OTTAWA – Hundreds of Canadians gathered at the National War Memorial on Friday to witness the return of the ceremonial honour guard, breaking into applause for military personnel and later carpeting the monument with flowers.
It was a spontaneous show of solidarity and support for the Canadian Forces, given that the resumption of duties at the memorial had not been publicized.
Cpl. Nathan Cirillo of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was shot and killed Wednesday as he stood guard by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, accompanied by Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson, greeted members of several regiments in front of the memorial. Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee, former Reform party leader Preston Manning and several MPs stood with the public.
The crowd watched in complete silence as sentries Cpl. Daniel Germaine and Cpl. Mark Daigle took up their places in the warm autumn sunshine.
A Canadian flag with writing on it waved behind the guards: “Corporal Nathan Cirillo. RIP. Thank-you from The Great White North.”
When Harper and the military brass left, the crowd was permitted to walk up to the steps of the monument directly in front of the stone and bronze tomb. They brought bouquets of flowers and poppies, placing them around the area. Some wiped away tears. Others just stretched out a hand to touch the sun-warmed metal atop the sarcophagus.
Only two days earlier, paramedics and bystanders struggled to keep Cirillo alive on the same granite platform.
“I think it’s important it’s a duty to come pay my respects to Cpl. Cirillo,” said Maj. Guillaume Begin, a Canadian Forces chaplain who carried a toddler on his shoulders. “It’s a way for me to honour his life and also the sacrifice that he had to make in a brutal way.
“I’m part of that family and I can’t miss this.”
A tall, white-haired man stood and faced the crowd and sang the song “Bring Him Home” from the musical Les Miserables. Shortly afterward, the crowd sang the national anthem.
“I came by today because of compassion, and because of our country,” said Doreen Stevens, who wore a red leather jacket in support of the Forces.
“I’m First Nations and I have family in the military, and I have great respect for people who protect our country.”
A debate is still underway over how the Canadian Forces should deal with the aftermath of Wednesday’s shooting. Initially, Lawson said that no sentries would be stationed at the memorial until a full security review was conducted.
Lawson had also issued a directive that members of the Forces not wear their combat or dress uniforms in public except while going to and from work.
That order met with criticism from some soldiers. Conservative MP John Williamson, who has the large Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in his New Brunswick riding, tweeted that he thought the wearing of the uniform was as important as the quick resumption of Parliament.
“It should be the decision of individuals when a uniform is worn off a Canadian Forces Base,” Williamson said in an emailed statement. “Our CAF members should not be ordered to abandon their uniforms when they are in our communities.
“These men and women are an important part of our communities right across this country and the uniform they wear represents Canada.”
But other MPs said they preferred to defer to military leaders for decisions on the uniform.
“I am comfortable with that decision because I have the utmost faith in our chief of defence staff and we’ll still be functioning … they’re trying to say that if you have personal stuff to do after work, change first,” said MP Erin O’Toole, a former member of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Earlier Friday, the procession carrying Cirillo’s body left an Ottawa funeral home for the journey home to Hamilton. The route took it along a portion of Highway 401 dubbed the Highway of Heroes, after the war dead who passed that way during the war in Afghanistan.
The coffin was carried to the hearse by a military guard. Among the escort vehicles was a Hamilton police cruiser.