Furey says he was changed forever by the Unknown Soldier

Furey says he was changed forever by the Unknown Soldier
Furey says he was changed forever by the Unknown Soldier

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey receives the Canadian flag that flew over the coffin of the Unknown Soldier from Major General Paul J. Peyton at the National War Memorial in St. John’s on July 1. (CBC channel)

As Newfoundland’s Unknown Soldier travelled from France to the Confederation Building and his final resting place at the National War Memorial in St. John’s, Premier Andrew Furey said what began as an operational journey turned into an emotional one.

In the lead-up to the Unknown Soldier’s homecoming and Memorial Day itself, Furey was the soldier’s ceremonial next of kin, representing all Newfoundland and Labrador residents who lost loved ones during the First World War. He says he has become a different person because of it.

“It’s changed me as a person, as a father and as a prime minister,” Furey recently told CBC News in an interview.

Quiet city center

July 1 has always been a somber day in the province. The day has been celebrated for decades, long before Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, and serves as a day to remember soldiers killed or wounded in battle.

But this year was different. Thousands of people showed up for the burial of the Unknown Soldier, while the province celebrated the centennial of the National War Memorial in downtown St. John’s — but Furey said the city was quiet.

“Forever etched in my memory is how quiet the city was. My family and I were standing behind the hearse as survivors and as we walked up Water Street, you could hear a pin drop. You could hear the seagulls screaming, but you could also hear them flapping their wings,” Furey said.

Furey and his wife Alison followed the procession before taking their seats on the top platform of the National War Memorial. (Mike Moore/CBC)

The silence, he said, symbolized respect for the fallen son of the province.

The walk to the National War Memorial was a moment of reflection for Furey, he said, and it reminded him of a time with his family in France.

“We received the soldier, at first just the three of us as relatives. The War Graves Commission said, ‘Here is the coffin and here is the relatives.’ There were no flags, there were no trumpets. There were no celebratory moments. We were alone in the room. And we stood in silence.”

At that moment, Furey said, he realized the Unknown Soldier was likely not much older than his own son.

“The emotion of that moment came flooding back as we walked up Water Street,” he said. “Holding his hand tightly, looking at my daughters, who are probably the same age as this person, was incredibly powerful, emotional, profound.”

‘This was ours’

The Furey family did not take their role as survivors lightly, said Furey, who called it the most important role they will play in their lives.

“This is an emotional responsibility to the fabric and essence of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said.

Furey, as designated next of kin, and Lt. Col. Shawn Samson watch as the casket is lowered as an unknown World War I soldier from Newfoundland is laid to rest at the National War Memorial. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

A hundred years ago, Furey said, 20,000 people gathered at the war memorial to christen the monument.

A century later, he said, there still seemed to be just as many people there. More people were watching TV and other media platforms, and they were showing a level of pride he hadn’t expected.

“While we love Canada, this country was ours as citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador. The pride we feel in Canada and the subsequent closure, or partial closure, to what remains an open wound in our history is reflected in all the comments I hear,” Furey said.

“I felt everyone in Newfoundland and when I sat there and got down on one knee, I felt everyone with me.”

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