Ottawa police opt against laying charges after ‘desecration’ at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Ottawa Police Service says it’s not charging a man connected to what Canada’s defence minister recently called a “desecration” of the city’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Last week, footage circulated on social media of a July 24 nighttime incident in which an American flag was draped over the tomb, which is located at the National War Memorial site in downtown Ottawa. A man could be seen in some of the footage.

“The man was identified and spoken to,” the Ottawa Police Service said in an email to CBC News. “He showed remorse for the incident and police are confident that he will not repeat it.”

The tomb and the National War Memorial are open to all visitors who want to contemplate the sacrifices of “our military community,” the Department of National Defence told CBC. 

But the site is considered “a symbol of sombre tribute that should be respected by all who visit it and not used for messaging for any ideological perspective,” the department added. 

Anita Anand, the Minister of National Defence, said in a tweet that the “desecration of this memorial is unacceptable and shameful.”

“It is very disappointing to see disrespect [there],” echoed Yasir Naqvi, the MP for Ottawa Centre, in a statement sent to CBC News. 

Guidance from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says to never drape the U.S. flag on anything, nor let it touch anything beneath it.

The government agency responsible for the site says it’s now mulling suggestions on how to better protect war memorials in the future following a series of incidents at the site.

Site patrolled during half the day

Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), which is responsible for the site, said the monuments are under 24-hour video surveillance. The July 24 incident was flagged to police after a review of camera footage early the next morning. 

A commissionaire also routinely patrols the monuments from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., the agency said. 

“At this time, we cannot comment on future plans for greater security at the monuments,” PSPC told CBC News.

Daniel Coates, an Ottawa resident who wrote Naqvi with concern about the American flag incident, said the site should be under 24-hour guard. 

“It deserves that kind of protection,” Coates said. “And we’re a big enough country to be able to pull it off.”

17 desecrations in last 5 years

The American flag incident is not the first time conduct at the memorial site has come under scrutiny this year.

During the Freedom Convoy protests, a woman danced on the tomb. There were also reports of people urinating on the tomb, according to the Department of Public Works and Government Services. 

Police identified the woman who danced on the tomb but did not charge her, saying she had been spoken to and showed remorse.

In a report tabled this past June, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs stated it believed “alternative dispute resolution mechanisms would more likely have a positive impact in terms of both deterrence and awareness” than ultimately fining someone up to $1,000 for committing mischief against a war memorial. 

People hold a vigil in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa on Feb. 3, 2022 amid protests against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and public health restrictions. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

The committee heard from the Department of Public Works and Government Services that in the past five years, there have been 17 reported incidents of desecration at the National War Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument.

Five of those incidents — not including the more recent incident with the American flag — occurred since Jan. 28, 2022. 

“The limited number of these types of incidents to date may not have warranted a more robust plan specific to the memorials, but that could change,” according to the committee’s report. 

  • Read the committee’s full report here or at the bottom of the story. 

The committee recommended that PSPC develop “a response plan specifically for federal memorials” and review its “security incident playbook” to ensure it meets “the needs for potential future mass protests or gatherings.”

PSPC said it is currently reviewing those recommendations.

As for whether “improved signage” should be installed at the site, the committee concluded that “it would be surprising if individuals who disrespect monuments were to suddenly feel ashamed about their behaviour when they see a sign.”

Fencing at the site not considered a permanent solution

The standing committee’s report also offers new details about the installation of a fence around the National War Memorial which proved contentious in early February during the Freedom Convoy protests. 

After the reported desecrations during the protests, the City of Ottawa and the National Capital Commission requested that PSPC install a temporary barrier to protect the monuments.

It was the first time, apart from construction work, that such fencing was installed around the monuments, according to the Department of National Defence.

“It’s a shame, in our view, to have to fence around a monument to protect it,” Stéphan Déry, assistant deputy minister of Public Works and Government Services, told the committee. “It’s also a public place to allow more than a million people to pay their respects to those who have given their lives.”

After protesters removed the fencing on Feb. 12, PSPC decided not to reinstall it because the Ottawa Police Service “feared that parts could be used as projectiles,” according to the committee’s report. 

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