The pandemic makes veterans and their supporters to find new ways to mark Remembrance Day

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arol Young and Dorothy Kern never miss a Remembrance Day service. But this year, the pandemic is forcing Legions to tell people to stay away from small, invitation-only gatherings at cenotaphs on Nov. 11.

So the two air force veterans are having a ceremony of their own.

“We decided to put our uniforms on, put flags at the bottom of our driveway and have two minutes of silence to pay respect for those who lost their lives keeping our country safe and those still serving,” says Young, who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in radar and communications in 1961 and later served as chaplain of the Royal Canadian Legion Centennial Branch 160 in Dartmouth for 11 years.

“This year they said we could remember in our own way and watch one of the services streaming on TV…That’s all fine and good, but we thought we would do it this way.”

If not for the pandemic, Young and Kern would have gone to the service in Cole Harbour, where they are each still members, or the ceremony in Antigonish, 20 kilometres from their new home in Lochaber.

“It would have been one of them,” says Kern, who joined the air force reserve in 1954, switched to the RCAF a couple of years later, and served a decade in administration before having to step down when she married and got pregnant. “We would be there.”

As at other Legions around the province and across the country, organizers at the Royal Canadian Legion Arras Branch 59 in Antigonish decided not to hold a public Remembrance Day service at its cenotaph this year. Instead, a small private gathering will broadcast on Facebook.

The Cole Harbour service usually attracts a crowd of more than 1,000. “We’re going to have 30 with no parade and no marching,” says Joanne Geddes, president of the Legion branch and retired master warrant officer. “We all have to be socially distant.”

The Middle Musquodoboit native says 13 or 14 wreaths will be laid as part of the private ceremony, with personal wreath laying allowed after. Organizers are making an exception for the family of Heidi Stevenson, the RCMP officer killed in the April mass shooting. Stevenson and her husband, Dean Stevenson, were both active at Remembrance Day ceremonies over the years.

“It was very hard for us to tell our members we’re not going to be open. Normally, our branch is packed upstairs and down,” says Geddes. “It’s important that we remember, but we don’t have to be in harm’s way to do so.”

Geddes has a poppy light and a cross at her house to commemorate her late father, who served in the forces.

At the Grand Parade in downtown Halifax, only 50 guests are invited to a private service.

“We are allowed 250, but who do you invite or not invite?” says Marion Fryday-Cook, president of the Royal Canadian Legion’s Nova Scotia/Nunavut Command. “We just need to keep people safe.”

In a typical year, the ceremony draws a crowd of 3,000 or more. “I sat there last year in awe and amazement,” says Fryday-Cook, who joined the Legion 38 years ago. As many as 400 service men and women were in attendance, along with a marching band, cadets, little children in strollers, grandparents and others “of all ages and walks of life.”

Veterans and other Legion members have been understanding about the changes. “Most are thanking us for trying to keep them safe,” she says.

Ken Hynes

The curtailed gatherings come as Remembrance Day services have seen a steady climb in attendance over the past decade. Ken Hynes, chief curator of the Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel, attributes the increase in large part to the awareness generated by the conflict in Afghanistan.

“The faces of young men and women who served there make it easier for younger people to connect to the sacrifice,” says Hynes, who joined the artillery in 1972. “It not just an old photograph of someone in uniform in someone’s basement.”

The last Canadian veteran of the First World War died in 2010. The average age of Second World War veterans is mid-nineties. “They were all volunteers who willingly served their country,” says Hynes. “There were 620,000 in the First World War and a million in the Second World War. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it sometimes.”

Even if they are being discouraged from going to a cenotaph, people can still take time out of their day to reflect. “They were just like you and me, except tens of thousands of them never got to live out their dreams because they lie buried,” he says. “Whether wounded in body or psychologically, for everyone who stepped up to the plate it’s a special day in our country.”

Hynes says the museum closed for the season last month but will open as usual on Remembrance Day from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., with COVID-19 precautions.

During the service at the end of their driveway, a few neighbours will join Young and Kern as they lay a small wreath.

“One of the gals from command suggested we do it,” says Kern, a Montreal native who’s lived in Nova Scotia since relocating to Stadacona in the 1960s.

Young, who hails from the fishing village of East Petpeswick, says because her father served in the military, she doesn’t remember a time when her family didn’t mark Remembrance Day.

“COVID is certainly putting a damper on many things, but this is one thing you just can’t ignore,” she says.

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