They’re up before the cold crack of dawn, setting up chairs and tents, sorting wreaths and prepping the Legislature grounds for the annual ceremony that honours Canadian veterans, past and present.
If the weather is good, the ceremony will draw 6,000 people to the Cenotaph and Inner Harbour. If it rains, like last year, a few thousand will pay their respects to men and women in uniform.
“Weather on Nov. 11 can be challenging and we do get a large turnout, if it’s not a downpour,” says Pat Paterson, chair of the Royal Canadian Legion Poppy Fund in Victoria, which represents three Victoria-based legions and three veterans groups.
“We are one of the largest (ceremonies) in Canada. Last year we were out there at 7 a.m. putting out chairs in the rain. We were like drowned rats,” Paterson says laughing. “Putting your uniform on, putting clothes on in a car at (age) 79 is a bit different than when you are 20.”
Volunteers set up some 200 chairs for dignitaries and assembled scores of wreaths for organizations to pay their respects. Wreaths have a pecking order – the lieutenant governor gets the 26 inch model. The mayor gets a 20-incher.
The parade draws older veterans and active service people alike for a solemn ceremony that plays out at cenotaphs across the region. “Some veterans march into their late 90s. They’ll be there until they fall over,” Paterson says.
Legion volunteers who stage the ceremony are becoming a rare breed, like many of the veterans who attend the cenotaph year after year. First World War veterans are gone and Second World War vets are fading away – “even the Korean War guys are getting long in the tooth,” Paterson says.
Remembrance Day is shifting its focus to those Canadians who served in UN military missions around the world and more recently in Afghanistan, and military members retired and active, all of whom were willing to risk and sacrifice their lives for the freedom of others.
“We are honouring people in the military who lost their lives in all those wars. Canada recognizes that it can help in times of need to protect freedoms,” Paterson says.
For volunteers with the Victoria Poppy Fund, Nov. 11 caps off months of fundraising and hard work. In October, at the Trafalgar-Pro Patria Legion, they assemble 60,000 letters for the Poppy Fund mail out. A small core group collects money and keep poppies stocked in 450 trays in shops and business across Victoria, Oak Bay and Saanich.
Last year the Poppy Fund raised about $190,000 to help veterans in Greater Victoria, particularly at Broadmead Lodge and Cockrell House. “We rely on the goodwill of the people of Victoria,” Paterson says.
The five Poppy Fund volunteer executive members are in their 60s and 70s, with little in the way of new incoming members. Legions aren’t the centre of communities like they once were, Paterson says.
“The demographic of the country has changed … people aren’t interested too much about giving their time for somebody else.”
Remembrance Day ceremonies begin with an honour guard parade to the Legislature at 10:30 p.m. Ceremonies at Saanich municipal hall begin at 11 a.m.
God’s Acre tour
While Remembrance Day ceremonies are an emotional and symbolic ritual of honouring veterans, a tour happening the afternoon of Nov. 11 offers a historical look at those who served the country.
Volunteer and historian John Azar is leading a tour of God’s Acre, a veterans cemetery in Esquimalt that long predates the surrounding Gorge Vale golf course. The British Royal Navy purchased the plot from a subsidiary of the Hudson’s Bay Co. in 1865 and eventually, Veterans Affairs took over the three-acre site.
About 2,500 military personnel are buried there, including veterans of the Crimean War of the mid-1850s, those who fought in the First and Second World Wars and at least one veteran of recent military operations in Afghanistan.
“This helps people understand the sacrifices individuals made and sacrifices families made as well,” Azar says.
God’s Acre tour is at 2 p.m. on Nov. 11. Road access to the site is at 1200 Colville Rd.