OTTAWA -- The crowds circling the National War Memorial shuffled a little uncomfortably in their shoes as Rabbi Reuven Bulka urged a giant group hug for Canada's veterans.
At the count of three, he asked those present to deliver a resounding "Thank you, dear veterans."
The people responded, albeit with some clear reluctance.
"It's very un-Canadian," one member of Canada's air force said, explaining to a handful of foreign military members in attendance why not everyone had responded with gusto.
It wasn't that the people weren't thankful. It's that Canadians in general do not wear their national pride on their sleeves.
Yet on Sunday morning, as the sun worked hard to break through the clouds over the sombre Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, thousands of Canadians from all walks of life gathered to remember and say thank you in their own Canadian way.
With prayers and music and the laying of wreaths on the memorial, with bagpipes and a bugle playing the haunting notes of Last Post. In moments of quiet reflection.
The tomb of the unknown soldier was strewn with poppies, left in gratitude by the masses. It is a sign that the sacrifices made by our Armed Forces will never be forgotten.
When we wake up this morning and get ready for work; when we send our children off to school, sit down at our office desks, or punch in at the factory; when we stop for milk at the corner store, or go online to share our views and engage in debate -- we do all of this with freedom created and protected by the veterans who fought for us.
It is fitting that the largest Remembrance Day tributes occur just steps from Parliament Hill, as the bells of the cenotaph ring in the background. Were it not for the courage and selflessness of our veterans, the freedom in which our parliamentary style of government exists would likely not be possible. We may moan about the state of our political system, we may sigh at its shortcomings and shake our heads at the partisan games, but the alternatives to a free and open government are simply unthinkable in this country.
The men and women we honour on Nov. 11 made that so.
Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Dieppe, France, with Canadian veterans of the failed raid there during the Second World War. Although no ground was gained in the invasion and the casualties were large -- more than 900 Canadians were killed, another 2,000 were taken prisoner -- Dieppe helped the Allied forces learn valuable lessons that aided the successful D-Day invasion in nearby Normandy two years later.
Although the people of Dieppe and its surrounding towns and villages were not liberated that day, they still hold Canadians in high-esteem for trying to help. They came by the thousands to say thank you, lining the streets for kilometres, applauding the veterans as they marched by. Small children ran into the parade line seeking hugs and autographs.
It was an absolutely remarkable sight -- one rarely seen in Canada.
Yet underneath our reserved nature lives a debt of gratitude many Canadians cannot express.
In Ottawa Sunday, the city didn't come to a standstill at 11 a.m., but it came close.
In the hour before the ceremony began, the streets of downtown all led to one spot. From every direction they came, some in military uniform, some pushing strollers to share with their children the lesson of remembrance. They flocked to the National War Memorial in the cold and the rain, and stood quiet and pensive as the dignitaries arrived, a school choir sang, and photos of fallen soldiers flickered past on a giant screen. They shuddered with blast of the 21-gun salute.
One young girl asked her military father if the sound was like it is during war, if the noise from the guns was a constant. When he told her yes, she confessed how scared she would be if the noises were around her all the time.
For that young girl, not to have to know of that experience would be remarkable.
As the ceremony concluded and the parade of veterans ensued, Canadians stood and quietly applauded them.
One man, being pushed in his wheelchair, raised his hand and waved back at the crowd, smiling in appreciation.
"Thank you," he said, with a nod of his head.
No sir, the thanks go to you.