Vimy Ridge a reminder of war’s futility

Main-a-Dieu, Cape Breton, looking out to sea. “D” Company (85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, Capt. Percy Anderson) was from Cape Breton. “C” Company (Capt. Harvey Crowell) was from the Halifax area.

(April 7, 2017)

As the sun rises on Vimy Ridge on Sunday, thousands of Canadians will be there to commemorate the centenary of the assault that some say forged a nation. The soaring marble statuary that dominates the skyline, just as the ridge dominated the battlefield, has come to mean more than its creators intended.

Or so the story goes. Debates rage among historians about the actual importance of the battle, or about how the memorial (and its significance) have grown over time to serve less noble purposes in the propaganda wars of another era.

For me, the battle for Vimy Ridge is personal. The unit that — without the promised artillery barrage — climbed out of their trenches and took the summit of the ridge on Hill 145 was the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). Its second-in-command was my grandmother’s cousin, Major James Layton Ralston, a lawyer and politician from Amherst, Nova Scotia. The officer commanding “C” Company, who made the decision to go forward, according to Pierre Berton’s book Vimy, was Captain Harvey Crowell, a friend of my grandparents whom I met once, when I was 12. A small man, he was an accountant.

For me, the mythology of Vimy Ridge is thus not about its importance as a battle or the magnificent monument to the sacrifice of a nation. It is about a small group of ordinary Canadians — miners, loggers, fishermen — understrength because of illness, inexperienced in battle and used to fetch, carry and dig, led by lawyers and bookkeepers — and sneered at as “the Highlanders without kilts” — who simply got the job done when the professional soldiers could not.

No doubt my Nova Scotian roots are showing, but it is the same attitude that the young nation demonstrated throughout the Great War of 1914-1918, during the Depression and in the darkest days of the Second World War, too. Scattered across the Canadian countryside are small churches with large memorial plaques, showing how many men went to war. The stars next to the names of those who did not come back are silent memorials to the sacrifices made by those who sent them, too.

The futility of such a sacrifice was not something that people realized only afterward. Everyone who was there knew exactly how little it all meant. They fought to end the war, not to win it.

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Carbon Tax Won’t Drive Change

(December 15, 2016)

We live between two basic truths about the choices we make: the society that lives for today at the expense of tomorrow has no future, but the society that lives for tomorrow at the expense of today will not survive to enjoy it.

Clearly, if we want both to survive and have a sustainable future, we need to find a third option, but it is not the one picked by the Trudeau government. You can’t have your pipeline and cancel it, too.

For example, take the proposed carbon tax. By itself, it will not move our society far enough or fast enough toward a sustainable future, but it helps. In addition to somewhat increasing costs for everyone, if it is spent only on reducing greenhouse gas emissions it will generate a new government revenue stream and encourage opportunities for green investment, both of which are needed to leverage the kind of changes we must make.

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Pipeline Spending Outdated Thinking

(December 1, 2016)

With the first snow on the ground and Christmas coming, it’s time to talk turkey about pipelines, and the turkey has landed with the Trudeau government’s pipeline announcements. Two projects were given the go-ahead Tuesday — an extension of Enbridge’s Line 3 and a tripling of capacity for Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain line to Vancouver.

How Canada got here is not just about the facts. It’s about the story, the moral narrative, in which facts are included or excluded as the storyteller requires.

One narrative is unfolding south of the border in North Dakota at Standing Rock. It is obviously about aboriginal land rights and treaties, but it is most importantly about whether corporate interests require a licence to operate.

Not merely a legal licence, but a social licence, as well. In other words, when resources (such as land and water) that belong to all the people are put at risk by the actions of a small group, using them for their own benefit, does the rest of society need to give permission first?

The other narrative about pipelines is the one that has brought our society to where it is today — with its huge disparity in personal wealth, between the one per cent and the 99 per cent; its prosperity with respect to other countries; and the luxuries many of us enjoy as a result.

In that narrative, economic interest trumps everything else. Government exists to facilitate the acquisition of money by those who have the means to use the taxation and legal systems to their advantage. Environmental concerns are like bugs hitting the windshield on a summer’s highway drive to the lake — if there are too many, you need to pull to the side of the road and clean them off before continuing on your journey, but you certainly don’t stop for very long.

If we don’t change the story underpinning the choices we make as individuals and as a society to move away from focusing on economics, however, we will continue to change the planet into a place where no one — rich or poor — can easily or happily live.

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