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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The Future is in (Brackets)

(December 9, 2015)

As the climate talks become more intense in Paris, the amount of draft text that remains in brackets and still to be negotiated is troubling.

We may find that the world will not end either with a bang or a whimper, but with a (bracket), if the negotiators don’t get it right as they sort out which version of the agreement to accept.

The choices between bracketed texts can be stark. The difference between agreeing to limit global temperature rise to (1.5 C) or (2.0 C) is a matter of survival for small island developing states. Whether that number is a target (“Gee, it would be nice.”) or a goal (“Do it.”) is just as important a decision.

Canada’s changed role in these talks is heartening, and the new commitments we have brought to the table are good examples of how governments can change course. Our new minister of environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna, seems determined not to add another “fossil of the day” award to the trophy case on Parliament Hill.

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Drought, Disease as Lethal as Bombs

(November 18, 2015)

The world was stunned by the recent attacks in Paris for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility.

As the casualties are treated and the dead buried, however, the events must not put off the Paris climate conference (COP21) planned to take place in two weeks.

World leaders, international organizations and civil society groups have been planning for a major breakthrough in climate negotiations for months. The attacks last Friday must not derail those talks out of fear something else bad will happen.

The point of terrorism is to provoke terror, not simply to kill or injure. Business as usual demonstrates the failure of the Islamic State to change the world’s agenda.

It is the world’s agenda, after all.

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