Tim Cook is chief historian at the Canadian War Museum.
She is a symbol of loss, grief and anguish. She is also an icon of pride in service and resolute fortitude. She stands for Canada.
Canada’s National Memorial (often referred to as Silver) Cross Mother represents all the mothers who have lost children serving in uniform for Canada in its wars, conflicts and eternal search for peace. Born of war, she is a stark reminder of its cost.
Each year, the Royal Canadian Legion is responsible for selecting the national mother to lay a wreath at the National War Memorial as part of Ottawa’s Remembrance Day ceremony. The origins of this tradition date back to the aftermath of the First World War.
The fighting along the Western Front from 1914 to 1918, at places such as Ypres, the Somme and Vimy, led to the deaths of 68,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders. Communities had been gutted. And yet the survivors decided to make meaning from the long war.
Soldier and doctor John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields resonated with much of the English-speaking world in its urging to take up the torch of remembrance. The poppy was adopted by veterans’ groups as a fundraiser to aid wounded comrades and to invoke commemoration.
Several thousand cenotaphs were built in communities across the country – the name meaning “empty tomb.” This was fitting, as most of Canada and Newfoundland’s dead were buried overseas.
Nov. 11 became a sacred day of commemoration in 1919. Since then, veterans have come together, many wearing their medals, to reflect on those comrades who never came home. There has always been a place for grieving parents at these gatherings, especially the mothers. They had their own medal, a small silver cross displayed at the end of a purple ribbon, worn around the neck.
Known officially as the Memorial Cross, it was authorized on Dec. 1, 1919, and issued to mothers and widows (and now up to three designated next-of-kin) across the country who lost a son or husband (and now daughter or wife). It is a small cross, but its weight is unimaginable.
Throughout the 1920s, memorials were built across the country and overseas, with Canada’s national monument taking shape on Vimy Ridge, the site of the heralded Canadian victory on French soil in April, 1917.
In July, 1936, the memorial was unveiled before more than 6,000 Canadian veterans and their loved ones. The young and dashing King Edward VIII was there, his last official commemorative act before he abdicated the throne.
The Vimy memorial is a moving sight, with its twin pillars reaching for the sky and the engraved names of 11,285 Canadians who died on French soil and have no graves. The most prominent of its 20 sculptures is Canada Bereft, often called Mother Canada. She represents Canada’s bereaved mothers, staring down in sadness and contemplation at an empty sarcophagus. She embodies the country’s loss.
At the Vimy unveiling, the King had stopped to talk to Charlotte Susan Wood from Winnipeg. She had been selected as the first National Memorial (Silver) Cross Mother – two of her sons were killed during the First World War, while five other sons and stepsons served. Holding her hand, the King said, “I wish your sons were all here.” She replied, “I have just been looking at the trenches and I just can’t figure out why our boys had to go through that.” The monarch reflected on the war in which he had served in uniform, and for a time with the Canadians: “Please God, Mrs. Wood, it shall never happen again.”
Alas, it would: in the Second World War, the Korean War, in peacekeeping operations, in training accidents, in serving at home, in Afghanistan, and in other places far from Canadian shores. Since Confederation, more than 120,000 Canadians have been killed, with their names etched in the Books of Remembrance that record the country’s war dead.
The National Memorial (Silver) Cross Mother is a title that no mother would ever want. And yet she remains a poignant icon for Canadians, connecting our past to the present, a symbol of personal loss and collective grief.
This year’s Silver Cross Mother is Gloria Hooper of St. Claude, Man., who will stand for her son. Sapper Chris Holopina served in Bosnia and was killed on July 4, 1996, in a vehicle accident as he was racing to save British soldiers stranded in a minefield. Ms. Hooper will continue in the long tradition of mothers who have stood before the national monument in Ottawa, compelling us to confront the reality that fighting against fascism, tyranny and lawlessness always comes with a price.
That the Prime Minister, Governor-General and Chief of the Defence Staff all meet with Canada’s Silver Cross Mother on the most sacred of Canadian days is a reminder to those in power of their heavy responsibility toward Canada’s Armed Forces, and of the long legacy of service and sacrifice in this country.