Remembrance Day and the glorification of the military in Canadian schools

| November 12, 2012
World War II memorial in Niagara. (Photo: FaiqaKhan-Native / flickr)

I teach History in the public secondary system. Early November is a time of year that most of we History teachers love because Remembrance Day often makes Canadians pause -- if only for a moment -- to reflect on Canada's relationship with the rest of the world and, perhaps more importantly, listen to the stories that our aging veterans have to tell. 

But I increasingly find myself fighting a sense of trepidation over the approach of November 11th. 

As a professional educator, and a white poppy-wearing individual, I feel it is my responsibility to emphasize the social and human costs of war as least as much as the dates of pivotal battles and the names of important Generals. In my classes, as I'm sure in many others across the province, the internment of Japanese-Canadians, for example, is given the same amount of instruction time as D-Day and the invasion of Normandy. 

That does not mean, though, that I (and others like me) am downplaying the importance of the Canadian military's role in the shaping of our country. In fact, I believe it is crucially important for young people to study the sacrifice that Canadian men and women made in their battle against 20th century fascism. Young Canadian soldiers and sailors and nurses made great contributions to this country, and that should never be forgotten. 

What I reject, though, is the clumsy attempt by schools to honour fallen soldiers that often amounts to little more than the glorification of the Canadian military.

Every year, schools put together Remembrance Day ceremonies featuring skits, videos and readings. At the ceremony that I attended this week, I was made uncomfortable by parts of what I saw. 

In one video that was played, fictionalized scenes of a soldier sweating profusely in a tank, handing out bottled water to happy brown-skinned children, and tearing up while reading a letter flickered on the screen. In the background, a little girl's voice read a letter to her father, expressing how much she loved and missed her dad. In another video, grainy, black and white clips of soldiers lying injured and bleeding in muddy trenches were interspersed with high definition images of Canadian troops patrolling dusty, foreign-looking villages while toting machine guns. 

It's irresponsible to conflate the horrible plight of conscripted teenagers during World War One with the experiences of professional soldiers in Afghanistan. The comparison implies a moral equivalency that simply does not exist. What was more off-putting than the videos, though, was the way the ceremony ended. 

A teacher gave thanks 'to those who have fought for our freedom, and to those who are still out there fighting for Canada's freedom today.' It was an empty platitude that held no basis in reality -- re the Iranians a threat to the freedom of Saskatchewanians? -- but the message to a gym full of adolescents was clear: the military always has and always will protect you from the bad people, so be grateful. 

That educators demand that teenagers thank both World War II and Afghanistan veterans for their service is, to use an historical expression, beyond the pale. I don't doubt that a great number of Canadian soldiers who volunteered for the Armed Forces did their best to better the lives of the Afghan people, but I also feel strongly that we, as a society, should reject the demanded deference of our youth toward those that hunt down who we conveniently label 'terrorists' (but who, more often than not, are teenagers whose poverty and guilelessness is exploited by powerful criminal warlords.) 

The education system in Ontario is, for the most part, a progressive one. Schools have become a champion for LGTB rights, and educators have done an admirable job of raising awareness of social justice issues like poverty and environmental degradation.

I am genuinely proud of these accomplishments. What I struggle with, however, is our schools' veneration of the Canadian military.

Young people are not intellectually docile, yet we demand that they suspend their critical thinking skills for this one topic. That does a disservice to our young people, and our country. 

Lest we forget. 


Matt Moir is a teacher and a graduate school student in journalism. 

Photo: FaiqaKhan-Native / flickr



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