It was a Remembrance Day unlike any other.
In any other year, thousands of Canadians would have descended on the War Memorial in Ottawa. But with the second wave of COVID-19 still surging the decision was made to scale back. As a result, the veteran’s parade and the Canadian Armed Forces parade were cancelled and the traditional colour party was slimmed down.
Barriers were set up across the street from the Memorial where a small number of people watched Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, take part in a ceremony with physically distancing armed forces personnel. Gen. Jonathan Vance greeted the Trudeaus with an elbow bump instead of a handshake.
A similar scene played out in Toronto, with the city urging residents to watch the ceremony on its YouTube channel.
With so much being done virtually, Sunnybrook Hospital decided to go to above and beyond with the 10th year of Operation Raise a Flag. One hundred flags were planted for each of the 375 veterans who call Sunnybrook home, for a total 37,500. Because of the pandemic, hundreds of volunteers from the hospital and armed forces planted the flags during the day.
“Usually we would go home in the evening, our volunteers would come, and as soon as the sun rose in the morning, you’d see thousands and thousands of flags,” says veteran’s centre medical director, Dr. Jocelyn Charles.
Dr. Kaighley Brett, a lieutenant-commander with the Canadian Armed Forces, was one of the soldiers planting flags. She said she looks forward to speaking with the veterans, but his year could only wave to them as they watched from their windows.
“[The flags] mean so much,” she says. “They represent the veterans. They represent the veterans who are here. They represent the veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice. So it’s a heartwarming day, but it’s also a day for us to remember and to take pause.”
The pandemic has been especially hard on veterans from the Second World War who are seeing their numbers dwindle every year.
“I think I’m about the only man left standing on the last ship that I was on,” says Canadian Navy veteran Alex Polowin. “You know, it’s a sad feeling, you know that. I know that they’re all gone. But I’ll try my best to adjust to [the virtual ceremonies] and be happy with it because sometimes you’ve got to accept what’s given to you.”
Polowin served on HMCS Huron, a tribal class destroyer that helped clear the English Channel of enemy vessels ahead of D-Day. He’s normally active in the Ottawa area speaking in schools.
“I love speaking to students, little kids, Montessori school,” he says. “God bless them. You know, I’ve been going to the same one of the schools for a long, long time. I got a stack of letters from them. I became the school’s project, this Montessori school and various letters. Some would say I love you very much. I love your harmonica playing. We can’t wait to see you again. And that really elevates my feelings, you know, in a positive way.”
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