January 20, 2019

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'Birth' of Canada at Vimy battle overstated

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/3/2017 (680 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Vimy trap referred to in the title of this book is not the one current defence minister John McCallum wandered into when he confused the Second World War French collaborationist regime (Vichy) with the ridge on which 3,600 Canadians died in April 1917. Rather, it is the belief that this battle marks the maturation of the Canadian nation.

As the story goes, 100,000 young men went up the ridge a gaggle of provincials — Albertans, Nova Scotians, and so forth — and came down Canadians.

Ian McKay and Jamie Swift have assembled an engaging refutation of this foundational story of a militarized Canada. Vimy was both a famous victory and a futile gesture, since the Allies failed to take advantage of the breakthrough and the Germans quickly regrouped.

The authors do not suggest the battle and the sacrifice it entailed went unnoticed or forgotten. After all, Vimy Ridge is the site and subject of a massive and expensive memorial completed by a cash-strapped Canadian government in the midst of the Great Depression. But, they argue, no one in the postwar period claimed it was on the killing fields of Vimy Ridge that Canada came of age.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/3/2017 (680 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Vimy trap referred to in the title of this book is not the one current defence minister John McCallum wandered into when he confused the Second World War French collaborationist regime (Vichy) with the ridge on which 3,600 Canadians died in April 1917. Rather, it is the belief that this battle marks the maturation of the Canadian nation.

As the story goes, 100,000 young men went up the ridge a gaggle of provincials — Albertans, Nova Scotians, and so forth — and came down Canadians.

The Vimy Trap:</p><p>Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War</p><p>By Ian McKay and Jamie Swift</p><p>Between the Lines, 372 pages, $30</p>

The Vimy Trap:

Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War

By Ian McKay and Jamie Swift

Between the Lines, 372 pages, $30

Ian McKay and Jamie Swift have assembled an engaging refutation of this foundational story of a militarized Canada. Vimy was both a famous victory and a futile gesture, since the Allies failed to take advantage of the breakthrough and the Germans quickly regrouped.

The authors do not suggest the battle and the sacrifice it entailed went unnoticed or forgotten. After all, Vimy Ridge is the site and subject of a massive and expensive memorial completed by a cash-strapped Canadian government in the midst of the Great Depression. But, they argue, no one in the postwar period claimed it was on the killing fields of Vimy Ridge that Canada came of age.

While the war never lacked for defenders, including First World War veteran and Winnipeg mayor Ralph Webb, the idea that the war had been a pointless horror show was far from a minority perspective. For example, when the Vimy memorial was unveiled in 1936 no one at the ceremony put forward the argument that Canada had been blooded into maturity at Vimy Ridge.

So who laid the Vimy trap, and when? This book presents two main suspects: not surprisingly, one of them is Stephen Harper, under whose watch the federal government certainly did attempt to emphasize all things martial in Canada’s history. Highlights of his government’s citizenship guide make the argument that the battle marked the birth of a nation, and the Vimy Memorial is featured on the back of the $20 note. (Until reading this book, this reviewer thought it was a depiction of the "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone" from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, a poem that, fittingly, deals with the futility of memorialization.)

The other is more surprising, given the authors’ leftist sympathies: Pierre Berton, the national myth master of the late 20th century. Berton did not get around to Vimy until the 1980s, but by then his skills were finely honed.

Vimy, he wrote, "was Canada’s and nobody could take that victory away. In the years between the two world wars every school child, every veteran’s son, every immigrant was made aware of it." McKay and Swift observe that Berton did not underplay the horror of the battle and provided readers with evidence that could be used to argue against his nationalist thesis. Nor did true patriot love prevent Berton from concluding the war itself was beyond justification.

Complicated arguments are presented throughout with nuance and clarity. A nagging voice kept wondering, however, whether the authors were, in their own way, fighting the last war. In coming years, government leaders may be more likely to resort to appeals to Canadians’ commitment to the protection of human rights — and once a state is designated as an enemy, it is not difficult to identify the ways in which it persecutes some identifiable portion of its population — than to a fictive tradition of militarism when they seek to engage us in foreign broils.

Doug Smith is a Winnipeg writer.

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