Remembrance Day 2023 in an old-city corner of Toronto, Canada — these are troubling times in which many of us are looking for something to hang onto …

Nov 12th, 2023 | By | Category: In Brief
Michael Seward, ‘Talking/Listening. 2023. Acrylic. 24”sq.’.

RANDALL WHITE. FERNWOOD PARK, TORONTO. SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2023. When I first moved into the east Toronto waterfront neighbourhood where I still live — many, many years later — I went to the Remembrance Day commemoration (Veteran’s Day in the USA across the lake), at the cenotaph by the edge of a local park (or Gardens, as it’s formally known).

It was in the middle of the 1970s, and no more than 30 or 40 (at most 50) people showed up. My vague recollection is that a few local officials made brief remarks. And there was a minute of silence at 11 AM on November 11, in the 11th month of the year. But not much else happened.

This year, 2023, there were several hundred people, crowded into a corner of the park and dominating the adjacent street sidewalks. There was also a small accordion band (with a bass drum, playing 1-2-3 in 4-beat marches) and (finally) a somewhat larger pipe band complete with bass and marching drums (and assorted flags).

Many local dignitaries and suitably diverse clergy seemed to speak briefly. An attractive young lady of about high school age read John McCrae’s First World War classic “In Flanders Fields” with some passion. Almost every local, regional, and national organization of any account appeared to lay a wreath by the cenotaph. A trumpeter played “The Last Post.” There were two minutes of silence more or less at 11 AM.

The crowd this year was arguably larger than four years ago

At the Kew Gardens Cenotaph 2023. Tks to Nate Erskine-Smith, MP.

Even the grey, chilly November 11 weather seemed to confirm the 2023 mood. And one obvious reason for the several hundred person turnout (so much larger than my first visit to this particular cenotaph almost 50 years ago) is no doubt just that this year November 11 fell on a Saturday. It seemed impossible as well not to credit the Israel-Hamas conflict, in the wake of the Russian assault on Ukraine.

Back home at my desk in front of my (the younger people say too ancient) PC, however, I discovered that four years ago in 2019 (when my own record book says “crazy snow all day”) a local paper reported : “Large crowd attends Remembrance Day ceremony at Kew Gardens Cenotaph … spilling out onto Queen Street East … on Monday, Nov. 11.”

Remembrance Day ceremony at the Kew Gardens cenotaph on Queen Street East on November 11, 2019.

I think the crowd this year was arguably larger than four years ago. It did more than “spill out onto,”it dominated the street for some distance and spilled out into the much larger park behind the cenotaph … But it does seem that Remembrance Day services in my neighbourhood have been much better attended than they were almost 50 years ago for some time now — and certainly for at least a few years in the most recent past.

At the same time, in the midst of the 2023 crowd I could also see why I have not myself been one of the regular attendees at these public events in my neighbourhood, more or less since the 1970s when I first arrived (from at least three other main parts of the Greater Toronto in which I grew up).

Hosted by the Royal Canadian Legion Baron Byng Beaches Branch 1/42

Michael Seward, ‘Coming Through. 2023. Acrylic. 24” x 30”’.

One part of my trouble is that the local Remembrance Day ceremony at the Kew Gardens cenotaph is now “hosted by the Royal Canadian Legion Baron Byng Beaches Branch 1/42.”

The vaguely military lady who hosted in person at Kew Gardens yesterday even generously invited the crowd back to the Legion hall on Coxwell Avenue for a modest spot of lunch (and, though she did not spell this out, no doubt drinks as well for those so inclined).

A related part of my trouble flows from this particular legion hall’s name. Baron Byng was a British aristocrat who took command of the Canadian Army during the First World War, and was subsequently appointed Governor General of Canada, 1921-1926. During his time as British Governor General he came into conflict with the Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (grandson of the 1837-38 Upper Canada Rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie).

Mackenzie King and his own far-from-unflawed conception of early Canadian democracy finally “won” the “King-Byng Affair” of 1925–26, so to speak. And as an ultimate result after the Statute of Westminster in 1931 the Governor General of Canada came to be appointed by the Prime Minister of Canada, as opposed to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (though still in theory on advice to the British monarch).

