As the Peace Tower’s bells toll 11, the pages of military history turn

Article / November 25, 2016 / Project number: 16-00281-2

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By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs

This article is a close-up look at the Turning of the Page Ceremony that takes place every day at precisely 11 a.m. and describes the recent event that resulted in the only time the Ceremony has been delayed since it began in 1942.

A previous article describes the history of the Memorial Chamber and the Books of Remembrance found in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

Ottawa, Ontario — "We are the Dead. Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved, and were loved, and now we lie/In Flanders Fields." — John McCrae

Within the heart of Canada’s symbolic Peace Tower – a focal point of the Parliament Buildings and one of the country’s most recognized emblems of peace – lies a lesser-known yet monumental tribute to Canada’s war dead: the Books of Remembrance, carefully kept in the Memorial Chamber on the Tower’s second level.

The Peace Tower was conceived as the First World War was ending, and architect John A. Pearson originally intended to carve all of the names of Canada’s Fallen on the interior walls of the chamber. When the monumental death toll of the First World War became known, it was realized that there was not enough space to engrave each of more than 66,000 names.

The Books were a brilliant solution to this problem, answering Canadians’ desire for a place to mourn our heroic dead on our own soil at a time when it was policy to bury them “where they fell” in part because of cost, lack of rapid and hygienic transportation.

It was not until 1970 that the policy changed, in part because, thanks to advances in transportation since the Second World War, the remains of newly Fallen now could be returned relatively quickly for burial in Canada. All names of those who die in the service of Canada will continue to be honoured in the Books regardless of burial location. 

According to Veterans Affairs Canada, the Books of Remembrance represent, individually and collectively, the highest expressions of modern workmanship and artistry. The Chamber itself has a vaulted ceiling and is beautifully appointed with stone carvings and stained glass windows that are intricate records of Canada’s military heritage. The floor, walls and even the stone altars holding the Books are crafted from materials donated by Britain or personally collected from the battlefields by Mr. Pearson, who described the room as a “sacred grove in the middle of the forest.”

Today, the books are not merely a dormant record but are an active part of honouring Canadian war dead. In addition, there is an online version of the Books called the Canadian Virtual War Memorial for Canadians to observe and honour their loved ones. Family members are welcome to contribute digital files – photographs and scans – that will help tell the story of each of the deceased.

The Turning of the Page Ceremony

In a solemn ceremony that takes place every morning as the Tower’s carillon bells begin tolling eleven times, a member of the House of Commons Protective Service staff turns the pages of the seven books in a ceremony dating back to 1942.

“The turning of the page always, always takes place at 11 a.m. sharp. We don’t wait for anybody. It is always at 11 a. m.,” said Gilles Gervais, Assistant Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms, whose office is the guardian of the Books and the Chamber on behalf of Veterans Affairs Canada and the Speaker of the House of Commons.

“Even on those very quiet days like on Christmas Day when nobody’s in the building except two or three of these guys [the constables] will come up and perform the ceremony of the turning of the pages,” he said.

Mr. Gervais added, “The only time I know of when we missed turning the page at 11 was two years ago when Corporal Nathan Cirillo was killed at the War Memorial. We were in lockdown at 11 and the page turning took place about eight hours later, around 7 o’clock that night.”

Constable Dale Hins is often asked to perform the ceremony when families or military members are present. He retired at the rank of Sergeant after almost 25 years with the Canadian Army’s Signals Regiment, based in Kingston.

As the minutes count down to 11 a.m., Constable Hins takes his place in the doorway of the Chamber when he is on duty. The glass cases of the Books whose pages will be turned will have been raised in advance. With sunlight shining through the stained glass windows upon the room, the carillon bells begin to chime the 11th hour and he steps forward and stands at attention, salutes the chamber and then pays his respects to each of the Books in sequence, turning the pages as necessary.

“The room is closed to the public during the ceremony. The public is permitted to stand here in the tower. Family members are permitted to be in the room during the ceremony if they have made a request,” noted Mr. Gervais.

Once the ceremony, which takes only a few minutes each time, is complete, another constable enters and relocks all the cases.

Constable Hins said, “When you do the turning of the page and there is a family in here or a Veteran, it is hard. They cry when they go there. Even when I do it alone with no families there, it always means something to me,” he continued. “It makes me think of all those who died for us.  Especially for me, as I spent 25 years in the military.”

He added, “I have met many Veterans and I can see in their eyes what they’ve been through. Every time I do the page turning, I always think about them.”

Each of the more than 118,000 names in the seven Books sees the light of day at least once a year on the same day and month. Constable Hins has a private word with the newly-revealed names each time he turns a page.

“During the ceremony, I will say (to myself) when I pay my respects to them as I turn the page, ‘good morning, have a nice day’. And when I leave, I say ‘goodbye, have a great day.’ So I talk to the ones on the new page,” he said.

Not only do people come to view the older Books, but some come to visit the seventh book, called In the Service of Canada Book of Remembrance, which honours the names of more than 1,800 Fallen since October 1947. This book includes the names of those who died in Afghanistan, in other conflicts, during peacetime training exercises, or while on peacekeeping missions and other military duty.

“One day last week, three Veterans of Afghanistan came to see the names of their friends who died in Afghanistan and that was very hard,” recalled Constable Hins.

He said he is always proud to perform the ceremony. “They served for us, and they died for us.”

Said Mr. Gervais, “We follow a perpetual calendar so that the same pages are always exposed on the same day every year. Family members can know exactly what day they can come to see the names.”

“Because some of the books have fewer pages than the First World War  Book, some of them will stay on the same page for two or three days,” he explained.

Mr. Gervais said he has noticed an increased interest in the chamber in the last few years because, he believes, more people are interested in their family history and because of the 100th anniversary of the First World War in 2014.

Since 1996, it has been possible to request a printed version of a page and Mr. Gervais noticed that the number of requests has doubled in the last two years. “Visitors are asked if they would like a copy and there is a terminal right in the tower that you can request it, or there is a paper form you can fill out if you prefer,” he said.  

Veterans Affairs Canada estimates that more than half a million visitors view the Chamber each year. Mr. Gervais said, “We get about five or six groups a month. They usually come on the right day to see the name of their soldier.”

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