Margaret Wente, writing in the Globe and Mail, makes an important point:
“Today,” she says “our challenge as a nation is not that we’ll succumb to nationalist chest-thumping. Our challenge is that we’ll succumb to historical amnesia. Our challenge is a tendency to rewrite history as a catalogue of wrongs inflicted by dead white men – against Acadians, blacks (even we had slaves!), Chinese, Japanese, Jews and, of course, aboriginal populations. It’s also hard to find unifying symbols when our French-English foundation myths are so different. (Vimy has no resonance in Quebec, where the war was seen as a British struggle.) But these symbols, imperfect as they are, have great value. They remind us that we belong to something enduring, something larger than ourselves.“
It is not true that Canada was forged as a nation on Vimy Ridge, but neither is it true that ““There is a childishness to Vimyism,” Ian McKay and Jamie Swift write in their book The Vimy Trap. “In its essence, it wants us to return to a day of glorious warfare.”” The entire 1914-1918 war experience was crucial to Canada’s sense of nationhood and of Britain’s sense of what its ‘dominions’ had become. As eminent Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan has pointed out, leaders like Canada’s Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden had little difficulty in elbowing their way into the Paris Peace Conference: Canadian soldiers had earned our place at the table.
There is something important about “Vimyism” and it has nothing to do with glorifying war … it has to do with ordinary Canadians, including French Canadians, rallying together, as Canadians, and then, under Canadian leaders, doing some hard things better than the Americans, British or French or Germans could do them. Our challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff and remember and honour those important parts. It was appropriate that our Governor General and Prime Minister Trudeau joined with the President of France, the Prince of Wales and Princes William and Harry to honour those who fought and died at Vimy ~ not because “Canada came of age” and not because was is “glorious,” but rather because good, brave men, from coast to coast to coast in Canada, did something that deserves honour, still, after a full century later. It was, when I was a boy, still known as “Canada’s Easter gift to France,” because once the allies could dominate the plains around Arras, opening the way, eventually, to the 100 Days campaign. It still matters as an example of what good, sound military planning and determined execution can achieve, but it’s real import is that it did give some, many Canadians ~ in the ranks of the Canadian Corps and at home, in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver ~ a new found sense of their own, unique “national” identity.