The History of Remembrance

“Vimy Stone”, placed in the western wall of Parliament by stone masons to mark the great victory at Vimy.

Remembrance Day is a very important time of year and has become part of the fabric of our nation. This year marks one hundred years since the Armistice that ended the First World War. It was the sacrifice of that war and the remarkable transformation of a young Canada that forged the elements of the Remembrance Day we commemorate today. From the symbols we wear – the poppies taken from John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” – to the date and style of commemoration itself, all of the elements of Remembrance Day find their roots in the First World War. We can also still see the impact and scars on our communities and our country a century later.


The Great War, as it was known, was the coming of age for the young country of Canada. When the war began in 1914, Canada was automatically at war as soon as the declaration was made by Great Britain because Britain still retained foreign policy decisions for our country at that time. By the end of the war in 1918, however, Canada had emerged as an independent nation on the world stage with its own seat at the table for the Treaty of Versailles ending the war. During the Great War, Canada was a nation of just 8 million people, but more than 650,000 served during the war. By the end of the conflict, 60,000 Canadians were killed and many more returned home wounded with the physical and mental costs of the war. Almost every family had a direct connection with someone lost or injured in the war.


The scars from the Great War are etched on the cenotaphs across the small towns and hamlets of Durham and can be found forged into the stone of Parliament itself. The Centre Block of Parliament had burned down in 1916 amid the dark days of the war and its reconstruction would not be completed until 1924. The western wall of the Parliament building bears the mark of one of Canada’s greatest victories of the war. Hearing about the great victory at Vimy Ridge in 1917, the stone masons rebuilding Parliament placed a special “Vimy Stone” into the western wall of the building. The new Parliament building itself took on a theme of a country emerging from war. The old Victoria Tower that had been the central feature of the original building was replaced with the new Tower of Victory and Peace (better known as the Peace Tower). At almost twice the height, the new tower projected a new confidence and independence for a young nation emerging from war. Parliament itself was also constructed upon the tremendous sacrifice of the Great War. Contained within the base of the Peace Tower is the most hallowed ground on Parliament hill. The majestic Memorial Chamber pays eternal homage to the thousands of fallen from the Great War and all Canadians who died in active service of the country.


Before the MPs had even returned to Parliament Hill, they were discussing how best to provide for a national day of commemoration and remembrance of the war. In 1919, an Ontario MP brought a motion to recognize Armistice Day as an annual holiday to mark the end of the Great War. Two years later, this symbolic motion became law through the Armistice Day Act, which established an annual day of commemoration. However, Armistice Day did not fall on November 11th in the beginning. At first, Armistice Day was celebrated alongside Thanksgiving, which was declared each year by Parliament. The two events were held together on the first Monday ahead of November 11th each year. Combining Armistice Day with Thanksgiving angered Great War Veterans and many of them began to informally recognize November 11th as the day of commemoration regardless of the day, upon which, it fell. When a number of Great War Veteran associations combined their efforts and created the Royal Canadian Legion in 1925, the subject of making Armistice Day a stand alone day on November 11th was one of this new organization’s first resolutions. After a few years of pushing, Parliament listened to its Great War Veterans and passed a motion in 1931 to affirm November 11th as the day for Armistice Day. Interestingly, it was during the debate on the date when the name change to Remembrance Day was brought up. An MP from British Columbia proposed changing the name to Remembrance Day because of the desire to both “remember and perpetuate” the peace secured through the sacrifice of many Canadians. Remembrance of the loss was more important than the Armistice itself in the view of this MP and his colleagues agreed and Remembrance Day was born.


Great War Veterans pushed to establish November 11th as Remembrance Day and Durham residents should be proud to know that one of our own Great War Veterans helped lead the charge to have injured Veterans properly taken care of during and after the war. Herbert Bruce was born and raised in Blackstock and served in the Great War as a Canadian Army Surgeon. In 1916, Colonel Bruce was tasked by the controversial Minister of Militia Sir Sam Hughes to draft a report on the Canadian Army Medical Corps and care for our soldiers. Colonel Bruce wanted to ensure that Canadian physicians and Canadian hospitals could treat our wounded and provide for them after the war. He pushed to make this happen in both 1916 and 1919 and also advocated for the medical corps to help Veterans qualify for their pensions. Bruce went on to serve as both Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor and later as a Member of Parliament for a Toronto riding, where he helped advocate for the establishment of the Department of Veterans Affairs.


Lest we forget.