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Ottawa Remembrance Day celebrations go high tech with ‘virtual poppy drop’


Anyone who’s spent time in Ottawa knows that it takes something special to get people to stand outside on a cold, damp November evening.

But on Nov. 5, dozens gathered on Parliament Hill with poppies pinned over their hearts and cameras at the ready. They watched in silence as a new, high-tech spectacle of commemoration unfolded in front them, both honouring the past and signalling the future of how Canada remembers its veterans.

It’s called a “virtual poppy drop,” a digital light show that features 117,000 poppies projected onto the Centre Block of Parliament. Each represents a Canadian life lost in an armed conflict since the beginning of the First World War.

These huge, lifelike flowers twirled and fluttered their way down the Peace Tower before gently coming to rest on the ground in a simple, yet evocative motion.

“It really hits home,” said Scott Bradley, an Ottawa resident watching the display with his parents. “My uncle Byron, my dad’s brother, served in the Royal Canadian Navy as a signalman on a minesweeper in the Battle of the Atlantic. I think of him this time of year.”

The poppy drop is put on by the Royal Canadian Legion as a special addition to its annual Remembrance Week programming.

President David Flannigan said showering crowds in poppies is a longstanding tradition in the legion, but that the organization wanted to digitize the experience to make it more accessible.

“It’s us getting into the social media era,” he said.

After a small-scale test run at the legion’s annual gathering in St. John’s, N.L. in June, Flannigan and his colleagues decided to bring the project to Ottawa where it will run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. every day from Oct. 28 to Nov. 11.

The display also features two large screens called the “virtual wall of honour and remembrance” which show a rotating slideshow of photos of fallen Canadian soldiers. The legion gathered the images through a public campaign asking Canadians to submit photos of loved ones killed in battle.

New technology for old times

The graphics for the virtual poppy drop were created by Ottawa-based production company Hyperactive Productions, which has been working with the legion since 2012.

In order to cover the whole Centre Block of Parliament, the display uses 15 projectors provided and operated by the Department of Canadian Heritage, said Mike Hicks, vice-president of the Hyperactive’s creative services.

“It’s impressive, but at the end of the day, it’s a pretty simple piece,” he said. “You’ve got different poppies at different depths fluttering at different speeds. It’s always changing so it continues to stay interesting.”

Despite its simplicity, Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum and Carleton University professor, said the project’s use of technology marks an important step in the evolution of Remembrance Day traditions.

“We have all of these older ways of remembrance, but now seem to be also… creating new ways of engaging with the past,” Cook said. “The ways we commemorate are not static.”

Several of the younger attendees said the technological component of the poppy drop piqued their curiosity in a way traditional Remembrance Day practices had not.

“I feel like this is a great representation…to show how much passion we have,” said 19-year-old student Alexa Iachelli.

“If I was a young person and I had no idea what was going on, I’d ask someone ‘Why are these poppies here?’ and that would help me learn about our history and about ourselves because that’s our roots,” she said.

Even those visiting Canada from abroad said the display helped them understand how important honouring veterans is to Canadians.

“It’s cool because in our countries, they don’t do things like this,” said Liza Turchenik, a foreign exchange student from Russia. “They don’t put the projector on the Kremlin or the Red Square, but this one is just beautiful and makes everyone think about veterans.”

‘I could’ve been one of them’

For most attendees, the virtual poppy drop was a chance to reflect on the sacrifices of other Canadians. But for the handful of those who have experienced war firsthand, the display was a painful reminder of their own.

“I don’t really like watching it,” said Second World War veteran Francis James Mitchell as he stood in front the slideshow of fallen soldiers. “I’ve seen some of my buddies’ names up there.”

Mitchell, now 90, said he fought in Germany and the Netherlands when he was only 19 years old.

“It’s very sad because I could’ve been one of them,” he said, but added he was glad the display was there everyone to see. “It brings the people out to remember and that’s what counts.”

The cycles of remembrance

While the virtual poppy drop is the first of its kind in Canada, it’s part of a noticeable trend towards large-scale public displays of remembrance.

In 2014, an installation called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” filled the moat of the Tower of London in England with nearly 900,000 ceramic poppies, each representing a British or Colonial soldier killed during the Frist World War.

In Canada, actor and director R.H. Thomson’s “Vigile 1914-1918 Vigil” projected the names of the 66,000 Canadians killed during the conflict onto the Memorial Wall at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

These kinds of installations are the result of what Cook calls the “cycles of remembrance”-the idea that Remembrance Day traditions have faded in and out of popularity, depending on Canada’s involvement in military conflicts around the world.

With fresh memories of the First World War, Canadians in the 1920s were deeply involved in Remembrance Day, known then as Armistice Day, the historian said. Its popularity waned in the face of economic troubles in the 1930s before making a comeback during and after the Second World War. Anti-war movements in Canada and the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s nearly saw the end of Remembrance Day traditions.

But with Canada’s recent involvement in Afghanistan and 30,000 new veterans it created, Cook said the desire to honour the country’s military is once again at a high.

“We’re seeing more of these commemorative projects,” he said. “We’re in a point in our history where we seem to be willing to take the time to reflect upon military service and sacrifice.”

So far, Flannigan said the response to the virtual poppy drop has been overwhelming.

“It’s hitting their hearts,” he said. “If they haven’t got a poppy on, they’re going to get one.”

As of Nov. 3, legionnaires had distributed more than 21 million poppies, already exceeding the 2015 total.

Flannigan said they legion hopes to hold the event again in the future.

“It makes me feel really proud and I know for all legionnaires…especially veterans, this kind of gives you a cold shiver,” Flannigan said. “That’s why you sign on the dotted line to serve your country.”

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  • Air Date: November 9, 2016

  • t

  • Air Date: November 9, 2016

  • t

  • Air Date: November 9, 2016

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