Thursday, August 07, 2014

Why the Canadian government marked August 4th so modestly

Poppies fill the dry moat of the Tower of London
Wait three years and see.

In western Europe the commemorations of last Monday’s anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War were vast. The 900,000 ceramic poppies being deployed around the Tower of London may have been the most poignant, but everywhere there were heads of state, international participation, and mass crowds.

It was a lot more modest in Ottawa: a ceremony at the National War Memorial, a speech by the prime minister at the War Museum, not much more. Indeed, a large government involvement was not necessary; public interest and media coverage have been substantial, without much official pump-priming. The respectful and mournful coverage in the media has been skillful and appropriate.  Still, for a government much committed to celebrations of historic events that appeal to it, particularly military ones, the modest official participation this past weekend suggests a certain policy choice.

At the Department of Canadian Heritage’s commemoration website, you can see what the policy choice is. What Canada really plans to commemorate is Vimy Ridge.

It is not just that Vimy, a Canadian victory, is more appealing to politicians than August 1914, the date that marked the suicide of western civilization (in Prime Minister Robert Borden’s words). The Vimy Ridge hundredth anniversary coincides with the 150th anniversary of Confederation. The official plan to conflate the two, indeed to militarize the founding of the Canadian nation. As the Department of Canadian Heritage website puts it, Vimy Ridge “saw Canadians defend the values upon which our country was founded - freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”

The Canada 150 planning is predicated on the assumption that despite Confederation in 1867, Canada really became a nation in 1917: “In 1914, Canada entered the war as a dominion that was in some ways seen as a mere extension of Britain overseas. By 1918, Canada had earned a separate signature on the Peace Treaty signifying that national status had been achieved.”  

1914 loses importance because the meaning of the war is Canadian nationhood, and in this version, Canada wasn't a nation in 1914. I’m not suggesting a Harperian conspiracy here. Indeed the government is following mainstream historical interpretation. It is a commonplace of our survey histories and our specialist military histories that “Canada was formed in 1867 but forged in the Great War” and “the Great War signified Canada’s coming of age.” Both these quotations are from Tim Cook (a fine historian), but examples abound.

The consequence of this emphasis on the military origins of Canadian nationhood circa 1917 is a minimizing of both the state of Canadian nationhood in 1914 and of confederation itself.

How many times in the last week have we read or heard that “Canada as a British dominion” was “automatically at war” when Britain declared war? It is technically true, sure. But Canada was an autonomous state in 1914. Had the Canadian state and Canadian people decided to contribute a corporal’s guard, or no forces at all, to the war effort, that would have been Canada’s policy. Canada's enormous sacrifices in the war were entirely the choice and decision of Canada and of Canadians.

That the phrase “Canada as a British dominion” is so widely used as if synonymous with “Canada as a British colony” is why the term dominion went out of favour in Canada decades ago. But here it seriously misstates history. Canada, as a dominion within the British empire, was entirely free to choose whether it participated in the First World War or not.

It is true that Canadians after 1914, and as a consequence of Canada's war experience, did decide to start acting as a country with the right and duty to determine its own foreign and military policy. But Canada did not "earn that right" at Vimy Ridge. It had it for at least fifty years before that.

The discussion we need to have in Canada as 2017 approaches is about the soundness of this meme that has Canada remaining a colony until 1917 and “becoming a nation” or “earning" the right to act as one, thereafter. In 2017 we can emphasize Canada's origins either as a military achievement or as a political one. If the main thing we commemorate in 2017 is the 100th anniversary of Canada "becoming a nation" by military exploits, what is there to commemorate about the political achievement of 1867?

I'm on the side of the political achievement of nationhood, for sure. I don't believe Canadian nationhood was achieved by the men who died on Vimy Ridge, or that that is what they fought for. But I fear not only the government of Canada but much of our historical community may be on the other side of that argument.

(A longer version of this thesis will appear in my contribution to the Canadian Historical Review's Forum on the First World War, forthcoming this fall.)
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