Richard Foot is a Halifax-based journalist and History Editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia
This year, at cenotaphs across Canada, Remembrance Day will be different. For the first time in many years, the ceremonies will feel relevant and raw to most of the gathered pilgrims. Corporal Nathan Cirillo's killing has made sure of that.
Canadians first started communing around military cenotaphs in 1902, at the end of the Boer War, when the nation indulged in a great, patriotic burst of memorial-building. Monuments to Canada's first foreign war were erected in city parks and town squares from Victoria to Halifax. Over the next decade, huge crowds would gather around them to celebrate – yes, celebrate – the imperial victory in South Africa.
By 1918 the mood had changed dramatically. The trauma and slaughter of the First World War meant that new memorials would be built, but this time they were mostly sombre creations – like the National War Memorial where Cpl. Cirillo was gunned down on Oct. 22 – designed not to celebrate military achievement but simply to honour the dead. The hour of annual remembrance was fixed at 11 a.m. on 11 November, the time and date of the Armistice in Europe.
Over the century that followed, through the Second World War, the Korean War and Afghanistan, Canadians have faithfully gathered around memorials each November to remember the legions left dead or wounded in these conflicts. When memories were still fresh – especially in the aftermath of the Second World War, with its huge number of returning warriors – Remembrance ceremonies were undoubtedly more relevant occasions. Many Canadians would have personally known the pain and heartache of war in their lifetime.
Ever since I can recall, however, Remembrance Day has always been about the past. We gather each year to honour ordinary soldiers who made extraordinary sacrifices in history. When surviving veterans of distant wars paraded past the cenotaph (and I can remember a time when First World War veterans were pushed along in their wheelchairs), the ageing warriors seemed too old, too frail to truly bring the past alive. Even in the hallowed presence of these men, Remembrance Day was for most of us a determined act of memory for a distant time.
The war in Afghanistan certainly made real the risks and consequences of war. Suddenly, there were families in our own communities with sons and husbands killed and injured overseas. These families were evidence of real loss and real pain. This was the first taste, for many Canadians, of military sacrifice in our own lifetime.
Yet somehow, the war in Afghanistan was so complex – the causes and solutions too hard to figure, the battlefields too unconventional, the enemy too hard to identify – that this counter-insurgency campaign and its veterans failed to transform Remembrance Day from an exercise of historical memory, into something most of us could instinctively feel in our hearts.
But now that transformation has occurred.
Nathan Cirillo is just one soldier, and not even a war veteran at that. Yet his shocking murder as he stood on sentry duty at the National War Memorial – the unforgettable image of him lying on the granite, directly alongside his First World War comrade inside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – has vividly linked the past with the present.
The Unknown Soldier's remains were brought to Ottawa in May, 2000 from an unmarked Canadian grave at Cabaret-Rouge military cemetery, not far from Vimy, France. Which means the soldier in the tomb in Ottawa very likely fought and died in the famous Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge in 1917.
Two fallen soldiers lying side-by-side at the National War Memorial – one from a heralded battle in history, one from our time, taking his last breaths beside the other.
Nathan Cirillo's death is a tragedy. But Cpl. Cirillo now speaks to Canadians in a way the Unknown Soldier can't – by allowing those of us with little or no connection to war to know, if only fleetingly, what the killing of a Canadian soldier feels like; how it sucked the air from our very lungs, upon hearing the awful news.
This year the crowds at cenotaphs across the country will surely be larger. The ceremonies will be more poignant. And our understanding of loss – and the need for memory – will be more real.