It has happened like clockwork since 1942. Every morning just before 11a.m. in Ottawa, Ontario, at the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, after pinning on his service medals, he marches across polished floors in the Rotunda to the solemn Memorial Chamber that occupies the third level of the tower.
This chamber, conceived in 1916, is a monument in itself to Canada’s war involvement, with fan-vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and many carvings. Inlaid into the floor are brass nameplates made from spent shell casings gathered from the WWI battlefields of major participation.
Upon entering the Chamber at just the right moment, your eyes catch gleams of sunlight refracting from the stain-glass window, “The Assembly of Remembrance.” Located on the Chamber’s South wall, figures of saints and warriors stand vigil over those named within the Chamber. It is flanked by the East wall window, of men and women rallying to “The Call to Arms,” while the West wall window hopes for the Future and “The Dawn of Peace.”
These stunning glassworks were not installed until 1927.
Then you notice the massive niches surrounding you … seventeen of them, each containing a white marble plaque. In both official languages, twelve of these plaques represent our military’s involvement from the Fenian Raids of 1866-1870 to our latest peacekeeping missions.
The remaining five plaques display literary passages in which Canadians have found Hope and Comfort: Dr. John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” is displayed in English (on Plaque #4) and in French (on Plaque #14). Plaque #9 holds Psalm 139 from The Bible. The poem, “On Going to the Wars” by Canadian writer Earle Birney occupies Plaque #7. Plaque #11 has an excerpt from French-Canadian writer, Gabrielle Roy’s first novel, Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute).
But the focal point of this Chamber is at its center: a stone altar — a gift from England in 1926. It was carved from a single-piece of Hoptonwood stone and rests majestically upon black marbled steps quarried from Flanders Fields in Belgium. All the Coats of Arms of our provinces and (at that time) two territories adorn the altar’s long body. Our nation’s crest decorates the short sides, while an inscription graces the circumference of the altar’s tabletop. It is a quote from “The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World to that Which is to Come” by English Christian writer, John Bunyan:
“My marks and scars I carry with me, to be witness for me that I have fought His battles, who will nowbe my Rewarder; so he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”
Circum-navigating the altar’s base, the same quote is engraved in French.
Atop the altar, a brass display case sits with a glass lid, attended at each corner by an angel kneeling in reverence. A massive open book lies inside the case surrounded by all this pomp and circumstance.
Six smaller altars form a symmetrical semi-circle around this centerpiece, each adorned with similar cases. Inside all of these cases, “The Books of Remembrance” wait for his white-gloved touch.
Bells peal in the Peace Tower, as he snaps to attention underneath the stone carving of the Memorial Cross, to open the wrought iron gates before entering the empty Chamber. (It is rare that spectators are given an opportunity to watch the ritual from within.).
Marching to the center, he salutes the main altar, steps up to the case, then bows his head before opening the lid, and gingerly turns the vellum parchment — every page in each book is unique! — closes the case, bows, steps back and repeats his ritual again with each of the remaining cases before returning to the center, where he salutes and smartly marches off.
As he exits, he passes under the statue of a mother holding her children. Under this statue, a stone carving of an angel appears to record the names of those who sacrificed their lives for this country.
And for the next 24hours, every book in the Chamber proudly tells of its own:
- WWI (at center) — in 1942 this Book of Remembrance was placed in the Chamber and the House of Commons Security Services began the Turning of the Page Ceremony. With 65,655 names contained in this book, it remains the focal point of the room to date.
- WWII (at South wall) — on November 11th, 1957 this volume was added to the Chamber with 44,893 names
- Korea — added November 11th, 1962, this Book of Remembrance gives tribute to 516 Canadians felled during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953
- Newfoundland — in 1973 this Book of Remembrance was placed in the Chamber, honouring 2,363 Newfoundlanders who died in both World Wars. They are displayed in a separate book because Newfoundland was NOT part of Canada’s Confederation until 1956!
- South African War / Nile Expedition — on May 31st, 1962 this volume was added to the Chamber on the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Peace of Vereenging, which ended the war in South Africa. 283 Canadians are contained in this book.
- Merchant Navy — in 2003 this Book of Remembrance was placed in the Chamber, containing 2,199 Canadians who died while serving in critical re-supply missions during the First and Second World Wars; and,
- In the Service of Canada — added November 11th, 2005, this Book of Remembrance, contains over 1,700 Canadians who died during peacekeeping missions
Silently the pages declare to all gathered around them: “Here are Our Heroes – We Remember Them Always”
Until just before 11a.m. the next morning, when he marches across polished floors in the Rotunda to the solemn Memorial Chamber that occupies the third level of the tower …
- website, Veterans Affairs Canada
- website, Parliament of Canada http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/Parliament/Publications/Memorial/Memorial-e.asp