TORONTO -- Canadians tuned in Wednesday with a mixture of relief and optimism to watch the swearing in of Joe Biden as U.S. president amid concerns about potential violence south of the border and the omnipresent threat of COVID-19.

Given the pandemic, most in-person viewing gatherings of the pageantry gave way to virtual events, with some expressing joy at the lifting of what they saw as the dark cloud of Donald Trump's presidency.

"Watching as I always do, but this one seems more significant," said Nicole Caron, a former provincial civil servant in Ottawa. "It returns to America the values that hold true for many democracies, with a focus on inclusivity and that everyone has a hand in moving forward, together."

While Biden was the main attraction on stage in a heavily patrolled Washington, D.C., many Canadians focused on his newly minted second-in-command, Kamala Harris.

At home with her daughter in Montreal, Wanda Kagan watched Harris, her best friend from high school, get sworn in as vice-president. Harris lived briefly in Montreal before graduating in 1981.

Kagan, who met Harris at Westmount High School, called the inauguration a special moment, despite the disappointment of not being able to go to Washington.

"It's not the way you'd like to watch it when you were invited to the most historic day of your friend's life," Kagan said. "Anyone can make history but only a great woman can write history and that's what she's going to do."

Calgary mother Gabriela Gonzalez grew teary watching the inauguration. It was exciting, she said, that young people everywhere, especially girls like her almost three-year-old daughter and children of colour, could see Harris and realize they, too, can achieve big things.

"I'm excited for my daughter to see that it's important for women and young girls to be involved in the political process," Gonzalez said. "They do have a role to play and they can have a seat at the table."

The pandemic placed limits on the size of the mask-wearing crowd that would typically gather in the U.S. capital for the grand inauguration ceremony. So did the lingering threat of violence after Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in a futile bid to stop the transition of power, egged on by the former president himself.

Thousands of National Guard troops were deployed ahead of the event, further stoking anxiety among Americans and concerned observers. Acknowledging the fractures in his inaugural speech, Biden called for unity and urged his country to "start afresh."

Rael Wienburg, a photographer and videographer in London, Ont., who said he was watching a "huge moment," called Biden's speech classy.

"Finally, a speech by a president with a vision to help bring a divided nation together," Wienburg said. "I'm feeling very positive and emotional after a tumultuous year of horrific and unfortunate times."

For Jane and David Schlosberg in Dartmouth, N.S., the inauguration was a moment of cautious optimism.

"You try not to be cynical and look forward to a better time," Jane Schlosberg said as she watched the ceremony.

In Owen Sound, Ont., Sergei Lozowski listened to the ceremony via radio.

"I want to hear official word that the leadership of our closest ally is not a deranged reality TV personality," he said.

Others across Canada watched with roommates and in workplaces as they observed pandemic guidelines.

Mary-Ellen Unan called it more significant than ever that citizens of North America watched the U.S. handover of power.

"In a world where we are all affected by the policies of the American government, too many people still feel disenfranchised," Unan said from Toronto. "The swearing in to the highest office in the world is ceremonial, but it also marks a major change for the future."

-With files from Danielle Edwards in Halifax; Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal; Fakiha Baig in Edmonton.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2021.