Thousands of Canadians braved sub-zero temperatures in the nation’s capital on Monday to honour and remember all those – no matter their background – who offered up their lives to defend Canada, its values and its principles.
Reminders of that common cause among those who served this country and died for it figured prominently during this year’s Remembrance Day ceremony alongside calls from spiritual leaders for peace instead of war, unity rather than division, and respect for diversity.
“Let us continue to make Canada worthy of their dedication and sacrifice, a country in which respect, harmony, inclusion, responsibility and kindness fill the air,” Rabbi Reuven Bulka told the assembled crowd, speaking of those who had given their lives for Canada.
He went on to note that this year marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when Canada and its allies launched a massive amphibious assault on France that marked the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, before suggesting every day should be a D-Day of sorts.
“Let us dazzle with a dynamic devotion to our destiny as a country determined in its dedication to the dignified diversity of its people as we delight in the delivery of deferential decency with discipline and diligence to assure we can all the live Canadian dream,” he said.
Similar scenes played out at cenotaphs and memorials across Canada as communities from coast to coast to coast marked Remembrance Day, exactly 101 years after the First World War ended.
Yet the calls for inclusion and respect in Ottawa stood out after hockey commentator Don Cherry’s assertion over the weekend that he rarely sees people he believes to be new immigrants wearing poppies ahead of Remembrance Day, suggesting they in turn don’t support veterans.
Those comments on Cherry’s weekly Coach’s Corner segment during Saturday’s national hockey telecast sparked an immediate backlash from the public, politicians and the NHL as well as apologies from Coach’s Corner co-host, Ron MacLean, and broadcaster Sportsnet. Monday afternoon, Sportsnet announced that “it has been decided it is the right time for (Cherry) to immediately step down.”
Asked about Cherry’s comments in the morning, defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance told The Canadian Press: “Nobody should be shamed into wearing a poppy. People should wear a poppy because they want to and I’m grateful that Canadians wear a poppy or do other things to remember.”
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay described Cherry’s comments as “totally inappropriate,” noting people from all over the world have served in uniform to defend Canada and its way of life over the decades.
“Today is the day to remember what veterans have done, what veterans have done from all walks of life, from all parts of the world, from all nationalities, from all religious groups,” he said. “We are Canadians. We support our veterans today and that’s what we will continue to do.”
Monday’s ceremony opened with hundreds of uniformed service members and cadets marching under leaden grey skies onto the plaza in front of the National War Memorial, where people had started gathering hours earlier to bear witness to the sombre occasion.
A group of veterans soon followed with their own parade onto the plaza, their small number a testament to the passage of time as it continues to take its toll on Canada’s ever-shrinking population of veterans from the Second World War and Korea.
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, clad in an army uniform to indicate her role as Canada’s commander-in-chief, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau were on hand to mark the occasion and lay wreaths of remembrance.
Also present was this year’s Silver Cross Mother, Reine Samson Dawe from near Kingston, Ont. Her youngest son, Capt. Matthew Dawe, was killed in Afghanistan in 2007 alongside five other Canadian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter.
She laid a wreath on behalf of all Canadian mothers who have lost children to war.
At 11 o’clock, the bells of the Peace Tower began to toll before the boom of a cannon filled the air and a lone bagpiper played the Lament, the two sounds a sharp contrast between the terrible power of war and the fragility of life – and the sadness that comes with its loss.
“We gather to affirm with one another our determination to remove the barriers of division in a spirit of reconciliation,” Maj.-Gen. Guy Chapdelaine, the military’s chaplain general, prayed as the cannon continued to fire in the background.
“We seek dialogue with one another in all spheres, social, political and religious, that in doing so, we may achieve a lasting peace. May this be so and may we all strive to continue our efforts to build a better world.”
Describing Canada’s veterans as “the living embodiment of valour and service,” Chapdelaine remembered those who struggle with physical and psychological injuries as well as “Canadians whose place of birth was beyond the shores of Canada, who fought and died for freedom.”
One of those attending Monday’s ceremony in Ottawa was Dalip Singh Parwana, who laid a wreath on behalf of the Canadian Sikh Society. Parwana said he first arrived in Canada 33 years ago and has been attending Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa for the past decade.
“I take part and I wear poppies and I donate and I have great respect for veterans, especially from the Canadian (military),” he said “If anybody has a comment like (Cherry’s), that immigrants do not have an interest in Remembrance Day, I think it’s not right.”
In Montreal, a light coat of new snow blanketed the ground as cannons sounded in the distance and the first of several dozen wreaths was laid at the foot of the cenotaph by Nicole and Robert Beauchamp, whose son Nicolas died in Afghanistan in 2007.
Al Martel, who served with Canada’s Royal 22nd Regiment in the Korean War when he was 19 years old, was one of the veterans remembering his past years of service.
“Let’s face it, when we were there we didn’t even know why, because the army didn’t explain much of the ins and outs of that war,” he said.
“Today we figure that in one way it was a war that didn’t solve anything, because they’re still at war (in Korea) – they signed an armistice but never ended the war.”
– With files from Morgan Lowrie in Montreal
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