Remembering an unnecessary war

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

(November 9, 2018)

I grew up surrounded by the memories of two world wars — not my own memories, of course, but those of the adults whose lives unfolded around me.

On this 100th anniversary of that first Armistice Day, such personal memories of the Great War are gone forever. Obituary pages bear grim witness to the rapidly dwindling number of veterans and others who remember what the Second World War was like, as well.

Soon, only those who have been involved in Canada’s longest and smallest wars will be left to remind the rest of us what service “for Queen and Country” can mean.

Geordie Sutherland certainly knew. Every Sunday, he greeted me at the door of my church in Selkirk, wearing his navy blue legion blazer and a red regimental necktie. Only serious illness or a reluctant holiday would make him leave his post.

As the years went by, he yielded to my curiosity and talked a little about the Great War. Born in Scotland, he had emigrated to Canada as a youngster, only to lie his way past the recruiters and enlist when he was 15 years old. Discovering his age just before the boat sailed, the army decided he was too young to die, and left him at home for another year.

Geordie eventually got his wish and shipped over to Europe. After having both mumps and chickenpox, he made it to France in time to fight in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, where he was wounded, likely by shrapnel. After the war, he returned to Ontario with his first wife, a war bride. Later in life, he moved to Selkirk with his second wife, becoming a fixture at the legion, in the church and around town.

From that time forward, however, he told no one — not even his family or closest friends — about his wartime experiences. They were too painful for words. Even many years afterward, only the tears in his eyes and a thickening of his Scottish brogue (if he could speak at all) revealed just how much pain came to mind on days such as Nov. 11.

When the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the world sighed with relief. What we need to remember, 100 years later, however, is that the Great War should never have been fought at all.

The sacrifices of 1914-18, made by both those who died and those who lived, and the pain of their families at home, accomplished nothing good. It was obviously not “the war to end all wars,” because “the Great War” became known as the First World War after the second one began in 1939. In fact, the ink was not even dry on the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 before people were discussing, fearing — and planning — what they called “the Next War.”

As a historian, over and over again I have come to the conclusion that the Great War was unnecessary, that it was the product of the arrogance and stupidity of leaders whose warped view of the universe was not tempered by contact with reality, evidence or common sense.

Four years of worldwide industrial warfare destroyed four empires, shattered two more and (more ominously) opened to door to conflict between two new empires in the Pacific (America and Japan) and the development and use of atomic weapons.

When you add to that devastation the vindictive and pigheaded terms of the Treaty of Versailles, by 1919, the foundations were laid for the rise of communism and fascism and a next war that would be worse.

Without the Great War, in other words, life in the rest of the 20th century would have been very different.

So, when the church bells ring out across Canada at sundown on Nov. 11 this year, ringing 100 times to mark the centennial of that armistice, with every stroke of every bell, we should remember the sacrifices that were made by people we will never know, in a war that should never have been fought.

But if we really want to honour their sacrifices, we can’t just ring a bell.

They would want us to find a way to settle our differences other than by fighting. They would also want us to reject leaders who demonstrate the same bad judgment that in 1914 launched the planet into a century filled with conflict.

No one who starts a war expects to lose it — but next time around, there will be no winners. Everyone will certainly lose.

One year, in late fall, I got a message that Geordie had finally decided to tell me about his experiences when I came home from university at Christmas. To my deep regret, by then he had taken that secret pain to his grave, unshared.

This year, especially, I will remember him.

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Voters should look to local heroes

(October 23, 2018)

When election time rolls around, I really do my best to avoid repeating the lines from Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson in my head:

“Laugh about it, shout about it/When you’ve got to choose/Every way you look at it, you lose…”

Politics of all kinds these days, not just the American variety, leave us wondering where the heroes have gone, why the leaders we have today seem so far removed from the ones we remember.

When people reminisce with fondness about the arrogant disdain Pierre Trudeau had for mere mortals, or hail Jean Chrétien as the “green” prime minister, or remember Stephen Harper for his humility, there is something seriously wrong with our political compass — and with our moral compass — as well as with our memory.

Marvel Comics has touched a nerve in the last decade with all of its various superhero films. Our world does need heroes, of all sorts, but the ones we see in the news most frequently are the ones most lacking in leadership essentials.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5 degrees (Oct. 8), combined with Category 5 hurricane Michael hitting the Florida Panhandle as the worst ever recorded there, provided a fitting context for American economist William Nordhaus sharing the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on carbon tax and greenhouse-gas emission reduction.

Flip to Manitoba the same week, and Premier Brian Pallister flops by cancelling his Made in Manitoba Climate and Green Plan’s carbon tax — apparently to the surprise of his caucus, as well as the dismay of Manitobans of all political stripes. We now have no carbon tax, as well as no plan what to do with carbon tax revenues to reduce emissions if the federal government follows through on what it promised.

The rest of that Green Plan will now probably be kicked to the curb, because Manitoba can’t afford any of it without carbon tax revenue, but Pallister can still weakly claim that he tried.

At least when Alberta’s Rachel Notley makes a hash of things, she does it with some literary flair. She pompously announced, “In Alberta, we ride horses, not unicorns,” to a bunch of teachers who have already figured out that Albertans don’t ride nearly enough horses to save the planet, as that province is Canada’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mostly from fossil-fuel combustion.

Ontario’s Doug Ford, on the other hand, is crying into his now-more-expensive beer. Climate change will wreck barley production and drive up the price of what Ontario voters seemingly wanted more than a healthy future for their children.

