There will be no formal Remembrance Day outdoor ceremony in the Town of Renfrew this year due to the ongoing presence of COVID-19 in the community.
Although several COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, including the resumption of large sporting events with more than 15,000 in attendance inside a closed arena, the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 148 in Renfrew has cancelled the majority of traditional Remembrance Day activities, including the laying-of-the-wreaths ceremony in memory of the soldiers who lost their lives while serving their country.
Similar to the 2020 event, representatives of the legion’s Poppy Committee are worried about the possibility that a large gathering of people in the small area surrounding the town’s cenotaph could result in one or more individuals contracting the highly contagious and sometimes fatal COVID-19 virus.
Reverend Bruce Ferguson, 1st Vice-President and Chair of the annual Poppy Campaign said it was a combination of factors that led to him making the final decision to once again drastically scale back the traditional ceremony.
He said he and other legion members who are tasked with organizing the November 11 event are faced with the dual-goal of organizing a very small ceremony to remember all those who have served in uniform on behalf of Canada while trying to dissuade people from coming to the cenotaph to take part in what many consider a civic and moral responsibility.
“Believe me when I tell you if there was a way to host hundreds of residents and guarantee their safety we would not hesitate for one minute to get it done,” Ferguson said. “You could almost argue it is one of the core duties of a legion to organize the Remembrance Day event and I can tell you none of us, past or present, takes any joy in telling people to stay home so that we don’t have the usual overflowing crowds like we have had over the last ten years.”
The annual poppy campaign kicks off this Friday (October 29) and instead of volunteers going out to busy locations in Renfrew, the committee will be leaving collection boxes at several local retailers and anyone wishing to purchase a poppy can simply leave a donation.
In terms of what will take place on November 11 Ferguson said it will be very low key, but it will be respectful of past ceremonies and continue the tradition of respect and reflection with the hope that by staying home. It will allow people to pay homage in a more personal way, and more importantly, a much safer way.
“It is the same as last year and we are sending out letters to local businesses requesting donations for the wreaths and they will be placed at the cenotaph by legion members prior to the small ceremony at Low Square,” he said. There will be a bare-bones ceremony including a colour guard and there will not be a parade that has features both current and past members in full uniform marching from the legion to the cenotaph. We will be singing songs, but it will likely be limited to two songs which will likely be our National Anthem and God Save The Queen.”
He pointed out that even if a full ceremony were held, some elements of previous parades likely would not be included.
"I don’t think people realize that one of the highlights of the ceremony is the Renfrew Highlands Pipes and Drums and they have not even been practicing over the last year,” he said.
“Even if we held a full event, they would not be included because they will not perform if they are not 100 per cent ready. They take too much pride in their historic past to try and take part and not be able to fully show their amazing skills.”
Ferguson said unlike several events administered by the legion, where they are either ordered to complete a task or seek permission from the Royal Canadian Legion Command in Ottawa, the decision to reduce or even cancel a Remembrance Day ceremony rests with the individual Poppy Campaign Chairperson.
As the chair of our Poppy Campaign it was my decision to reduce the size and scope of this year’s ceremony,” he said. “I consulted with my fellow legion members and they support my decision, and believe me it is not a decision I enjoyed making. I bear responsibility for any fallout that may come, but I would rather be blamed for cancelling or reducing the Remembrance Day Ceremony than have to live with the guilt of allowing a full ceremony jammed with people and find out later someone may have gotten sick or even died because they were in attendance with hundreds of others when it could have been prevented.”
Ferguson is aware some legion members, and several residents are not happy with his decision to exclude several elements of the National Day of Remembrance and he said there is little he can do to appease their concerns. His main concern is for the health and safety of those in attendance.
When asked if he had a message to the residents of Renfrew and visitors who have attended in the past only to be told to stay away this year is one of optimism.
“Maybe the reality of not having enough volunteers and knowing that we have lost several fellow legion members because they are getting up there in years will entice some people to come join our legion or volunteer on one of our many community programs and help rejuvenate our legion,” he said.