Last Wednesday, just before 9 a.m. my son strode confidently into the Sault Ste. Marie Armouries to begin the process to enlist into the Canadian Reserves. This was the day that he had been dreaming about for almost five years.
I still remember the moment that he told me. He had just turned 12. It was a dark, rainy evening in October. He slid into his seat at the kitchen table as I was pulling the Shepherd’s pie out of the oven.
“Mom, I have to tell you something,” he started. “And you’re not going to like it.”
There was conviction in his voice and it alarmed me.
“I made a decision last year and I’ve been afraid to tell you. I know that it’s going to upset you. I know what I’m supposed to do with my life, Mom. I feel like I am being called to serve in the military and to protect people… I feel it in my soul. This is what I’m meant to do.”
I knew my son well enough to believe him even though he was only 12 years old. And thinking about the possibility of being a soldier’s mother was bittersweet.
The National War Memorial was originally built in 1939 to commemorate the First World War. Since that time it has been rededicated to include the commemoration of the Second World War and the Korean War. In 2000 the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was added to the installation. The remains of an unknown Canadian soldier who lost his life during the First World War were repatriated from France and laid to rest in the tomb.
In 2006 the nation of Canada was outraged when a photograph of three young men urinating on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was published in the Ottawa Citizen. Responding to the outcry, especially from numerous veteran groups, the armed forces have positioned ceremonial guards at the site since. The National Sentry Program recently expanded their duty to cover the months beginning April 9th – the anniversary of the start of the Battle of Vimy Ridge through to November 10th.
Corporal Nathan Cirillo had just eight minutes left in his 30 minute rotation serving as sentry at the National War Memorial on Wednesday October 22nd, 2014 when he was shot dead at point blank range by a lone gunman. As is the protocol, Corporal Cirillo was wearing his ceremonial regalia and holding an unloaded rifle when he was killed at the foot of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
He was in the Armouries for about 40 minutes. When he finally emerged from the building he was smiling, walking quickly back to the car and excited to tell me everything. I tried to drive the short distance to the school as slowly as the law would permit so that I could give him as much time as possible to deplete his adrenaline rush before returning to his classes for the remainder of the day.
My son was happy and therefore so was I.
After I left him at the school- brimming over with joy, I returned to my office. I opened up my computer and signed on to Facebook – my preferred drop spot for picking up the news. And there it was- the horror at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The reservist, still a very young man, shot dead while performing a ceremonial duty.
I moved from horror to anger- very quickly. Why on earth would a soldier be asked to present in uniform with a rifle- and one that was unloaded?
Lieutenant Kirk Sullivan is a public affairs officer in Ottawa with the Canadian National Defence. “I wanted to help Canadians understand what it is that Canadians in the armed forces do on their behalf. I want to help tell that story,” he shared.
When I was speaking with Lieutenant Sullivan over the phone this week I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for him because my understanding of the military is pretty ignorant. My lousy comprehension of even the most basic military vernacular made me want to strangle myself with the now figurative phone cord on Lieutenant Sullivan’s behalf.
My first question for him, just to demonstrate my obliviousness, was why aren’t ceremonial guards armed. The answer was pretty straightforward. “The department of National Defence is not responsible for site security or the security of personnel there- that is not our jurisdiction. Security there is provided by non-military resources.”
After Corporal Nathan Cirillo was killed, the National Sentry Program suspended ceremonial duties at the site for 48 hours. Sentries resumed their post at the National War Memorial on Friday, October 24th, 2014.
According to Constable Marc Soucy of Ottawa Police, prior to last Friday, there wasn’t any armed security located at the site. However, Ottawa local police will be present at the National War Memorial until November 11th, 2014 to ensure the safety of soldiers performing this ceremonial duty. It has not yet been decided by local authorities if this protection will be ongoing when the National Sentry Program recommences in the spring of 2015.
If I am to be honest, I wasn’t really conscious of the targeted hatred towards a uniform in Canada until June 4th, 2014. That was the day, as most will recall, that Justin Bourque mowed down five officers, leaving two injured and three dead in Moncton, New Brunswick. And there is the death ten days ago of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent who was killed in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec in what other media has referred to as a ‘targeted hit and run’.
But when we look at why Corporal Cirillo was there on that tragic day in the first place it was because seven years ago three Canadian men were photographed taking a whiz all over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier- not to be remiss in mentioning the frequent use of the sites’ paved surface as a convenient skateboard and cycling park.
The desecration of sites that are meant to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice for all of us begs the question- why do we have to protect our own national monuments from our own citizens?
Many will assert that Canadian tradition is important to uphold, particularly in times of tragedy. But with the obvious message that men and women in uniform are targets I struggle with understanding why we would continue to ask soldiers to perform ceremonial duties?
I posed the question to Lieutenant Sullivan.
“It is important to acknowledge the sacrifices made by our men and women. It is important that we make sure that the public knows that it is important to do so and amongst those sacrifices is the life of Corporal Cirillo. It is important to acknowledge his sacrifice in what he was doing when he was standing there protecting that monument and symbol.”
Lieutenant Sullivan has been patient with me during our phone call. The short interview was the most awkward one for me in my career as I was torn between professionalism, being a mother and being a Canadian. In times like these the lines are blurred.
“Just from a personal standpoint, when I walked by there, there was so much attention and so many people stopping to pay their respects. It’s pretty incredible,” commented Lieutenant Sullivan. “When the sentries were going to continue the post we gave little to no notice to the public that it was happening but so many people flocked to the area. It obviously means an awful lot to Canadians- and maybe even more so now. What happened upsets all Canadians. And when you’re in the military and you find out that you’ve lost a military member from anywhere in Canada it’s upsetting. Anywhere you go, you feel connected to those people when you meet them. It’s really like a big family. And so when you lose one it feels like a personal loss.”
This past week has been a historical marker for Canada and personally for me and my son. I’ve been sitting here with my head hung over the keyboard for a long time, not sure how to end this- maybe because I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with this piece in the first place. And maybe because I still have too many questions.
I just know what’s next – not for Canada, but for us. Despite this changing nation my son is unwavered from his path. I’m picking him up from school shortly and we’re heading to the Armouries where I’ll sign his enlistment papers for the Canadian Armed Forces.
I feel scared. I feel uncertain. And I feel incredibly proud of my son.