May 8, 2017 marks the 72nd anniversary of Victory Day in Europe. Across the country, Canadians are coming together to mark this important moment by attending remembrance ceremonies and commemorative events.
After the First World War, remembrance ceremonies were small, local events, with grander presentations put on by the Canadian provincial and federal governments. In the period following the Second World War these domestic celebrations were augmented by voluntary pilgrimages to Europe, to honour servicemen where they had fallen. This was especially popular among families who had lost a loved one during the war, because all Canadian soldiers were buried close to where they died. Therefore, in order to visit a soldier’s grave, family members had to travel to Europe.
Most pilgrimages were arranged around a significant anniversary, like the start or end of one of the wars. Visitors attended the military cemeteries and memorials, and usually observed an official remembrance ceremony. Initially, these new ceremonies, usually held both at Vimy Ridge and the Normandy coast on significant anniversaries, were similar to the domestic ones. Veterans, French and Belgian civilians, and politicians from the Allied countries came together at a cemetery or memorial to hear a religious service, and lay wreaths to honour the fallen.
However, as the anniversaries became farther removed from the actual events, the ceremonies became larger, and more dramatic. Flyovers of the site by military planes became a popular feature, as did the poppy-drop, which showered attendees with thousands of poppies released by planes. Music by regimental bands took on a more prominent role, while the religious service was shortened, before being removed in favour of a nondenominational blessing.
As fewer veterans were able to attend overseas events, currently serving members of the military took on more prominent roles in the ceremonies. Re-enactments were incorporated into D-Day anniversaries starting in the 1980s and 1990s: the channel crossing, aerial assault by paratroopers, and the climb up Pont du Hoc at Utah Beach were recreated by current servicemen. Regiments also financed tours of historic sites, and small memorials to casualties from their regiments. Overseas anniversaries became an opportunity for the members of regiments to connect with their history, and be reminded of the proud tradition of which they were now a part.
With the advent of television, international commemorative events were covered by news stations, bringing the ceremony right into Canadian living rooms. Television was also seen as an opportunity to educate the public on Canadian contributions during the wars. From the 1960s through to the 1990s the CBC produced multiple documentaries about both the First and Second Word War, as well as interviews with veterans. Other attempts to make the wars more accessible to Canadians included the publication of general history books about the wars, as well as commemorative coffee table books, which focused on the visual history of the wars.
As the generations who actually experienced the wars grew older, the focus of commemorative activity shifted from individual remembrance of friends and family, to collective expressions of gratitude for the sacrifice of those who came before.
Mosse, George L. Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
20 Years after D-Day. Accessed April 1, 2016.
“Canada’s D-Day Legacy.” Legion Magazine, September 1, 1999.
Canada, Veterans Affairs. “ARCHIVED - Back to Juno Beach - Media & News - Veterans Affairs Canada,” August 1, 2014.
Dolski, Michael. D-Day in History and Memory: The Normandy Landings in International Remembrance and Commemoration. Denton University of North Texas Press, 2014.
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