Donate Now

Known unto God: How Canadians embraced their Unknown Soldier

November 11, 2018
Blair Crawford, Ottawa Citizen

The speeches were done, the dignitaries gone. The ranks of soldiers had marched away. Now sculptor Mary-Ann Liu had one final task at Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was nearly 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 28, 2000, six hours after the solemn ceremony had begun. An enormous crane lifted the granite lid over top the open tomb.

Liu, the winner of a national competition to design the tomb, and Maurice Joanisse, the Dominion Sculptor who created the granite sarcophagus to Liu’s design, spread a thick layer of epoxy resin to permanently fix the cover in place.

Liu expected the work party to be alone for this final, intimate act, but hundreds of spectators still pressed against the barriers surrounding Ottawa’s National War Memorial as the crane swung the lid into place. The unnamed First World War soldier would not be alone when his tomb was sealed.

What happened next caught Liu off guard.

“When the barriers came down people just flooded in,” she said in a phone call from her Vancouver studio.

“I wasn’t expecting that. It really struck home what sacrifice meant. People were kneeling and kissing the bronze and touching it. I was really, really floored by it. It was a very touching experience.”

What began spontaneously that spring evening has carried on ever since, a ritual of Canada Day and Remembrance Day when the Unknown Soldier — Le Soldat Inconnu — is covered in a mantle of crimson poppies or Canadian flags. People place letters and photographs on the tomb, and, at least once, a real officer’s ceremonial sword.

Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was born more than 70 years after the First World War ended, literally gave his life while guarding the tomb, drawing his final breath as he lay at the Unknown Soldier’s feet after a terrorist attack.

Read more