Years of Remembrance at Toronto City Hall

Photographer looks down from high in Old City Hall over intersection of Queen and Bay streets showing a huge crowd of people filling the streets and sidewalks. Cenotaph and officials are in the foreground.
Armistice Day in 1937 at Toronto’s City Hall cenotaph (Toronto Public Library TSPA_0001494F)

In 1938, the Toronto Star ran a photo of the previous year’s Armistice Day at Toronto City Hall.

The caption said of the gathered crowd: To most of them the Great War is an impersonal memory; evoked in silence on Armistice Day when the nation pauses to honour the fallen; rededicate itself to peace.

Whatever memories existed then of the First World War, another world war loomed. There would be thousands more Canadian “fallen.” Armistice Day would become Remembrance Day; its date fixed to November 11. Gatherings at memorials across the country would continue.

Governor-General Lord Byng of Vimy unveiled Toronto’s cenotaph (empty tomb; monument to someone buried elsewhere) in 1925. Services had already started in 1920. The 2022 Toronto gathering will mark almost 100 years of remembering in downtown Toronto.

By 1965, Toronto had a New City Hall, but Old City Hall survived, the cenotaph intact, and that is where Remembrance Day ceremonies live on.

What of today’s crowds? Over the years, historians and officials have fussed that the meaning of Remembrance Day had dwindled; worried that not many would show up.

Yet, in recent times, whether sunny, rainy, or bitterly cold, people have arrived, even early birds finding that their carefully planned good view of the cenotaph can quickly get blocked.

Brian Horgan, who has represented the Irish Regiment of Canada for close to ten years at the Toronto cenotaph, tells us there is nothing casual about laying a wreath at Old City Hall.

Consulates, corporations, and various organizations apply to the Protocol Department on the 2nd floor of New City Hall for authorization. Brian wears his regimental green bonnet (caubeen) and remembers all who have served in the regiment. His father, Major G.S. Horgan, returned to his home city at the end of the Second World War, ready to restart his life—the pattern of many Torontonians of his day.

Some at the cenotaph are carrying out a civic duty; some are carrying personal connections unknown to others, unless they share anecdotes with those around them waiting in the crowd. Remembrance Day is a great memory jogger.

The Old City Hall ceremony embraces all expected traditions: Welcoming words from the mayor and other officials; parading; music; flags; poetry; strong spoken words about the fallen and all who served. The hour-striking bell in the heritage tower bongs eleven o’clock. The Last Post; two minutes of silence; Rouse.

Formalities over, the pipers and paraders march away. Wreath-layers leave for a thank-you reception at New City Hall.

The crowd thins. An informal, but orderly movement starts. People walk up and place their poppies on or around the cenotaph. We’ll never know who started this practice. Perhaps at first spontaneous, it is now ingrained.

We hope kids carried on their dads’ shoulders above the Old City Hall crowds of the 2022 ceremony will remember most of what they saw and heard, and above all, grow to understand that the day had meaning and always will.

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