Sacred site or meeting point? The politicization of Canada’s National War Memorial


The sacrifices of Canadians who fought and died for democracy and freedom during the Korean War were honored during a small ceremony last week at the National War Memorial.

For such acts of remembrance, the ceremonial plaza was built, located a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill and which includes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

This year, however, Canadians have seen very different images of the monument, including acts of vandalism, and as a rallying point for those opposed to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s liberal government. .

It has sparked concern about the use of Canada’s holy site dedicated to war dead for political purposes, and a debate about what steps could be taken to better protect it.

Last weekend, someone was seen covering the grave with Canadian and American flags as part of a ceremony streamed live online. The photos and video were widely shared on social media before the accounts, which appeared to be linked to “Freedom Convoy” supporters, were shut down.

It sparked protests, including from Defense Minister Anita Anand, who called it “desecration.”

It also prompted calls for more security, including from the Royal Canadian Legion, which had first made such a demand after the monument was seen as disrespected, including by urinating in public, near the start of the three-week protest that took over downtown Ottawa this winter. .

On the eve of Canada Day, Army Reservist James Topp addressed hundreds of people gathered by the cenotaph and compared himself and others fighting vaccination mandates to the unidentified Canadian soldier killed in World War I. World whose remains were buried in the tomb.

Facing a court-martial for publicly criticizing federal vaccination requirements while in uniform, Topp reached his grave after a four-month march from Vancouver, during which he became a celebrity to many who oppose vaccinations. vaccines and liberals.

“This is us. This is the Unknown Soldier,” Topp told the crowd, which included several people wearing military helmets and medals to signify their veteran status.

“What did we have in common with that person? We had courage.”

A group called Veterans 4 Freedom, which supported Topp’s march and includes members with ties to the “Freedom Convoy,” also staged a rally at the memorial during the “Rolling Thunder” event in April, where members gave anti-vaccine speeches. and pandemic restrictions.

“Canadians have to sacrifice to keep our freedom,” a speaker told the crowd. “They went to France. They fought in the South Pacific, the Battle of Britain. They sacrifice with their lives. But today, we have to sacrifice in a different way.”

Veterans 4 Freedom declined to comment. Topp referred to his June 30 speech.

David Hofmann is an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick and co-director of the government-funded Research Network on Hateful Behavior and Right-Wing Extremism in the Canadian Armed Forces.

He said that political movements need symbols to be successful, and that perhaps it should come as no surprise that some groups in Canada are now trying to convert the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for such purposes.

“It’s a powerful symbol,” Hofmann said. “You have the Unknown Soldier, the ultimate martyr, someone who can’t even be remembered by his name. And you have these people trying to equate what they’re doing with a sense of martyrdom.”

Retired Brigadier General Duane Daly, who was instrumental as head of the Royal Canadian Legion in creating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier more than 20 years ago, disagreed with those who wanted to use the site “as a centerpiece for political dissent”.

“That’s a tomb,” he said. “If you want to make a statement like that, go to Parliament. That’s what it’s for, not for the grave.”

Others have suggested that some of those using the monument to amplify anti-government grievances actually represent the opposite of the selflessness to which the sites are devoted.

“The Unknown Soldier died for his country. He died in a selfless act,” said Youri Cormier, executive director of the Defense Conference Institute of Partnerships think tank.

“When you honk your horn and shout about an idea of ​​personal freedoms that excludes one’s duty to one’s nation, obedience to the law, and respect for the principle that one’s freedom ends where it infringes on the freedoms of others, you are putting oneself before the nation.”

It is in this context that some, such as the legion and Cormier, who noted that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia, is defended 24 hours a day by armed military, have called for increased security at the monument.

“No one can usurp or appropriate the hallowed ground of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for any trick or campaign,” Cormier said. “This sacred space is not for taking.”

Public Services and Procurement Canada says the site is monitored 24/7, but would not comment on the calls for more security. While the Canadian Armed Forces maintain a ceremonial guard at the memorial for tourists, the Ottawa Police are responsible for the security of the site.

The murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo by an Islamic State sympathizer in October 2014 prompted a security review at the monument and the eventual location of military police. But his job is to protect the ceremonial guards while they’re on duty.

It is unclear exactly what kind of security measures should be put in place now.

Most experts agree that authorities should not limit or restrict public access to the monument, in part because the vast majority of visitors to the site are respectful, but also because such a move could benefit some groups.

“In some respects, that’s more dangerous because it feeds into the victim mentality that we’re being silenced, that we’re being oppressed,” said Barbara Perry, director of the Center on Hate, Prejudice and Extremism at Ontario Technological University.

Officials erected fencing around the monument at the start of the “Freedom Convoy” after a woman stood over the grave. But then they were shot down by protesters. Many of them identified themselves as veterans and said they were reclaiming the site, a message repeated as a reason to gather at the cenotaph during the “Rolling Thunder” event this spring.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Day also rejected the idea of ​​US-style restrictions on the monument, such as ropes and fences that prevent the public from getting close.

“All national monuments must be accessible. I accept that there is a cost to that,” Day said.

“But I think the cost of walling them off and not making them accessible is higher. I accept, therefore, that there will be people like the ones we have seen who will take advantage of that.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 31, 2022.

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