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War artist Alex Colville depicts exhausted Canadian soldiers in a painting titled Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland.Canadian War Museum (CWM 19710261-2079)

Those who enlisted and survived or lost their lives in the Second World War (1939-1945) have been called the Greatest Generation, a term first coined by U.S. anchor Tom Brokaw but one that applies to Canadians as well. Fighting overseas, defending Canada and contributing to the war effort, this generation of some 1.1 million, who largely grew up during in the Great Depression, served in uniform and bled for victory.

But we might also call this cohort the Silent Generation because even though 45,000 Canadians were killed and another 55,000 wounded, the losses, while tragic and traumatizing to families and loved ones, did not haunt the general public in the same way as those of the First World War.

The Great War of 1914 to 1918, as it came to be known, left a raw wound on the nation’s psyche. It had required a mobilization of people and resources like never before to that point in the country’s history, while also creating new heroes and earning Canada international recognition. With the losses of 66,000 killed, communities were gutted, and the country was torn apart along existing and new fault lines, especially between English and French Canada.

The survivors seemed to feel compelled to never forget – Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian soldier, surgeon and poet from Guleph, Ont., wrote the poem In Flanders Fields, which became a literary memorial. The poppy was adopted as a symbol of loss and remembrance and Armistice Day (renamed Remembrance Day in 1931) was solemnly commemorated every year.

Thousands of memorials in communities across the country were constructed, from stone cenotaphs to stained glass windows in churches. In Ottawa, the Peace Tower and the National Memorial were unveiled. And overseas in France, the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial beckoned Newfoundlanders who grieved for those who were cut down on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. The Vimy Memorial, on the ridge in France captured by the Canadian Corps in April 1917, was another symbol of Canada’s service and sacrifice.

At the end of the Second World War, there were wild celebrations on VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) in May 1945 and on VJ Day (Victory over Japan Day) in August 1945, but in the years that followed, these days faded in relevance.

More pressing was the need to reintegrate veterans into society and to forge a new Canada.

The Canadian government created generous programs to retrain veterans, offered loans to start businesses and paid for more than 50,000 men and women who served in uniform to attend universities. While some veterans slipped through the cracks of society, most found jobs, started families and contributed to the country’s prosperity.

Notably, Indigenous veterans were largely exempt from this group who received support, as many lived on reserves and were unable to access programs and share in the postwar opportunities.

In contrast to the First World War, Canadians in 1945 were moving forward and not focused on the past. The postwar success of a booming economy led to the prosperity of the Boomer Generation, but in the process, the story of Canada’s Second World War contribution was increasingly silenced. Even though the country’s contributions had been significant to the Allied victory, Canadians did a poor job of talking about them.

In comparison to the First World War, we wrote few books, produced almost no films and did not build grand monuments to this generation.

Like their Great War counterparts, Second World War veterans also often had trouble talking about the war. Even though they believed the fight against Nazism and fascism was necessary and unavoidable, the war had scarred many, leaving it difficult for them to share stories about what they had seen and done – and loved ones often did not know what questions to ask. Post-traumatic stress disorder would not be named for another four decades, after the trauma of the Vietnam War.

Within a few decades, it was rare that students learned about Canada’s wartime achievements, and the focus was increasingly on our peacekeeping role in more recent conflict zones.

But as veterans retired from their working professions, more conversations arose, sometimes triggered by the passing of an old comrade or questions from a son or daughter on Remembrance Day.

These Vancouver soldiers, members of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, painted 'Germany Kaput ... Here we come Vancouver' on hearing of the war's end. Photograph believed to be taken in the Netherlands in May, 1945.Canada Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada / CP

The 50th anniversary of certain events of the war in 1994 and 1995 was a turning point as Canadians increasingly acknowledged this period of history more forcefully. Thousands of veterans – the liberators of 1945 – returned to Europe in small groups and official tours to huge cheering crowds.

Veterans began to open up, visiting schools and writing memoirs, and new generations of historians wrote books, notably J. L. Granatstein, Terry Copp, and Marc Milner – all university professors who researched national and international archives, interviewed veterans and sought to share our history widely.

Canada honoured veterans with stamps and coins and documented their stories for future generations. New museums were established such as the Juno Beach Centre in France, which opened in 2003 on the site of Canada’s hard-fought victory of June 6, 1944, and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, which opened on May 8, 2005, on the 60th anniversary of the victory against Nazi Germany.

As we recognize and bear witness to this 75th anniversary of the formal end of the war with Japan, we might take a moment to think of this generation. Of the 1.1 million veterans, there are now fewer than 30,000 left alive in Canada, most of whom are around 95 years old; some are over 100.

Tim Cook is the acting director of research for the Canadian War Museum and author of 13 books of Canadian military history, including his most recent, The Fight for History: 75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering, and Remaking Canada’s Second World War (Allen Lane, 2020).

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