Vimy Ridge Day

9 04 2010

Today was Vimy Ridge Day in Ottawa. See here. Vimy Ridge Day was established in 2003 by the federal government to remember the Canadians who got killed fighting in the First World War. Vimy Ridge Day was the brain child of Brent J. St. Denis, who was then the MP for the Northern Ontario riding of Algoma-Manitoulin. Today’s ceremony got extra attention because the last Canadian veteran of the war died recently.

As someone who researches the history of Anglo-Canadian relations, I’m mildly interested in the social history of the First World War in Canada. I was struck by the fact that none of the speakers at today’s ceremony, not even the Queen’s official representative in Canada(!), could bring themselves to mention the “British Empire.” That’s right, the name of the entity for which the Canadians were fighting went totally unmentioned. This is the elephant in the room nobody can bring him/herself to mention. Instead, there were anachronistic statements to the effect that the Canadians who fought in the war were fighting either for Canada or for the “international community”.

The silence on the British Empire is deafening. I bet nobody mentioned the Conscription Crisis either. Wasted opportunity to educate the public on a bit of history.

For the record, let me state that I’m glad the British Empire no longer exists. It is likely that the British decision to get involved in the First World War accelerated the demise of the British Empire and its break-up into a number of successor states in various part of the world, of which the modern nation of Canada is but one. That being said, I think that the British Empire was an important part of Canada’s history and our public leaders should not be ashamed to mention it. For Canadians, the legacy of the British Empire was pretty mixed. The old Empire was probably not as bad some left-wing historians suggest nor as good as Niall Ferguson argues. But regardless of whether it was good or bad entity, it was an important part of the Canadian story and should not be ignored. As someone with a passionate belief in historical accuracy, it is offends me when the past is distorted through such a bizarre omission. What would we think of a text on Italian history that didn’t mention the Roman Empire. The difference is that the Roman Empire was long ago, whereas the British Empire is still part of living memory (just barely though).

My reading of the situation is this. Canada today likes to think of itself as a tolerant, multicultural nation. We also have large numbers of immigrants from countries where the words “British Empire” evoke a visceral and very negative reaction. Many Canadians admire the other people who helped to overthrow British rule in their part of the world. (My university has a statue of Gandhi). All of  this means that inconvenient truths such as the fact that the First World War was divisive, that Quebeckers and many others hated conscription, that Anglo-Canadians once loved the British Empire, and that British immigrants outnumbered native-born Canadians at Vimy Ridge go totally unmentioned.

Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the Liberal Party and a former historian, was present at today’s ceremony. It is too bad that his current position does not allow him to say something interesting/truthful about Vimy Ridge.

Ignatieff, 9 April 2010



2 responses

9 04 2010

I’ve seen some balanced commentary in the press that did mention the Conscription crisis as part of the nation-creation of WWI, but as you suggest, there is little talk of the British Empire, or of the fact that the “Canadians” who fought at Vimy contained an awful lot of British-born. These themes are well-known to historians, but public commemorations are not about history, they are about memory, the selective kind.

10 04 2010
A Response to my Vimy Ridge Day Post « Andrew Smith’s Blog

[…] A Response to my Vimy Ridge Day Post 10 04 2010 My response to a reply on my earlier Vimy Ridge Day post. […]

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