Historian J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War will be marked all across the world in August. For the next 4 1/2 years, there will be memorials to the dead, celebrations of victories, lamentations at defeats, re-enactments and countless public events. Germany and France are co-operating to commemorate the terrible battle at Verdun, which bled both countries white. France is also creating joint plans with Britain. The Belgian province of Flanders, where years of war devastated the countryside and towns, has allocated €55-million for commemoration, and the remainder of Belgium, most of it occupied by the Germans for four terrible years, will spend even more.
And Canada? The government has a long list of events and commemorations, to be sure. But there is no new money behind this string of events – government departments, agencies and Crown corporations have been ordered to finance the commemoration costs out of existing budgets. This means that Heritage Canada (lead on the centenary, along with Veterans Affairs), which is already unable to spend enough on culture or television documentaries to meet demand, will have to cut back even further. It means that Veterans Affairs, which is already under fire for its cack-handed way of dealing with PTSD in serving soldiers and veterans, is coming under additional attacks for spending part of its budget on old wars when the vets of recent ones are suffering. And this means that National Defence, which has undergone savage cuts with the troops leaving Afghanistan, will need to dip deep into its operations and maintenance budget to send soldiers to ceremonies.
What’s going on here? We all know that burying the deficit remains the Conservative government’s primary target as it looks toward the next election. We know that the War of 1812 bicentennial, for which Ottawa earmarked some $28-million, was attacked as a waste of money on a forgotten conflict, not least by Canadian historians, who should have been expected to know better. And we know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a fervent supporter of the Afghan war when he took office in early 2006, lost his enthusiasm as the casualties and costs mounted and public opinion on the conflict turned tepid, then ice-cold.
Critics have repeatedly talked about the Conservatives focusing their pitch to voters on the military and Canadians’ glorious record in the field. The reality, a litany of cutbacks and withheld funding, is much different – and shameful.
The Great War needs to be marked in Canada, and marked well. About 620,000 Canadians put on uniform and more than 60,000 died in action or in training. Another 170,000 were wounded or injured. The Canadian Corps became the strongest formation in the British Expeditionary Force, the Empire’s shock troops. Its four divisions won victory after victory, and literally smashed the German army in the battles of the Hundred Days that ended the war in November, 1918, with a de facto German surrender. At the very least, this war record must be marked and remembered.
But the Great War years also changed the homeland. Women relatives of Canadian soldiers got the vote in 1917, and thousands of women left farms and hearths to work in munitions factories that produced a quarter of the artillery shells for British and Dominion forces by 1917. Prohibition cut off alcohol sales; millions were raised in Victory Loan campaigns; income tax came into effect (as a “temporary” wartime measure); and farmers and workers began to organize politically as inflation hit everyone. Above all, conscription in 1917 split the nation, pitting farmers against city dwellers, labour against bosses, French against English. That year’s election, won by the pro-conscription Unionist government of Sir Robert Borden, was the most racist in our history.
We certainly don’t want to celebrate all of these wartime events and changes, but we need to talk about them and learn from them. We need TV documentaries on the war and its battles and on the events, positive and negative, on the home front. We need books, conferences, lectures and displays in our national and local museums. We need to remember.
This requires some modest new funding. There will be a surplus by 2015, and there will be money available – if the government wishes to use it. There will also be the money to ensure that veterans get the help they require. It’s not a zero-sum game.
We really must remember the Great War properly. It was when Canada stood proudly on the world stage for the first time, and it would be a disgrace for the government to shortchange it.
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