OTTAWA — A modest crowd gathered in downtown Ottawa to witness a solemn Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial, instead of the tens of thousands who normally show up.
Many of the wreaths were already positioned around the cenotaph, one way to keep the number of people down as the country grapples with the deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“On this day when so much has changed since the last time we gathered, may we be comforted by the words from Her Majesty the Queen to Canadians in the context of this pandemic,” Maj.-Gen. Guy Chapdelaine, a Roman Catholic priest who is chaplain general of the Canadian Armed Forces, said Wednesday morning.
“Hope is to be found in the care given to the vulnerable and to those in need,” he said, repeating the message twice.
Canadians were encouraged to stay home while they mark the service and sacrifice of those who have given their lives to defend the country, as the solemnity of Remembrance Day is butting up against the threat posed by the second wave of COVID-19.
The Royal Canadian Legion explicitly discouraged Canadians from attending Remembrance Day ceremonies in person this year and instead asked people to watch on TV or online.
Chris Turenne was part of the small crowd that still showed up to watch the ceremony from behind the barriers in downtown Ottawa, under a gloomy sky.
He said people should be responsible and respect COVID-19 rules but the ceremony should have happened as normal.
“There’s been other protests and rallies, and they seemed to be fine,” he said. “I don’t know why this should be any different.”
As promised by the legion, there were many of the traditional elements of the ceremonies, such as the playing of the Last Post, the singing of In Flanders Fields. A planned flyby of military aircraft over downtown Ottawa was cancelled due to the weather.
There was also emphasis on the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, after many commemorations planned for earlier this year in Europe and elsewhere were cancelled.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, were among the dignitaries at the National War Memorial, along with Gov. Gen. Julie Payette and Debbie Sullivan, this year’s Silver Cross Mother.
Sullivan’s son, Chris Saunders, was a naval officer who was killed after a fire broke out on HMCS Chicoutimi, a submarine that was on its way to Canada in October 2004.
They all wore masks and laid wreaths as part of the ceremony.
Replacing the usual chorus of voices were three members of the Ottawa Children’s Choir. One sang a solo rendition of the national anthem ahead of the two minutes of silence introduced by a bugle.
Many other legion branches across the country also prepared stripped-down ceremonies. Private events were planned by long-term care facilities that are home to some of Canada’s oldest surviving veterans, at particularly high risk from COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Trudeau encouraged Canadians to mark Remembrance Day despite the pandemic.
“Even though we can’t gather as we usually do, we can always show our support for our veterans by wearing a poppy and watching the ceremonies online on Remembrance Day,” he said in French.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole echoed the sentiment in a statement Wednesday morning.
“”Reflection, remembrance, and respect — these are not actions that can only happen during parades or at cenotaphs. They are emotional acts we will uphold during a year when Canadians have dedicated themselves to adapting and persevering through these challenging times,” he said.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and a small group of dignitaries and members of the military attended a service at Queen’s Park in Toronto.
“We face a new enemy in COVID-19,” he said.
The service paid tribute to the sacrifice of all veterans but also featured the unveiling of a new memorial to those who served in Afghanistan. It included a stone from an Inukshuk dedicated to the fallen that was erected by Canadian soldiers at Kandahar Airfield.
A small crowd also gathered in front of the cenotaph at Toronto’s Old City Hall, the 100th anniversary of the Remembrance Day tradition in Canada’s largest city.
“They gathered here 100 years ago on this day, two years after the First World War ended and as the Spanish flu epidemic was coming to an end,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said.
“This year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, we have ensured that the chain of remembrance … is not broken.”
In Montreal, there was also no parade, no marching, and the reveille was played on a portable speaker, but for veterans, the small Remembrance Day ceremony at the cenotaph remained moving.
“It’s the first time all my fellow brothers and sisters aren’t here with me,” said William Howe, a veteran who served with the Black Watch and Royal Canadian Regiment.
“It’s not easy, I wish they were here. I lost friends overseas, so not having friends here with me doesn’t help matters much.”
In Halifax, the ceremony at the Grand Parade in the city’s core was reduced to a small audience of 22 guests seated in front of the cenotaph.
It’s an important day of tradition, said Glen Leduc of the Royal Canadian Legion for Nova Scotia and Nunavut, who was also master of ceremonies for the event.
“It’s a day to remember some of our comrades,” Leduc said. “Those that came before us and those that are with us now.”
People making up a small crowd around the National War Memorial in St. John’s, N.L., Wednesday morning lifted their heads following two minutes of silence as a Cormorant helicopter soared over the harbour and the memorial below.
St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen, who grew up near the memorial, was among those laying wreaths.
His father’s eldest brother, Jack Breen, was just 19 when he was killed fighting at Beaumont Hamel with the Newfoundland Regiment.
“He was lost in action. He has no known grave,” Breen said.
Many young men in the downtown neighbourhood beside the memorial fought at Beaumont-Hamel and didn’t come home, Breen said, who has been coming down to the memorial every year to honour them.
“It’s a privilege and an honour to lay a wreath,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2020.
— With files from Maan Alhmidi in Ottawa, Danielle Edwards in Halifax, John Chidley-Hill and Shawn Jeffords in Toronto, Jacob Serebrin in Montreal and Sarah Smellie in St. John’s, N.L.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press