A literature of stone

DOUGLAS HOW November 9 1998

A literature of stone

DOUGLAS HOW November 9 1998

A literature of stone



On one Remembrance Day in the '70s, I went back to my old home town, Dorchester, N.B., population about 800, and marched with the veterans to the war memorial. And the experience still says things to me. One is that although we pledged to remember the 41 “fallen,” the words were true only in a limited and symbolic way. For their names were already largely forgotten in the village itself. Yet in another sense, it struck me that the memorial’s significance went beyond this as part of a phenomenon to be found from coast to coast, and gloriously on France’s Vimy Ridge.

Such memorials are unique as links and tributes to our past. The names were carved in granite in the ’20s and ’40s so that what 100,000 men gave their lives for—and what that meant to their country—would continue to matter.

To the contrary, for years they haven’t mattered in a way that would do much to help make Canada more than the equal of each of its parts. Instead, there has developed a paradox—namely that a country that has twice waged massive wars keeps going back to being a country with a profound distaste for war itself. As one professor put it at a sparsely attended Remembrance Day ceremony at Mount Allison University: “Being bad, it’s best forgotten.” That paradox is consistent with historian A R. M. Lower’s maxim: “In every generation, Canadians have had to rework the miracle of their political existence.” He said that 52 years ago in Colony to Nation.

Now, historian J. L. Granatstein says the situation has taken on new dimensions. In his book Who Killed Canadian History?, he says that for various reasons the history of the Canadian experience “has all but disappeared from the school curriculum” and the university situation is just as bleak. “Somehow, somewhere, we have lost our way,” he says. Even the Second World War has become, except for veterans, only a dim memory, and “once their embarrassing presence is no more,” Granatstein suspects, Remembrance Day services will lapse—in effect lending credence to Lower’s reworking thesis.

Even with our wars, that process went on. The first was more than halfway through before the April, 1917, victory on Yimy Ridge crystallized a feeling among the soldiers that they were more than Albertans or Nova Scotians—that they were Canadians. And thus, it is said, modern Canada was born. Even so, Canadians overseas in the second war seemed uncomfortable when asked why they were there. I can remember hearing only one man answer in ringing words. Jack Calder had narrowly escaped death in a flying accident,

Why Canadians must stay in touch with a heroic past

and one night in London friends told him he’d done more than his part in battle. Calder responded with passion that Hitler represented an evil that could only be destroyed by fighting, and fight he would. He died in his late 20s, in an RCAF plane attacking Hamburg in July, 1944.

But understanding Canadians more often requires the interpretation of silences, and no more so than in considering our war memorials. They reflect the fact that the veterans of the second war grew up among the veterans of the first and were often baffled by those who had fought abroad who wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t, talk about the experience. Their Canadian Corps had created legends on the Western Front, but certainly in Dorchester they never imprinted in the young a picture of war as glory. And the veterans themselves shared a deep hope that coursed through the Depression ’30s, a doomed dream that war could be wished away.

In 1939, the rapacious Hitler took care of that, and Britain’s great prime minister Winston Churchill is only one of a number of people who called Canada’s response magnificent. Yet there, too, you can face baffling silences about why we went to war at all. There is no question that Nazi Germany threatened human freedom, yet the neighboring United States, the champion of freedom, stood aside for more than two years. Indeed, in the whole Western Hemisphere, peopled by various European stocks, only Canada went to war in 1939. Frenchspeaking Quebec was hardly enthusiastic, but it gave approval once it got a no-conscription pledge, and it produced good fighting men. By and large, in the crunch, Canadians thrust aside their concerns not in a blaze of fervor but by dogged resolution.

Twenty months later, when a besieged and desperate Britain stood alone in frontline defiance of Hitler, one episode reflected how dogged that resolution could be. On April 30,1941, the small liner Nerissa was sunk by a German U-boat and 85 of the 105 Canadian servicemen were lost en route to Britain to join the thousands already there. At least five, I’ve discovered, were aboard because they felt that’s where they should be. They included an officer and an NCO who had insisted on going into combat. The three others were soldiers, one a sergeant, who wanted so much to get there that, quite separately, they stowed away on the ship. Three of the five were lost.

Years later, I came across a 1943 publication by Dorchester High School students. It took pride in former students overseas, but pri-

marily stressed the link to the British Empire, quoting one speaker at an Empire Day audience extolling “what a great and glorious union the Empire really is.” That seemed outdated to me because the Canadians I saw overseas were proud above all of being Canadian. The “Canada” badges on their shoulders were small, but I suspect they’d have felt naked without them.

In short, both wars did rework Canada.

The first crystallized national pride. The second confirmed it. When peace returned in 1945, author Ralph Allen would write: “No country in the world was more confident than Canada, or had better „ cause to be.” The consensus: the nation had come of age. d

Then another paradox. Canada became | internationally committed as never before i through the United Nations, NATO, peace| keeping and Cold War policies—even as g anti-war sentiments resurfaced and joined ° other forces in creating a country that eventually seemed to have a vacuum where a heart is supposed to be. Small wonder that it saddens aging veterans to see this. To hear that Canada has no heroes despite the first war’s remarkable air aces, Billy Bishop and Billy Barker, despite the fact that nothing did more to end Canada’s colonial status than the feats of the Canadian Corps, despite the fact that the second war produced a bombing “king of the pathfinders” in Johnny Fauquier, a “hero of Malta” in fighter pilot George (Buzz) Beurling, a “pirate of the Adriatic” in navy officer Tom Fuller, and despite the fact that French-Canadians played heroic roles with the French Resistance.

Yet four years ago, when I went back to Italy with a group of veterans, I saw something both memorable and revealing. The veterans, selected from units coast to coast, were accompanied by young servicemen forming a color party for war cemeteries and by some teenagers there as observers. Camaraderie quickly flowered among the veterans, and the spirit spread. You’d see them watching the young servicemen take pains with their uniforms. See them nod when the young men’s bus blossomed with Maple Leaf flags after an Italian was heard to say they were americani. The young men, in turn, liked to hear the veterans’ stories, were touched to see some weep over names on gravestones. And when they all roared out 0 Canada at a luncheon on once-bloody Coriano ridge, I thought my

hair would stand on end. Then as we landed back in Canada, one of the teenagers looked out and thought aloud. “My God,” she breathed, “I love this country.” That trip confirmed my long-standing belief that that emotion is far from dead. Granatstein says one way to start making it what it could and should be is to teach much more Canadian history in the schools and universities, to lay down national standards for what is taught. Here you run into one of those built-in obstacles so typical of Canada—the Fathers of Confederation made education a provincial responsibility. With schooling an integral part of provincial aspirations, it is often hard to see Canada as a whole.

Which brings up one final implication of our war memorials, and perhaps the most important of all. They didn’t just happen. They sprang up not by government fiat but through thousands of community efforts. They are a remarkable emanation of public will. They are a literature of stone, and surely its message need not apply to war alone. For what it says is that, if aroused, there are almost no limits to what Canadians are capable of doing together, as a people.

Douglas How went overseas as a Cape Breton Highlanders lieutenant in 1942, then worked as a war correspondent for The Canadian Press in Britain and Italy from 1943 to 1945. His book, One Village, One War, 1914-1945, relates what those 31 years meant to his home town, Dorchester, N.B.