked in both transport and intelligence during the Second World War — one of around 17,000 women in the Royal Canadian Air Force's Women's Division.

The VIP section in Ottawa used to be nearly standing-room only for veterans, but the crowd is shrinking. The last Canadian First World War veteran died in 2010 and there are an estimated 80,000 Second World War vets still living of the approximately 709,000 who served during that conflict.

Even as the number of living veterans declines, there has been the perception in recent years that Remembrance Day observances are actually growing in size.

Some suggest that's due to the conflict in Afghanistan helping reconnect Canadians to the military, which has also been a goal of the Conservative government's efforts to promote and rebrand Canada's army in recent years.

The Oct. 22 attack that killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo also strengthened that bond; police estimated the crowds at Tuesday's events to be around 50,000 people, significantly more than in past years.

Many cited Cirillo's death as a reason this year's ceremony had a different feel, but Lt.-Col. Peter Scott said this year's Remembrance Day felt no different to him — a serving member of the Armed Forces.

"There's been a lot of people affected and it's coming closer to home," Scott said.

"But I don't think there's any difference to what our grandfathers or great-grandfathers did in the First World War and Second World War. They all went off to serve their country and unfortunately many of them lost their lives. It's important for us on Nov. 11 to take the time out as a nation to remember those who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to keeping us safe at home."

Veterans, though, are keenly aware that their time to stand with their comrades is coming to an end.

Arthur Webster, now 89, was only 16 when he enlisted in 1941, and he headed overseas in 1944 as part of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, South Alberta Regiment.

Though he usually marks Remembrance Day at ceremonies in Toronto, Webster decided to make an exception this year.

"My son insisted I come out here, he says this might be your last opportunity," Webster said. "That's possible, too."

Children of veterans do feel the pressure to keep the stories of their parents' service alive.

"There's not going to be too many more opportunities to remember this sort of thing," John Yarema said as he stood at the base of the monument, clutching a folder of his father's records from the war.

Peter Yarema flew more than 50 sorties over Germany in 1944 and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.

But the elder Yarema said he doesn't think about it much.

"I don't remember much about it really. I'm 93 and I've forgotten most of it," he said.

He gestured to his son: "He remembers."

— With files from Bruce Cheadle

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