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Dan McCarthy: The war memorial is no place for F-Trudeau mobs and peddlers
We might have hoped some aspects of life were beyond politics, disrespect and desecration, but proving the old adage that nothing is sacred.
By: Dan McCarthy
Black and white photos taken in May 1939 at the dedication of Ottawa’s National War Memorial show King George VI and Queen Elizabeth greeting veterans and citizens alike during the very first Royal walk-about. An estimated 100,000 people lined the square spilling along the east-west axis of Wellington Street. In light of the desecration of the memorial that occurred this past Saturday during the “Rolling Thunder” protest rally, it is striking to see the differences in the two assemblages. Nearly 83 years ago, the women dressed in spring coats and hats, gentlemen in suit and tie. Military medals were modestly pinned to overcoats. There were few flags other than the Red Ensign on the formal flagpoles.
Contrast this with Saturday’s event to “take back the memorial”: the profanity adorned black vests and ridiculous “gnome” flags of Les Farfadaas, a Quebec group formed to protest COVID-19-related public-health measures; the now-ubiquitous F-Trudeau flag; and the Gadsden flag sporting the coiled snake with the logo “Don’t Tread on Me.” Less offensive perhaps but no less inappropriate were the “honk, honk” flags — a reminder of the three-week trucker’s occupation of downtown Ottawa — and the black flag of the newly formed group, Veterans for Freedom, or V4F.
But outfits and flags were the least of the disrespect on display in Ottawa. The opening speaker kindly asked the crowd of several hundred to put away their F-Trudeau flags. But speaker after subsequent speaker then veered into the ditch of COVID paranoia with anti-vax, anti-mask rhetoric sprinkled with a witches’ brew of conspiracy theories ranging from the corrupt media, the dishonest CBC, influence of globalists and the World Economic Forum, odious comparisons with the Holocaust and the revelation that Justin Trudeau had given his heart to the devil. The “sacrifice” of the truckers was equated with the sacrifice of veterans as embodied in the cenotaph.
A couple of speakers did talk about the pain veterans suffered from their physical and psychological wounds, exacerbated by the indifference of their government, but it was clear this rally was not about the veterans or giving respect back to the War Memorial. The “padre” who spoke was the most shameful of all, twisting Christian scripture to mirror the values of the crowd. And throughout, the police on hand were taunted by individuals in the crowd as stooges of the government.
At a time when Canadian institutions are under unprecedented attack, we might have hoped some aspects of life were beyond politics, disrespect and desecration, but proving the old adage that nothing is sacred, the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier received no such exemption.
The tall granite cenotaph — The Response — stands in Confederation Square across Wellington Street from Parliament Hill. Bronze sculptures, men and women, representing all the branches of the Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War, pull a gun carriage through an arch, symbolizing the transition from war to peace. The monument has been rededicated on several occasions to specifically include those who served and died in the Second World War, the Korean War and in Afghanistan. In 2000, a soldier “Known unto God” was exhumed from a cemetery near Vimy Ridge and re-interred in the new Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the base of the cenotaph. The hallowed ground of the monument was brought into sharp relief by the murder there of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was standing ceremonial guard on that October morning in 2014. This weekend, a man identifying himself as a veteran set up a lawn chair on the cenotaph just steps from where Cpl. Cirillo died. So much respect.
It was on this sacred ground, a literal tomb, that a woman was filmed dancing at the outset of the trucker occupation earlier this winter. In response to this and other degradations of the site, the National Capital Commission (NCC) erected fencing around the square. The fencing served only to dismay residents and embolden the occupiers, who soon dismantled it and set up tents on the site to, in their words, protect it. Truth be told, the fencing served only as a canvass for protest and anti-government banners, and the grey wire barrier turned a beautiful square into a semblance of a derelict construction site.
The NCC has exercised jurisdiction over the square since the 1960s, and while such an arrangement may have been suitable during more genteel times, that era has clearly passed. In 2020, a motley group of “revolutionaries” protesting COVID-19 public-health measures set up tents in a copse of trees surrounding the square with their latrine about 20 metres from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The NCC’s response was to erect “no camping” signs on the site. The camp was dismantled a few weeks before the annual Remembrance Day ceremony. But the measure of the NCC was taken.
One cannot imagine such a travesty arising at the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, every day of the year, by soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment known as “The Old Guards.” They are considered the “elite of the elite,” and in turn view this duty as one of the highest orders. Strict rules govern wreath laying ceremonies including a dress code for participants which prohibits jean, sneakers, and t-shirts, among other clothing items. Regulations prohibit services that are partisan in nature, and any activity that attempts to “gain publicity or engender support for any group or cause.”
In Washington, commemorative sites such as the World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Again, strict regulations are in place to govern gatherings and events at these sites, including the need for a permit, covering the costs of security, and a prohibition on the sale of goods. The lady selling F-Trudeau hats and t-shirts at the event in Ottawa on Saturday would be out of luck in Washington.
The National War Memorial is sacred ground that commemorates service, valour, dedication, suffering, sacrifice and yes, death. Saturday’s event must never be allowed again. Protest is entirely appropriate, but on Parliament Hill, which is just steps away. And the square is not a midway; commercial sales should be prohibited. The government of Canada should move quickly to ban partisan protests from the square. The tangled lines of responsibility between the NCC and Public Services and Procurement Canada should be cut. Protocols should be established in consultation with the Royal Canadian Legion to govern wreath-laying and other ceremonies. Permits with strict conditions would be necessary for any events outside of those formally held by the Government of Canada or the Legion.
Jurisdiction and governance of the square should be transferred to the Department of National Defence via the Military Police or to Parks Canada, which is already responsible for National Historic Sites and Monuments. The National Park Service successfully oversees the primary war memorials in Washington — why not Parks Canada here? Perhaps a partnership between Defence and Parks? The Ceremonial Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier should not be just a tourist attraction. Defence should establish a permanent Guard unit modelled on the Sentinels of the US “Old Guard,” making it a highly selective and prestigious posting.
In his 1939 speech, King George VI spoke of the profound symbolism of the memorial saying, “The very soul of the nation is here revealed.” This will remain so if immediate action is taken to restore the dignity of the National War Memorial by treating it as a vessel of national memory, and identity — not as a glorification of war or a place of protest but as a symbol of higher values that reveal the true soul of Canada.
Dan McCarthy is a former Liberal Hill staffer and public servant who lives in Ottawa and writes on a variety of political and public-policy issues. He has a special affinity for the monuments and memorial sites across Canada, particularly cenotaphs.
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