This Week in Canada: Remembrance Day

Sue Spang

I’ve never been one to care much for, let alone remember, the U.S. holiday of Veterans’ Day. Though I have no problem recalling Nov. 11 as the date of Veterans’ day, I suspect that the recognition is due to the fact that I had my braces removed on that date in 1999. I’d learned about Armistice Day, to be sure, but that apparently registered as secondary to being able to eat corn on the cob again.
The Canadian version of Armistice Day — recognizing Nov. 11, 1918 as the symbolic ending of World War I, or the preferred “Great War” — is called “Remembrance Day.” In the city of Toronto, it is the terminus of Remembrance Week, which began Nov. 4.
The annual Canadian national celebration takes place in the capital city of Ottawa, where the prime minister, government officials and members of the Canadian royal family preside over the well-regimented ceremonies. Toronto held its own series of ceremonies Nov. 11.
Venturing out around 10:15 a.m., I first encountered the Remembrance Day observance on the University of Toronto campus, held at the Soldier’s Tower, a gothic-style bell tower built to commemorate students, faculty and staff of the university who have served as members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Several hundred people had already gathered for the service of remembrance, which involved several hymns, prayers, a Carillon recital, a full choir and a rather emotional reading of the John McCrae poem “In Flanders Fields.”
Incidentally, the wearing of red poppies on Remembrance Day reflects the opening line of McCrae’s poem: “In Flanders Fields, the poppies grow …”
At the time, I was unaware of the significance of McCrae. The celebrated Canadian poet and Lieutenant-Colonel studied at the University of Toronto, earning his medical doctorate in 1910, before becoming a field surgeon during World War I.
This poetry was followed by a lengthy laying-on of wreaths, at which point I took the short walk to Queen’s Park, the home of Ontario’s government buildings, to observe the government recognition of Remembrance Day.
At 11 a.m., one of four cannons assembled in the park was fired, followed by two minutes of silence. The oblong Queen’s Park is surrounded by a massive, dangerously busy traffic circle, and I was astounded to find, after the firing of the first cannon, that traffic literally came to a standstill. People parked their cars in the middle of the three-lane highway, and emerged into the chilly morning to quietly pay their respects in the direction of the park.
The two minutes of silence were followed by twenty more cannon-firings, on one-minute intervals. The gathering at the Soldier’s Tower, now to my back, began to sing “God Save the Queen” and “O Canada” after the two-minute silence, and the experience of hearing the national anthem behind me, broken by cannon-fire in front of me, was concurrently beautiful and haunting.
Tuesday evening, one of my professors was explaining the significance of the poppy, explaining that several of her undergraduate students had asked why she was wearing the red flower, meant to evoke McCrae’s reflection on the losses suffered in war. She was careful to separate the act of remembering the role that Canadians had played in past wars from supporting war itself, a distinction she clearly felt necessary to make in this famously pacifistic country.
The history students, eight-tenths Canadian and mostly wearing poppies themselves, nodded knowingly, understanding the significance of recognizing and learning from the past. On this 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War, my professor emphasized the need to think not about warfare and its effects, so often the focus of history, but about peace and its potential.