Michael Seward, ‘Metaflora. 2023. Acrylic. 42” x 54”’.

The Baron Byng Beaches legion’s continuing romantic loyalty to the losing imperial echoes in 21st century Canada was quietly reflected in the November 11, 2023 ceremony at the Kew Gardens cenotaph.

Early on the accordion band played “O Canada” and almost everyone in the crowd sang (though always in English, with no even brief French moments, despite the somewhat increasing presence of French Canadians and/or Québécois in the neighbourhood). The ceremony more or less ended, however, with “God Save the King.”

Happy to see many surprisingly well-behaved children this November 11

Somewhat surprised, to say the least, like many others in the crowd I did not even try to sing in this case. Instead, I remembered that the flags the pipe and drum band carried included far too many Union Jacks for my independent maple leaf flag taste. At the same time, the accordion band also played “The Maple Leaf Forever” (in fact long ago invented not too far away to the west along Queen Street!) — which I thought had become too redolent of dysfunctional “British conquest” mythology to be sung out loud (but of course no one was singing the offensive lyrics)!.

Wreaths are laid at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 287’s Remembrance Day ceremony in Timmins, Ontario, November 11, 2023. Maija Hoggett/TimminsToday.

Similarly, to the best of my recollection virtually nothing was said about the important and still too often unrecognized roles of Indigenous Canadian Veterans, Black Canadian Veterans, and (say) Other Multicultural Canadian Veterans (eg Sikhs like the great grandfather of Jagmeet Singh) in all of the First World War, Second World War, Korean War, Canada in Afghanistan (2001-2014), and Peace support operations (1954-present).

In any case of course what finally matters is remembering and somehow honouring those who gave their lives for the country in which at least the great majority of us are still so lucky to live today. My grandparents’ generation fought in the First World War, and my parents’ generation in the Second World War and the Korean War. My generation has not faced these kinds of major military challenges. But Canadians have continued to die for their country and what its Constitution Act, 1982 calls the “free and democratic society” in many parts of the world. They continue to deserve some kind of exceptional historical memory.

My generation alas is also already on its way out, as people like me in their late 70s (and early 80s) know all too well. I was happy to see many surprisingly well-behaved children this November 11 at the Kew Gardens Cenotaph (“put up by the Beaches Businessmen’s Association in 1946”) — along with many equally well-behaved dogs who seemed to vaguely sense that something a bit solemn was afoot.

Finding the something you’re looking for at least briefly in troubling times

Michael Seward, ‘Umberto Boccioni. 2023. Acrylic. 40”sq.’.

In any case again, I went to the Kew Gardens Cenotaph yesterday because these are troubling times in which many of us are looking for something to hang onto. And I am one of them.

I do think as well that at least for a moment I found the something I was looking for on November 11, 2023.

And in the end hats off to the Royal Canadian Legion Baron Byng Beaches Branch 1/42 for putting the ceremony together — even if I continue to believe that this just may be a case where the name of something probably could stand to be changed for the 21st century!

There is nothing more worth admiring and honouring than dying for the people of your country and their future.

Standing in the chilly grey weather a few hundred yards north of Lake Ontario yesterday, with several hundred other people from my neighbourhood who also wanted to somehow honour and show deep respect for those who have died for we the Canadian people, made me more confident about our future.

My wife, on another equally important humanitarian side, did not join me at the Cenotaph. She had not been with me when I first moved into the neighbourhood back in the 1970s either — and went to the Remembrance Day commemoration by the edge of a local park.

Four aging Canadians unwinding at The Bluebird in West Toronto one week before November 11, on Saturday, November 4, 2023. Photo by Jared Ong.

Then as now, she went shopping nearby instead. That was her way of dealing with troubling times in the global village.

But she was very impressed by the vast number of people who showed up for Remembrance Day 2023, just across the street from her Shoppers’ Drug Mart … (in the far east end of the old city on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario, in what was once a somewhat exotic streetcar suburb of the era between the two world wars, in the 1920s and 1930s … across the lake from Port Weller and St. Catharines and the Niagara fruitlands, where my wife grew up).

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