As I prepare to take another group of Bethel University students to Europe to learn about World War I, I’m particularly eager to show them how the war has been commemorated — in cities like London, Paris, and Munich, but also on the former Western Front itself. Two of the most striking memorials from the second category are Canadian: the enormous monument and preserved trenches outside the French town of Vimy, and the statue of a “brooding soldier” near the Belgian village of Saint-Julien.
So as I followed the coverage of Wednesday’s shootings in Ottawa, I was especially interested to see that the WWI memorial in the heart of Canada’s capital city played such a central role in the tragedy and its aftermath. The tragedy began when Michael Zehaf-Bideau allegedly shot a Canadian army reservist, Corporal Nathan Cirillo, standing ceremonial guard over the National War Memorial. The gunman then entered the Canadian parliament building, where he died in a firefight with security personnel. Cirillo died later Wednesday morning.
Unveiled by King George VI just before the start of World War II in 1939, the National War Memorial was originally meant to honor Canadians who fought in World War I. A 1925-26 competition resulted in a commission for English sculptor Vernon March, also responsible for war memorials in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Like the Vimy memorial in France, the one in Ottawa sought at once to honor the patriotic sacrifice of the past while expressing hope for peace in the future. So while the memorial features twenty-three bronze members of the Canadian military processing through a triumphal arch, the arch itself is topped by statues representing Peace and Liberty. Indeed, Cirillo was unable to defend himself because, in keeping with the symbolism of the memorial, its guards carry unloaded rifles.
Later in its history, the memorial’s purpose was expanded to include commemoration of Canadian participation in the Second World War, Korean War, and other conflicts. Since 2000 the site has hosted Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
One Canadian political cartoonist made the connection between sacrifice in the distant and recent pasts more explicit — and poignant:
“If someone were to attempt to make a statement of disrespect to the armed forces of this country,” said historian and urban planner David Gordon, “you couldn’t pick a better spot.” He was quoted by National Post correspondent Jen Gerson, who added:
This is more than just a monument to fallen soldiers: It is representative of the birth of the nation, and of the sacrifice in blood that Canadians made in order to be recognized as a country in its own right.
Like others of its type around the world, the Ottawa war memorial is often the center of patriotic liturgies. (See an earlier post on memorials and worship.) Some rituals, like the country’s annual Remembrance Day ceremony, follow a regular rhythm. (The guards’ rotation ends the day before that holiday, which commemorates the end of WWI, and resumes on April 9th — the anniversary of the Canadian-German battle at Vimy.) Others are more spontaneous: as yesterday morning, when members of Canada’s parliament gathered at the memorial and sang their country’s national anthem before they began their legislative business with a moment of silence in honor of Cirillo.
But it’s worth noting that guards like Cirillo have been posted at the memorial since 2007 because of another kind of ceremony: in 2006 a photograph came to light showing three men urinating on the memorial during Canada Day. And Wednesday’s shooter sought to make his own symbolic statement through the murder of Cirillo. All of which is a good reminder that the meaning of commemorative sites is often contested and nearly impossible to control.