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Sacred site or rallying point? The politicization of the National War Memorial

Last weekend, someone was seen draping Canadian and American flags over the grave in a ceremony streamed live online. Photos and videos were widely shared on social media before the accounts, which appeared to be linked to “Freedom Convoy” supporters, were taken down.

It sparked an outcry, including from Defense Minister Anita Anand, who called it a “profanation”.

It has also prompted calls for more security, including from the Royal Canadian Legion, which first made such a request after the memorial was seen as disrespectful, including public urination, towards the start of the three-week protest that gripped downtown Ottawa this winter. .

On the eve of Canada Day, Army Reservist James Topp addressed hundreds of people gathered near the Cenotaph and compared himself and others fighting vaccination warrants to the Canadian soldier unidentified killed in World War I whose remains were buried in the grave.

Facing a court-martial for publicly criticizing federal vaccine requirements while wearing his uniform, Topp had arrived at the grave after a four-month march from Vancouver, during which he became a celebrity for many many people opposed to vaccines and liberals.

“This is us. We are the unknown soldier,” Topp told the crowd, which included a number of people wearing military headgear and medals to indicate their veteran status.

“What did we have in common with this person?” … We had courage.

A group called Veterans 4 Freedom, which supported Topp’s march and includes members with ties to the “Freedom Convoy,” also held a rally at the memorial during the “Rolling Thunder” event in April, where members gave speeches against vaccines and pandemic restrictions.

“Canadians must sacrifice themselves to keep our freedom,” a speaker told the crowd. “They went to France. They fought in the South Pacific, the Battle of Britain. They sacrifice their life. But nowadays, we have to sacrifice ourselves in a different way.

Veterans 4 Freedom declined to comment. Topp referenced his June 30 speech.

David Hofmann is an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick and co-director of the government-funded Canadian Armed Forces Hate Conduct and Right-Wing Extremism Research Network.

He said that political movements need symbols to succeed, and that it should perhaps come as no surprise that some groups in Canada are now trying to transform the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier into such purposes.

“It’s a powerful symbol,” Hofmann said. “You have the unknown soldier, the ultimate martyr, someone who is not even remembered by name. And you have these individuals… trying to equate what they’re doing with a sense of martyrdom.

Retired Brigadier-General Duane Daly, who was instrumental in leading the Royal Canadian Legion with the establishment of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier more than 20 years ago, disagreed with those who wanted to use the site “as a centerpiece for political dissent”.

“It’s a grave,” he said. “If they want to make a statement like that, go to parliament. That’s why, not the grave.

Others have suggested that some of those who use the memorial to amplify grievances against the government actually represent the opposite of the altruism the sites are dedicated to.

“The Unknown Soldier died for his country. He died in a selfless act,” said Youri Cormier, executive director of the Conference of Defense Associations Institute think tank.

“When you honk and shout about an idea of ​​personal freedoms that excludes one’s duty to one’s nation, respect for the law, and…respect for the principle that one’s freedom ends where it infringes on the freedoms of others is to put yourself before the nation.”

It is in this context that some like the Legion and Cormier, who have noted that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Va., is guarded 24 hours a day by armed military personnel, have called for greater security at the memorial.

“No one is permitted to usurp or appropriate the hallowed ground of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for any stunt or campaign,” Cormier said. “This sacred space is not to be taken.”

Public Services and Procurement Canada says the site is monitored 24/7, but would not comment on calls for more security. While the Canadian Armed Forces have a ceremonial guard at the memorial for tourists, the Ottawa Police are responsible for site security.

The murder of cape. Nathan Cirillo by an Islamic State sympathizer in October 2014 prompted a security review at the memorial and the possible placement of military police. But their job is to protect the ceremonial guards while they are on duty.

The exact type of security measures to adopt is unclear.

Most experts agree that authorities should not limit or restrict public access to the memorial, in part because the vast majority of visitors to the site are respectful ⁠—but also because such a move could play into the hands of some groups.

“In some ways it’s more dangerous because it feeds the victim mentality that we’re silenced, that we’re oppressed,” said Barbara Perry, director of the Center of Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech. University.

Authorities erected fences around the memorial at the start of the “freedom convoy” after a woman stood at the grave. But they were later shot dead by protesters. Many of them identified themselves as veterans and said they were reclaiming the site – a message repeated as a reason to gather at the Cenotaph during the “Rolling Thunder” event this spring.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Day also pushed back on the idea of ​​American-style restrictions at the memorial, such as ropes and fencing preventing the public from approaching.

“All national monuments must be accessible. I accept that it comes at a cost,” Day said.

“But I think the cost of locking them up and not making them accessible is higher. So I accept that there are individuals like we have seen who will benefit.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 31, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.