The Royal Canadian Legion is doing what was once the unthinkable: Discouraging people from attending Remembrance Day ceremonies in person this year. The 2019 National Silver Cross Mother, Reine Samson Dawe, middle left, and Governor General Julie Payette, middle left, watched the parade during the Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Remembrance Day planners scrambling as COVID-19 upends traditional ceremonies

Legion branches are scrambling to plan stripped-down versions of the annual sombre ceremonies

The Royal Canadian Legion is taking the unprecedented step of discouraging Canadians from attending Remembrance Day ceremonies this year as COVID-19 upends the traditional ways of honouring those who sacrificed their lives for Canada.

Legion branches across the country are scrambling to plan stripped-down versions of the annual sombre ceremonies on Nov. 11 as many local governments restrict large-scale gatherings due to the rising number of new COVID-19 cases.

That includes in Ottawa, where as many as 30,000 Canadians gather alongside hundreds of veterans and serving military personnel every year to mark Remembrance Day at the National War Memorial.

This year’s national ceremony will include many traditional elements such as the playing of Last Post and the lament, the singing of In Flanders Fields along with the boom of cannons, prayers and a military flyby, said legion director of communications Nujma Bond.

But some changes due to COVID-19 will be unmistakable, with the decision to cancel the parade of elderly veterans, serving military members and school-aged cadets that has long been a fixture of the event.

The Department of National Defence has decided not to have cadets attend in-person Remembrance Day events across Canada, said spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier. The involvement of Canadian Armed Forces personnel is also being limited, he added, with decisions made on a case-by-case basis.

The decision to cancel the annual veterans’ parade in Ottawa is particularly striking given the shrinking number of Canadians still alive who served in the Second World War and Korea. Some now in their 80s and 90s have braved the cold for decades to attend the ceremony, but age puts them at high risk from COVID-19.

Instead, only a handful of people will be on hand at the cenotaph, as the Legion asks Canadians abide by local public-health guidelines and watch the ceremony on TV or online rather than in person.

“For the first time ever, we will be discouraging spectators from coming down to the National War Memorial,” said Bond. “It’s most definitely a shame this year that we’re all having to work within the constraints that this pandemic has brought.”

About 30,000 people attend the national ceremony every year, Bond added.

The same reluctant request is being made by legion branches in other parts of the country even as organizers iron out details amid shifting public-health guidelines.

One of those is Legion Branch 5 in Thunder Bay, Ont., whose annual outdoor parade and ceremony typically involves up to 150 veterans, military personnel, cadets and volunteers, and is observed by around 500 people.

“Obviously with the restrictions that are placed on us by the province and the local health unit, we had been down to 100 because we were outside,” said branch president Lester Newman. “We’re still not sure if that’s been completely whittled down again, which would all but stop it.”

(The Ottawa ceremony has the city’s permission for up to 100 people due to the nature of the commemoration, Bond said, “though clearly anything can happen between now and then.”)

READ MORE: Legion to hold private Remembrance Day ceremony this year in Veterans’ Square

Newman, who served 42 years as a naval reservist before retiring as a lieutenant-commander, said he has been attending Remembrance Day ceremonies for decades and that it is “part of my makeup.”

The event organized by Legion Branch 5 is particularly important for remembering the three soldiers from Thunder Bay who died in Afghanistan, Newman said. Cpl. Anthony Boneca, Pte. Robert Costall and Pte. Josh Klukie died in separate incidents in 2006.

Despite the restrictions in Ottawa and elsewhere across Canada, Bond said the ceremonies will remain unchanged in their reverence paid to Canada’s veterans, and some of the familiar elements.

“And we are very hopeful and invite people to participate in other ways,” she added. “It’s such a key moment for the Legion every year, it’s a key moment for veterans, and for many Canadians.”

Ways to participate include not only watching on TV or online, but wearing poppies once they become available later this month and recognizing two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 no matter where people are.

Still, “it is sad that we have to limit the numbers,” said Bob Underhill, vice-president of the legion’s operations in B.C. and Yukon and head of the organizing committee for the ceremony in Vancouver’s Victory Square.

The Victory Square ceremony is believed to be the second largest in Canada after Ottawa’s, with about 20,000 people attending each year. But this year, Underhill said the number is being kept under the local maximum of 50.

“We’re trying to arrange for our bands and soloists to do their part virtually, not to attract people down to Victory Square,” Underhill said.

“We’re going to have our official wreath-laying at the site, but we’re going to try and minimize what we’re actually doing at the site so as to not attract attention and get people gathering because we’re under the 50-person maximum. It’s going to be very different.”

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusRemembrance Day

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Voters in Saanich North and the Islands, here lining up outside Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre on the first day of advanced voting, are among the provincial leaders in getting in their votes early, with some 20 per cent (10,174) of eligible voters have already cast their ballots. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
It’s Election Day in B.C.: Here’s what you need to know to vote

B.C.’s snap election has already broken records for advance voter turnout, mail-in ballots

Plastic Ocean by Oak Bay resident Gabriela Hirt is in the Federation of Canadian Artist’s “Crisis” exhibition on now in Vancouver. (Gabriela Hirt/cropped to fit)
Oak Bay artist wins juried show in Vancouver

Pair of Oak Bay artists part of ‘Crisis’ exhibition

The M’akola Housing Society is looking to build two new residences in Sooke to help provide affordable accommodation for local Indigenous people. The projects were granted nearly $1.1 million toward their construction through the Regional Housing Trust Fund. (Photo courtesy M’Akola Housing Society)
Regional Housing First Program strikes another chord in Greater Victoria

Affordable housing partnership grants will help house over 100 people on income assistance

Online reservation service, First Table, allows Victoria diners to have dinner at half-price if they’re willing to be flexible about when they go. (Black Press Media file photo)
New reservation service allows Victoria residents to dine out at half price

First Table gives Victoria diners 50 per cent off when they book tables during off-peak hours

The 21st annual Japanese Cultural Fair streams online Oct. 24 from noon to 3 p.m. (Facebook/Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society)
Esquimalt’s Japanese Cultural Fair takes tastes, experiences and cultures online

21st annual free event streams Saturday, Oct. 24 starting at noon

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gives a daily briefing on COVID-19 cases at an almost empty B.C. Legislature press theatre in Victoria, B.C., on March 25, 2020. (Don Craig/B.C. government)
B.C. sees 223 new COVID-19 cases, now 2,009 active

Two new care home outbreaks in Surrey, Burnaby

Advance polls are open from Oct. 15 to 21 with election day on Oct. 24. (Black Press Media file photo)
100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
B.C. driver thought he retrieved a dead bald eagle – until it came to life in his backseat

The driver believed the bird to be dead and not unconscious as it turned out to be

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

Green party Leader Sonia Furstenau arrives to announce her party’s election platform in New Westminster, B.C., on October 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. Green party says it’s raised nearly $835,000 in 38 days

NDP Leader John Horgan is holding his final virtual campaign event

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

The possibility of the Canadian Premier League expanding to the Fraser Valley has been floated online. (Facebook photo)
Canadian Premier League possibly eyeing Fraser Valley expansion

Soccer league looking to add ninth team to the mix, B.C. markets potentially rumoured

Most Read