Thousands of navy personnel hit Victoria streets

Three thousand sailors, soldiers and airforce personnel marched on Victoria streets this morning in the largest military parade this city has seen in 50 years.

It began as the ranks gathered at the corner of Store and Discovery Streets, preparing for the parade that marked 100 years of Canada's navy.

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A sea of white hats and gold buttons picking up the glint of the sun lined the cordoned off streets, as the personnel responded to drill practice orders from the unit chiefs.

"Eyes front, stand back," barks Chief Petty officer Don Nadaste. "Even numbers right, odd numbers left," he says and the rows march in opposite directions, stamping their shiny black shoes on the pavement.

Most of the men and women who were marching in the parade are navy personnel but there were also army and airforce members based at CFB Esquimalt.

At 9:30 a.m., they moved down Pembrooke Street to Douglas on a march toward Victoria City Hall.

The parade spanned at least five city blocks and clapping from onlookers gathered on the sidewalk almost drowned out the stamping of feet and the "left right, left right" orders from the chiefs.

Douglas Street was lined with people. Angela Parise and Donna Isnor arrived at 8 a.m. after dropping off their husbands to march in the parade.

They took the day off work and pulled their kids out of school.

Isnor said she appreciates the city taking time to recognize the people who serve Canada.

"I think it's really important that they're making an effort to show their support for the military," Isnor said. "One hundred years - that's pretty amazing. I was telling Angela, that's why we brought the kids out of school. They're never going to see anything like this again."

The theme of the navy centennial is "Bring the Navy to Canadians" and commander Kelly Larkin of the naval officer's training centre said this parade was doing just that.

"The most important thing for Canadians to understand is we have a navy and what we do in the navy is on behalf of Canadians," he said. He said those marching in the parade were excited and feeding off the energy and support of spectators lining the streets.

"It's a great energy this morning," he said, looking at the clear sunny sky.

Eleven-year-old Sean Arseneault is in the sea cadets and was marching proudly along side his father Master Seaman Rheal Arseneault, who has been in the navy for eight years.

"Without the navy, this country wouldn't be like this, it would probably be a lot different."

His sister Tia, 10, picks up on what he's getting at. "We probably wouldn't have freedom like we do."

She and younger brother, four-year-old Topher said they were excited to watch their dad and brother march in their formal dress during the special event.

"This only happens once every 100 years," said Sean's mother Nikki Arseneault.

Shortly before 10 a.m., Rear Admiral Tyrone Pile, Commander of Maritime Forces Pacific, knocked on the door of City Hall three times with the pommel of his sword and was welcomed by Mayor Dean Fortin.

Fortin and Pile emerged a short time later to inspect the troops lining Douglas St.

Fortin asked for a moment of silence in memory of petty officer second class Craig Blake, a clearance diver who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan yesterday.

Fortin said the Maritime Forces Pacific has an "exemplary" record of service to Victoria.

The city of Victoria granted the unit the right to Freedom of the City in 1985 — on the navy's 75th anniversary. But the tradition goes back more than three centuries and demonstrates the trust between soldier and citizen, Fortin said.

Fortin then read a proclamation bestowing Freedom of the City on the Maritime Forces Pacific and granting it the right to march through the city's streets with their colours flying and bayonets fix and drums beating in memory of all the sailors who have served in the navy in war and peace.

Pile, who accepted the proclamation, received warm applause when he told the crowd: "I present to your navy."

Pile said the fleet "could not be prouder of the community we call home." And he praised the "unprecedented support" of the city for the navy.

The Esquimalt base forms the core of Canada's defence and security in the Pacific, he said. The fleet has answered the call of duty through two world wars, the Korean War, the Cold War and countless conflicts around the world, including Afghanistan, where Blake died Monday.

Pile remember Blake as a "family man, father of two . . clearance diver, triathlete, hockey coach, great guy."

"Although small in its numbers of sailors and ships, the Canadian navy continues to excel, punching above its weight-class, and fulfilling key leadership roles at home and around the world," he said. "Your navy has been and continues to be a great investment in a prosperous and safe Canada."

