The national day to remember those who died in military service is observed across Canada each year on 11 November – the anniversary of the Armistice agreement in 1918 that ended the First World War.
The national day to remember those who died in military service, and honour those who served in wartime, is observed across Canada each year on 11 November – the anniversary of the Armistice agreement, on 11 November 1918, that ended the First World War.
Before the Great War, Canadians honoured their overseas war dead on Paardeberg Day – 27 February – the annual anniversary of the Battle of Paardeberg in 1900, during the South African War, Canada's first foreign military victory.
From 1901 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, people gathered in public squares in cities and towns across the country, around newly built South African War memorials, to commemorate their soldiers' service in South Africa. Paardeberg Day, however, was less a sombre affair of remembrance, than a victory celebration and an affirmation of English Canada's loyal ties to the British Empire.
First World War
The horror and mass slaughter of the First World War – which took the lives of millions of people at sea and on battlefields across Europe, including 61,000 Canadians – changed Canadian perceptions of war. Although Canada fought on the winning side, celebration of victory was replaced by solemn commemoration, and a sense that the country owed a collective national debt to the ordinary soldiers, mostly young men, who had given their lives in battle.
This debt would be paid, in perpetuity by successive generations, by the simple act of remembering the soldiers' sacrifice.
On 6 November 1919, almost a year after the end of the First World War, King George V sent out an appeal to the British Empire, urging that the Armistice that ended the fighting be marked by the suspension of all activities, and the observance of two minutes of silence, at exactly 11 am on 11 November – the same time the Armistice had been signed.
Earlier that year, however, Canadian Member of Parliament Isaac Pedlow had introduced a motion in the House of Commons to institute an annual "Armistice Day" – to be held not on 11 November, but on the second Monday of November each year.
In May 1921, an Act of Canada's Parliament declared that an annual Armistice Day would be held on the Monday of the week in which November 11 fell. Oddly, the day was joined with the celebration of Thanksgiving Day, a day featuring sports, turkey dinners and light recreation. This anomaly, which confused the public and angered First World War veterans, came to an end on 18 March, 1931, when Member of Parliament A.W. Neil introduced a motion to have Armistice Day observed on November 11 and "on no other date."
Another MP, C.W. Dickie, moved to change the name from Armistice Day to Remembrance Day. This renaming placed the emphasis more upon the soldiers whose deaths were being remembered. Parliament adopted these resolutions as an amendment to the Armistice Day Act, and Canada held its first Remembrance Day by that name on 11 November, 1931. The Holidays Acts of 1970 and 1985 recognized it as a national holiday.
In France and Belgium, 11 November is still observed as Armistice Day, while in Britain Remembrance Sunday is the second Sunday in November. In the United States war veterans are honoured on Veterans Day on 11 November.
In Canada, Remembrance Day has proven to be a flexible and enduring term. It has grown to include the remembrance of war dead from the Second World War, the Korean War and the War in Afghanistan, as well as from peacekeeping missions and other international military engagements. In all, more than 1.6-million Canadians have served in Canada's Armed Forces and more than 118,000 have died in foreign conflicts.
The symbol of Remembrance Day is the red poppy, which grows on the First World War battlefields of Flanders in Belgium, and northern France. The poppy as a symbol of death and renewal predates the First World War. The seeds of the flower may remain dormant in the earth for years, but they will blossom in abundance when the soil is churned. As the artillery barrages began to convulse the earth in late 1914, the fields of Flanders and northern France saw scores of red poppies appear.
McCrae wrote his famous war poem in 1915, at a Canadian dressing station north of Ypres, Belgium, taking his view of the poppy-strewn battlefield as artistic inspiration:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Madame Anne Guerin of France, also inspired by McCrae's poem, became a vigorous advocate of the poppy as the symbol of remembrance. In 1921, she travelled to Britain and Canada and persuaded both the British Legion and the Canadian Great War Veterans Association (a predecessor of the Royal Canadian Legion) to adopt the poppy as their symbol of remembrance as well.
The first "poppy day" in both countries occurred on 11 November, 1921. For the first year, artificial poppies were brought to Canada from Guerin's organization in France. By 1922, however, lapel-worn poppies were manufactured in Canada and distributed by veterans. The Royal Canadian Legion, formed in 1925, has run the poppy fundraising campaign in Canada ever since. Today, millions of Canadians wear the bright red emblem as a symbol of remembrance, leading up to and on 11 November.
On Remembrance Day, public ceremonies and church services often include the playing of The Last Post, a reading of the fourth verse of the Ode of Remembrance, and two minutes of silence at 11 am. Wreaths are laid at local war memorials and assemblies are held in schools.
The Books of Remembrance, which lie in the Memorial Chamber of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa are another record of the wars. The seven books contain the names of more than 118,000 Canadians who have died on military service, or in the Merchant Marine. The various books cover foreign conflicts dating from the South African War and Nile Expedition, through the world wars and Korea, to the conflicts of the 21st Century. A separate Newfoundland Book of Remembrance includes the names of Newfoundlanders who died in the First and Second World Wars, when Newfoundland and Labrador was not yet part of Canada. An eighth book is being created to include the names of Canadians who died in the War of 1812, when Canada was not yet an independent nation.
Monuments commemorating the lives of Canadians who died in conflicts overseas occupy a prominent place in towns and cities throughout Canada. Most were erected in the 1920s and 1930s following the First World War (the names of subsequent wars were later added to many of these memorials). They represent a commitment by communities large and small, not to forget Canadian lives lost in war.
Every year, the Royal Canadian Legion chooses the mother of an Armed Forces member killed in military service, to represent the mothers of Canadian veterans. She is named the National Memorial Silver Cross Mother, and is invited to attend the national Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa.
National War Memorial
Canada's most prominent domestic war monument is the National War Memorial in Ottawa, which is the focus, on 11 November, of a nationally televised Remembrance Day ceremony, traditionally attended by the governor general, the prime minister, senior Legion officials and a large parade of veterans.
Unknown Soldier is located at the foot of the National War Memorial. It contains the remains of an unidentified Canadian soldier, killed in the First World War, his remains exhumed and repatriated from a cemetery near Vimy Ridge. The Tomb represents all Canadians killed overseas who lie in unmarked graves.
Remembrance Day is a federal statutory holiday (a paid day off work for federal employees). It is also a statutory holiday in some but not all the provinces and territories.
Heather Robertson, A Terrible Beauty, The Art of Canada at War (1977); Patricia Giesler, Valour Remembered: Canadians in Korea (1982); John McCrae, In Flanders Fields and Other Poems. Edited by Sir Andrew Macphail (1919); Jonathan F. W. Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War.