Ukraine war looms large as Canadians mark Remembrance Day

OTTAWA — The war in Ukraine loomed large Friday as Canadians, most wearing poppies but few with masks, gathered at cenotaphs and monuments to remember and pay their respects to those who fought and died in service of the country.

This year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies saw a return to normal after two years of pandemic-related restrictions forced scaled-down commemorations, with large crowds and veterans returning alongside the traditional drums, pipes and cannons.

Even as Canadians were asked to remember the sacrifices of past generations, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscored fears and uncertainty about a new era of war and conflict — and the need to stand for unity and peace.

In a prayer at the national ceremony in Ottawa, held amid unseasonably warm temperatures, military chaplain navy Capt. Bonita Mason noted the war in Ukraine before calling on Canadians to set aside their divisions.

"In a world fraught with struggle and instability, where war continues to rage in Ukraine, we gather to affirm with one another our determination to remove the barriers of division in a spirit of reconciliation," Mason said.

"We seek dialogue with one another in all spheres: social, political and religious. That in doing so, we may achieve a lasting peace. May we all strive to continue our efforts to build a better world."

Among the veterans in attendance was 93-year-old John Geen, a retired air cadet and army reservist whose father fought in the First World War, and who also drew parallels between the past and present.

“It reminds us of what's going on now in the world, in Ukraine, and how important it is for all these people around here to support a system and bring an end to this type of individual fighting,” said Geen, who was attending his first ceremony in Ottawa.

At separate ceremonies in Toronto and Montreal, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec counterpart François Legault took note of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has been portrayed as the new front line between democracy and authoritarianism.

“The illegal invasion being waged by Russia on the people of Ukraine shows us all the dangers that still exist in this world,” said Ford, who spoke as cannons periodically fired in the distance.

The war in Ukraine is a reminder of the continued risk of a global conflict and the debt owed to those Canadians who have chosen to put on a uniform to defend democracy and liberty, Legault told reporters after laying a wreath at Place du Canada square.

“We would like that it doesn't happen again, but unfortunately, what's happening now in Ukraine reminds us that we still need those people, and we have to really thank those people who are there for us, to defend democracy,” he said.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay, who was representing the federal government in Ottawa as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travels overseas, echoed that sentiment.

“What happened a few months ago really signals to people (that) freedom and democracy is not free,” he said. “We have to protect us. We have to remember there are people that want to take it away.”

British Columbia Premier John Horgan said Remembrance Day was being observed amid "an uncertain global landscape, marked by (Vladimir) Putin's illegal war in Ukraine,” and other conflicts threatening freedom and democracy.

“It's a reminder of the true bravery of those who commit their lives to the service of our country,” he said in a statement.

Before the start of the national ceremony, dozens of veterans of different ages and backgrounds marched through the streets of Ottawa alongside serving Armed Forces members to drums and pipes.

The return of the veterans’ parade as much as anything represented a tangible difference from the previous two Remembrance Days, when the march was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Large crowds were reported at ceremonies across the country, with retired air cadet Marilyn Lawson-Dickinson saying she was "shocked" at the large turnout in Toronto.

"I'm so happy to see so many people here today," said Lawson-Dickinson, 61, who is also the spouse of a veteran. "I haven't seen it like this out here in years. This is phenomenal."

While many focused on Ukraine, Rabbi Idan Scher in his benediction at the national ceremony noted the sacrifices that those who serve in uniform are often asked to make to protect Canadians' freedoms, and called on the country to stand behind its veterans.

"Not by simply saying thank you, not by simply supporting our veterans and their families through words, but rather through action, with our time, with our attention and with our resources," Scher said.

At the National War Memorial, a flag reportedly carried by a Canadian soldier at Dieppe, France, in August 1942 was displayed, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the raid. A wreath was also laid for Queen Elizabeth II, who died in September.

For many, Friday represented a day of personal reflection. Lloyd and Charlotte Smith, whose son Nathan was one of the first Canadian soldiers to die in Afghanistan when he and three comrades were killed in April 2002, were at Halifax City Hall.

“You never get over it,” Lloyd said of losing his son. “I still break down (20) years later.”

Outside the cenotaph at Old City Hall in Toronto, Alistair Stark, 73, stood in uniform for the city’s ceremony remembering his father who participated in the Second World War invasion on D-Day and his uncle, who was killed in Italy.

In Montreal, retired lieutenant-colonel Henry Hall was among those gathered at Place du Canada square. Hall was serving as part of a United Nations mission in the Middle East in 1974 when nine comrades died after their plane was shot down.

“It was a tough go,” Hall said. “It was very difficult, one of the guys was a good friend of ours and I obviously miss him and I think about him all the time."

He added that he was also thinking about his two grandfathers who served in the army in the First World War, and his father, who was in the navy in Second World War.

In Vancouver, rain held off as crowds gathered at Victory Square. Andrew White said he likes to bring his children to the annual ceremony because his grandfather served in the Second World War.

“He was one of the ones who came back. But when he came back he was a changed person,” White said. “War is terrible. We come here to remember why it’s important that we never go back.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2022.

— With files from Dylan Robertson in Anchorage, Hina Alam in Fredericton, Keith Doucette in Halifax, Jacob Serebrin in Montreal, Tyler Griffith and Jessica Smith in Toronto, Cindy Tran in Ottawa, Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg, Amy Smart and Ian Young in Vancouver.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press