As another example of the fiscal responsibility we have come to expect from recent Conservative governments, Ford’s fit of pique in cancelling the cap-and-trade system and other green initiatives will cost Ontarians upwards of $3 billion and, for next generations, much more down the road.

Throughout all of this political nonsense, Mother Nature just keeps on warming, ignoring our seriously misplaced sense of self-importance and leaving us to sow the seeds of our own doom.

It doesn’t have to be this way — but that would mean finding leaders who really lead, on the issues that threaten the world as we know it.

Sometimes I wonder if we are looking too high up the ladder. Perhaps we should be looking not for global heroes, but for local ones.

Canadians are not alone in this predicament. Elsewhere, when national governments fail repeatedly to address the causes of global warming and climate change, regional governments are stepping up. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has threatened to sue California and other states to stop their climate initiatives, essentially saying the federal government has the right to endanger their children, too.

When regional governments also fail, local governments — especially in cities — are still stepping up to make a difference. More and more people live in cities, and in many ways the global effort to change course will be won or lost in the places where most people live.

The mayor of Winnipeg (who is elected directly, unlike the premier) manages the lives of three-quarters of Manitoba’s population. City councillors are responsible for a very large budget, in a defined local area, where they have the authority to do some things differently, if they choose, regardless of what the province says.

If the mayor and council (and the Manitoba Capital Region municipalities) decide to work together for a sustainable future, it would give everyone a place to contribute, right here where it matters most — close to home — however inadequate the provincial effort might be.

On election day, get out and vote for some local heroes — for people who want to make a real difference where they live, who will work for serious change and not just continue to do business as usual.

Heroes? We need them.

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NAFTA arbitration can hurt communities

Local residents on Digby Neck used simple messaging to tell the story. Photo by Ruth Denton

(May 11, 2018)

It is a costly and unnecessary lesson, but the federal government’s unsuccessful challenge of a North American Free Trade Agreement arbitration ruling could not have come at a better time.

As we renegotiate — or just scrap — NAFTA, perhaps the government will accept what environmentalists have said all along: the current language allows Canada to be sued by companies for protecting our environment and preserving the communities where we live.

Bilcon, a Delaware company, may be awarded up to $500 million for failing, in the end, to explode a significant part of Nova Scotia and crush it into gravel, providing cheap roadbed material for New Jersey highways. The gravel would have been shipped across the right whale breeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy, also destroying lucrative lobster and herring fisheries in the process and effectively rendering Digby Neck uninhabitable.

However the company tried to spin things, this was the project. Local politicians were “persuaded” this was a good idea; local people had visits from folks genially offering to buy land — and only after the fact did people realized these were actually agents for Bilcon, which (by the way) still owns much of the land in question.

You might wonder why Bilcon would bother to seek environmental approval for such a destructive project. I did, when I first heard about it — how could it ever be approved? — but this one strikes close to home. The quarry marine terminal would have been built on land my grandfather once owned and the communities slated for devastation included those where the descendants of my European ancestors have lived since the 1780s — and where relatives still do.

So, without support from either federal or provincial representatives, the local people protested when the implications of the project sank in. They had to fight hard to get a hearing, or to have their concerns heard. Some, such as my aunt — who was one of the leaders — were either threatened with lawsuits or were sued by Bilcon for amounts guaranteed to scare people into silence.

It didn’t work. Finally, with the support of large environmental NGOs such as the Sierra Club and with public exposure from an article by Noah Richler in The Walrus, the rest of Canada realized that what was going to happen to Digby Neck could just as easily happen to them and to their own communities.

I fumed from a distance, watching events unfold — I still think a great slogan would have been “It’s Your Neck, Too,” superimposed on a picture of Digby Neck.

The locals were more prosaic, as signs reading “Stop the Quarry” proliferated from Digby to Briar Island.

Belatedly, and despite a feeble environmental-assessment process, the two levels of government (arguably after one election and faced with another) realized that continued support for the project would admit Canada’s resources — and its leaders — were for sale to the highest bidder.

Officially, the reason given was that an environmental review panel concluded the project was “not in keeping with community values.”

So, what were these “community values” that surprised everyone later in the process? What “community values” are now potentially going to cost all Canadians as much as $500 million?

Simply, to have a community at all. To preserve the country we have on loan from our children, the resources of land, water and air that are our heritage, resources that we have a responsibility to protect if we want to preserve a decent quality of life for ourselves and others into an environmentally-uncertain future.

This project should have been dismissed out of hand, right from the start. The fact it went far enough to result in a NAFTA arbitration hearing shows our environmental-assessment rules were (and still are) laughably weak.

When Canadians are confronted with the kind of corporate greed that allows others elsewhere to profit from the misery of the people who live where the damage is done, we need to demonstrate that while this might work in other places, it does not work here.

Or, at least, not at the moment. I am concerned that the blatant disregard for similar “community values” reflected in pipeline decisions shows the federal government still has moral lessons to learn.

I worry that it will trade away Digby Neck, after all, to dodge the NAFTA ruling.

But those communities whose values were finally respected were originally created by people who knew that loyalty and respect come at a price. They were United Empire Loyalists, who lost everything because of the American revolution.

Faced with the same thing happening 200 years later, their descendants were not going to let it happen again. Nor should we.

Peter Denton is a descendant of United Empire Loyalists who settled in the communities of Little River, White Cove and Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia.

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