OTTAWA — Thousands of Canadians stood in the biting cold for national Remembrance Day services on Saturday as the military’s senior chaplain delivered a powerful message to those struggling with thoughts of suicide as a result of their time in uniform.
Clad in the white robes of his office, Brig.-Gen. Guy Chapdelaine prayed for those who died defending the country and its way of life before turning to “soldiers suffering from injuries visible and invisible.”
“We pray for all those who because of the strain of life have considered or attempted suicide,” Chapdelaine said as the large crowd gathered around the National War Memorial stood in respectful silence.
“Inspire us to take meaningful action to understand, address and reduce the risk of suicide and be a supportive, compassionate support to our comrades and loved ones at risk. Help us to give them hope.”
It was a poignant moment, and one that resonated with many in attendance as Canada tries to come to grips with the psychological toll that war has taken on many of its current and former military personnel.
“It’s very important that it is put out there for people,” said Cpl. Robert Vincent, who travelled from Pembroke, Ont., to attend the ceremony in Ottawa with his family.
“There will be people all over Canada watching this today and elsewhere as well. So it’s important that the message is said here. Any chance we get to help out a veteran is great.”
More than 130 serving military personnel have taken their own lives since 2010, according to the government, including eight who died between January and August this year.
Officials say the military suicide rate is roughly the same as the general population, but there are exceptions: those who serve in the army, for example, are up to three times more likely to kill themselves.
The government doesn’t know exactly how many veterans kill themselves each year, but previous studies have suggested they are more at risk than active members.
It was also a timely message as only last month, the government released a plan aimed at combating suicide and improving mental health among military members and veterans.
Chapdelaine’s words also underscored the changing nature of Remembrance Day, as veterans from the Second World War and Korea pass the torch to those who came after – and who face their own unique challenges.
The crowd started gathering early under a brilliant blue sky before a parade of military personnel and veterans marched onto the plaza in front of the monument.
The number of veterans in the parade was painfully small. Gone were the long lines of veterans from the Second World War and Korea. In their stead were former peacekeepers and those who served in Afghanistan.
Saturday’s ceremony also saw a different changing of the guard, as Julie Payette marked her first Remembrance Day as Canada’s governor general after replacing David Johnston last month.
Following what has become an established tradition, the former astronaut, who was escorted by her son Laurier Payette, wore an air force uniform as commander-in-chief.
Sophie Gregoire Trudeau was also on hand, filling in for her husband, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is travelling in Asia.
The prime minister joined a special ceremony at a hotel in the Vietnamese city of Danang on Saturday.
Trudeau recited the French poem, “Le dormeur du val,” and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland read “In Flanders Fields.” A bugler then played “Last Post” and the room sang the national anthem.
Among those who placed wreaths during the Ottawa ceremony was the Silver Cross Mother, Diana Abel, representing all bereaved mothers. Abel’s son, Michael, was killed while serving in Somalia in 1993.
Icy temperatures also prevailed in Toronto where hundreds of people gathered to pay their respects in the downtown core. Mayor John Tory said the conditions seemed appropriate given the purpose of the gathering.
“It might just give us the tiniest sense of the devastating circumstances in which our service men and women did their duty on our behalf in many past conflicts,” he said.
In Halifax, hundreds of people turned out, and doves flew overhead as rows of uniformed men and women removed their hats to pay their respects to fallen soldiers.
Veterans, dignitaries and citizens also bowed their heads in Montreal as prayers and poems were read in English, French and Mohawk.
Some wiped away tears and during a reading of Robert Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen,” which was occasionally drowned out by the booming cannon fire of an artillery salute.
The crowd was invited to repeat the famous refrain: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning/we will remember them.”
Later, outgoing Mayor Denis Coderre linked arms with his successor Valerie Plante as the two lay a wreath at the foot of the cenotaph.
With files from Morgan Lowrie in Montreal.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press