Members of the public, families and military officials will gather at the Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa Sunday, Dec. 6 to place a wreath on the headstone of every veteran buried at the National Military Cemetery. The tradition is hosted annually by Wreaths Across Canada (WOC) on the first Sunday of Dec. to show gratitude for those Canadians who once served their country.
“We remember the members of the Canadian Armed Forces who lie in military cemeteries across Canada, honour those who served Canada as members of the military forces and teach the youth the value of freedom,” said Craig McPhee founder of Wreaths Across Canada.
The ceremony has expanded this year to include the Catholic cemetery, Notre Dame, for the first time. The ceremony at Notre Dame will be held at 10 a.m. on Dec. 6.
The ceremony at the Beechwood Cemetery begins at 1:30 with speeches from dignitaries. To involve the youth, members of the cadets are present. The Canadian Military Wives Choir is also in attendance. In total, McPhee expects 200 wreaths will be laid at Notre Dame and over 3,000 laid at Beechwood Cemetery. The wreaths lie on the headstones until the end of Dec.
Members of the public are needed and welcome to lend a hand in placing the real balsam wreaths on the graves of thousands of veterans.
The vision of WOC is “It is our fervent hope that this practice will spread across Canada and that eventually every Military Cemetery will be adorned with wreaths, each and every year,” and the tradition has started to spread across the country. The Brookside Cemetery in Winnipeg holds a wreath-laying ceremony. Last year, dozens of veterans were brought in to take part in the ceremony.
According to McPhee, the experience can be emotional for many. He recalled the first year he held the ceremony, General Walter Natynczyk attended but informed him he couldn’t stay long and needed to leave within the hour.
“So we did the ceremony, and when the ceremony ended, we asked for all families with loved ones buried in the Beechwood Cemetery to come first. And these families came first, some who lost their husbands in Afghanistan, and Gen. Natynczyk went with them. And I didn’t see him for an hour and a half… when he came back his eyes were red, and he looked at me and then he said ‘Craig I cannot believe what you have done today. You have started a new tradition in Canada,’” recalled McPhee.
Over the years, many military officials have attended the ceremonies, all with different reactions but all moved by the experience, according to McPhee.
Wreaths Across Canada is a non-profit organization started by McPhee, a veteran after he witnessed a “Wreaths Across America” ceremony at Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. in 2007. Moved by the ceremony, McPhee returned home to start a similar tradition in Canada. After years of putting together a board of directors and getting approval from various organizations, the first ceremony was held in Dec. 2010. Ever since that year, McPhee says each year the ceremonies get bigger and better.