The bell in Quebec's National Assembly rang out 12 times Thursday afternoon, and with it rang church bells across the province, marking the 12 months of death, suffering and isolation that Quebecers have endured since the onset of the pandemic.
While a massive vaccination campaign is underway, promising better days ahead, the province paused at 1 p.m. to consider the lives lost, and the sacrifices made, over the last year.
"We lost grandpas and grandmas, dads, moms, brothers, sister, friends," Premier François Legault said at a ceremony in Quebec City.
He also highlighted essential workers, such as people who worked in grocery stores, and commended health-care workers for their courage in treating patients infected with the disease.
"They were truly heroes and they continued for a year and they continue now," he said, adding that they are entitled to recognition for what they did.
The ceremony started with invitees — including people representing seniors, people who lost family members, caregivers, health-care workers, and members of the Armed Forces, as well as members of the National Assembly — descending the steps of the legislature building. All were holding white roses, the flower chosen to mark the occasion.
WATCH | Premier François Legault's full speech at the remembrance ceremony:
Thursday's ceremony also featured a large wreath made of white roses and 10 delphiniums, which symbolized the more than 10,000 people who have died of COVID-19 in Quebec.
The wreath was wrapped with a banner inscribed with the provincial motto, je me souviens, or I will remember.
A video performance of Gilles Vigneault's Les gens de mon pays, recorded by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, was broadcast over video screens. The song includes a line about the time it takes to seize "happiness from pain."
In his brief speech, Legault lauded the resilience displayed by Quebecers, noting the province was hit hard by the pandemic. "The Quebec nation was admirable," he said.
Though attendance was limited because of public health concerns, the families of COVID victims who were present welcomed the chance to grieve alongside others for the first time.
"We didn't have a funeral because of all the restrictions," said Lucie Garneau, whose father died of the disease on Christmas Eve. "They asked me about coming here, and I absolutely wanted to for him, given that I couldn't be by his side."
'Our vibrant city has become a ghost town,' Plante says
A similar ceremony was held outside City Hall in Montreal. Mylène Drouin, the city's public health director, said she was thinking of grieving families as the bells rang out.
"In Montreal, more than 4,500 people have died of COVID. And families weren't able to be with them at the end of their lives," she said after the ceremony.
Even though public health restrictions have been relaxed in most parts of Quebec amid a decrease in hospitalizations, they remain at their strictest level in Montreal.
A more contagious variant of the virus is gaining ground in the city, and officials are anxious to vaccinate as many elderly residents as possible before infections spike again.
"Since Day One our beloved, our vibrant city, has become a ghost town," Mayor Valérie Plante said in her speech.
"Our restaurants have been closed, our artists have been forced to retreat back, our businesses have faced days of darkness, our office towers have emptied, [and] our downtown has stopped buzzing with activity."
Plante's speech was followed by a performance of the second movement of Beethoven's Sonata Pathétique. It was chosen, said pianist Chloé Dumoulin, because the piece expresses both suffering and hope.
WATCH | Montreal mayor reflects on one year anniversary of pandemic