Ottawa. November 11, 2014. On a glorious sunny day, 50,000 people converged at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, less than three weeks after the killing of a Canadian soldier guarding that very spot, a shoot-out in Parliament, and the lock-down of the capital city for much of a day. The sunny day, the unprecedented size of the crowd, and the obvious security presence added to the solemnity of the occasion. We were there to participate in the rituals of remembrance for those who have given their lives or been injured for our protection. In the light of the recent events, we were also there to reclaim our space from violence and fear, and to affirm the ongoing resilience of the values we hold dear. By 10:30 am, long before the dignitaries arrived and the service began, the crowd had fallen silent, as if in awe of the peace and freedom we can never take for granted.
Governor-General David Johnston caught the mood with moving eloquence. “At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the guns of the Great War at last fell silent, the fury of conflict was replaced by a deafening silence…. In that silence, we met a truth so obvious and so terrifying we swore we would never take up arms again. ‘One owes respect to the living,’ said Voltaire. ‘To the dead, one owes only the truth.’ We vowed never to forget. …Today we stand as one in silent tribute ‒ not only to keep the vow made long ago but also to rededicate the symbol of that promise. …Look upward now, and against the sky see the bronze figures of Peace and Freedom. Their arms are linked. They cannot be separated. Because freedom without peace is agony, and peace without freedom is slavery, and we will tolerate neither. This is the truth we owe our dead. And now look down, to the resting place of a Canadian boy who died at Vimy Ridge. We don’t know his name. He is our unknown soldier. In anonymity he honours all Canadians who died and may yet die for their country. We will stand on guard for him and for them, as did Nathan Cirillo…. We will strive for peace and for freedom, as did Patrice Vincent…. As Governor General and commander-in-chief of Canada, I have the solemn privilege to stand with you and them today, just steps away from our houses of Parliament ‒ where we resolve our differences through dialogue and the rule of law. We are people of peace. Of respect and tolerance, kindness and honour. These qualities are alive in our national conscience precisely because we hold them as precious. …This is why we will keep these men and women in our memory. ‘Without memory,’ said Rabbi Dow Marmur, ‘there can be neither continuity nor identity.’ We have had sombre occasion in past weeks to ponder our identity as the very symbols of our peace and freedom were violated. And now here we stand, and here we shall remain: unshaken in resolve; grateful in remembrance of those who have sacrificed; rededicated, like this memorial, to our eternal duty: peace and freedom ‒ the very soul of our nation. Lest we forget!”
My cousin is a veteran of World War II when she served as a member of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (the WRENS). She worked as a coder posted in Halifax. With her late husband, an engineer and Captain with the Canadian Navy from the Second World War through the Korean War and into the ’60s, she remained part of the Canadian military family. Such families are constantly on the move, constantly waiting for news, always aware of how world events might impinge on the personal. My cousin and her husband found the military life a privilege. Until they were in their 90s, they joined the veterans at the National War Memorial Service. In recent years, they have opted to attend the remembrance service in their local community of Westboro. Tuesday afternoon, I joined her at this simple service, rendered all the more moving by school children singing songs of peace while they strummed their guitars and ukuleles and, later, by children assisting in placing wreaths at the cenotaph. Like thousands of such services across the country, the community gathered in peace and freedom, the children in our midst, without elaborate security and without fear. For this, we must be truly grateful.