Twenty-one cannon shots reverberated Sunday off the National War Memorial in Ottawa and 21 times, most of the hushed crowd of thousands collectively flinched at the sound.
Except for the veterans, whose eyes never left the looming cenotaph covered in wreaths and later poppies by those paying tribute to their service in honour of Remembrance Day.
Veterans in wheelchairs wrapped themselves in blue fleece blankets to ward off the chill, sometimes helped to their feet by family members or by the young soldiers in their midst.
“The younger veterans and the older veterans, they meet today in mutual respect and admiration as partners in the battle against evil. They are Canada’s best,” Rabbi Reuven Bulka, Honorary Chaplain of Dominion Command, told the crowd.
“They fought our fight to ensure freedom and dignity for everyone. They therefore deserve to be celebrated, applauded and eternally appreciated as authentic heroes.”
Gov. Gen. David Johnston, who was wearing the blue uniform of the Royal Canadian Airforce, led the national service that also included a military parade, prayers and song.
Among those in attendance was Roxanne Priede, this year’s National Silver Cross Mother, picked by the Royal Canadian Legion to attend the ceremony on behalf of all Canadian mothers who have lost children in the service to their country.
Ms. Priede shed tears as she lay a wreath at the base of the war memorial. Her son, Master Corporal Darrell Jason Priede, died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2007.
“May we never forget those who have gone before us, paving the way to a world of greater freedom, more lasting justice and a more profound peace,” said Brig. Gen Karl McLean, Chaplain General of the Canadian Forces, who led the ceremony in prayer.
The public encircled the monument Sunday as if to give it a giant national hug and needed little urging from Mr. Bulka to collectively shout a thank-you.
Afterwards they surged forward to place their own poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, some taking a minute to thank the veterans they encountered on the way.
But while veterans felt the warmth of the crowd despite the chilly air Sunday, this year’s ceremony comes at a time of cool relations between veterans and the government.
There exists concern about the resources being put towards veterans’ care, including the amount of money made available for their funerals.
Changes to pension programs, disability benefits and the perception of a shrinking pool of resources for other care have set some veterans’ teeth on edge — even on the other side of the world.
Retired peacekeeper Leonard Kerr, formerly of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, attended a memorial service in Hong Kong being attended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“I love my regiment and I love my country, but I’m not wearing anything that was given to me by the government as a decoration as a protest for the treatment of our veterans,” said Mr. Kerr.
He said he is unhappy with the fact the government replaced a pension system for injured veterans with a lump sum payment for the younger generation.
“I just think that now they’ve used us in Afghanistan, I don’t really think the government cares that much about us anymore. I really just don’t.”
Some 950 members of the Canadian Forces remain in Afghanistan where they are training that country’s national security forces.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay spent the day with some of them.
“We are very, very blessed to have our citizens, those in uniform, those in various departments who are serving our country so valiantly here,” he said in a conference all from Kabul.
“That is perhaps the greatest respect that we can pay to the previous generation of Canadians, to continue their good work.”
In Halifax, hundreds of people packed the city’s Grand Parade square under cool and cloudless skies for a Remembrance Day ceremony.
Cpl. Jeff Cameron, who serves at Canadian Forces Base Halifax, said he hoped young generations continue to honour and support Canada’s war veterans.
“I think it’s important because it’s paying respects for people who are serving and who have served and to give them support for what they’re doing,” said Cpl. Cameron just after being thanked for his service by a person walking by in the crowd.
Brydon Blacklaws, of Halifax, said he considers Remembrance Day “a great symbol of national pride.”
“I want to support our family members that have served in the military, as well as my friends and community members that are in the military now and show my respects.”
Several hundred people attended a ceremony in Edmonton, and wreaths were also laid at Ontario’s legislature.
A ceremony held by the City of Toronto was marred by around a half-dozen protesters shouting anti-war slogans during the two minutes of silence.
They were taken away by police, witnesses said.
In the heart of downtown Vancouver, thousands gathered at the cenotaph in Victory Square. Veterans, cadets, serving soldiers and other service men and women in uniform filled two city blocks.
And Trudy Lees, 84, listened to the Last Post in the place she first came to remember when she was a six-year-old girl.
She looked around with a smile, pointing out the large number of young people — not children or even teens brought by their parents but young adults with tattoos and Technicolor hair — who had joined her there on a cloudy Vancouver morning.
“It’s great that people don’t forget,” she said.
Separate ceremonies were also held in Vancouver at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park, and for Chinese-Canadian veterans in Chinatown, and the Olympic flame was lit in an early morning remembrance ceremony.
The ceremony in Hong Kong that Mr. Harper attended, took place at a cemetery where 283 Canadian soldiers are buried.
Mr. Harper and his wife placed wreaths at the base of the Sai Wan memorial which commemorates those who were killed in the battle of Hong Kong — one of the most catastrophic episodes in Canadian military history.
“The act of remembrance that we perform today here, or wherever Canadians in uniform serve their country must therefore be something beyond a solemn reminder of dear ones lost,” said Mr. Harper.
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