Canadian identity forged in crucible of war
Here in Canada, you can vote for anyone you want to. You can argue politics by the water cooler at work and go to any church your heart desires. You can announce that the world is flat, participate in a protest rally, send your children to school, get free medical care, live where you like, have a translator if you need one in court, join a parade, run away with the circus, use the Internet at will, watch or read (mostly) uncensored news and more or less lead your life as you wish.
It’s a free country, you might say. And many of the freedoms we take for granted were fought for and won during the First and Second World Wars.
Just how fragile these freedoms are and how vigilantly they must be protected is currently being demonstrated south of our border, where people are being shot in their place of worship for their race or religious beliefs, and where your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free are demonized, their children placed in cages. But we digress.
After three generations of peace, what we owe our veterans seems to be fading in the collective memory. People of a certain age may pin a poppy to their jackets or attend a Remembrance Day ceremony, but many younger Canadians don’t seem to grasp the significance of it all.
Veterans Affairs found that out when they put together some new advertisements, aimed at keeping all Canadians aware of the contribution made by this country’s veterans. When they ran the ads past test groups, half the young people did not know the poem, In Flanders Fields
— the most famous poem of the First World War; it led directly to the wearing of a poppy to acknowledge veterans in this country and all around the world.
Things change. Time passes. People forget. And history gets rewritten. The French are past masters at rewriting collaboration as resistance. Some 22% of millennials have no idea what the Holocaust was. Japan is hoping you’ll forget about comfort women and their connection to the state. Croatia is openly supportive of the Ustashe, their happy, homegrown Nazi movement from the 1940s. A new Polish law tried to make it a crime to attribute blame for Nazi crimes to Poland, but then everyone remembered how to spell “Jedwabne.”
As authoritarian rule gains momentum everywhere, it’s increasingly important to think about our debt to the veterans, which is incalculable. The problem is that freedom is an abstract concept, something often taken for granted until it’s taken away. If you don’t have any direct connection to a veteran, then First World War and Second World War are just more lists of dates and battles, about as personal as the War of 1812. Which is to say, not at all.
Fought for freedom
So here’s a more immediate way to look at what we owe our veterans: almost everything good you believe about being Canadian can be attributed to the veterans of the two great wars. Their efforts and the impression they made on the rest of the world contributed to a distinct national identity.
Every notion of Canadians as a people — hard-working, modest, inclusive, polite peace-keepers, with good health care — can be traced to the Canadians who first created a global impression of our country through their war effort.
Just ask our friends in Holland. The Dutch keep a special place in their hearts for Canada and the Canadian soldiers who liberated the Netherlands; to honour the 1,300 who died in the effort, Dutch schoolchildren put lighted candles on the graves in the Canadian War Cemetery in Holten every year.
To celebrate the living, Holland hosts a huge celebration of the liberation every five years, and plans are underway for the 75th anniversary in 2020.
The now-elderly Netherlanders freed by Canadian soldiers from five years of German occupation describe those soldiers as hard-working and unassuming. Canadians brought food to the starving Dutch and stuck around to help rebuild; the Dutch speak of how modest these Canadian victors were, how hard-working and dutiful. The people of Holland were amazed that anyone would engage in such sacrifice for them.
That’s how they think about Canadian veterans. As should we. Lest we forget.
Austin Hua, 15, places a few of the 47,500 Canadian flags in Operation Raise A Flag on the lawns outside of the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre yesterday. There were 100 flags for each of the 475 veterans who live there.