Wednesday, November 16, 2016

World War Wednesdays: Final Remembrance Day in Ottawa, 2016

The parade of veterans in front of the War Memorial
     Knowing that this would be my final Remembrance Day in Ottawa for the foreseeable future certainly contributed to the emotional melancholy I feel every year around this day. I had my plan set out for a whole year for the best places to stand and the ideal time to arrive (after three years of trial and error) and hoped that this year would be the crowning glory of my treasured November 11 memories. As it seems to happen with a lot of other things, despite these best intentions things didn't exactly happen according to plan, but I certainly learned a lot as a result.
An early shot before the action started
     For starters, I actually was able to stay on schedule and arrive well before the ceremony began. When I was leaving my place in Gatineau, Quebec for the journey into Ottawa by bus, the weather seemed to be quite mild and much nicer than I had expected. After arriving downtown, I quickly realized that wasn't the case. The spot where I was planning to stand, where much of the action passes closest and where the dignitaries arrive, already seemed to be filling up, so I played it safe and decided to stay on Elgin Street, where I was closer to the rails, in the hopes of a better view (mistake #1). There was already a school group from the Maritimes and a few couples who were visiting from afar (one was all the way from Winnipeg). It's always nice to get to know the people you're standing with at events like this, I've met some very nice fellow Canadians that way!

    It was about five minutes into the waiting process (which began around 9:30am) that we started realizing how brutal the weather was going to be. People started putting on their hoods and zipping their coats a little higher, and I couldn't help but think of all the elderly veterans who were on their way into those conditions. The longer we waited, the wind and lack of movement really started to get brutal. I've been in Ottawa for four years and made a lot of silly fashion choices in -40 degree weather, but that day was truly the coldest I have ever been. When all the groups of soldiers and cadets started marching in, I tried for a few photos so that I could share them here, but the cold put a damper on my photography abilities. My apologies that there aren't as many photos as in previous years.

     That's about when the pipers rolled in. It turned out the large blank space between our spot and the War Memorial, where all the action happens, was where the pipers in their tall, black hats were supposed to stand. As a result, seeing anything happening at the memorial was basically impossible, and even the massive screens attached to several buildings were difficult to see. Trust me when I tell you that watching from the comfort of your home sometimes has its benefits! However, there really is no replacing the unexpected little moments that always seem to come along with events like this, and that I wouldn't trade for any front row seat. As always tends to happen when thousands of people are contained by a fence of metal rails, it is difficult to move once you've entered the crowd and almost impossible to get to the other side of the rails. I had witnessed more than one high-ranking veteran having to climb over the gates with no offers of assistance thanks to the rails being supposedly unable to open. Shortly before the pipers arrived but after the ceremony had begun, a gentleman with an older man linked to his elbow appeared to be working his way along the edge of the gate. When he got closer to me, I heard him indicating that he was trying to get his father to the other side of the gates and up to where the veterans sit at the memorial. Most people were very kind in letting him pass and even trying to get the police officers' attention to open the gate for them, but I did hear a few remarks about how they were clearly late. As they passed, the older man turned to me and jokingly commented on what a difficult time they were having, and I wished him luck in getting through. From the corner of my eye, I noticed the pins and badges he was wearing on his jacket, which said that he had been a Spitfire pilot and had served at Normandy on D-Day. Here was one of my aviation heroes struggling through the same crowd by whom he was supposed to be honored. I won't forget that gentleman, or his optimism, anytime soon.

     Overall, while I was rigid with cold and all of my muscles clenched against the driving wind, I was so concerned with the well being of the rest of those veterans that I could hardly focus on the service. I know how difficult it can be to be over ninety years old and in your own, warm home that it was hard to imagine the pain they had to have been experiencing in those conditions. However, over the course of the concluding veterans' parade and the aftermath of the ceremony when they all leave the memorial, I never once saw any of them appear to be affected by the weather in any way. Each and every one of those men and women stood tall and walked proudly, their minds clearly not in Ottawa at all. It was amazing to witness their unbelievable strength, and it reminded me that theirs truly is the Greatest Generation; we can never understand the limits to which they have been pushed in their lifetime.

     One less than uplifting event during the ceremony, which I'm not sure was covered by many of the television broadcasts, was the incident where a piece of plywood was blown off of a building under construction and into the crowd. There is always a bit of an unsettled feeling at the ceremony, at least for me, with the snipers visible on the rooftops and so many people (including dignitaries) in such close quarters. After that incident, though, I realized that my biggest fear is not of something like that happening during a public event, but that few would notice that it had even happened. I saw the plywood blow off the building and be thrown up into the air above the hundreds of people, slashing its way down in a zigzagging motion that one of the witnesses later compared to that of a guillotine. I instantly thought that something horrific was about to happen, but there really wasn't anything that anyone could have done in the seconds it took for the board to make its way down. As it got closer to hitting the people, it seemed to eerily slow, floating as a flat surface before swinging into a light post and shattering the glass everywhere. While I did hear that a woman was injured, the damage that could have resulted from that was terrifying to imagine and everyone there was extremely lucky to have either missed seeing it or missed having that awful memory of the day.
The Hon. Kent Hehr speaking with the crowd
     After the ceremony, there is a bit of time for the dignitaries and veterans to depart the memorial and the necessary preparations to be made for opening it to the public. In that span of time, a higher number of people than usual opted to leave, not waiting to place their poppy on the tomb of the unknown soldier. I decided to press forward and made it to the edge of the rails so that I could be among the first to arrive at the tomb once it was opened. Last year, I did this by accident and ended up being included in CBC's live broadcast of the event, and my grandparents at home were very eager to see if that would happen again (of course I'm aware that the day has nothing to do with me and being on TV was the least of my priorities). While I was waiting, I noticed that the MP for Calgary Centre and Minister of Veterans Affairs, the Hon. Kent Hehr, was making his way along the crowd. I waved to him and he came over, shook my hand and gave me a lovely introduction. While I'm certain we were both frozen to the core at that point and I actually don't remember too much of what either of us said, I do remember that he was a wonderful person and it was great to meet him after much anticipation on my part. He is doing some amazing things with the reopening of Veterans Affairs offices across Canada and it is great to see his obvious passion for our veterans.

     Finally, the gates were opened and I was able to get to the tomb to lay my poppy. This is always the pinnacle of the day and one of the most emotional aspects; it is incredibly humbling to approach the unknown soldier and spend a few moments reflecting on the magnitude of all that he represents. The photos from this point are probably the best, so I will let them speak for themselves:

This dog served as a reminder of the countless animals who also paid the ultimate sacrifice in times of war

     Overall, while it certainly did not go according to plan, my final experience at the national Remembrance Day ceremony was as touching and memorable as ever. I truly am so grateful to have been able to experience these four events, both as a Canadian and as a historian. It can be so easy sometimes to get bogged down in the details and think of the history as the material on an exam or in an essay, and it's events like this that remind me that these are real experiences that still exist in the memories of many. I encourage you all to consider attending the ceremony yourselves in future years as it is a moving experience that I wish you could all have. Hopefully this post was a good substitute for this year's edition, and you can learn from my mistakes when you make your plans to attend!
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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