Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day, remembering those who were killed in military service, is observed throughout Canada each year on November 11. Remembrance Day has it origins in the profound sense of loss after the FIRST WORLD WAR, in which some 60 000 Canadians were killed. In April 1919, Member of Parliament Isaac Pedlow introduced a motion in the House of Commons to institute an annual "Armistice Day," to be held on the second Monday of November. The date would commemorate the agreement signed 11 AM on November 11, 1918, ending the Great War.

The First Armistice Day

King George V sent out an appeal to the Empire on November 6, 1919, urging that the year-old Armistice be marked by the suspension of all activities and the observance of two minutes of silence at precisely 11 AM on November 11. In this way Canada marked its first Armistice Day.

In May 1921 an Act of Parliament declared that an annual Armistice Day would be held on the Monday of the week in which November 11 fell. Oddly, though, the day was joined with the celebration of THANKSGIVING DAY, a day that featured sports, turkey dinners and light recreation. This anomaly, which confused the public and angered the veterans, came to an end on March 18, 1931, when MP A.W. Neil introduced a motion in the House of Commons to have Armistice Day observed on November 11 and "on no other date." Another MP, C.W. Dickie of Nanaimo, moved an amendment to change the name from "Armistice Day" to "Remembrance Day." This renaming placed the emphasis more upon the soldiers whose deaths were being remembered, rather upon an abstract act by diplomats and politicians. Parliament adopted these resolutions as an amendment to the Armistice Day Act, and Canada held its first Remembrance Day by that name on November 11, 1931. The Holidays Acts of 1970 and 1985 recognized it as a national holiday.

"Remembrance Day" has proven a more flexible and enduring term, as it has grown to include the remembrance of war dead from the SECOND WORLD WAR, the KOREAN WAR and peacekeeping and other international engagements. In all, some 1.5 million Canadians have served in Canada's armed forces and more than 100 000 have died in service.

(The day is still observed as "Armistice Day" in France and Belgium, while in Great Britain Remembrance Sunday is the second Sunday in November nearest to November 11. In the United States veterans are honoured on Veterans Day on November 11.)

The Red Poppy as a Symbol of Remembrance Day

The symbol of Remembrance Day is the red poppy of Flanders 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.

The first person to use the poppy as a symbol of remembrance was Moina Michael, a member of the American Overseas YMCA, who had been inspired by John MCCRAE's poem "In Flanders Fields."

McCrae wrote his famous poem in 1915, at a Canadian dressing station north of Ypres, taking his view of the poppy strewn battlefield as artistic inspiration:
"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row by row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard among 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 November 11, 1921. For the first year, artificial poppies were bought from Guerin's organization in France. By 1922, however, they were manufactured in Canada and distributed by veterans. The ROYAL CANADIAN LEGION, formed in 1925, has run the poppy campaign in Canada ever since. Today, millions of Canadians wear the bright red emblem as a symbol of remembrance.

Other Symbols of Remembrance Day

On November 11, special 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 11:00 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 are another record of the wars. Monuments commemorating the lives of Canadians who died in conflicts overseas have occupied a prominent place in the urban landscape. Most were erected in the 1920s and 1930s and represent a commitment not to forget Canadian lives lost in the recent war.

Prominent among these monuments is the NATIONAL WAR MEMORIAL in Ottawa, which is the focus each November 11 of a national ceremony.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located next to the National War Memorial and contains the remains of an unknown Canadian soldier, killed in the First World War, exhumed from a cemetery near Vimy Ridge.

Remembrance Day is a statutory holiday (a paid day of vacation for federal employees) in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. It is optional in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland.

See alsoCANADIAN WAR MUSEUM.