Skip to main content

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the regimental funeral service for Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in Hamilton on Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014. Cpl. Cirillo was standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa last Wednesday when he was killed by a gunman who went on to open fire on Parliament Hill.NATHAN DENETTE/The Canadian Press

They were complete strangers and close friends. They were office workers and decorated generals. Some came from other countries, others needed only to stand up from their panhandling roosts to salute the casket.

Thousands of people lined Hamilton's downtown streets as Corporal Nathan Cirillo's casket idled past while pipers and drummers kept a heavy, heartbeat cadence. The 24-year-old Hamiltonian died during an attack on two cornerstone Canadian images last week: the National War Memorial, over which Cpl. Cirillo was keeping ceremonial watch, and the Parliament.

The RCMP have identified a lone-wolf gunman who was driven by crazed religious interpretation, but those along the procession route preferred not to say the shooter's name or waste one thought on his motives.

It was a different kind of memorial, said those who should know – bigger, heavier than anything this region has seen in decades.

At the very start of the cortege, near the a pavilion commemorating Cpl. Cirillo's unit, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a throng of twenty-something onlookers stood in shirts bearing the fallen soldier's image. One of them was showing around a freshly inked tattoo of their late friend on his left forearm. "I met him when I was nine years old," said Karic Francella, 22, holding up the tattoo of Cpl. Cirillo watching over the National War Memorial in Ottawa, where he was gunned down last Wednesday. "I remember the day he got his consent form from the Canadian Forces. His mom didn't want to sign. She was nervous. So was I."

In light of his friend's death, he is no longer anxious about military service. "The first day I can, I'm signing up [for the Forces]," he said. "Nathan stood strong for us. I feel it's my turn to do something."

He stopped talking as his workout buddy's casket wheeled past. It sat atop a gun carriage, covered in a Canadian flag held in place with Cpl. Cirillo's white belt and bayonet. It turned along Bay Street North where a woman held a sign that read, "Shoulder to Shoulder, soldier to soldier, We stand on guard for Corporal NATHAN CIRILLO." She didn't know him. But the morning after the shooting, a whole finished poem about the soldier flowed out of her. It has been shared dozens of times on Facebook ever since. "It was so strange how it came to me," said Joy Plourde. "He's been on my heart and mind since this awful thing happened."

One member of the Cirillo family nodded at the sign as they walked. The crowds hushed at the mere sight of them, many moved to tears, especially when they spotted five-year-old Marcus, Cpl. Cirillo's son, and the regimental cap he wore on his head.

"He's got his dad's handsome eyes," whispered one woman in the crowd.

The boy seemed unperturbed by all the people. He kept pointing out the helicopters thumping overhead. He waved a small Canadian flag in the breeze. He smiled at three photographers who moved in for a closeup.

The news would say they were walking toward Christ's Church Cathedral for his father's funeral, but he only seemed concerned with being close to his aunt Natasha.

"Carry me, carry me," he said, when she put him down for a moment. She complied. If the boy was any burden on this warm October day, she didn't let it show.

As they approached the church, the procession slowed. Soldiers stared at the boy from the windows of the John Weir Foote armoury, where friends said Cpl. Cirillo first signed up for the Forces. On the roof of the armoury, snipers and spotters looked for any signs of trouble. For all the talk about high security, it was discrete and unobtrusive.

Outside the armoury, the family saw a makeshift memorial where hundreds of people had placed flowers and signed flags. One teary warrant officer wrote "God now protects you."

Mr. Cirillo's mother had to lean on a member of the Argylls for support. They turned a corner and walked inside the church.

The whole scene struck retired General Lewis MacKenzie, one of the country's most-decorated soldiers, as completely unique.

"There's a combination of civilians with military units and police units that I've never seen before," he said, standing across the street from the church. "This many people, it brings to mind the funeral of our greatest World War I ace, William Barker. I wasn't there of course but it was the biggest funeral in the area at the time."

Inside the church, Cpl. Cirillo's cousin, Jenny Holland, offered some explanation for the outpouring. "Nathan has become Canada's hero," she said to the assembled friends, family and dignitaries. "Nathan may have looked like a big tough man, but he was such a kid at heart. It was beautiful to see the joy he had while playing with his son. Marcus adored him so much. Not only was Nathan his dad, he was also his friend."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper then offered thanks on behalf of the nation. "We're better for his life, and we're diminished by his loss," he said. "And may his son, young Marcus Daniel Cirillo, some day find comfort in the fact that our entire country looks up to his dad with pride, with gratitude, with deep abiding respect."

As the funeral continued inside the church, a solemn Gen. MacKenzie agreed to photographs with a few onlookers. "Nobody should undersell Canadian patriotism," he said. "This doesn't change us. Not one lone-wolf shooter, though calling him that is an insult to wolves."

The funeral ended. One MP, Adam Vaughan, stuck around after the funeral to soak in the moment. He was in Ottawa last Wednesday, 20 feet from the shooter, when a guard pulled him into a security enclave. "A certain shock set in," he said of the hours and days that followed. "This gives a certain grace to a horrible situation."

The crowds dispersed around 3 p.m. Clouds rolled in. A pub turned up a loud Phil Collins song. The street returned to normal. City buses began running along the procession route, their route indicators flashing "Lest We Forget."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe