Canada’s Vimy Ridge narrative, more trope than truth

Some Canadian politicians, journalists and historians claim that Canada was born in the 1917 battle at Vimy Ridge. Not so.
Canadian war graves at National Vimy Memorial.  Photo by Dennis Gruending

In recent weeks, there has been a wave of media coverage surrounding the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The splendid Vimy monument in France provides a perfect backdrop for television anchors. There was also a crowd of thousands on the site, including the descendants of soldiers who fought there against the Germans, grizzled veterans of the Second World War and other conflicts, and hundreds of Canadian school children many of whose teachers had given them assignments related to the Vimy battle. One of the adolescents interviewed on television said that the Canadian soldiers had fought to preserve her freedom at Vimy in 1917. Continue reading Canada’s Vimy Ridge narrative, more trope than truth

Canada extends war in Iraq and Syria

CF-18 fighter plane, Canadian forces photo
CF-18 fighter plane, Canadian forces photo

After a debate in the House of Commons, the Conservative government announced that Canada will continue its war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and extend its bombing runs into Syria until at least March 30, 2016. But Canadians should be asking whether this costly mission is right or even useful.

ISIS fighters are Sunni fundamentalists attempting to impose a caliphate in territory that straddles borders in Iraq and Syria. It was a string of brutal attacks by ISIS against Christians and other minorities in Iraq in the summer of 2014 that galvanized public opinion in the West, leading to military action in the region.

Church leaders skeptical

On April 7, the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper that expressed polite skepticism about  extending the military campaign. The two dozen church leaders who signed the letter represent most of this country’s mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as some smaller denominations that include Mennonites, Quakers and The Salvation Army.

Together, they write: “Military intervention will not bring an end to the conflict without a broader internationally sanctioned strategy for achieving a sustainable peace in Iraq and Syria.” They, and we, have seen this all before. The CCC points to the U.S.-led attack on Iraq in 2003 and its “tragic consequences.”

Humanitarian and refugee assistance 

The leaders call on Ottawa to strengthen its diplomatic efforts, provide more humanitarian assistance in the region and offer refugee sponsorship and resettlement in Canada. It’s a position that mirrors that taken by opposition parties in the House of Commons and by many others outside of Parliament’s walls.

For decades now, Canadian churches have been deeply involved in refugee sponsorships, but that hasn’t been a priority for the Conservative government as the brutal civil war in Syria continues, driving an estimated 10 million people from their homes and creating three million Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations.

Frustration palpable

Nor has the Canadian government shown much interest in consulting with church and other groups or co-operating with them to allow more private sponsorships to occur. The frustration of refugee-sponsoring groups is palpable, albeit muted, in the CCC letter. “Members of our parishes and congregations across Canada, as well as other organizations and volunteers, are eagerly waiting to receive Iraqi and Syrian refugees. . . . Accordingly, we urge you to consult with the Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association to discuss how to coordinate a response in Canada to the refugee crisis.”

$500 million better spent

Defence Minister Jason Kenney acknowledges that the Iraq-Syria war effort will cost Canada at least $500 million in the next year. Despite the warrior rhetoric from some of our politicians, Canada is not a robust military power. We do, however, have experience and credibility —  although it has been diminished recently — in diplomacy, humanitarian assistance and the resettlement of refugees.

We would make a greater international contribution by using the $500 million to focus on efforts such as those.

This piece appeared in slightly altered form in the United Church Observer on April 9, 2015.

Christmas Truce 1914

Christmas Truce 1914, Creative Commons photo
Christmas Truce 1914, Creative Commons photo

When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada was automatically at war as well. There were a lot of parades and bravado as young Canadians marched off to enlist,  expecting to defeat the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians and to be home by Christmas. It did not turn out that way, as the sides dug in for muddy and brutal trench warfare along lines in Belgium and France.

Canadians were not home for Christmas but something exceptional did happen at the front among German and allied soldiers. Estimates are that up to 100,000 British and German participated in an unofficial ceasefire along the Western Front. There was also a Christmas truce on the Eastern front which, although lesser known, involved Austrian and Russian soldiers.

In the West, the truce started on Christmas Eve, when German troops decorated the area around their trenches in Belgium. They placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then they sang carols, and the British responded with carols of their own. Men from the two sides called out Christmas greetings to each other. Soon after, they crossed No Man’s Land to exchange small gifts, such as food, tobacco, alcohol and souvenirs. They even played soccer.  Continue reading Christmas Truce 1914

Remembrance Day 2014 in Ottawa

Heather Menzies (left), Rosalie Reynolds lay wreath of white poppies
Heather Menzies (left), Rosalie Reynolds lay wreath of white poppies

There was a little-noticed twist to this year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. About an hour after the end of the official speeches, jet fighter flybys and canon salutes, a small group of people gathered at the memorial to lay a wreath decorated with white poppies to accompany the red ones that had been placed there earlier.

