Military's aid in COVID-19 fight noted as pandemic restricts Remembrance Day events

·5 min read

OTTAWA — The sacrifices of Canadians past and present were honoured alongside messages of hope Wednesday as small crowds braved the pandemic to mark Remembrance Day across the country and thousands more paid homage from their own homes.

Past ceremonies have largely focused on the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who fought in the two great wars, and this year was the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Still, with eight members of the Canadian Armed Forces having died while on duty this year, and thousands more serving in long-term care homes battered by COVID-19, commemorations had an added level of resonance.

"We feel it as an organization, as an institution, when we lose people," outgoing chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance told The Canadian Press.

“But we must be resilient and resolute and be able to carry on, because the defence of Canada happens here at home and abroad."

During his annual Remembrance Day sermon at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Rabbi Reuven Bulka praised members of the Canadian Armed Forces for not flinching when called upon to serve in long-term care facilities struggling to contain outbreaks.

“Who responded without hesitation? Without being deterred by the potential dangers they faced? Our soldiers. And who once again delivered in a time of national crisis? Our soldiers," he said.

Many of the traditional elements of the annual ceremony played out in Ottawa but signs of the pandemic were everywhere.

Those participating in the ceremony wore masks, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette and Debbie Sullivan, this year’s Silver Cross Mother, whose son Chris Saunders died while serving on one of Canada’s four submarines in 2004.

Noticeably absent were surviving veterans from the Second World War and the Korean War, whose age puts them at particular risk from the novel coronavirus.

One who did attend was Bill Black, 87, who served aboard the destroyer HMCS Cayuga during the Korean War before becoming a submariner in the Navy. He retired as a lieutenant-commander.

Black, who was invited by the Royal Canadian Legion, said he was disappointed Canadians were encouraged to watch on TV or online.

“I think they could have had more people here,” he said. “I think they could have opened it up a bit and advised people to use the six-foot rule distancing and wear masks. But nonetheless, it's the way it is.”

Chris Turenne was part of a small crowd watching from behind metal barriers erected around the National War Memorial. He said the event should have gone ahead 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.”

Other scaled-down Remembrance Day ceremonies were held in communities across the country, including in Toronto where Ontario Premier Doug Ford and a small group of dignitaries and military personnel attended a service at Queen’s Park.

"We face a new enemy in COVID-19," Ford said at one point during the ceremony, which featured the unveiling of a new memorial to those who served in Afghanistan.

"We must take care because our health and safety is paramount. But those we honour are with us in spirit. They're with us from the safety of their homes."

Data provided by Ontario's power operator suggested he was right. A spokesman for the Independent Electricity System Operator said Wednesday that during the moment of silence, its control room saw a provincewide drop in demand of roughly 265 megawatts, which it said is the average peak demand for Burlington, Ont.

At another small ceremony in front of Old City Hall, Toronto Mayor John Tory said Wednesday marked the 100th anniversary of the community’s inaugural Remembrance Day commemoration.

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

At Sunnybrook Veterans Centre in Toronto's north end, 37,500 Canadian flags were planted outside for the 375 veteran residents to view from their rooms.

There was no parade or marching in Montreal, and the reveille was played on a portable speaker. Yet the ceremony remained a moving experience for veterans like William Howe, who served with the Black Watch and Royal Canadian Regiment.

"I lost friends overseas, so not having friends here with me doesn't help matters much," Howe said.

A similar scene played out at the Grand Parade in downtown Halifax where a small audience of only 22 guests gathered in front of the local cenotaph, and in British Columbia, where about 50 people watched ceremonies from outside of construction gates that surrounded cenotaphs at Vancouver’s Victory Square and at the provincial legislature in Victoria.

While about 100 onlookers at the National War Memorial in St. John’s, N.L., turned out against requests to observe a moment of silence from their doorways, they nonetheless wore masks as they bowed their heads and remained at a distance from one another.

There was no formal event in Edmonton this year, with city officials asking residents to commemorate in other ways such as observing a private moment of reflection, hanging poppies in windows or learning about Canada’s military history.

The Military Museums in Calgary hosted a livestream of their Remembrance Day ceremony where Alberta Premier Jason Kenney recited English poet Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen.”

For Paulette Cook, executive director of the Royal Canadian Legion's Quebec Provincial Command, just having a ceremony — no matter how small — was important.

“We could not not do this today,” she said.

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

— With files from Maan Alhmidi in Ottawa, Fakiha Baig in Edmonton, Danielle Edwards in Halifax, John Chidley-Hill and Shawn Jeffords in Toronto, Dirk Meissner in Victoria, Jacob Serebrin in Montreal and Sarah Smellie in St. John's, N.L.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press