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People place their poppies on the wreaths after Remembrance Day ceremonies at Old City Hall in Toronto on Nov 11 2010. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
People place their poppies on the wreaths after Remembrance Day ceremonies at Old City Hall in Toronto on Nov 11 2010. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Canadians pause to honour the fallen on Remembrance Day Add to ...

From coast to coast, Canadians gathered to honour the country's war dead in moving Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Under cloudless skies in Ottawa, some 30,000 people gathered to honour Canada's fallen at the National War Memorial in an annual event that has taken on increased significance as the toll in Afghanistan has grown.

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Hundreds of veterans, many of them former peacekeepers but also former combatants from the Second World War and Korea, followed a pipe and drum corps into the memorial plaza as the onlookers broke into spontaneous applause. Others, not as spry, assembled in chairs and wheelchairs near the podium set up beside the tomb of the unknown soldier. Many had tears in their eyes.

The mournful sound of the last post was followed by the boom of a gun and the traditional two minutes of silence. Four fighter jets in formation flew over the plaza, one of them breaking away to signal those who have been lost.

Brigadier-General Karl McLean, the chaplain general of the Forces, read a poem by a little girl whose father was killed in Afghanistan. It ended with the words: "Pro patria, Daddy."

In his prayer, Brig.-Gen. McLean gave thanks for those Canadians who placed themselves in harm's way, stood against oppression and gave their all in defence of freedom, justice and peace.

This is the first year that Remembrance Day is being celebrated without a living participant of the First World War, the fight that ended on Nov. 11, 1918, and established this day as the time to remember the sacrifice of the country's military men and women.

"This year, Canada mourned the passing of John 'Jack' Babcock, our last known veteran of the First World War," Defence Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement released before the official ceremony. "Every year, the ranks of Second World War and Korean War veterans get smaller. But, their legacy lives on in the values and principles we hold dear; freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights."

Governor-General David Johnston presided over his first Remembrance Day ceremony. Mr. Johnston recently returned from Afghanistan - a visit he determined would be one of his first priorities as vice-regent.

Grieving parents were represented by Mabel Girouard, the Silver Cross Mother. Her son, Chief Warrant Officer Robert Girouard, was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2006.

Alberta

In Edmonton, some four dozen Second World War veterans were on hand for the city's largest ceremony.

"There's just not that many of us left," says Ray Lewis, 85, who served in the mechanized infantry in Italy and Holland. He was 20 when he returned from the war to his native Alberta - "I couldn't vote and I couldn't buy beer," he remembers, smiling.

He attended the service with his wife, children, grandchildren and 10-month-old great-grandson.

"You've got to honour the people who aren't here anymore," Mr. Lewis says. "I always come. Right as soon as I'd come back from overseas, right away I joined the legion."

Lieutenant-Governor Donald Ethell called on Edmonton residents and military members to remember those "who made the ultimate sacrifice".

"The lessons learned from these terrible conflicts must never fade from our collective consciousness," Mr. Ethell, a retired colonel, told a crowd of more than 5,000 who packed into the University of Alberta's Butterdome track-and-field facility for the city's largest ceremony.

"We can never afford to be complacent - we must never afford to be complacent - with progress made or lessons learned," he said.

Ontario

In Toronto, hundreds of people gathered in remembrance at the Ontario legislature and at Old City Hall. The city's subways, streetcars and buses also came to a halt to mark two minutes of silence.

The ceremony was deeply personal for many of the more than 1,000 people who congregated at the granite wall honouring veterans at the legislature. Ann Manester, now in her 90s, is a veteran of the Second World War who served overseas as a nurse. Another woman, wiping away tears and wearing a button saying Imagine Peace, lost a brother in Afghanistan two years ago.

Retired Major-General Richard Rohmer, one of the dignitaries who spoke, did not just pay tribute to the men and women who lost their lives in military duty. He talked about the current conflict in Afghanistan and the young men returning home injured.

"Young soldiers," he said, "come back to difficult, difficult circumstances."

He weighed into the controversy surrounding Veterans Affairs, which is supposed to help injured veterans and their families. The office for those veterans who want to appeal a decision made by Veterans Affairs is located in Charlottetown, PEI, and only three people who work in that office have military experience, he said.

Atlantic Canada

At the stroke of 11, a sombre hush fell over thousands gathered in central Halifax to remember fallen soldiers.

The silence was broken by a howitzer blast from Citadel Hill and the skirl of a piper playing under a rare sun in the Grand Parade.

After days of rain, a rare sun shone Thursday on thousands gathered to remember fallen soldiers.

Flags, including one bearing a poppy and the words "Lest we forget," snapped in the wind as a marching band led serving members of the military, cadets and Mounties into the Grand Parade.

The crowd broke into spontaneous applause as Priscilla Blake, whose husband, Craig Blake, was killed in Afghanistan, walked forward to lay a wreath at the cenotaph.

"It's a really important day," said Tony Steffler. "These guys gave everything and if they didn't do that I wouldn't be here. If I can't spare a few hours it's pretty sad."

International ceremonies

The services in Canada follow a series of global commemorations, as citizens around the world stopped to remember their military dead.

In Seoul, where G20 leaders are meeting, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the fighting in Korea "one of the toughest wars in our history."

About 20 veterans were there for the remarks and a wreath-laying ceremony. British Columbian Peter Seierson, 80, was pleased to see more attention being paid to the Korean War, but he said most Canadians are unaware of what happened there.

"I think, for the most part, they're still not cognizant," he said.

A recent poll from The Historica-Dominion Institute would suggest he is correct. The survey, done by Ipsos Reid, showed that Canadians know more about the war in Afghanistan than earlier conflicts.

At Kandahar Air Field, the sprawling base just outside the city in southern Afghanistan, more than 200 people gathered Thursday at the cenotaph - among them the families of some of the 152 Canadian soldiers who have died in that country since 2002.

René Allard, whose son Matthieu was killed last year, said Remembrance Day now has a whole new meaning for him.

"November 11 wasn't a day I used to find special," he told The Canadian Press following the ceremony. "It changes everything."

In France Thursday morning, President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a plaque commemorating a 1940 student demonstration, in defiance of Nazi occupiers, honouring those killed in the First World War. And in London, hundreds of small wooden crosses filled the Royal British Legion Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey.

With reports from Jill Mahoney, Karen Howlett, Bill Curry, Adrian Morrow and The Canadian Press.

Follow us on Twitter: @glorgal, @moore_oliver, @josh_wingrove

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