Russia – the Eastern Front – doesn’t come up often in Canadian narratives of the First World War, but that was where Ilya Kreynin’s family was living a century ago. This spring, sitting in a history classroom at the University of Toronto Schools, Ilya told the story of how the war forever changed his family.
It was the period leading up to the start of the war, and Ilya’s great-great-grandfather Moses wanted to save his son Faya, a sickly youth, from the clutches of the Russian army. Recruiters arrived in their neighbourhood in Minsk with orders to take one, and only one, fighting-age male from each home.
After visiting the family next door, the Kreynins, and claiming one of their sons, the recruiters stopped for the night. So Moses crept out in the dark to visit a rabbi and have his name formally changed to match his neighbour’s. When the press gang resumed its work the next day, Moses said young Faya couldn’t join up because they had already recruited a Kreynin. The plan worked – and the family have called themselves Kreynin ever since.
“That’s something they kept quiet,” Ilya says of his ancestor’s ruse.
In 1914, nearly all at the students at UTS (and more than half the country) described their origins as British. Close to 400 of its pupils and graduates volunteered for service. The names of those who rallied to defend the British Empire, and the 63 who gave their lives, are set in bronze just inside the main doors.
Today, though, the students, like Ilya, are far more diverse. Many of their surnames reflect Asian or Eastern European origins. (Less than a third of Canadians now claim English or Scottish origins, according to the National Household Survey.)
As the country’s population shifts, experiences of the First World War in Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere will have a role in shaping our historical understanding of the period. So how is a clash of empires 100 years ago seen by today’s young Canadians, many of whom trace their pasts to countries thousands of miles from the European theatre and the legendary battles at Vimy Ridge and Ypres?
“In a personal, practical sense in some places it would have been easy to imagine there wasn’t a war on,” says Jonathan Vance, a historian at the University of Western Ontario.
And yet, in geopolitical terms, the events of 1914-1918 and their aftermath reshaped the globe. The war affected much of the Middle East, drawing new borders around countries and territories, including what is now Israel, which is where Ilya was born. It also splintered the British Empire, sparked the rise of Communism in the Soviet Union and China, and marked the ascension of the U.S. as the world’s leading power.
All of these events contributed to subsequent turmoil, violence and uncertainty that have led many families to seek out a new home in Canada.
“Whether we realize it or not, the event that was memorialized in [UTS’s bronze memorial plaque] shaped the world we live in, in every conceivable respect,” says Prof. Vance. “We are a product of those four or five years.”
Oriane Edwards, another UTS student, has been digging into her Canadian great-grandfather’s story. He was an army medic stationed in North Africa during the war, where, the story goes, he may have met T.E. Lawrence. He later returned to Canada and became a doctor.
Meanwhile, her family on her mother’s side was in the Philippines. In 1914, her ancestors were fishermen working near Manila, untouched by war.
But then, in 1918, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made a famous speech in which he pushed for the “self-determination” of the smaller nations that had been swallowed up by European empires. He declared that “national aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.” This deeply influenced nationalist movements around the world and contributed to U.S. concessions to local democracy in the Philippines and to the country’s eventual independence. Subsequent U.S. meddling, however, opened the door to corrupt political dynasties, and when Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in the 1970s, Oriane’s family left for Canada.
Ms. Edwards has spent a lot of time staring at the bronze memorial at the UTS entrance. Having studied the war, its causes, its destructive outcomes, the lives lost, she has wondered why those boys felt such a sense of nationalism and patriotic duty to Britain.
She feels connected to them by her school and by a shared national history, but not personally.
“I really respect and feel very grateful in a strange way [to the veterans], solemn almost,” Ms. Edwards says. “But really the First World War… in many ways it seems so futlile, frustratingly so.”
What has changed is that Ms. Edwards and her classmates have, through their own families’ experience of the war in faraway places, brought new histories to Canada, expanding the lens through which we understand the past.
Their sagas are not what we tend to remember of the Great War but they, too, are Canadian stories.