Earlier this week, the grey wooden walls went down around Ottawa’s National War Memorial, revealing its bronze soldiers and stone tomb to the public for the first time in six months.
Originally given a July completion date, the $3-million rehabilitation project was aimed at strengthening an open space below the memorial.
“I’m so happy it’s reopened,” says Tom Eagles, the president of the Royal Canadian Legion. “If you couldn’t see it, (Ottawa) wouldn’t be the same city.”
Eagles’ father served in the Second World War and, for him, visiting the memorial and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier always brings back memories.
“For me personally it reflects everybody that’s served, that’s worn a uniform.”
Although he regrets that the memorial had to be walled off, Eagles does see a bright side to the closing. It’s easy for people who see the monument every day to take it for granted. Now that it’s been closed though, Eagles says that people will start noticing the memorial again.
“For the people that walk by there daily, I think they are going to appreciate it more than ever,” he says.
Of course, one group who always appreciates the war memorial is tourists. Thousands of Canadian and international visitors climb the memorial’s steps every year to get a closer look at the bronze and stone cenotaph. But for the past two months, some of the busiest months in Ottawa’s tourism season, that hasn’t been possible.
“We’re very pleased that it’s re-opened,” says Jantine Van Kregten, the communications director for Ottawa Tourism. She says that many tourists consider the memorial an essential stop as both a photo opportunity and a sacred space.
One of the most valued traditions surrounding the memorial takes place every Canada Day. Tourists and veterans arrive early in the morning to lay flags and poppies against the tomb and cenotaph in remembrance of the battle of Beaumount Hamel, where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment suffered staggering losses in 1916.
This year, the commemoration was moved down the street to the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Confederation Park. As inconvenient as this move may have been, however, the memorial had to be renovated to ensure its survival.
“It’s a short-term pain for a long-term gain,” says Kregten.
While it would be hard to find anyone unhappy with the memorial being back open, some expected to see more of a change when the wooden walls fell.
Gerry Wharton, the honorary president for the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans of Canada, says that he hoped the memorial’s bronze statues would have been revitalized.
The figures, showing each type of First World War unit with two angels standing on the arch’s peak, have begun to turn green after their years outdoors.
“Green bronze is rust,” says Wharton, who after his 32 years with the armed forces, joined Public Works and headed memorial renovations in the early 2000s.
“If you look at the figures of former Prime Ministers on parliament hill, none of them are green, rusting,” he says. “They’re all perfect bronze.”
“The National War Memorial has been allowed to deteriorate,” continues Wharton. “That concerns me.”
Originally dedicated to the First World War, the memorial, also known as “The Response,” was unveiled in 1939, the year the Second World War began. A public commemoration remembering both conflicts is taking place in front of the memorial August 4, beginning at 11 a.m.
The plants and benches that sat in front of the memorial last summer will be returned early next month.