Bringing the Unknown Soldier Home

In the spring of 1998, the Dominion President of the Legion invited a number of government departments and other organizations to participate in a Working Group to bring the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier project to fruition.


As part of the Canada Millennium Partnership Program, The Royal Canadian Legion was determined to establish a place for an unidentified soldier from the First World War. 

The Cabinet asked the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to select one of the 1,603 graves of unknown Canadians buried in the vicinity of Vimy Ridge. Chosen was Grave 7, in Row E of Plot 8 of the Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery in Souchez, France, near the memorial at Vimy Ridge, the site of the first major battle where all four Canadian divisions fought together as a combined force.

The remains of the soldier buried there were exhumed on the morning of May 16, 2000, and the coffin was flown in a Canadian Forces aircraft to Ottawa on May 25, accompanied by a 45-person guard of honour, a chaplain, Royal Canadian Legion veterans, and two representatives of Canadian youth. In Ottawa, the unknown soldier lay in state for three days in the Hall of Honour in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill.

The unknown soldier brought back to Canada is now known as The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.


An exploratory meeting was held on 25 February 1997 with Mr. Ian Inrig from the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada (ANAVETS) and a representative from the National Council of Veterans (NCV) to discuss a Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This meeting proved interesting but it became apparent that the scope and cost of this initiative would be significant and would require considerable effort to get off the ground. It would also require a formal endorsement by the entire Legion organization. So a recommendation to that effect was sent to the RCL Dominion Executive Council for their consideration at their meeting held at the end of November 1997. DEC approved the recommendation and the Legion Dominion Secretary set about chairing a series of meetings with various government departments and agencies.

At the time, the Dominion Secretary considered that the Unknown Soldier might be drawn from the casualties of the South Africa War as this was the first war of five in which Canada was involved in the 20th century. With this proposal, a meeting of the three Veterans organizations, VAC and MGen Romeo Dallaire, from the Canadian Armed Forces, was arranged with Mr. Harry Needham at the Canadian War Museum who concurrently was interested in organizing some activity to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the South Africa War.

At the meeting on 12 March 1998, MGen Dallaire committed the full support of the Canadian Armed Forces to the establishment of a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as a millennium project of The Royal Canadian Legion, but he argued that the Unknown Soldier should be drawn from the battle of Vimy Ridge rather than the South Africa War.

In consideration of the fact that this was the first major engagement of Canadian forces at war under Canadian leadership, and in recognition of the significance of the Vimy Victory, all attendees agreed that this was more appropriate proposal with one exception. Dr Serge Bernier from DND, pointed out that Newfoundland was not part of Canada during World War I so the selection of an Unknown Soldier from Vimy meant that the soldier could not have been a Newfoundlander. However, seeing no alternative, he eventually agreed that Vimy should remain the source of the remains.

With the commitment of the CAF and the positive support of VAC and the other two major Veterans organizations, the Legion Dominion Secretary then initiated correspondence, through the Dominion President to all interested government departments and agencies to establish a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Working Group to implement the Tomb as a Millennium project of The Royal Canadian Legion. Over a period of two years, the Working Group orchestrated all the associated project details.


In the spring of 1998, the Dominion President of the Legion invited a number of government departments and other organizations to participate in a Working Group to bring the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier project to fruition. Those invited to be members of the Working Group were:

  • NCVA
  • Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC)
  • Department of National Defence (DND)
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)
  • Public Works and Government services Canada (PWGCS)
  • Canadian War Museum (CWM)
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), (Canadian Agency)
  • National Capital Commission (NCC)

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Working Group, under the chairmanship of retired BGen. Duane Daly, Dominion Secretary of the Legion, met eleven times over the course of the project. A brief summary of the major discussions / decisions at each meeting follows.

At the first meeting held on 22 April 1998 at Legion House located at 359 Kent Street, Ottawa, ON several resolutions were passed as follows:

  • Agreed with the DND recommendation that the remains come from the Vimy battlefield of the First World War;
  • Agreed that the selection of the particular remains from the Vimy Battlefield would be the responsibility of CWGC;
  • Agreed to locate the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial.

