Why Re­mem­brance Day mat­ters to all Cana­di­ans


My grand­fa­ther, a gen­tle and soft­spo­ken bear of a man, was born in 1903 — too young to fight in the First World War, too old for the Sec­ond. I can re­call him in the years of my child­hood troop­ing down to the Princes’ Gates an­nu­ally for the War­rior’s Day Pa­rade, rain or shine. He did not make a great show of it. In fact, I can­not re­call him ever ex­plain­ing why he felt such an abid­ing obli­ga­tion to Canada’s vet­er­ans. He did not have to.

Much has changed in the 100 years since the Ar­mistice brought the end of hos­til­i­ties in the Great War. It has been a long, long time since Cana­dian civil­ians have even had to imag­ine be­ing called upon to fight abroad. And as cit­i­zens of the most ge­o­graph­i­cally for­tu­nate coun­try on the planet — pro­tected by vast oceans on three sides and a nu­clear-armed su­per­power on the fourth — it is vir­tu­ally in­con­ceiv­able that we should ever have to bear arms in de­fence of the home­land. This es­sen­tial truth about Canada, that we can sim­ply take our se­cu­rity for granted, ap­plies to al­most no other na­tion on Earth.

Thus, it is per­haps not sur­pris­ing that Re­mem­brance Day in Canada — out­side of “base” towns like Tren­ton, Ont. — has largely ceased to be an oc­ca­sion of un­bri­dled pa­tri­o­tism. In­deed, Re­mem­brance Day has been politi­cized in Canada in re­cent decades, as it has else­where — the prod­uct not only of a pow­er­ful un­der­cur­rent of an­ti­war sen­ti­ment dat­ing from the Cold War but also, more re­cently, of feud­ing over whether Canada’s pre-em­i­nent mil­i­tary legacy is that of the con­ser­va­tive “war­rior na­tion” or, rather, the pro­gres­sive al­tru­ism of the blue-hel­meted peace­keep­ers. Con­fu­sion has fol­lowed.

Polls show that even dur­ing Canada’s re­cent war in Afghanistan (2001-11), Cana­di­ans were un­cer­tain as to whether we were en­gaged in a shoot­ing war or peace­keep­ing. (It was a shoot­ing war, in which 158 Cana­dian sol­diers were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded.)

War is al­ways po­lit­i­cal — old peo­ple talk­ing and young peo­ple dy­ing, as the cliché goes. Whether we should fight here or there, or whether we should com­mit our­selves to this or that cause, or how much we should spend on mil­i­tary pre­pared­ness — these are al­ways the ques­tions of gov­ern­ments and cit­i­zens, and they pro­duce in­tense de­bates, as well they should.

But this com­plex po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity should not ob­scure the fun­da­men­tal truth known to my grand­fa­ther and the ill-fated co­horts called upon to fight two world wars in the space of a sin­gle gen­er­a­tion.

When our fel­low cit­i­zens vol­un­teer to place them­selves in harm’s way on our be­half, they have done some­thing truly ex­tra­or­di­nary. This, and not our com­par­a­tively petty po­lit­i­cal squab­bles, is what we should be think­ing about on Re­mem­brance Day.

Dr. Robert Wright teaches His­tory at Trent Univer­sity Durham GTA and has built his ca­reer by chal­leng­ing the way we think about Cana­dian his­tory, for­eign pol­icy and sovereignty is­sues.

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