“I will be wearing both the red poppy and the white today,” said Heather Menzies of Ottawa, a member of the Voice of Women for Peace and of the White Poppy Coalition. “The red to honour Nathan Cirillo who was killed standing guard at Canada’s War Memorial, and the white to honour the compassion in the face of violence showed [those] passers by who rushed forward to help.”

Menzies, who is also the incoming chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, added: “I wear the red poppy for those who step forward when war becomes necessary, and the white to keep asking why: why war should ever be necessary.”

She spoke for perhaps five minutes. Her remarks were respectful toward military veterans – her father was one – even while she raised points that had gone largely unrecognized in earlier official remarks by the Governor General and other speakers.

Menzies was surrounded by a small group of about 20 supporters and a larger number of people who had remained on site following the official ceremonies. She was treated respectfully by everyone there with the exception of one middle-aged male heckler who was ignored and soon left.

Civiilian deaths

Elizabeth Whitmore, another speaker at the event, said that it is often forgotten that most wars kill more civilians than combatants. (There was in this year’s official ceremonies virtually no mention of civilian deaths and casualties).

Estimates are that 17 million people died in the First World War, about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. In the Second World War, the estimated death toll was 60 million. Civilian deaths are calculated to have been 38 million. Those deaths outnumbered those of the 22 million military who died.

White poppy coalition

A note from the White Poppy Coalition that was circulated to supporters prior to the event described the ceremony as “an alternative and comprehensive means of remembering all those who died and are dying, injured, or displaced by war: soldier and civilian alike. The white poppy is a symbol for the alternative to war as a means of conflict resolution. It is a pledge to work to end war and the suffering it causes.”

White poppies were first worn on Armistice Day 1933 by members of the Co-operative Women’s Guild in Great Britain. The white poppy idea arose from the wives, mothers, sisters and lovers of the men who had died and been injured in World War One. The women were increasingly concerned about the likelihood of another war and chose the white poppy as a symbol of a pledge to work for peace and in opposition to war.

War Memorial rededicated

At this year’s official Remembrance Day ceremony, the National War Memorial was rededicated by Governor General David Johnston. Princess Anne was in attendance and read a brief message from her mother, Queen Elizabeth. The war memorial was first dedicated by King George VI in May 1939, to mark the sacrifices of those who fought in the First World War. The Second World War began just months later.


A group called PeaceQuest says that although it respects the military sacrifices made by Canadians, it believes that the government should also rededicate the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. And if the government won’t, then citizens should.

The group, which began in Kingston and has working groups in Ottawa and several other cities, says it wants to provide a “counter narrative” to the government’s attempts to paint Canada as a militaristic nation. Their intention is to encourage people to look at Canada in terms that go beyond attempts to portray us as a warrior nation.


Noble Illusions and other summer reading

Stephen Dale, Noble Illusions
Stephen Dale, Noble Illusions

Early every summer I collect books which I plan to read during the long solstice days that lie ahead but  by late August or early September I find myself feeling frustrated by how much of that list remains unfinished. Here, then, is that list for this summer. I can’t claim to have completed each of these four books. I am part of the way through some of them and have had to content myself with knowledgeable reviews of the others.

Noble Illusions, by Stephen Dale: Ottawa-based writer Stephen Dale has written a polemical book about the First World War. Dale has discovered a boys’ annual called Young Canada and he examines its use of propaganda to glorify the racist colonial wars that preceded the so-called Great War. Dale writes that a publication whose stated purpose was to instruct young men in the cultivation of everyday virtues was used to glorify brutal wars as being valorous and righteous.

Young Canada, Dale says, helped to persuade a generation of young Canadians to head eagerly for the deadly trenches of Europe. He worries that politicians today are using the centenary of the First World War in a similar way by attempting to revive a sense of military duty embodied in the generation that served in the trenches. Some of our leaders want to instill that same unwavering and unthinking loyalty again.


Peacemakers, by Douglas Roche:  The 85-year-old Roche his written his 21st book, a herculean feat for someone who has also been a Member of Parliament, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations and an independent Senator. Roche has made a career out of harnessing Parliament and international fora, most notably the UN, to find political and diplomatic roads toward greater peace and justice in the world.

