On April 9, more than fifty thousand people are expected to gather at the Vimy Memorial in France to mark the centennial of the start of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. A month later, Montréal will kick off a months-long celebration of its 375th birthday.
At first glance, these events seem to share little in common. But both are stories of survival against tremendous odds — and each event presents challenges regarding how best to commemorate it.
Capturing Vimy was a remarkable achievement — something neither the British nor the French were able to accomplish. The battle was the first time all four Canadian divisions fought together as one in the First World War.
After the war, some people said Vimy was where Canada “came of age” as a nation.
However, Vimy’s legacy must be examined in the larger context of the First World War. While the battle itself was a success, Vimy didn’t significantly change the course of the conflict. And the sheer number of casualties — more than 10,600 Canadians wounded or killed over four days of fighting — casts a pall over any urge to celebrate the victory.
Meanwhile, in May, Montréal will celebrate the anniversary of the city’s founding in 1642.
Established in the heart of hostile Iroquois territory, Ville-Marie was fortunate to last a year, let alone 375.
Montréal’s fortunes have fluctuated over the years. From the fur trade era, to the industrial revolution, and up until the 1970s, Montréal was arguably Canada’s leading city.
And yet, it’s important to remember that Montréal’s early years as Ville-Marie were scarred by nearly ceaseless conflicts with the Indigenous peoples of the region. The Iroquois in particular rejected the arrival of French Catholic colonists and their claims to traditional Iroquois territories. Today, the peoples of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy take a very different view of Montréal 375, and many won’t be celebrating.
From Vimy Ridge to Montréal 375, to the looming 150th anniversary of Confederation, 2017 is filled with a series of national milestones: moments of triumph and loss, of nation- making — and of nation-taking.
Whether you celebrate, commemorate, or mourn these events will depend very much on your perspective.