OTTAWA - Donning masks alongside poppies in the November chill, Canadians returned to cenotaphs and monuments across much of the country on Thursday to remember and pay their respects to those who fought and died in service of the country.
This year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies stood in stark contrast to last year when organizers discouraged people from attending in person because of the second wave of COVID-19.
In Ottawa, thousands of people stood quietly behind metal barriers as a cold wind whipped leaves off trees near the National War Memorial and tugged at clothing as political and military dignitaries stood at silent attention before laying wreaths.
Among those in attendance were Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon, Defence Minister Anita Anand and acting chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, all of whom were attending their first Remembrance Day ceremony in their current roles.
The presence of Anand and Eyre also served as a reminder of the Canadian military's ongoing reckoning over sexual misconduct.
Anand, who was sworn in as the minister of defence just three weeks ago, replaced Harjit Sajjan after months of criticism over his response to allegations of misconduct in the Forces.
“The first and foremost thing that we must do on Remembrance Day is to remember the sacrifices that our soldiers past and present have made for our country,” Anand said.
“And my role as the minister of national defence is to make sure the Canadian Armed Forces continue to be an institution where everybody can feel safe and respected and protected. And that's what I'll continue to do every single day.”
Eyre said while the Canadian Armed Forces are “going through a rough period,” the men and women in uniform continue to stand on guard for the country, "so we have to ready."
But he then added the military is also working to fix the problems within it.
“We're going to improve our institution every day because that's what the people of Canada are going to need, and that’s what our members demand," he said.
The events were interrupted slightly by a security concern. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and May Simon arrived several minutes later than planned after a suspicious package was found near the cenotaph. The ceremony was already underway when the RCMP cleared the package, safely allowing the dignitaries to arrive.
The slight delay threw off the carefully choreographed timing of the ceremony, which included the traditional stirring sounds of a single bugle playing the Last Post, the skirl of a bagpipe playing the Lament, and a flypast of CF-18 fighter jets.
Bright red poppies dotted most lapels, 100 years since they were adopted as a symbol of remembrance in this country.
During the benediction, Royal Canadian Navy Capt. Bonita Mason called for Canada to stand against “anything that opposes inclusion or wholeness, whether in our own hearts or the actions of others, so that we might be strengthened in our shared values and service to Canada”
Cesar and Ellen Marie Vanneste decided to attend the Ottawa ceremony in person last year despite the risk, though barricades were set up so far back they couldn’t see much.
“We will come rain, sleet or snow,” said Ellen Marie. “As long as we have our strength, we’re in our mid-80s, we’ll continue to come.”
Cesar’s village in Belgium was freed by Canadian soldiers in 1944 when he was just a child. The couple used to bring their children to the National War Memorial every year to pay their respects. They said it’s nice to see the crowds return this year.
Similar scenes played out in other communities across the country.
In Halifax, hundreds of people turned out in front of city hall alongside veterans and dignitaries, including Nova Scotia Lt.-Gov. Arthur LeBlanc. Last year the event at the city's cenotaph was by invitation only.
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said the turnout, while not what it was in pre-COVID years, "speaks volumes" for the importance people in his city place on Remembrance Day.
"This is a community that respects and honours the role of the military and certainly the role of veterans and those who paid the ultimate sacrifice," he said.
In Montreal, where the public was not encouraged to attend in person, a few dozen military members and a handful of dignitaries gathered for a pared-down ceremony in front of the cenotaph at Place du Canada while a small number of spectators watched from afar.
Premier François Legault attended a ceremony in Quebec City at the Plains of Abraham, and after meeting with the widow of a soldier, urged Quebecers to remember the families of those who serve overseas.
In both Toronto and Iqaluit there were reminders of what the military also does at home, not just abroad.
At a ceremony in front of the Veterans’ Memorial outside Ontario's legislature, provincial Heritage Minister Lisa MacLeod thanked the Armed Forces members who provided relief in some of the province’s hardest-hit long-term care homes that were overwhelmed with COVID-19 outbreaks last year.
In Iqaluit, a Remembrance Day parade included soldiers in town to help with the city's ongoing water emergency.
About 200 people gathered in the northern city to watch the half-hour outdoor ceremony, where temperatures hovered around -20 C.
Some Legion branches across the country chose to avoid in-person events for a second year because of the pandemic, leading many more Canadians to watch their local ceremony on TV or online.
In the Prairies, where some provinces are still struggling with a fourth wave of COVID-19, nine Royal Canadian Legions held pared-down events while the 38 Canadian Brigade Group organized a virtual ceremony with dozens of troops from the Minto Armoury in Winnipeg.
— With files from Keith Doucette in Halifax, Morgan Lowrie in Montreal, Laura Osman in Ottawa, Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Noushin Ziafati in Toronto, Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg, Fakiha Baig in Edmonton, and Emma Tranter in Iqaluit.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2021.