By Frank Peebles
History is often remembered through memorial structures and anniversaries. In Quesnel this year, there is a meeting of both at the intersection of Highway 97 and Kinchant Street. On Remembrance Day, Royal Canadian Legion Branch 94 will be commemorating not only the honourable service of our armed forces but also the 100th anniversary of the cenotaph itself.
“It was dedicated in September of 1922 and has served now for a century as Quesnel’s main place of honour for our fallen, our service men and women,” said Doug Carey, president of the Quesnel Legion and the main keeper of the branch’s historic memorabilia.
That has been a challenge in modern times ever since a fire destroyed the Legion building in 1995 taking all previous artifacts with it. The rebuilding of the city’s collection of historic armed forces antiquities has been going on ever since.
Of course, a Legion is not an organization exclusive to the distant past. They formed following the First World War (officially concluded on Nov. 11, 1918). They are as relevant to the service people of today as they were to those returning veterans.
In fact, the cenotaph was installed before Legions were even invented. The first Legion, Winnipeg, was launched in 1925, with an act of Parliament making it a nationwide organization in 1926. Queen Elizabeth II bestowed the word “Royal” in 1960. Branch 94 was chartered in 1927. They added Second World War commemorations to the edifice following that conflict.
“We haven’t added a new name to our cenotaph recently because, thankfully, our community hasn’t lost anybody through conflict in many years,” said Carey. “We did do a dedication to the Korean War in about 2007, adding a plaque at that time, with a ceremony.”
Plaques were also added in 2017 to honour the fallen of the Canadian Peacekeepers and peace-time servicepeople, the Persian Gulf War, and the war in Afghanistan.
The first ceremony there happened on Sept. 23, 1922, when it was unveiled by the Legion’s precursor organization, the Great War Veterans’ Association. It was scheduled for Sept. 3, but there were delays getting the cut granite blocks from Vancouver.
Were it to happen today, the problems might be accessing the location itself. The Cenotaph was placed in a quiet neighbourhood of churches and schools, but that area is now busy with traffic and commercial activity. Some discussion has happened over the years about moving the cenotaph to a place where passersby and well-wishers might have an easier and safer time paying their respects and reflecting on the peace these men and women paid for with their lives.
Even to hold a single memorial service like Remembrance Day requires closing the highway, which is done through annual applications to the Ministry of Transportation, and the closing of streets, which requires annual applications to the City of Quesnel. And Remembrance Day is not the only time the cenotaph is in the eye of the public.
“Cenotaphs sprang up all over the Commonwealth, in the first years after the First World War, and if you’ve ever been to the U.K. they have made them really the focal point of a community, often in a town square kind of setting,” said Carey. “We used the cenotaph for the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, we used it to memorialize Queen Elizabeth during her funeral, we’ve used it for the anniversary of the Battle of Britain, there are a lot of occasions that are important to recognize, so it is certainly more than just for Nov. 11.”
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