Roche claims that, despite what we observe on the television news each day, there are remarkable developments occurring that promote peace.  Despite vicious wars in Syria and elsewhere and the violent standoff in Ukraine, Roche spoke of his cautious optimism in an interview with The Catholic Register newspaper: “There is less violence now,” he said. “There are fewer wars. The economic and social development of people in Africa and Asia is on a steep up curve. There are many things happening that have increased the prospects for peace.”

Roche says that this will be his last book and certainly he deserves a time of rest and leisure, but it is also poignant news because he has contributed so much.

The War that Ended Peace

The War That Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan:  We are observing the centenary of the catastrophic First World War and MacMillan, a Canadian historian, had it timed right with the release of this book late in 2013. MacMillan, in the tradition of the American historian Barbara Tuchman, is a master at characterization and anecdote, all based on exhaustive research. So we see the weaknesses and foibles of Europe’s monarchical leaders at the time — Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, the British king, George V, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and others, not to mention their various ministers and advisors.

The questions which have been long debated are how did it happen and who was at fault? MacMillan does a masterful job of providing the context and rounding out the characters involved but ultimately shies away from coming down on any one side in the blame game – there is plenty of that to go around.

Jimmy Carter: A Call to Action

A Call to Action, by Jimmy Carter: Perhaps Douglas Roche should engage in a friendly competition with Jimmy Carter, the former American president who is approaching his 90th birthday. Carter has just written his 28th book and in it he continues to be outspoken on theme of gender. Carter says that the most serious challenge facing the world today is the subjugation and abuse of women and girls. He provides detail from his own travel and experience about the continuing incidence of  sexual assault, rape, lack of education and equal pay, the genocide of female fetuses, female genital mutilation, honor killings, dowry deaths and sex trafficking.

Carter takes aim at leaders of the world’s religions as often condoning and even encouraging the subjugation of women. He even severed his lifelong ties with the Southern Baptist Convention over the issue. Carter writes in A Call to Action that religious texts are interpreted “almost exclusively by powerful male leaders within the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other faiths, to proclaim the lower status of women and girls. This claim that women are inferior before God spreads to the secular world to justify gross and sustained acts of discrimination and violence against them.”

There are those who say that Carter has spent the latter decades of his life attempting to redeem the reputation of his one-term presidency and his subsequent loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980. One commentator, writing for the Religious News Service, says that religion functions better at the margins of society than in the halls of power, and that Carter exemplifies that dictum. Once out of office, Cater was no longer limited by political considerations and he has been free to speak truth to power, even that of the U.S government, and to act righteously – in the best sense of that word.

The politics of annexation in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin and Ukraine, Wikipedia photo
Vladimir Putin and Ukraine, Wikipedia photo

George Melnyk is a founder and former director of the Consortium for Peace Studies at the University of Calgary, and he is also a close observer of the events unfolding in Ukraine. In this guest piece, Melnyk says the Canadian left is wrong in supporting Russia’s contrived rebellion in Ukraine.    

The situation in Ukraine has been overshadowed by the horrors of Gaza with its more than 2000 dead and thousands injured, as well as hundreds of thousands of traumatized children. With Stephen Harper’s undiminished support for Israel, it is no wonder that progressive Canadians who identify with the Palestinian desire for freedom and independence have been confused on Ukraine.

Harper is equally vociferous in his support for the Ukrainian government, and his anti-Russian rhetoric against Vladimir Putin seems very much like his glorify and demonize approach on Israel and Palestine. However, to separate Harper’s position on Palestine from his position on Ukraine, we must view each situation on its own merits.

In an op-ed in The Globe and Mail on July 26, the Prime Minister described the situation in Ukraine as “a threat to Europe, to the rule of law and to the values that bind Western nations.” He pointed the finger at “Russia’s aggressive militarism and expansionism.” It is this characterization that bothers the Canadian left, especially when it comes from someone whose over-all foreign policy they abhor.

Domination,  annexation

The left tends to accept the argument that Russia has an inherent right to either control or guide Ukrainian affairs in its self-interest, either because Russia has a “right” to a buffer between Europe and itself, or because Russia has dominated Ukraine for several centuries prior to the country’s independence in 1991. Secondly, the left agrees with the Russian annexation of a significant part of Ukraine (Crimea) earlier this year.  Again, the rationale is that Russia has a right to the place, no matter how contrived and undemocratic the process. The Canadian left seems to have fallen for Russian propaganda that Ukraine is under the control of “fascists” because these categories were accepted currency in the good old days of capitalist and communist camps. However, viewing Putin as some kind of social progressive and the Ukrainian government as reactionary is a complete misreading of socio-political ideologies and realities.

