9 Questions About Remembrance Day Answered

Poppy field

Historian and SCS instructor Nick Gunz answers your Remembrance Day questions, and reminds us why it matters in 2021.

Like many Canadians, or people living in Canada, you may have been attending Remembrance Day memorials for years, but never really understood why they happen. You may have stood in silence at 11 am on November 11th, but not had a clear sense of why we do this ceremonial gesture. I’m here to answer some top questions about Remembrance Day, and explain not only the history surrounding it, but how it’s evolved over time.

1. What IS Remembrance Day exactly?

Remembrance Day is one of the major civic holidays on the Canadian calendar but, in Ontario, it generally isn't a day off work. It's been observed, annually, since the end of the First World War. In 1931, it was fixed to the hour of 11 am on the 11th of November: notionally the exact anniversary (ex. time-zone complications) of the ceasefire that ended the First World War in 1918.

2. Is this the one where you have barbecues and stereo equipment sales and stuff?

That's Memorial Day in the US. In Canada, Remembrance Day is an extremely solemn occasion and is taken very, very seriously. I'm not kidding: make light of this and you risk causing offence. 

Different countries have different traditions when it comes to commemorating war dead. In some places, it's an observance specifically for people who are, or were, in the military; in others it's a public, whole-of-society thing. In some places, it takes on a triumphal tone, often with loud parades and cheering; in others it's a day of mourning.

3. Ok, so how does Canada mark the occasion?

Canada was closely tied to the UK in the years following 1918, and so it follows what might be called the "Commonwealth model". There are lots of countries in this group: some you might expect (New Zealand, Kenya), others which might be surprising (the Israeli "Day of Remembrance" reflects the history of Mandatory Palestine, and of Jewish soldiers fighting with UK forces in the First and Second World Wars).

There's a lot of variation within the "Commonwealth model". The Australians have their main ceremony at the break of dawn on April 25th. The British tend to do it on the Sunday nearest November 11th. The Israelis, as one might expect, time it according to the Hebrew calendar (April or May, depending on the year).

In every case, though, there are three basic elements: a) mass participation in, b) a symbolic funeral which, c) is built around a (usually two minute) act of silence.

4. How do you "act" silence?

By standing still and not saying anything. In the old days they used to halt traffic. This stopped happening some time in or after the 1950's, but you'll still see people stopping, wherever they are, and just waiting for two minutes before they get on with their day.

The "two-minute silence" started in South Africa during WWI and quickly spread to the rest of the Commonwealth. It's easy to see why: it works across cultures, it's contemplative, funerary, participatory, and emotionally effecting. In Canada, silence has become the dominant theme in public memorialisation. Pretty much whenever Canadians need to memorialise something, they stand in silence. It's a whole thing.

5. So that's the "ceremony" I keep hearing about? Standing in silence?

For a lot of people, yes. You are encouraged, though, to attend one of the many public ceremonies that take place at the war memorials dotted around the country. These typically last about an hour and end with the two-minutes silence at 11 am.

This being a COVID year, however, a lot of these ceremonies will go virtual. The U of T's war memorial is Soldier's Tower, next to Hart House on the St. George campus. You can sign up for the socially-distanced livestream here.

6. Is this a specifically Christian ceremony?

Weirdly, for something designed for the interwar period, not really. In the early 20's, Canada was already a multi-cultural society, and the "Imperial" forces with which Canadians fought during WWI (representing a quarter of the world's population) were wildly multicultural. The ceremony, then, was designed to combine religious themes from all sorts of popular religions at the time, and also to be accessible to the non-religious.

For instance, you may have heard Canadians calling their local war memorial a 'Cenotaph' (from the Greek, literally "empty tomb"). The one in front of Old City Hall in Toronto is a Cenotaph, as is the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Governments were encouraging the building of these explicitly-secular "empty tomb" moments as early as 1919, specifically so that they could be accessible across religious lines. Which, when you think about it, is surprisingly 'woke' for a society that was also vigorously suppressing Indigenous culture and was about to outright ban the immigration of Chinese people. History, as it turns out, is complicated, messy, and often very dark. Which is something we think about on November 11th.

7. The red pins everybody is wearing: what’s that about?

Those are symbolic poppy flowers.

There's a long European tradition of using botanical emblems to represent special days. Not always flowers, by the way: there is a Welsh tradition to mark St David's Day by wearing a leek. In France, one commemorates veterans and victims of war by wearing a symbolic cornflower. French army uniforms of the Great War were light blue. The image of young troops marching to the slaughter in their cornflower-blue uniforms, as vibrant and impermanent as the blossoms of spring, became a powerful and melancholy symbol in that country.

In the Commonwealth, during the war, soldiers began to see a similar symbolic meaning in the blood-red poppy that grew in profusion across the Western Front. Poppies like to grow in disturbed earth (that's why you get them in newly-ploughed fields) and that's why they grew so readily in the churned up earth of no man's land and, especially, on freshly dug graves.

One finds poppies again and again in wartime poetry, the most famous example being In Flanders Fields by U of T alum LtCol John McCrae: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow", he writes in the voice of the newly dead, "Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place".

After the war, veterans' groups began to sell poppies as a fundraiser. In Canada, this is done by the Royal Canadian Legion.

8. Yeah, the darn things won't stay on!

I know, I know… I try weaving the pin in and out of my coat a few times. It creates more friction, and they seem to last a little longer.

In May of 2000, the Canadians repatriated a so-called Unknown Soldier to be entombed next to the cenotaph in Ottawa. The following November, members of the crowd at the Remembrance Day ceremony began, quite spontaneously, to take off their poppies and lay it on this grave. It's become a tradition for some people, now. If you see somebody without a poppy on the afternoon of Remembrance Day, that could mean that they left it at a war memorial.

9. So, Remembrance Day… changes?

Yeah, it does. Remembrance Day has always been a combination of top-down organization and bottom-up popular innovation. Over the years it's evolved, organically, out of the culture of the day.

And that's the deal with Remembrance Day: it's a point of connection. The people who designed this observance created a monument that, in order to work, had to be re-built each year. 

Think about what it means, symbolically I mean, to stand in a group of people but in silence. You're there in a crowd doing a thing together, but you're also deeply alone. Silence is a connection, bridging divides of language and culture and tradition but it's also a barrier, a cutting off.

And it isn't just a social paradox, it's also temporal. Silence is made of time: it happens in a specific moment at a specific place. But silence is also timeless: it is exactly the same in any year. Silence sounds the same in 2021 as it did in 1921, and it will sound exactly the same in 2121, G'd willing we're still around to not hear it.

So yeah, that's the deal. This year we'll observe that silence for the hundred and second time in Canada. And every second will be fresh, and new, and made by us, and also completely the same. Always fresh, always raw, always exactly the same. 

Because that's what grief is like.


Nick Gunz is a naval and intelligence historian, specialising in the link between intelligence analysis and military strategy. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Toronto before going on to graduate work at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Prior to returning to Toronto to teach at U of T SCS, he spent several years teaching undergraduates at the University of Cambridge and at Yale. His SCS course, Apocalypse Now and Again: Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Crisis, begins in March 2022.

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