The Trouble with Canada's Great War Centenary

Our last two posts have touched on two very distinct ideas: the ways in which Harper's Conservatives have politicized Canadian history and the recent developments involving Quebec sovereignty and Bill 99. In this post, we've decided to try and blend these two ideas together to look at the problems Harper's Government faces in commemorating the centenary of the Great War.

Many Canadians have questioned the aggressive commemorative initiatives of the current government when it comes to the War of 1812. We've been bombarded with new heritage minutes, commemorative coins from the Royal Canadian Mint, and various other forms of remembrances. As of February 2013, the Conservative Government has spent $9.9 million on 131 projects in an effort to create a memory of 1812. Yet, all of this has come at an even greater expense and the neglect of a much more meaningful and influential period in Canadian history. Professional historians have lamented the lack of detail about upcoming First World War centenary events, especially as we pay attention to the comparatively open discussions taking place in Australia and Great Britain, among other states involved in the conflict.

Whatever stance one takes on Canada's involvement in the war from 1914 to 1918, it's impossible to deny the indelible mark those years have made on Canadian identities. Canadian troops, eager to serve Great Britain and the Empire, quickly established a great reputation among British commanders. The well-known battles that took place in the Ypres salient, Somme sector, Passendale, Vimy Ridge, and our lesser known contributions to the so-called "100 Days," saw thousands of Canadian casualties. In Canadian mythology, the battle at Vimy Ridge allegedly resulted in the coming of a nation, the unification of a people, and presaged the autonomy Britain granted Canada in 1931. In the end, over 66,000 Canadians died fighting for Britain's cause.

Across the Atlantic, however, the war had grave consequences for the future of Canada. The men who initially enlisted for overseas service were dominantly of English, Scottish, and Irish decent. Indeed, most of the initial volunteers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) were born in the United Kingdom. While this segment of the population understood enlistment as a duty in the service of their native country, significant numbers of men in French Canada vehemently opposed fighting in a British war. Other ethnic communities, such as those from Germany and Austro-Hungary, or conscientious objectors like Mennonites were less sure about Canada's role in the war.

Vimy Ridge was the costliest day in Canada's military history, costing over 10,600 Canadian casualties registered on 12 April 1917. While Canadian mythology claims that the battle led to the "forging of a nation," the consequences of the battle had the opposite effect. The heavy losses inflicted upon Canada in 1917 forced Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden to entertain the idea of conscription. Borden's Government passed the Military Services Act later in 1917. Far from unifying the country, the crisis of conscription tore at the very fabric of Canada. Of over 400,000 Canadians conscripted, over 385,000 sought exemption when the Act was enforced in January 1918. The "Easter Riots" of 1918 in Quebec were a direct response to the government's decision to invoke conscription.

In many ways, the consequences of the Great War represented some of the most divisive in Canadian history. Herein lies the current government's dilemma. How, in light of an election scheduled for 2015, could Harper commemorate a war whose implications caused such acerbic backlash between French and English Canada? What are the political implications for the Conservatives should they adopt an aggressive commemorative program from 2014 to 2018? To what degree is the government's lack of disclosure regarding centenary events symptomatic of this political dilemma?

The results of the 2011 election highlighted that the Conservatives occupied a precarious position in the Province of Quebec. Only a handful of Conservatives won seats, while, in an unprecedented wave of support, the NDP dominated many of the ridings. Still, some of the latest polls suggest popular support for Harper's Government hovers around just thirteen percent. With scandals abound in the media over the past months, the current government needs all the support it can possibly muster.

From the perspective of the current government, any approach to commemorating the First World War must be done in a very calculated and cautious way. Thinking historically about Canada's past, the First World War substantially shaped Canadian identities to a much greater degree than the War of 1812. For better or for worse, the First World War changed Canadian politics and culture in unprecedented ways. Remembering the conflict in a substantial way cannot be avoided. If the Government of Canada can honour victims of communism or the Holocaust, surely they can be honest about the consequences that the Great War had on Canadians? Once again, however, the political exigencies of Harper's Government continue to govern the way Canadians are given their history.