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Canada's Vimy Ridge narrative, more trope than truth

Some say modern Canada was born at Vimy Ridge. That's more trope than truth.

In recent weeks, there has been a wave of media coverage surrounding the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The splendid Vimy monument in France provides a perfect backdrop for television anchors. There was also a crowd of thousands on the site, including the descendants of soldiers who fought there against the Germans, grizzled veterans of the Second World War and other conflicts, and hundreds of Canadian school children many of whose teachers had given them assignments related to the Vimy battle. One of the adolescents interviewed on television said that the Canadian soldiers had fought to preserve her freedom at Vimy in 1917.

A civic mythology

Then, there were the politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President François Hollande, not to mention royalty in the person of Prince Charles and two of his sons. Trudeau delivered the oft-repeated trope that it was the battle of Vimy Ridge that created modern Canada. In the prime minister's own words, "Canada was born here." That's a civic mythology created by a succession of Canadian politicians, generals, journalists and historians — those who churn out endless narratives about the same battles. Even author Pierre Berton was instrumental in mythologizing Vimy.

The First World War wasn't an effort to preserve freedom and democracy from tyranny. It was a war that pitted the imperial powers of Great Britain, France and Russia against those of Germany and Austria-Hungary. In large measure the conflict was fueled by an arms race between Britain and Germany. At the time, Canada was a colony without its own foreign policy and was at once Britain declared war.

Although there was an early rush of young volunteers, the conflict soon bogged down into a lengthy war of attrition fought in the muddy trenches of France and Belgium. Those most in favour of Canada's war effort were Canadians of British extraction. There was little enthusiasm in Quebec and among people of Central European origin who felt far less loyalty toward Great Britain.

Conscripting soldiers 

By the Vimy battle in April 1917, Canadians were no longer enlisting in sufficient numbers to meet the quotas demanded by their leaders. One month after the battle, Robert Borden's government introduced legislation to conscript soldiers. There were riots in Quebec and when farmers realized that their sons would not be exempted from military service, they organized a protest march in Ottawa.

At Vimy, four Canadian divisions attacked and eventually captured the ridge from the German army. The human cost was enormous, though: 3,600 Canadians died and another 7,000 were wounded, with an estimated 20,000 casualties on the German side. The cruel irony, of course, was that the battle did little to affect the outcome of the war.

Vimy through the years 

To Canada's generals, the battle was significant because it was the first time that Canadians had fought under their own leadership, rather than as add on to British. Brigadier-General Alexander Ross was to say of Vimy that he had "witnessed the birth of a nation." He might as well have said that Canada is defined by hockey.

In 1922, the French government ceded Vimy Ridge and the land surrounding it to Canada. The stunning white memorial was unveiled in 1936, but not long after, there was another war, and Vimy was all but forgotten until Canada's Centennial in 1967. Damaged by weather and water, the memorial was restored between 2005 and 2007, when it was rededicated by Queen Elizabeth II.

Confederation over Vimy

As we celebrate Canada in 2017, the act of Confederation should take precedence over any battle. After all, we were once a group of vulnerable colonies who, through negotiation, created a democratic, prosperous and diverse nation. The projectiles in those debates were words -- an incomparably better tool than artillery or marching armies.

An abbreviated version of this piece appeared on a United Church Observer blog on April 12, 2017.

 Image: Dennis Gruending

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