In break with tradition, some legion branches are moving up Memorial Day ceremonies this year

Harold Brown is president of Branch 32 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Bay Roberts, one of several in the province that will hold Memorial Day ceremonies on June 30 this year, instead of July 1, in a break with long-standing tradition. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Harold Brown is president of Branch 32 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Bay Roberts, one of several in the province that will hold Memorial Day ceremonies on June 30 this year, instead of July 1, in a break with long-standing tradition. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)

For more than a century, long before Newfoundland and Labrador became a province of Canada, July 1 has been a day of remembrance known as Memorial Day.

The Memorial Day tradition began July 1, 1917, one year after a disastrous First World War battle at Beaumont-Hamel in northern France, where the 800-strong Newfoundland Regiment was all but wiped out on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.

Since Confederation in 1949, it's become a tradition that Memorial Day is commemorated in the morning of July 1 and Canada Day celebrations take place in the afternoon.

But in a major break with tradition, some Royal Canadian Legion branches in the province have decided to hold Memorial Day ceremonies a day earlier to allow members to travel to St. John's to witness the centennial event for the National War Memorial and the interment of the unknown soldier.

It was an easy decision at Branch 32 in Bay Roberts, said president Harold Brown.

"The Royal Canadian Legion provincial command has asked all branches to either postpone or move their July 1 ceremonies that would take place at local cenotaphs in your towns so that any and everyone who wanted to make their way to St. John's be part of this history-making event could have that opportunity," said Brown.

"We have graciously said, 'Yes, we understand, we agree,' and we're going to hold our Memorial Day service on June 30 as opposed to July 1, for this year only."

The photo captures a scene from a previous July 1 Memorial Day ceremony at the community cenotaph in Spaniard's Bay. For this year, however, Memorial Day ceremonies will take place a day earlier, on June 30, because of the centennial event and interment ceremony at the National War Memorial in St. John's.
The photo captures a scene from a previous July 1 Memorial Day ceremony at the community cenotaph in Spaniard's Bay. For this year, however, Memorial Day ceremonies will take place a day earlier, on June 30, because of the centennial event and interment ceremony at the National War Memorial in St. John's.

The photo captures a scene from a previous July 1 Memorial Day ceremony at the community cenotaph in Spaniard's Bay. This year, however, Memorial Day ceremonies will take place a day earlier because of the centennial event and interment ceremony at the National War Memorial in St. John's. (Branch 9, Royal Canadian Legion)

Legion-sponsored Memorial Day services will also take place a day earlier in Clarenville, Brigus, Carbonear and Spaniard's Bay, among other communities.

Paul Sheppard, president of Branch 9 in Spaniard's Bay, said the executive considered cancelling the Memorial Day service this year at the local cenotaph because of the centennial event in St. John's but pressure from the community convinced them to hold a ceremony 24 hours earlier.

Branch 9 serves the communities of Spaniard's Bay, Tilton and Bishop's Cove. Sheppard said there's a long history of military service in the region, and families expect to hear the names of those who made the supreme sacrifice read aloud during the ceremony.

The National War Memorial in St. John's has undergone a major refurbishment ahead of the 100th anniversary of its unveilling on July 1. And now it's about to become a cemetery as well, with the addition of a tomb of the unknown soldier.
The National War Memorial in St. John's has undergone a major refurbishment ahead of the 100th anniversary of its unveilling on July 1. And now it's about to become a cemetery as well, with the addition of a tomb of the unknown soldier.

The National War Memorial in St. John's has undergone a major refurbishment ahead of the 100th anniversary of its unveiling on July 1. And now it's about to become a cemetery as well, with the addition of a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

"Because of that and what the legion stands for, we decided that it would be in our great interest to have a ceremony on June 30," said Sheppard.

"There's so much pride here in Spaniard's Bay with the Legion. The legion is still seen as a sacred place."

The Newfoundland National War Memorial was unveiled July 1, 1924, when Newfoundland was a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire.

WATCH | Why community Memorial Day ceremonies are changing days for the first time in 100 years: 

The memorial grounds in downtown St. John's have undergone a major refurbishment, and thousands of people are expected to gather Monday morning for the anniversary event, and the reinterment of an Unknown Soldier.

The ceremony will be televised live on CBC News Network.

Paul Sheppard is president of Branch 9 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Spaniard's Bay.
Paul Sheppard is president of Branch 9 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Spaniard's Bay.

Paul Sheppard, president of Branch 9 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Spaniard's Bay, says the tomb is an important addition to the National War Memorial. (Curtis Hicks/CBC)

A new granite burial chamber, installed at the base of the war memorial, will become the final resting place for the remains of a Newfoundland soldier who was killed on the Western Front and was repatriated to Newfoundland and Labrador last month.

More than 1,700 people from Newfoundland and Labrador died in service during the First World War, and more than 800 have no known grave.

It's a once-in-a-lifetime event, said Brown, so he was fully supportive of the decision to hold Memorial Day ceremonies a day earlier in Bay Roberts.

"When you think about why we're doing it, that certainly outweighs any kind of precedence that we have been trying to set over the years to keep it constant and keep it at the same time, at the same hour. This is something that the people who will take part in will remember for their lifetime and to be part of that, how could you say no?"

Sheppard said the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is an important addition to National War Memorial and will serve as an important reminder to future generations of the sacrifices made by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

"It's just unbelievable, and it's such a great feat," said Sheppard.

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