Thursday, March 30, 2017

Histories of the history of Vimy Ridge

"No matter what the constitutional historians may say, it was on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, and not on any other date, that Canada became a nation"
         ---  D.J. Goodspeed, military historian, 1969

"Victory at Vimy only happened because, in 1917, Canada was already a nation  -- one that could raise, equip, and send overseas a fighting force with the leadership and esprit de corps of a national army capable of fighting the Vimy battle."
          --- Christopher Moore, occasional constitutional historian, 2017

"The year 2017 is the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation. It is also the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge during the First World War.  ... The two events are in curious competition as founding myths."
         ---  Amy Shaw, reviewer and historian, 2017

The centenary of the Vimy battle is just over a week away, and for once it seems there actually is one of those edifying historical discussions the country is so thinly provided with most of the time.

In the Literary Review of Canada, just out, Amy Shaw reviews Tim Cook's Vimy: The Battle and the Legend which covers both the events of the battle and the "legend" that grew up around it. Shaw is troubled by the claims made for Vimy, but finds that Cook "plays down the role of officialdom in shaping the collective memory. His argument hinges on the grassroots nature of myth making" and indeed on the role of art, from Walter Allward's monument to recent novels like Jane Urquhart's Stone Carvers.

It's too bad Shaw and the LRC did not also include in the review essay The Vimy Myth by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, which I have been reading recently. It's an exhaustive accounting of ideas about war-making and nation-making in Canada, and a sustained frontal assault on "Vimyism."
By Vimyism we mean a network of ideas and symbols that centre on how Canada's Great War experience somehow represents the country's supreme triumph ... and affirm that the war itself and anyone who fought and died in it should be unconditionally revered and commemorated -- and not least because it marked the country's birth.
Friday night in Toronto, historian Eric McGeer speaks at Yorkminster Park Church on the topic “On Vimy’s Storied Hill” and the theme “Vimy Ridge made Canada – but what have Canadians made of Vimy Ridge?” (Facebook details here.) Referring to McKay and Swift, the friend of this blog who is one of the organizers of the talk suspects "Eric will want to challenge some of their positions in his talk."
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