The principled position 

The Canadian left should view this matter from a principled position. As long as Putin felt that he could control Ukrainian affairs it was business as usual. But when the “Euromaidan” revolution brought about the overthrow of its pro-Russian president, Putin moved into high gear discrediting the revolution, creating a fake uprising in Crimea, and launching a separatist insurgency in the east of the country. The Ukrainian people responded by voting for a new president in a democratic manner. Those in the areas still controlled by “separatists” had no such freedom or right. If the Canadian left, which has a long history of supporting popular uprisings against dictators and empires, could find its way to see that the February revolution was a democratic revolution against corruption and foreign manipulation, it would support it.

The distrust of Ukrainian nationalism, which goes back to the Soviet era, was very much tied to the Canadian left’s support for communist Russia and its opposition to American imperialism. In the Cold War era only the Soviet Union had the political might to balance that of the U.S. But this legacy of opposition to imperialism, of which the left can be proud, has to be even-handed and applied fairly in the post-communist era. Opposition to American imperialism should not ignore Russian imperialism, or Israeli imperialism, or any attack, overt or covert, on small nations.

Support the Ukrainian revolution

The Ukrainian revolution is one that deserves the support of the Canadian left because of its emphasis on democracy and pluralism. Ukraine’s wanting to embrace Europe and the West is something to be applauded, not reviled. As someone who has been active in the contemporary peace movement, I have applied my peace principles to the conflict in Ukraine. As an opponent of war, I decry the killing that has gone on in that country because of a contrived “rebellion” instigated, directed, and supplied by a foreign power. Since April there have been over 1100 civilian deaths and a quarter-million displaced people, as well as military casualties.

As an anti-war activist,  I accept the right of small and weak nations to defend themselves as best they can. In supporting Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty, I am supporting a democratic revolution against imperialism and a dictatorial Russian regime, in the same way that I have supported and continue to support Canadian independence, democracy and sovereignty against foreign intrigues and domination.

Canadian churches and World War I

Canadian war graves at Vimy, France
Canadian war graves at Vimy, France

Canada followed Great Britain into war with Germany and its allied powers 100 years ago this week. Tens of thousands of young Canadians, most of British descent, enlisted either voluntarily or due to prevailing social pressures. By 1917, however, others had to be conscripted by the wartime government. Canada had a population of five million at the time. By war’s end 420,000 Canadians had served in the military overseas and 60,000 of them died. Author and historian Gwynne Dyer says that loss of life would be comparable to Canada’s losing one million dead in the recent war in Afghanistan.

In a commemorative ceremony held at the War Museum in Ottawa, the Prime Minister has celebrated the sacrifice of those who went off to fight in the trenches in 1914. This is a quote from his speech: “Justice and freedom; democracy and the rule of law; human rights and human dignity. For a century, these are the things for which our fellow citizens fought. And this is the ground on which we will always take our stand.”

Unfortunately, this is not true, at least not as applied to the First World War. It was not a war for justice, freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It was a war about the competing empires of Europe and the arrogant stupidity of the monarchs and rulers of the day. Their bungling led to the death of 17 million people and the wounding of 20 million others. That is a number roughly equal to the entire population of Canada today.

War from the pulpit

I mentioned above the social pressure exerted upon young Canadian men to enlist in 1914 and the following years. That pressure came from every corner, including the pulpit at a time when churches were more powerful forces in society than they are today. One of those preachers – and among the most extreme — was Rev. Thomas Todhunter Shields, the pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto. He was a fiery orator who championed all things British and had little tolerance for liberal Protestantism, Catholics or French Canadians. Early in 1915, as the war dragged on, Shields preached a series of sermons, using scripture to demonize the Germans and to exhort Canadians to enlist and fight.

What follows here are excerpts from his sermon of February 21, 1915. He called it, “The Kaiser and Beelzebub” – comparing the German Kaiser to a “mad dog” and to the devil.


I must tell you plainly that I am not now and never have been a pacifist. In respect to my British citizenship, the perpetual clanking of the Kaiser’s sword forbade the intellectual somnolence essential to sweet dream of peace; and in respect those deeper considerations which concern the prime source of all human envy, and jealousy, and strife, I never have been able, and am not now able, to see how war can be banished from the earth while anywhere in the universe “the strong man armed keepeth his palace.” The Kaiser and Beelzebub, and they are not unrelated, forbid my crossing out of my Bible this word of Him with Whom they both are at war. “And he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one”  . . .

Satan is more than a religious philosophical abstraction . . . the devil is not yet gone; or, if he were, I do not know how such a monster as the Kaiser is to be accounted for. The only satisfactory explanation of such a mad and blood-costly ambition as the Kaiser’s is found in the Biblical doctrine of a personal devil . . .