In subsequent Working Group meetings, the following major resolutions were adopted:


First and perhaps foremost, the Working Group would constitute the coordinating committee for the project with chairmanship held by The Royal Canadian Legion. The Legion would also be responsible for the design and coordination of the funeral / interment ceremonies with ANAVETS and NCVA participating as equal partners. That said, it was pointed out that Order in Council 1965-688 assigned responsibility for “Remembrance Ceremonies in connection with the war dead outside Canada” to the Minister of Veterans Affairs. As a result, responsibility for developing the ceremonies in Vimy evolved to VAC;


PWGSC took responsibility for the design and construction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and for carrying the modifications to the National War Memorial to accept the Tomb. At the third Working Group meeting, held on 23 September 1998, it was agreed that the tomb would be in a sarcophagus placed over the steps of the National War Memorial and that the sarcophagus would be designed by Mr. Maurice Joanisse and would be patterned after the altar of the Vimy Memorial. The quarry from which the granite would come was the Lac Rivière-à-Pierre Quarry, the same quarry from which came the stone for the construction of the National War Memorial. Ms Mary Ann Liu was selected to do the bronze work for the sarcophagus.

At the eighth Working Group meeting held on 16 February 1999, the Funeral Directors Association of Canada agreed to provide two caskets, one for the remains and one for rehearsals and back-up. It was also unanimously confirmed that the wording on the Tomb would be: “THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER” “LE SOLDAT INCONNU.” The following meeting held on 22 March 2000 unanimously agreed that the coffin would be draped with a Canadian flag and not the Vimy Flag from the Imperial War Museum as suggested by the media as the Unknown Soldier represents all of Canada’s fallen who rest unknown.


DND would be responsible for escorting and transporting the remains from the Vimy battlefield with CWGC being responsible for the selection of the particular remains of an Unknown Soldier and recovery of those remains. At the fourth meeting, held on 20 January 1999, it was agreed by all parties that the Unknown Soldier would represent all fallen Merchant Seamen, as well as navy, army and air force fallen. It was also agreed that the Victoria Cross and other military honours would not be considered for the Unknown Soldier. DND, would also be responsible for the transportation, storage, and security of the remains including related ceremonial aspects;


VAC requested and CWGC obliged to find the remains of an Unknown Soldier from a strip of land approximately 25kms in length running from Loos-en-Gohelle in the north to Neuville-Vitasse in the south, an area of concentrated military successes by Canadians in the First World War. By December 1999 CWGC had finally selected a site from which to retrieve the remains – The Cabaret-Rouge Cemetery. It was started by British troops in March 1916 and used largely by the Canadian Corps until August 1917. There are more than 8,000 graves at the cemetery including 750 Canadians.

During the fourth meeting of the Working Group CWGC reported that, it had approved Canada’s request for repatriation of the remains of an Unknown Soldier at its meeting held on 16 December 1998;


VAC would be responsible for communications/public relations aspect of the project, including the production of a communications plan, with the involvement of all parties. At the eighth Working Group meeting Sandra Lavigne from VAC reported that CBC-TV would be broadcasting the ceremonies.

It was also agreed among all members that the departmental organizations involved in the project would finance the total cost of the project. No separate fund-raising scheme would be done. That said, at the third meeting it was agreed that a submission for a grant under the Canada Millennium Partnership Program on behalf of those non-governmental organizations expending resources on the project. This submission was approved in April 1999. While some funds were available, Mr. Andre Smith from VAC explained that the cost of the full program, that would include the lying-in-state in each province and territory, would be approximately $20 million while limiting the program to Vimy and Ottawa would cost approximately $3 million. Seen from this perspective, it was decided that the remains would lie-in-state in the National Capital only.

The tentative date for the interment ceremony was scheduled for Sunday 2 July 2000. At the third Working Group meeting, it was agreed that the date for the handover ceremonies at Vimy would take place on 13 May 2000 and that the date for the committal service in Ottawa would be 18 June 2000. Because of budget constraints highlighted at the fifth Working Group meeting, it was decided that the National Capital interment ceremonies would take place on Monday 22 May 2000.

At the sixth Working Group meeting, held on 15 September 1999, the date of the interment changed again following objections from the Mayor of Ottawa to hold the ceremony during the Tulip Festival and the objections from the clergy in having a ceremony held on a Sunday morning. As a result, the new date for the interment ceremony was Sunday afternoon on 28 May 2000, preceded by the official handover of the remains in France on 25 May 2000. At the seventh meeting of the Working Group, held on 01 December 1999, it was agreed that the period of lying-in-state would be from the evening of 25 May 2000 to Sunday 28 May 2000. It was further agreed that soil from each provinces and territories would be placed in the sarcophagus as part of the committal ceremonies. A Legion representative from each province would present the soil at the ceremonies.

