Reflections, Comparisons and Impressions of the Remembrance Day Ceremony in Ottawa, 2014.

Last year, I spent Remembrance Day by myself in Ottawa. It’s one of my favourite public events in Canada, because I think it is necessary for civilians to think about the meaning of the military at least once a year.

Remembrance Day in Canada is very different from Veteran’s Day in the USA, in that almost everyone takes part somehow. We wear poppies between Hallowe’en and the eleventh, and many businesses and all the schools observe the moment of silence at 11:00 am. Ceremonial music is something I always notice, and the Canadian tone is very different from the states: it’s plain. The arrangements are instrumental, with no pop phrasing or soloists. They are intended to be sung by the whole crowd, and people do sing. It’s not particularly melodic or loud, but I think that collective voice is powerful.

It’s also different from Armistice in France, where I once spent Nov. 11 at a small village ceremony in the Alps. In Canada, Remembrance Day is always very sombre, whereas the French observances invoke victory celebrations as well as mourning. For example, a children’s choir sang Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ in France, whereas the music in Canada is exclusively minor-key. In the children’s choirs I sang in at school, at university ceremonies, and that day in Ottawa, the ‘God Save the Queen’ and the national anthem were the only remotely upbeat selections.

Last year in Ottawa, it was very cold, and standing in the shade of the buildings on Parliament Hill just made it chillier. The only military uniforms that seemed designed for the day were the Governor General’s guards. Were they designed for the cold, where the others weren’t? The cadets were cute, rather like the ‘Timbits’ kids between periods at a hockey game.

It was a particularly poignant Remembrance Day because there had been an unprecedented terrorist attack on Parliament Hill a few days earlier, with a reservist shot while guarding a memorial. As I listened to the ceremony, I wondered if the tone would be defiant and angry, as it was when I was in high school in Washington, D.C. after the September 2001 attacks. In fact, it was not at all war-mongering and only a little nationalist. The only reference to the attacks was to call on Canadians to be inclusive, loving, united, and welcoming in the face of divisive extremists.

Even PM Harper resisted the temptation to use the moment for jingoism, though I did wonder if the PMO was responsible for the consistent use of the phrase ‘from coast to coast to coast.’ Harper got noticeably little applause. Everyone else (the Princess Royal, the GG, veterans, anthems, and the minister who said the prayers) got a warmer response. I really think Ottawa is a Liberal town at heart.

For me, Remembrance Day is a reminder of three things:

  1. War is hell, for soldiers and civilians alike.
  2. The people who perform military service deserve special recognition, because they do hard, dangerous work for the common good.
  3. Many wars are occurring now – it didn’t end with the World Wars, or even the Cold War.

On the one hand, (1) hardly needs explanation. However, I think it’s important to counter the powerful, old myths of military glory. Talk is cheap, and it’s too easy to talk about security policy in the abstract.

(2) is perhaps controversial. Saying that the military acts ‘for the common good’ assumes that one is on the same side as the military and that’s a big assumption to make. At the same time, I’m not a pacifist, and armed forces do many kinds of useful work even in peacetime.

(3) I suppose there’s a certain smugness or schadenfreude in calling attention to how lucky we are in Canada. At the same time, should we miss the chance to point it out? I think it is too easy to be complacent, too easy to be critical while abdicating the responsibility to be constructive, too. The Canadian combination of peace and pluralism isn’t perfect, but it’s hard to find many actual places and times that come closer to achieving that combination.

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