Respect

On Wednesday this past week, I had the opportunity to stand in a crowd of people at the NAC and see the top of the Queen’s hat. I tried to get some pictures of her as she unveiled the statue of Oscar Petersen, but the motorcade cars bunched up and blocked the view completely. Ah well…

I was there, nonetheless, I got to spot her through a crowd, and raise my voice to cheer for her and the Duke. The rendition of Hymn to Freedom that was performed was amazing, and even had the security guards tapping along. I was glad I was there. Bucket list item checked off. Maybe someday I’ll get to see her again!

As I walked back to my office, I stopped at the War Memorial, to take some pictures of the Honour Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I love that they do this in the summer, and it makes me proud to be a Canadian, and proud of our military. Around this time of year in Ottawa, it is hard not to be a proud Canadian, for so many reasons. I love Canada Day, and the ramp up to it downtown is heady, the energy palpable in the air.

The Ceremonial Guard was apparently put into place after the 2006 incident where some drunken boys urinated on the War Memorial on Canada Day, causing quite an uproar. I seem to remember these guards there when I was a child, but memory is fuzzy, of course. The Wikipedia entry is here.

No matter what, I think it is great that they decided not to put cameras and fences in, but to continue to allow us access, and post Ceremonial Guards instead. I can still go and sit at the foot of the Memorial, eat my lunch, touch the cool stone pillars with my back, and feel the reverence and safety echoing, just a little.

As I was taking photos, I saw tourist after tourist go up and stand beside the guards, having their own pictures taken beside the stoic, unmoving men. To give you an impression if you have never seen it, these soldiers are in full uniform, complete with the big fuzzy black hats with lip straps, red jackets, and shining brass buttons everywhere. At their side are modern-looking rifles with (sharp) bayonets attached. Regal, ceremonial dress, but rest assured, these boys are fully trained military soldiers, chosen for this honour from the ranks each year. They must stand at their post, and not move, smile, or otherwise crack. I’m told this assignment is both blessing and curse, as it is an honour, yet it can be quite difficult to withstand the lengthy standing at “ease” (which does not look “eased” to me, but then again, I’m not a trained soldier).

Therefore, due to their important task to remain motionless as guards of a very important monument, the tourists come up to get pictures taken beside the statue-like red and black men, and some make their best efforts to get them to smile.

I think we have all seen the videos of the tourists in England trying their best to get those similarily dressed men to do just the same. Funny, and touching, sometimes.

Now, part of me thinks it is lovely that people, through a funny snippet in their day, learn about the Guard, and the importance of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But part of me also wants to tell them “Have some respect”. I, for one, think it is important to treat our military men and women with utmost respect. They have a hard job! I also had a sense of solemnity at their task, and stood for a moment and said a prayer at the tomb for the safety of our troops in Afganistan and elsewhere.

I also know that you aren’t supposed to touch the guards, nor are you to address them directly, or instigate them in any way. So many people walked up as I was there, tried to put their arm around the guard, or lean into them. One girl pushed her bosom up, leered into the man’s face and asked him if he “wanted some”. She was, thankfully, told off by several people and escorted away. I think she was a little lit up.

I was saddened most by a group of teenage boys who were attempting to get the soldiers to crack. They made jokes, pulled funny faces, did silly dances. That wasn’t really all that bad, but what was worse were the remarks. “Why aren’t they in little huts?” was one, another was “What stupid (bleep) hats they have to wear.” The worst, by far, was “Why are these dudes here anyways? Is this the grave of one of our Presidents?”.

Before you ask me if these boys were Canadian. Yes, they were. They were wearing jackets from a school here in Canada.

I admit, right then, I turned to the boy nearest me and explained that this was an important monument to remind us of the sacrifices made by Canadians in war so that boys like him could have the freedom to do, say, and learn whatever they wanted, as Canadians. I’m sure I sounded like a pickled-up old teacher castigating a reckless student, but I was just so shocked that these teenage boys were so ignorant. I was saddened by their lack of knowledge. I realize not everyone will have the same appreciation level in this subject as I perhaps do, but man! I guess I just reacted.

The boy I turned to told me to “f-off”, naturally. I crossed my arms and tried to look matronly, and they grouped up and wandered away. I suppose I could have ignored them, I could have just gone on my way. But I am glad I spoke up. I know likely that boy will relate the story of the B**** who told him off, and laugh. But… well, maybe someday he’ll feel the same way I do if he visits again, and can stand at the War Memorial, remembering what I said.

We had been standing off to the side of the left guard as this all happened. I stopped for a moment after they left to count to ten and take a couple of calming breaths. I’m normally a shy person, and do not speak up to strangers, so I was a bit rattled. I looked up from my feet once I was composed and felt eyes on me. The guard was looking at me, but only his eyes had moved. Our eyes met then, and I blinked, quickly realizing that the soldier had heard my admonishment/informing of the boy.

I took a breath, and then, as softly as I could, I said “Thank you, for what you do.”

His mouth pressed together, his eyes shifted to his guard-mate, then back to me. He nodded, almost imperceptably (hard to do with a big fur hat on your head, I would think), then fixed his gaze straight ahead, a very slight wiggle of one shoulder to realign himself back into poker straightness.

I left after the piper came to escort the new guards up, and escort the relieved guards back to barracks. I followed them to the staircase that dips under Wellington St where it turns into Rideau St. I continued on my way back to work, and reflected on the experience I had just had.

I made a resolution then that my son, as he grows, would know how important this monument is, what it stands for, and to respect it. We will teach with love, not overzealousness, of course, but I resolved (and hoped) that he would never be like that young boy I met.

I am a proud Canadian, and I am proud of our Canadians who help us keep our true North strong and free.

Happy Canada Day everyone. We are 143 years old today!

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