In a 1925 address to the Empire Club of Canada, the country’s finest soldier, Sir Arthur Currie, told the audience: “You men will recall that Moses advised the Israelites that when they would celebrate the anniversary of the Passover their children would ask, ‘What mean ye by these things?’ And when we celebrate our Dominion Day and our Empire Day and our other national holidays, let us answer our children with courage when they say, ‘What mean ye by these things?’ ”
What mean ye by these things? A timely question for Remembrance Day 2011, as we consider the legacy left to Canada by virtue of its answer to history’s call.
There is no doubt that the wars scarred this nation, and we rightly recall the sacrifices made by soldiers and others. But the ashes of the First and Second World Wars, and other conflicts of the past hundred years, also gave rise to a cultural legacy as deep and rich as any in Canadian history.
Consider the country’s war art alone: It’s a national treasure of more than 13,000 pieces, ranging from the magisterial – The Taking of Vimy Ridge, Easter Monday, 1917, by Richard Jack – to the iconic Alex Colville painting Infantry near Nijmegen, Holland. These paintings are part of the cultural fabric that makes us who we are.
The same is true of our literature, which has been indelibly affected by the crucible of war. The 35th anniversary of the publishing of Timothy Findley’s Governor-General’s Award-winning novel The Wars will take place next year. Still the Canadian war novel against which all others are compared, Mr. Findley’s classic remains a must-read, inspired by the human horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele.
More recently, Joseph Boyden’s 2005 novel, Three Day Road, introduced a new generation of readers to the tragedy of the trenches, told through the experiences of aboriginal soldier Xavier Bird.
It would be impossible to name all the significant literary treasures – from poetry ( In Flanders Fields) to memoirs ( And No Birds Sang) – but they all serve as a printed legacy to defining periods in the history of Canada.
The response in stone has also been profound. Every community in the country has a war memorial of some kind. And these monuments are revelatory.
Consider that committees had to be struck and dollars raised by the thousands in order to build these testaments of honour. Today, some schools ask their history students to research the names on the local cenotaphs, breathing new life into the fallen.
All of this makes it just a little harder to understand why New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University has decided to tear down its war memorial library. Maybe this is what Toronto poet Don Coles was referring to as the “stonecutter’s irony, ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’ ” in his war poem William, etc.
In 1957, The Globe and Mail editorialized that “our cultural assets are less known; many of them, in fact, are distressingly unknown within our own borders.” This should not be so.
A look at the legacy of war in the arts and in public memory through memorials, museums, the names of streets and schools, and countless other stakes in the national ground is Canada reflected back to us. It is nothing less than the people speaking collectively but in different ways, responding to and capturing pivotal moments in the life of a nation.
What mean ye by these things? Take a look around, pick up a book, read a poem, visit a gallery. In the aftermath of the wars of the past century, Canada has built an intricate and meaningful cultural legacy.
Lest we forget.
J.D.M. Stewart teaches history at Toronto’s Bishop Strachan School.