Toronto marks Remembrance Day in ceremonies modified for the pandemic

·3 min read

TORONTO — No one sang O Canada at the Remembrance Day ceremony outside Toronto's Old City Hall on Wednesday.

Instead, a small crowd quietly listened as a lone bugler played the national anthem.

The event was closed to the public but bystanders – most of them wearing masks – nonetheless gathered as city officials laid wreaths and paid respects to the country's veterans. 

Aretha Phillip, the master of ceremonies, asked those in attendance to respect the city's COVID-19 restrictions, including keeping two metres away from each other, and requested they not sing during O Canada or God Save the Queen.

Mayor John Tory noted that Toronto had been marking Remembrance Day at the cenotaph outside Old City Hall for a century, a tradition that began during another pandemic. 

"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," Tory said. "This year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, we have ensured that the chain of remembrance, the 100-year chain of remembrance, is not broken."

The mayor, representatives of Canada's armed forces, veterans, and other dignitaries sat in a semicircle around the cenotaph — each chair two metres from the next — before laying their wreaths at the monument. A member of the city's staff switched the microphone and its stand before each speaker approached the podium.

Adam Vaughan, one of Toronto's members of Parliament, said it was important to mark Remembrance Day despite the pandemic. 

"I think it's even more important to show up, pay respects, and to remember the extraordinary sacrifices that were surrendered for this country," said Vaughan.

Armin Konn, a 95-year-old veteran of the Second World War who fought in Poland was one of the dignitaries at the ceremony. He said afterwards that he hoped the ceremony was an educational opportunity for some of the young people in attendance.

"This was a tremendous world effort, we had to get rid of such unbelievable, indescribable evil," said Konn. "Our youth in school don't know enough about Canada's effort in the Second World War, the battle of the Atlantic, the Battle of Britain, the Holocaust."

At Ontario's legislature, Premier Doug Ford and a small group of dignitaries and members of the military attended a service that was closed to the public but streamed online. 

Ford said normally the event at Queen's Park would be attended by many more men and women in uniform but this year it was not possible.

"We face a new enemy in COVID-19," he said. "We must take care because our health and safety is paramount. But those we honour are with us in spirit."

The service paid tribute to the sacrifice of all veterans and also featured the unveiling of a new memorial to those who served in Afghanistan. The memorial includes a stone from an Inukshuk dedicated to those who died that was erected by Canadian soldiers at Kandahar Airfield.

Elsewhere in Toronto, at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre, 37,500 Canadian flags were planted outside the hospital ward for its 375 veteran residents to look out on from their rooms.

Residents of the city also saw three CC-130J Hercules aircraft from Canadian Forces Base Trenton flying above Toronto to mark Remembrance Day.

— with files from Shawn Jeffords.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2020.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press