Canadians are beginning to tune out Remembrance Day and many have already tuned out much of our military history, a new poll suggests.
Despite considerable anecdotal evidence that crowds are swelling at Remembrance Day ceremonies as the ranks of world-war veterans thin, just 41 per cent of those surveyed said they intended to take part this year, a nine percentage point drop from last year.
At the same time, the poll found Canadians are not up on the country's prominent military heroes, few though they are, with more than one in four identifying storied U.S. General Douglas MacArthur as one of us.
Only 31 per cent of those polled were able to pick out both flying ace Billy Bishop and First World War commander Sir Arthur Currie as outstanding Canadian military heroes from a small list of four that also included Gen. MacArthur and U.S. Civil War leader Ulysses S. Grant.
Rudyard Griffiths, executive director of the Dominion Institute that commissioned the survey, said he was distressed by the results.
"If you compare them with similar polls in the past, there is a decline in knowledge and a decline in Remembrance Day commitment," said Mr. Griffiths.
"This is a dangerous moment [for Remembrance Day] as we move from a society that still has living links to the experience of war to generations who no longer have that direct, living link."
Mr. Griffiths said he was worried that Canadians are losing not only their history, but their social solidarity, the shared heritage that shaped Canada into the country it is today.
"We need to redouble our efforts [to preserve it]" he said.
The Dominion Institute survey was conducted by the Innovative Research Group, which polled approximately 1,000 adult Canadians during the last week in October. A sample that size is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points.
The most surprising finding concerned tomorrow's Remembrance Day.
Asked whether they would be attending a Remembrance Day service this year, 41 per cent said yes, down from 58 per cent in 2001 and 50 per cent as recently as last year.
The poll aside, however, few dispute that Remembrance Day interest and actual cenotaph crowds seem to be on a dramatic upswing.
"I can remember in the 1980s when we used to hardly get anybody," Gerry Vowles, president of the B.C. and Yukon Command of the Royal Canadian Legion, recalled yesterday.
"But the numbers have been going up, and last year the crowd [at the East Vancouver cenotaph]was much larger than I'd ever seen."
Nov. 11 attendance at last year's national ceremony in Ottawa was more than 25,000, a huge boost from the 7,000 or so who tended to show up in the 1990s.
And CBC's audience for Ottawa's Remembrance Day ceremony tripled between 1993 and 2003 to 2.3 million viewers.
But Mr. Griffiths is not dissuaded from his gloom.
The decline in commitment by Canadians to its annual day of remembrance for the war dead has been steady over the years, he said.
Increased attendance is coming from "hard-core" faithful adherents who are now even more determined to attend, Mr. Griffiths said.
"The intensity of feeling is going up, and more within that group are going. We're winning the battle but I'm not so sure we're winning the war."
Many Canadians, he said, espouse a "feel-good" nationalism that is very emotional but does not translate into action when it comes to attending a Remembrance Day ceremony or actually learning something about Canadian history.
"I feel like the Grinch who stole Remembrance Day, but unfortunately, we seem to be leading these busy, workaday lives and Nov. 11 is becoming a casualty of that."
However, the survey found overwhelming support (87 per cent) for making Remembrance Day a national statutory holiday.
Perhaps buttressing concerns of those who oppose the idea out of fear that Nov. 11 will become just another holiday, younger Canadians were significantly more in favour of a day off than older Canadians.
Military historian Terry Copp, meanwhile, is far more sanguine about the poll results than Mr. Griffiths.
Mr. Copp said learning the names of military heroes such as Sir Arthur Currie isn't of much importance in people's daily lives or to 16-year olds "with a lot of other things on their mind."
"Learning bits of information about Canadians in the two world wars does not imply understanding."
Gordon Bannerman, 85, who fought through the bloody Italian and Holland campaigns in the Second World War, has found his own secret weapon to bring the reality of war home to school kids.
Yesterday, at a middle school on Vancouver Island, Mr. Bannerman told two hilarious anecdotes, barely fit for a family audience, about Canadian servicemen blowing themselves up while using "the facilities." Gas and matches were involved.
"The kids howled," Mr. Bannerman reported.
Military heritage quiz
Six in 10 Canadians failed the following test on the First World War, with a pass rate of just 42 per cent.
Q: Canada has produced a number of outstanding military heroes. Identify the two famous Canadians from the following list:
Air Marshal "Billy" Bishop
General Douglas MacArthur
Sir Arthur Currie
General Ulysses Grant
Q: Captain John McCrae served as a medical officer in the First World War and wrote what is considered to be Canada's most famous poem. What is the name of the poem?
Q: Canada's most famous single victory in the First World War consisted of the capture of a key ridge on the Western Front. What was this battle called?
Q: In the past century, women took on new roles in the work force to support Canada's war efforts. Which war prompted the Canadian government to give most women the right to vote in federal elections?
1-Air Marshal "Billy" Bishop and Sir Arthur Currie
2-In Flanders Field
4-First World War