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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Remembrance Day 2016

Listening to great-grandmother's stories

Listening to great-grandmother’s stories

Delivered at Minto Armoury, Winnipeg, on 11 November 2016

There was no reason for the guns to fall silent on this day in 1916. The Battle of the Somme was in its final phases, with the battle for Ancre Heights just ending and the battle for Ancre just beginning.

That fall, the First Canadian Division had worn the famous red patch for the first time, making a name for themselves as assault troops at Courcellette that they would carry through the Somme and sear forever into the memory of friends and foes alike with their assault on Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

Today it is easier to think about those ghostly figures, wreathed in gas, fog and smoke clambering out of the trenches on old video clips, because they are all gone. Their words and images, the rusted tools of trench warfare preserved in museum collections, speak to us in ways that we can shape and control. We remember them in the way that we want, without fear of contradiction.

It is harder to create the same mythology about the Second World War or Korea, because there are still some among us who were there.

Whether it is Cyprus, Golan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo, Libya, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, however — from Kapyong to Medak, to the Panjwaii and Kandahar – there is a long list of places where Canadians fought because they accepted the call to serve. Each one needs its own stories to be told in ways that give voice to those who were there, not merely carving their names and battle honours onto a monument to enshrine what the next generation wants to remember.

Today we remember those who died in battle, those whose lives were forever scarred by the horrors of war and have passed on, and we honour their sacrifice.

But memorials, like funerals, are never for the dead. They are for those who are left behind, for those who must rise to greet the dawn of a new morning, regardless of darkness in which it begins.

Most importantly, therefore, we are here together today to honour the living, to listen to their stories as they remember them, however difficult it is for them to tell us and however hard it is for us to hear what they have to say.

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Sept. 11 Reminds Us To Find A Peaceful Way Forward

(September 19, 2016)

I will never forget 9/11. I had raced to the University of Winnipeg for an 8:30 a.m. class, not listening to the radio en route, and had gone straight from class into a meeting.

I emerged to watch the second tower fall, just in time for my first lecture in a course on science and society.

It was more group therapy than lecture, as we reflected on the fact our world had just changed — and not for the better.

Over the next eight months, we talked about many things, including the problems of elites, colonialism, power and control, democracy and what lay ahead for our generation on a planet struggling to find a route to a sustainable future.

It would have been nice to check back with that class at five years, at 10 years, and today, to see how their lives had been shaped by the events of 9/11, even though we watched the towers fall from afar, safe and secure in Winnipeg.

Since that time, we have seen a global surge of anger on many fronts relating to ecological and social injustice.

Perhaps we have reached some collective tipping point, where the collectivity of the Internet has allowed people to gain strength and solidarity by standing together around the world, but there are rough waters ahead.

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