Lest We Forget

November 12, 2008

Today is Remebrance Day.  There are ceremonies all around the city and across the country today commemorating those who have died in past and present wars.  UBC has a stirring ceremony held every year in the War Memorial Gym.  I attended this last year and a few years before that.  Ever since our troups have been in Afghanistan it has grown in size each so that they had to move it recently into the gym itself rather than holding it in the foyer.  (If someone went to this ceremony this year perhaps you could describe it for us here in the comments.)

This year I went back to the old stand, the big ceremony downtown at the Victory Square Cenotaph at Hastings and Cambie.  I like this ceremony. It is larger and better orchestrated than any I have ever attended in Toronto. I have never been to Ottawa for Nov 11 so I can’t compare to that but the Vancouver Cenotaph ceremony continues to be the most moving  Remembrance Day ceremony I’ve been to.

Over 1000 people stand in silence and listen to prayers, songs, anthems and poems while the soldiers and police and cadets from units all around the city stand at attention.  This year, like most years, we all  stood in the rain.  A heavy rain beat down on us the whole time.  There is something sublimely mournfull about a sea of umbrellas on a muddy hill. With everyone silently pondering the horror of war and the honour of the so many who died in far away lands in mud and rain so much worse than this.  Those who never saw the sun again.

I always stand in a bit of wonder at Remembrance Day ceremonies.  Its one of the only times Canadians get together and celebrate a common ceremony, and of those I think its by far the most powerful.  There is Canada Day and Victoria of course which have dull speechs, fireworks (not in BC for some reason) and music.  But there is no real ceremony there. There’s New Year’s Eve, everyone pretty much celebrates that together.  That has a countdown and the pop of champagne and funny hats.  But New Year’s is a fairly superficial celebration and people do the same thing the world over, it doesn’t say anything about us as Canadians.

Remembrance Day is different.  I think it is the closest our secular society can come to a common mass, but it’s not about God.  It’s about our nation and its history. It’s about Canada’s coming of age in WWI and its terrible sacrifices and victories in that war and WWII.  It’s about all the sacrifices that came after those wars in Korea, Bosnia, Africa and Afghanistan and elsewhere.  It’s about our pride in striving for peace rather than starting wars.  Our pride in being willing to fight for what it right.  It is the pride of a silent but strong nation.  A nation that built its character through struggle against the harsh elements amidst a rich land and pristine nature.  A nation that was born through mediation, dialogue and democracy rather than war.  We are a people who have pride in our identity but are humble enough about that identity to be open to other cultures.  We are a land of immigrants who are all new arrivals here.  And the guilt of what that arrival took from the First Nations is part of our character too.

Being a Canadian is a complex thing.  But today, standing in the cold rain listening to the Last Post be played, singing O Canada and God Save the Queen and tearing up a little as I always do when I hear “In Flanders Fields”…somehow, that sums it up for me.

We shall remember.

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