One Day On Earth 11/11/11

It is Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth and people are paying homage to their veterans at cenotaph ceremonies across the world. In Toronto, a few thousand people have crowded together at the corner of Bay and Queen Streets to commemorate Canada’s war dead.

Old City Hall creates a scenic backdrop for the day's event, with its distinctive clock tower and neo-Romanesque stylings carved in sand and brownstone, contrasting with the glittering steel and glass skyscrapers surrounding it. Much like the streetscape, the crowd is vast and varied. Veterans, families, politicians, school kids from elementary through college-aged and Bay Street businessmen all standing shoulder to shoulder. Meandering through the crowd, press photographers buzz about searching for their next frame. 

At a quarter to the hour, an honour guard of four soldiers, in military garb from all eras, slowly descends the stairs to take their post and signal the starts of the ceremony. They are closely followed by the colour parties, who take their place behind the cenotaph, their flags swaying lazily in the cool morning breeze.

The bells toll 11 o’clock and the buzz from the crowd fades away.

Standing at the top of the stairs to Old City Hall, a lone trumpeter raises his horn to perform “The Last Post” and the uniformed members of the crowd snap to attention.

As the final note fades away, the traditional two-minute silence begins. It is a pin drop silence. The Toronto Transit Commission has even temporarily halted service, so the ever-present clang of streetcars has disappeared from downtown. Thousands are stilled and there is not even a peep from the normally rambunctious school children. Many eyes are closed in quiet contemplation and many eyes are tearing up.

Moments later, the silence is broken with a roar of engines, as the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association perform a ceremonial fly-past, their planes decorating the sky with ribbons of white smoke that fade away and blend into the clouds. The trumpeter strikes up again, this time playing “Reveille” and, once again, the veterans salute. The 7th Toronto Regiment Band picks up where the trumpeter leaves off and the crowd converts to choir as everyone performs the national anthem.

The musical segment of the program draws to a close and the guest speakers are queued up to deliver their speeches. The buzz of voices in the crowd slowly returns. They are getting restless now.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford approaches the podium to deliver his address and there is a palpable shift in the mood surrounding the members of the media. After a few obligatory frames of the mayor, heads swivel to search the crowd for a reaction. One photographer is heard quietly muttering, “here we go.”

Toronto does not disappoint.

A tiny woman takes up a megaphone, yelling “shame on the government!” The megaphone is promptly knocked out of her hands by a stranger in the crowd and she is carted away by Toronto police, followed by a gaggle of photographers, snapping away. Not five minutes afterwards, a middle-aged man, clearly inebriated and smoking a cigarette, makes his way through the VIP section towards the podium to shout “hey Rob Ford” before being taken away by a military policeman and an RCMP officer in red serge. The man was wearing a “Mayor Rob Ford” button on the lapel of his jacket, but whether he was yelling in protest or support, we will never know. 

The interruptions do not off-rail the proceedings and two young woman step up to give a reading of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” The public quiets once again. In the front row of the crowd, a group of young children quietly recite the poem in unison with the readers, without even glancing at the programs crushed in their hands. No doubt they are proud of having memorized McCrae’s work; they will likely remember it for the rest of their lives.

A padre commandeers the microphone next. He delivers an ambiguous, non-denominational, politically correct blessing over the wreaths and calls out for the Silver Cross Mother to place her wreath at the foot of the cenotaph. He continues to read out from his list and a parade of dignitaries and representatives from various embassies, committees and associations place their wreaths.

The honour guard marches off and ceremony comes to an abrupt close. The crowd surges forward, pulling the poppies from their coats and placing them among the wreaths. There are pictures taken and hands shook. Children approach those in uniform as if they are rock stars, asking for their autographs while their teachers try to corral them towards a waiting school bus. A stranger thanks a veteran for his service and is surprised when he receives an embrace in return. In the background, a uniquely Canadian scene unfolds: a small group of First Nations drummers have set up and begin to pound out a beat, chanting “soldier boy” over and over again, as a light snow starts to fall.

After a time, the chanting stops and most people have left, rushing back to their jobs, classes, or whatever they do to fill the day. A city worker begins to collect chairs and barricades, which reveals a piece of street art on the pavement that had been obscured throughout the ceremony.

The words simply read “Thank You Veterans.”
Using Format