The final two Working Group meetings held on 26 April and 26 June 2000 respectively, summarized everything that had been done and the Legion Dominion Secretary congratulated everyone for the resounding success of the project.


Early on May 25, 2000, the remains of the Unknown Soldier were taken by hearse from the CWG offices at Beaurains to Canadian Cemetery No 2 at Vimy and placed in front of the Cross of Sacrifice. At approximately 9:30am, the CWGC gardeners from the Cabaret-Rouge Cemetery picked up the coffin and carried it to the gates of the cemetery where it was driven by hearse to the northwest entrance road to the Vimy Memorial where it stopped. It was picked up by a French bearer party who then placed the coffin on a catafalque at the base of the steps leading up to the altar of the Memorial.

Several dignitaries addressed the crowd, including Mr. Jean Dussourd, prefect du Pas-de-Calais; Admiral Sir John Kerr, Vice-Chairman CWGC; the Honourable George Baker, Canada’s Minister of Veterans Affairs; BGen. Fairwell, the Chaplain-General of the Canadian Armed Forces. Following the ceremony the coffin was taken to the Lille airport where it was placed onboard a Canadian Armed Forces aircraft CC-150 and departed, along with all members of the pilgrimage, for Canada at 2pm.


Everyone associated with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier recognized the historical significance of the project for Canada. All felt that the ceremonies associated with the project should be dignified and of a magnitude commensurate with such a historically important event. Accordingly much of the time and effort of the Working Group and of project staff in the various organizations was spent on planning and organizing the National Capital Ceremonies.

The CAF aircraft arrived in Ottawa at 3:53pm on Thursday 25 May 2000. The pilgrimage delegation was met by the Minister of National Defence, the Honourable Art Eggleton, who made a short address. Following his remarks, the hearse followed by the bearer party and the delegation proceeded by motorcade, escorted by the police, to the Cartier Drill Hall. Waiting inside the Drill Hall was a motorized gun carriage (gun carriage pulled by a truck). The coffin was laid on the gun carriage whereby it was transported to the Peace Tower on Upper Drive. The bearer party then lifted the coffin and carried it into the Centre Block where it was lowered on a catafalque in the Hall of Honour.

Prior to the vigil being opened to the public, the Governor General and the Prime Minister joined the official party in front of the catafalque. The Chaplain General spoke, followed by the Governor General. After the official party signed the Book of Condolence, the hundreds of veterans assembled in the Hall of Honour took their turns in approaching the catafalque to pay their respects. They were followed by the cadets who were present to attend the arrival of the Unknown Soldier.

The remains of the Unknown Soldier continued to lie-in-state until Sunday afternoon 28 May 2000. At that point, the vigil was dismounted and the bearers moved to the catafalque, lifted the coffin and moved slowly out of the Hall of Honour led by the Chaplain General through the arch of the Peace Tower. The casket was placed on a horse-drawn gun carriage provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. There was a military procession and a contingent of mourners not in uniform, then mourners in uniform and finally the chief mourners. Of note was that there were approximately 1,000 Veterans that took part in this procession before some 15,000 spectators.

With the ceremony officially over, the Vice-Regal Party and chief mourners left the National War Memorial and headed towards Elgin Street East. The bearer party and the guard marched off to rejoin the escort on Wellington Street. The large contingent of Veterans marched off north on Elgin Street then East on Wellington to be dismissed in front of the Conference Centre. The military contingent marched back to the Cartier Drill Hall to be dismissed.

At approximately 5pm that day a large crane was moved into place on Elgin Street to place the cover for the sarcophagus on top of it. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was now complete.


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier project was initiated to commemorate, in a tangible way within Canada, the thousands of Canadian servicemen and women and the members of the merchant navy who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of our country and its way of life and rest in foreign lands or beneath the sea. The ceremony on 28 May 2000 was the culmination of more than two years of planning on the part of several organizations.

Today, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is an integral part of any ceremony held at the National War Memorial. During the Legion’s National Remembrance Day Ceremony, thousands of Canadians from all across the country place their Poppy on the Tomb at the conclusion of the ceremony to show their respect for the ultimate sacrifice.