Sentries return to National War Memorial as COVID-19 threat recedes

OTTAWA — Military sentries are returning to their spots in front of the National War Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as the threat posed by COVID-19 appears to be receding.

The Canadian Armed Forces has posted a ceremonial guard at the monuments near Parliament seven days a week from April to November since 2014.

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The sentry program was established both as a way to honour the sacrifices of those who have served in uniform and to protect the memorial and tomb from vandalism and other acts.

This year's iteration looked like it might be cancelled entirely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the military says it was decided after talks with Ottawa city officials that the sentry program is a "low-risk outdoor activity" and one way to return a sense of normalcy after months of lockdown.

The first sentries took up their positions this morning and the guard will remain in position five days a week until Nov. 10.

Sentries normally stand guard seven days a week, but the military says it will be using a reduced schedule this year.

While visitors often stand beside the sentries for photographs, they are being asked to remain at least two metres away from the sentries because of COVID-19.

"It is important for Canadians to commemorate significant anniversaries and accomplishments that have been instrumental to the growth and prosperity of Canada and our military heritage," said Maj.-Gen. William Seymour, acting commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command.

"It is with great pride that we continue our National Sentry Program in this unprecedented time, yet, the decision to begin the National Sentry Program in 2020 was only reached after meaningful consultation with health agencies and the City of Ottawa."

Sentries were first posted to the war memorial in 2006 to honour the memory of fallen soldiers. That move followed an incident where a young Canada Day reveller was photographed urinating on the side of the large monument.

The honour guard was initially posted only during the summer but was expanded in 2014 to run from April 9 — the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge — to Nov. 10 — the day before Remembrance Day.

The sentries are dressed in full uniform with rifles that do not contain firing pins. They are chosen from units across Canada and serve one-hour shifts.

There have been a number of incidents involving sentries, most notably the shooting death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo by a sympathizer of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Oct. 22, 2014.

There has also been at least one incident in which a member of the public grabbed a sentry's gun and several in which foul language was used against the guards.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 13, 2020.

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