OTTAWA—Each day, a low-key Remembrance service to honour Canada’s war dead plays out on Parliament Hill.
A soaring, chapel-like chamber in the Peace Tower holds seven Books of Remembrance with the names of more than 118,000 Canadians killed while in uniform since Confederation.
At 11 a.m., the pages of the books are turned in a solemn ceremony, ensuring that over the course of a year, every name in each book will be on public display for at least one day.
On this day, the duty of turning the pages falls to Const. Danyk Bertrand-Crouteau, a member of the Parliamentary Protective Service.
Dressed in his ceremonial uniform, he pauses at the chamber’s entrance and snaps a salute. He approaches the main altar, which holds the largest and most ornate of the books, with the names of some 66,000 personnel killed in the First World War.
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He bows, then with white-gloved hands, carefully turns the page. It’s a process he repeats at several of the other books. (Because they differ in size, not all books are turned every day).
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A medal on his uniform marks him as a veteran of Canada’s long engagement in Afghanistan and today’s duty hits home.
“I was over there when we lost people. I know some of the names in the book,” he said after the ceremony.
That particular book — titled “In the Service of Canada” — lists more than 1,800 military personnel killed in training accidents, peacekeeping deployments and conflicts, such as Afghanistan. Sadly, it’s a book that is still being written.
The chamber was the idea of John Pearson, the architect who together with Joseph-Omer Marchand, designed Centre Block after fire gutted the previous building in 1916.
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“It was important that there be a space in Parliament which really paid tribute to the fallen of the war,” said Johanna Mizgala, curator of the House of Commons.
Pearson initially wanted the names carved on the chamber walls. But as the lists were compiled, the sad reality hit home — there wasn’t enough room.
It was decided then to do a Book of Remembrance. It wasn’t completed until 1942 — 15 years after the chamber was opened — meaning that as names were being carefully inscribed, the losses of a new war meant another book would have to be written.
Today, books remember the more than 44,000 killed in the Second World War; the men and women of Newfoundland killed in the First and Second World Wars before it became a province in 1949; the casualties of the Korean War and the South African War and Nile Expedition; and those killed in the service of the Merchant Navy. Work is underway on another book to honour those killed in the War of 1812.
Friends and family members of the fallen can check online to see when the name of their loved one will be on display and arrange to be present for the page-turning ceremony that day.
The pending closure of Centre Block for more than a decade of renovation work will put the memorial chamber off limits to visitors. The books will be moved to new location, which will open when the House of Commons relocates to West Block.
The chamber is filled with symbolism, starting with the very materials used to build it.
Pearson travelled to the battlefields and collected stones along the way for the floor, walls and ceiling. Stone on the floors and black marble on the walls are from Belgium; white marble walls are from France and the main altar is fashioned from Hoptonwood stone, a type of U.K. limestone that was also used for tens of thousands of headstones that marked the graves of First World War casualties.
“The paving stones are hewn from the battlefields in Flanders so you are physically walking on the same soil as those people who died,” Mizgala said.
(There is one bit of Canadiana in the chamber. Two halves of a hockey puck are used to prevent the iron entrance gates from hitting the stonework.)
Carved stone panels tell the story of Canada’s participation in the war, starting with the steamships that conveyed young soldiers overseas. Other carvings depict the cap badges of Canadian battalions that deployed overseas.
High above is a carving of a mother and child to represent collective mourning. Below that is the recording angel and hanging from the entrance arch is a memorial cross, which symbolizes loss.
Sunlight streams through stain glass windows that depict the call to arms, answering the call and finally, beating swords into plowshares.
Bronze inscriptions in the floor highlight the main battle sites — Ypres, Passchendaele, Somme and Vimy.
“This concept of a space, of memory is integral to the room. Everything that is in the carvings … is all about telling the story of Canada’s participation in the war,” Mizgala said.
“It’s about mourning and remembrance and it’s also about paying tribute to loss,” she said.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier