Commemorating Remembrance Day in Ottawa

11 November 2013

"We shall not sleep, though poppies grow. In Flanders fields." Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae's poignant lament for fallen comrades still echoes across World War I battlefields and the Ontario native is respectfully remembered in Canada's national capital, Ottawa.

At the eleventh hour of today, Commonwealth countries across the globe will pause to remember the sacrifice of those lost in the line of duty. Remembrance Day is a universally sombre affair, with countless memorial services taking place to mark the November 11th signing of the armistice which ended World War I.

McCrae fought and died in The Great War, but the celebrated physician and soldier is best remembered for the fifteen-line poem which commemorates those who fell before him in the Belgian countryside. Noting that poppies soon bloomed around the freshly-dug graves, McCrae’s poem immortalised a flower now synonymous with Remembrance Day commemorations.

Rideau Canal. Rideau Canal. Image courtesy of Ottawa Tourism.

A powerful reminder in the Canadian capital

Canadian forces played a key role in World War I and their sacrifices are remembered at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Each Remembrance Day a raft of dignitaries pay their respects, but perhaps the most moving gesture comes after the official ceremony has finished, when thousands of Canadian citizens lay poppies atop the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Ottawa is also home to the Canadian War Museum – where the special exhibition hall is named after Lt. Col. McCrae – but as Jantine Van Kregten from Ottawa Tourism explains, there's more to Canada's cosmopolitan capital than museums and war memorials.

"As the capital, Ottawa is a distillation of the entire country. Canada is way too large a country to explore in one visit, but by visiting the capital, you can get a taste of what Canada has to offer," Ms Van Kregten says.

This vibrant city – once called 'the most dangerous town in North America' courtesy of its raucous lumber industry – is as renowned for its UNESCO World Heritage-listed Rideau Canal, as it is for the wide-open recreational spaces enjoyed all year round.

"In winter, the Rideau Canal freezes and becomes the world's largest ice skating rink – you can skate 7.8 kilometres through downtown," Ms Van Kregten explains.

Making the most of history

Ottawa may seem like an unlikely choice for the nation's parliament, but this pretty riverside city has made the most of its natural advantages. Chosen to become Canada's capital by Queen Victoria in 1857 because it was far enough away from the United States to be easily defended, Ottawa soon flourished as an important trade locale.

Located between the major metropolises of Toronto and Montreal, bilingual Ottawa is home to a prominent francophone population. "You’ll often hear both English and French spoken on Ottawa streets," says Ms Van Kregten. "You'll be fine if you don't speak French but if you're looking to practise, you'll have plenty of opportunities".

There's no shortage of must-see sights either, with the Peace Tower at Parliament Hill offering spectacular panoramic views over the entire city. In summer, the Rideau Canal is an ideal place for a boat cruise and close-up glimpse of the bustling Ottawa River. Perhaps the city's best-known neighbourhood is ByWard Market, which not only boasts one of Canada's oldest and largest farmers' markets, but also more than 120 restaurants and bars in a densely-packed dining district.

Something for everyone

It may slip from the radar compared to the likes of Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, but Ottawa offers something for anyone eager to see a different side of Canada.

More than just the seat of the Canadian government, this eclectic city is by turns sombre and celebratory, serious and fun-loving. Once a humble timber town transformed into a hub of local and international politics, today Ottawa is comfortably ensconced in its role as Canada's urbane national capital.

And with its extensive Remembrance Day program centred on the National War Memorial, it's a great place to simply take some time to reflect on the sacrifices made by soldiers like Lt. Col. McCrae all across the Commonwealth.

Mike Tuckerman

From Europe to Asia and many places in between, there's rarely a town or city I've not enjoyed exploring. When I'm not wandering the streets and discovering new destinations, you can usually find me hanging out with the locals at major sporting events.