Editorial note: This article was originally published in the Kingston Heritage on December 7, 2016.
When it comes to our nation’s history, there is what actually happened, and then there is what we ‘remember’ – and the two may be mutually exclusive, according to local authors.
There are few people who actually remember the First World War, which officially ended nearly 100 years ago. What people do remember is what they’ve been told of the Great War, says Jamie Swift, co-author of The Vimy Trap, and the stories of the First World War have been shaped by those who’ve told and interpreted them more and more as time has passed.
“Everything from the Legion, to the Governor General, to Don Cherry holds that the Great War and, more particularly, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, was what brought Canada together,” said Swift.
“The argument is that Canada didn’t really mature or come of age until the Great War… in the book, we argue, and we hope persuasively with lots of evidence, that in the period after the Great War – particularly in the 20s and 30s, and even into the 40s, 50s, 60s – the Great War was remembered as a tragedy, as something that happened that should never happen again, and that artists, veterans and a whole lot of people regarded it that way.”
The Vimy Trap (or How we Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War) is the work of Swift, the author of a variety of books looking at Canadian history and politics, and co-author Ian McKay, one of the nation’s most renowned historians. The book closely follows themes from the pair’s previous book, Warrior Nation, and stacks meticulously researched evidence that the First World War, and specifically the Battle of Vimy Ridge, did not have the uniting effects on Canada many people believe they did, Swift explained. The reason so many regard the Battle of Vimy Ridge as a Canadian triumph and a contest that brought our nation together is the result of something Swift and McKay have called ‘Vimyism’ – “a form of ultra-patriotic, militarized, English-Canadian nationalism that holds that all the freedoms that we enjoy have been brought to us by the military.” In short, the authors argue the Battle of Vimy Ridge has been romanticized, allowing Canadians to celebrate its victory as one that somehow defines the nation. And there is a reason for that, Swift explained.
“It’s all about myth,” said Swift, pointing out that the word ‘myth’ has two meanings, one being that a ‘myth’ refers to nonsense or fabled story.
“But the other meaning of myth is that myths are stories that people, families, religions, societies, and countries tell each other, and these stories become sort of the social glue that helps to bring cultures, country, families, and religions together. And the stories get told over and over again,” he said.
“So even if it’s patently not true that the Great War and the battle of Vimy Ridge brought Canada together and created an independent country – and you cannot prove that, in fact, the book shows otherwise – that doesn’t matter if the story gets repeated over and over and over again and enough people come to believe it. So that’s what our book is trying to push back against, with considerable evidence.”
Swift pointed to modern day myth tellers such as Pierre Berton as having helped to create the belief that the Battle of Vimy Ridge was one that united Canada, which was fighting under British direction at the time. While it’s true that all four divisions of the Canadian Corps did work together for the first time to secure victory at Vimy Ridge, that victory did not bring the nation together in the same way, Swift said. In fact, the very monument at Vimy Ridge, which is the most popular of all Canadian monuments among travellers and patriots, was designed and built as a monument to peace – a fact Swift uncovered right here in Kingston after finding the original papers famed Canadian sculptor Walter Allward in Queen’s University Archives.
“As it turns out, the Vimy Memorial is a peace monument. Walter Allward referred to it as ‘A sermon against War,’” said Swift.
“The most striking figure there, which is sometimes called ‘Mother Canada’ – a woman with her head shrouded, looking down, one breast exposed… a classical expression of grief – is formally called ‘Canada Bereft’ by Allward.”
And with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge fast approaching in April 2017, Swift and McKay felt now was the best time to challenge the popular opinion of the ‘prolific’ battle – before the nation falls into a “flag-waving, patriotic extravaganza,” as it did during the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 just a few years ago.
“One of the points of the book is to show how remembrance and commemoration are contested terrain, and always have been and always will be,” said Swift.
“Which is not to say that wars have not produced big changes… we’re not saying that wars are not important in Canadian history, it’s just that they’re dressed up in this patriotic garb that we don’t think they should be dressed up in.”
The Vimy Trap is published by Between the Lines books and available at most bookstores.