Stephen Harper said Canada's terrible sacrifice in the First World War made this former British colony truly independent – and he drew parallels to Ottawa's support for beleaguered Ukraine today.
On the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, the Prime Minister, speaking at the Canadian War Museum on Monday, said from a nation of eight million more than 600,000 Canadians were mobilized in the war effort. By the time the fighting ended, more than a third were killed or wounded. Upwards of 66,000 died and more than 172,000 were injured.
"Yet, amid the appalling loss, by any measure, Canada, as a truly independent country, was forged in the fires of the Western Front," the Prime Minister said.
Canada joined the fight without debate in 1914 after the decision was made in London to declare war on Germany in 1914, but at war's end in 1918 it had a separate seat at council that drew up the Treaty of Versailles.
"When the great nations of the world gathered, we must never forget that our place at the table was not given to us," Mr. Harper said.
"It was bought and paid for on the gas-choked battlefield at Ypres, where John McCrae wrote his immortal work In Flanders Fields; at Vimy Ridge, where Canadian men united under Canadian leaders, achieved a victory that had eluded so many others; in the long, muddy slaughter along the River Somme; in the drenched and cratered wasteland of Passchendaele, where Lieutenant Robert Shankland earned his Victoria Cross; in the sombre and blood-soaked field hospitals, where Beatrice McNair would become one of the first Canadian women to receive military honours for gallantry, standing by her post and comforting her patients while under bombardment."
Mr. Harper announced Canada is expanding the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial. For the next few years, this expanded vigil will take place between the commemoration of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9 and Remembrance Day on Nov. 11.
Although Canada has not pledged troops to Ukraine, Mr. Harper made comparisons between Ottawa's support for Kiev in the face of Russian aggression and deployments over the last 100 years.
"Our commitment to values has never wavered," he said, citing Canada's heavy contribution to the conflict in Afghanistan in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"And it is why today, we stand once again beside friends and allies whose sovereignty, whose territorial integrity – indeed, whose very freedoms and existence – are still at risk," the Prime Minister said, referring to Ukraine and Russia's seizure of Crimea.
There's a significant difference between sending soldiers to war and sending cash or diplomatic support to Kiev, but Mr. Harper didn't elaborate on his comparison. "Wherever, whenever, those values we hold most dear have been threatened, Canada has been prepared to defend and preserve them," he said.
Mr. Harper noted that Canadian troops distinguished themselves in battle between 1914 and 1918 even as tens of thousands paid with their lives.
"The young men of 1914 were inexperienced, but determined," he said. By the end of the war, he said, they were admired by allies and feared by enemies. "They were called the shock troops of the British Empire," Mr. Harper said.
Canada's highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, has not been awarded to a Canadian soldier since 1945. "It is difficult to measure heroism," he said. "But, if the awarding of our greatest military honour tells a story, then let the record show that of the 98 Canadians who have earned the Victoria Cross, 72 of them did so in the First World War."
Mr. Harper reminded listeners that all Canada's veterans of the First World War have now died.
"The last survivor of those courageous men and women who went off to war a century ago – John Babcock – passed away in 2010," he said. "No longer can they tell their stories of courage and honour and duty. But every time that we take a stand to defend the values for which they fought, and for which so many died, we remember their stories in the only way that really matters."