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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

MARGARET WENTE

What’s the point of Vimy, anyway? Add to ...

Canada is short of nation-building myths. Plenty of us are okay with that. Founding myths promote delusions of national greatness that may be misplaced or even downright dangerous. Besides, there is much in our history that’s nothing to be proud of. As Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (who is aboriginal) said this week, it’s “hard to celebrate 150 years of colonialism.”

So it is with Vimy. What point is there in valorizing one random bloody slaughter in a pointless war that consumed millions of lives? “There is a childishness to Vimyism,” Ian McKay and Jamie Swift write in their book The Vimy Trap. “In its essence, it wants us to return to a day of glorious warfare.”

Neil Orford’s students see a different story. Mr. Orford, a history teacher in Shelburne, Ont., has taken hundreds of kids on the pilgrimage to Vimy over the years. To them, its lessons are not childish. They learn about sacrifice and bravery, service and remembrance – concepts we don’t hear much about today. The story of Vimy roots them in the history of Canada as nothing else can do.

“Before we get to Vimy, I always take the kids to the place where John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields – at that forward dressing station – to sit where he sat, to embrace the ghosts,” he says. He takes them through the tunnels, where the soldiers etched out markers with their bayonets that often served as their own tombstones. He takes them to the cemeteries, full of young men scarcely older than themselves. The lesson of Vimy is not that war is glorious. “It was an event where ordinary Canadians came together to do something extraordinary. They were attempting personally in their own small way to make a difference.”

Women played a part, too. Grace MacPherson was 18 when her brother was killed overseas. She decided to go to the war, and drove an ambulance behind the lines because there were so few men to do it. There are many female stories, and aboriginal ones as well.

For many anglophone Canadians, especially those from small towns, family ties to Vimy still run deep. But what about all the new Canadians who don’t share any of that history? Isn’t Vimy a symbol from an old Canada, too outdated, too British and too white to mean much today?

Mr. Orford’s answer is surprising. Vimy makes a profound connection with kids of all backgrounds. “It doesn’t matter where the students come from. What those boys experienced is very recognizable to them today. Every student in my class comes from a place that has a story, and they can all relate to this one.” The Canada of a century ago was also filled with newcomers. The young men who joined the forces included Ukrainians, Poles, Chinese. Many were British. Canada was a new place to them too. Together, they helped forge the beginnings of a Canadian identity. “Did they face racism a hundred years ago? Of course. Did they face remarkable personal battles to get jobs and make their way? Sure they did. And it’s the same today.”

There’s no need for Mr. Orford to stress the horror and futility of war. The anguished words of the soldiers do that.

Their stories – told through letters, diaries and photographs – are what make Vimy so real. One of Mr. Orford’s students, a boy from Trinidad, spent months delving into the life of Jim McDonald, an Ontario farmer who died in France. On a trip to Vimy, Mr. Orford helped his student find the grave. “I’m going to carry this with me for the rest of my life,” he told his teacher. “I know more about this guy than his own family does.”

Today, our challenge as a nation is not that we’ll succumb to nationalist chest-thumping. Our challenge is that we’ll succumb to historical amnesia. Our challenge is a tendency to rewrite history as a catalogue of wrongs inflicted by dead white men – against Acadians, blacks (even we had slaves!), Chinese, Japanese, Jews and, of course, aboriginal populations. It’s also hard to find unifying symbols when our French-English foundation myths are so different. (Vimy has no resonance in Quebec, where the war was seen as a British struggle.) But these symbols, imperfect as they are, have great value. They remind us that we belong to something enduring, something larger than ourselves.

In his fine book Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, historian Tim Cook writes, “Vimy became prominent not because Canada was born on that captured ridge. We can put that to rest. It was not. But there is no denying the impact of the Great War: It shook Canada to the core … The loyalty within the brotherhood of the trenches was a unifying force of great power.”

That is the lesson that 12,000 students, including some of Mr. Orford’s, are learning this week in France. And if they are stirred to thoughts of service, pride in country, even – dare I say it – patriotism, Canada will be a better country because of it.

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