Fortin then declared that "the city is yours" and asked Victoria police Chief Jamie Graham to remove the barrier blocking the road and allow the troops to march into the city core with bayonets fixed.

Graham, who describes himself as a history buff, was thrilled to be part of the ceremony.

"I felt almost like a kid with a front-row seat," he said. "I get to watch history evolve."

Navy veteran Bob Sears, 84, was glad to see so many people in uniform on the city's streets.

"It means a lot to me," he said. "I would like to see more navy down in uniform. Show off the uniform."

Sears, who wore medals from the Second World War and Korea, spent 28 years in the navy, joining in 1944.

"I'm military through and through," he said. "I believe in it . . and I believe in showing our colours."

Kathie Penny, 54, doesn't have a navy background but she and her co-workers took the morning off work to watch the parade pass by on Douglas Street.

"I stand here in awe and I think we should all be standing here like this," she said, drawing her hand up forward in a salute. "It's emotional, it's amazing."

Lt.(N) Stephanie Hartzell, 25, said people in the military always hope they have the support of their community behind them.

"Today, we got to see that support," she said, following the march. "It felt great. We had people with 'Thank you' signs, with flags, cheering, and that just warmed my heart. It was fantastic."

Hartzell, who serves as the assistant head of department for the marine systems engineers on the HMCS Algonquin, said Monday's death of a fellow sailor in Afghanistan gave the parade additional meaning.

"Some people might think that the navy, 'Oh, they're sheltered from some of that conflict.'" she said. "But we send a number of people out over to Afghanistan and other locations , like Sudan, all the time. It definitely gave us that additional reason to hold our heads up high and to be proud for serving our country."

Dennis Dekergommeaux, 76, squeezed his way through the rows of people to get to the front of the crowd.

The only time he put down his camera was to clap for the men and women who passed. The smile never left his face.

Now retired, Dekergommeaux served in the navy for 31 years as a marine electrician, mostly based at CFB Esquimalt. He said he had been looking forward to this day for a long time.

"It's really a pleasure, I feel a lot of emotion." Dekergommeaux was wearing a navy blue ballcap that says "Chief and PO's (petty officer) Association" which is based in Esquimalt. It's decorated with seven pins, including one that commemorates the navy's 75th anniversary, one that marks 25 years of service and another from the first ship he served on, HMCS Ontario.

He said he's happy to see the large crowd gathered to support to navy.

"It's important (for the public) to show their loyalty and support for the navy. The armed forces need support right now," he said, especially amid the many important missions Canada is carrying out around the world.

Don Winsor said he was sad his kids, who were sitting in a classroom, missed the historic event.

"I think (the navy) brings strength to the nation knowing our borders are protected and that people will sacrifice their lives to keep the country free."

After the stop at city hall, the parade proceeded down Douglas Street, along Belleville Street in front of the Royal B.C. Museum, and back up Government Street. It ended at 11:30 a.m. at City Hall, where the Downtown Victoria Business Association hosted a family-oriented barbecue at Centennial Square.

At that time, the Naden Band and a Guard of Honour then returned to the corner of Government and Wharf streets, where at noon, Lt.-Gov. Steven Point unveiled the "Homecoming Statue" that commemorates Canadians who have served in the navy.

It is the city's gift to the navy to mark it's 100th birthday.

The ranks saluted Real Admiral Pile as he walked to the podium for a poignant speech.

Pile said the statue, depicting a young child running into the arms of her father who has just returned home from a deployment, captures the emotional moment that every sailor feels in coming home.

"Thank you for this magnificent tribute to a century of naval service."

Victoria tenor Ken Lavigne sang a powerful rendition of the song he composed for the event, appropriately titled "I'm coming home."

At 12:35 p.m., the statue, crafted by Nathan Scott was revealed as the Naden Band played Heart of Oak and a CH 124 Sea King helicopter fly overhead.

Scott points out the bronzed features of the little girl which is modeled off his six-year-old daughter Acacia.

"This is what I envisioned a home coming looking like," he said of the sculpture, which took him nine months to craft. "I was just trying to capture that moment...they're just about to embrace."

"It's absolutely stunning," a passerby tells him.

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