You cannot reason with a mad dog. Eloquence is wasted on a tiger from the jungle. The only effective argument is a gun of the largest possible calibre, an army of the maximum striking power.

Oh, we all have failed here. We have argued with the devil: we have made speeches to principalities and powers! Young men, you have parleyed with the wolves of hell, with the devil’s dogs of war. You have thought to match the devil with diplomacy! Your only safety is in fighting!

In this moral and spiritual warfare Paul was no pacifist. He did not recommend disarmament. He said, “Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” There is no other way.

And now let me enlist you for this war. I tell you, you must be trained, and disciplined, and armed, to the highest possible state of military effectiveness . . . Take Christ and He will clothe you with Himself, His righteousness, and truth, and peace, and faith. The strong man armed keepeth his palace and his goods are in peace only until a stronger than he cometh upon him. Satan has beaten everybody but Christ. He is our only hope in this war. “Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(Source: Revelations of the War: Eight Sermons, T.T. Shields. Toronto: the Standard Publishing Co.1915).

War as tragic folly

The First World War is best understood as tragic folly. It is easier to argue on behalf of Canada’s involvement in the Second World War, when justice and freedom, democracy and the rule of law were much more arguably at stake. Sadly, that same list of worthy attributes cannot be used to describe our participation in most other wars of the past century – the Boer War, the Korean War and that in Afghanistan.

One does not have to be a pacifist to be reluctant, very reluctant, to support wars foisted upon us by leaders who are vainglorious and corrupt.


PeaceQuest wants Peace Tower rededicated

Peace Tower in Ottawa. Dennis Gruending photo
Peace Tower in Ottawa. Dennis Gruending photo

One hundred years ago this month Europe stumbled into a catastrophic war after a Bosnian Serb assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne along with his wife in Sarajevo. The great powers lined up in their alliances and when Great Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada, as a British colony, was automatically plunged into a conflict that killed and maimed an astonishing 37 million people. Among them were 61,000 Canadian dead and another 150,000 wounded.

The Globe and Mail reports that the Conservative government plans to spend $83 million over the next six years to commemorate this and other of Canada’s wars — a figure that does not include the $30 million already spent celebrating the War of 1812. Among the plans is one to rededicate the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

A group called PeaceQuest, however, says that although it respects the military sacrifices made by Canadians, it believes that the government should also rededicate the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. And if it won’t, then citizens should.

This poses an interesting clash of iconic images. The 92-metre Peace Tower, perhaps the country’s most recognized monument, serves as a backdrop each year to Canada Day ceremonies. The tower was initially designed as a monument to Canadians who died during the First World War but it also contains strong peace elements — including a stone sculpted dove — which describe a desire for peace.

The National War Memorial is the backdrop for annual Remembrance Day ceremonies, which always have a militaristic tinge to them. The memorial was built to commemorate the response of Canadians in the First World War but ironically it was unveiled in May 1939, just months before the onset of the Second World War.

The Globe and Mail quotes from a document in which the chief of Defence Staff outlines commemorative plans based on the belief that Canada’s unique identity “stems in significant part from its achievement in times of war.”

Although I have no access to Defence Department deliberations, I was able to wander into a recent meeting of PeaceQuest in an Ottawa church hall. PeaceQuest originated in Kingston, Ontario and now has a small chapter in Ottawa, with similar plans for other cities and towns. One of those involved is Jamie Swift, who works in Kingston for The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, and is the co-author of the book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety.

Swift explained that PeaceQuest is not interested in a partisan effort or the politics of opposition. Instead, it wants to provide a “counter narrative” to the government’s attempts to paint Canada as a militaristic nation. He says that PeaceQuest encourages people to look at Canada in more broad terms. Nor does PeaceQuest intend to create a new organization. It has chosen rather, to provide thought and resources that will be of interest to people in their faith groups, in schools and in among writers and artists.

In the group meeting in Ottawa, a number of potential plans were discussed. Several, in addition to rededicating the Peace Tower, piqued my interest. One is to build upon the Christmas Truce of Dec. 24, 1914, when German soldiers in the trenches along the Western front in Belgium and France sang carols and decorated Christmas trees. Before long (and much to the chagrin of their senior officers), soldiers from both sides exchanged greetings and presents and engaged in a soccer game on no-man’s land. This amounted to an informal ceasefire that lasted up to a week in some areas along the trenches.

The event has been memorialized in books and a video, and people at the PeaceQuest meeting talked about ways to celebrate that same spirit of peace in December 2014. So stay tuned.

This piece appeared in slightly different form as a United Church Observer blog on July 9, 2014.