Why Remembrance Day Matters
My grandfather, a gentle and soft-spoken bear of a man, was born in 1903 — too young to fight in the First World War, too old for the Second. I can recall him in the years of my childhood trooping down to the Princes’ Gates annually for the Warrior’s Day Parade, rain or shine. He did not make a great show of it. In fact, I cannot recall him ever explaining why he felt such an abiding obligation to Canada’s veterans. He did not have to.
Much has changed in the hundred years since the Armistice brought the end of hostilities in the Great War. It has been a long, long time since Canadian civilians have even had to imagine being called upon to fight abroad. And as citizens of the most geographically fortunate country on the planet — protected by vast oceans on three sides and a nuclear-armed superpower on the fourth — it is virtually inconceivable that we should ever have to bear arms in defence of the homeland. This essential truth about Canada, that we can simply take our security for granted, applies to almost no other nation on Earth.
Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that Remembrance Day in Canada — outside of “base” towns like Trenton, Ont. — has largely ceased to be an occasion of unbridled patriotism. Indeed, Remembrance Day has been politicized in Canada in recent decades, as it has elsewhere — the product not only of a powerful undercurrent of antiwar sentiment dating from the Cold War but also, more recently, of feuding over whether Canada’s preeminent military legacy is that of the conservative “warrior nation” or, rather, the progressive altruism of the blue-helmeted peacekeepers. Confusion has followed. Polls show that even during Canada’s recent war in Afghanistan (2001-11), Canadians were uncertain as to whether we were engaged in a shooting war or peacekeeping. (It was a shooting war, in which 158 Canadian soldiers were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded.)
War is always political — old people talking and young people dying, as the cliché goes. Whether we should fight here or there, or whether we should commit ourselves to this or that cause, or how much we should spend on military preparedness — these are always the questions of governments and citizens, and they produce intense debates, as well they should.
But this complex political reality should not obscure the fundamental truth known to my grandfather and the ill-fated cohorts called upon to fight two world wars in the space of a single generation. When our fellow citizens volunteer to place themselves in harm’s way on our behalf, they have done something truly extraordinary. This, and not our comparatively petty political squabbles, is what we should be thinking about on Remembrance Day.
Dr. Robert Wright teaches History at Trent University Durham GTA and has built his career by challenging the way we think about Canadian history, foreign policy and sovereignty issues. His books include Trudeaumania: The Rise to Power of Pierre Elliot Trudeau (2016) and Our Man in Tehran: Ken Taylor and the Iran Hostage Crisis (2011).