In his 2012 book What We talk About When We Talk About War, Noah Richler analyzed the re-making of Canada into a “warrior nation.” He described the hyping of the “Vimy Myth,” the idea that Canada was forged on a World War I battlefield when, for the first time, all of the Canadian contingent fought together and took a hill defended by well-entrenched, determined German soldiers. Propaganda from the time doesn’t fit with the Vimy Myth. Canadians, even in the Second World War, were portrayed as junior partners of the British Empire. And it’s arguable that Canada showed its first signs of independence during the Chanak Crisis, when, for the first time, the Canadian government said no to a British request for troops. But no matter. Vimy symbolizes glorious sacrifice, not independence. It’s about strength. And it ascribes some sort of meaning to a war that, especially after the passing of a century, seems like such an utter waste of blood and money.[i] But the Vimy Myth is really an antidote to the Liberal-era worship of peacekeeping and peacemaking.
Richler attributed the phrase to former Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier, an officer who was never mistaken for a social worker. He coined in 2007 and used before the Conference of Defence Associations and on the speaking circuit. The phrase was so catchy that Hillier used it in his 2010 book Leadership: 50 Points of Wisdom for Today’s Leaders. Hillier used Vimy as a sort of magic moment in which Canadian soldiers perform admirably and Canada’s wartime officer corps, so often trashed by the British in both world wars, shone. After Vimy, Canadians had a seat at the big war conferences and got to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which formerly ended that war (and set the stage for the next one). Vimy, Richler said, was used by Hillier to create a model for the new, fighting Canadian Forces that had previously “meandered aimlessly, perceived as essentially just another department of government.” So it really wasn’t independence that Canadians were fighting for. It was international influence. And that influence had to be paid for constantly. Canada had made that payment in the Second World War but in the post-war years had failed to pull its weight in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. While liberals liked peacekeeping, being part of international missions to dangerous places like the Balkans in the 1990s made no impression on our allies or enemies. The country needed a fighting force, especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Canada went to war in Afghanistan. ( Richler 70-71)
The Vimy Myth, as Richler points out, was one of the cornerstones of a new “warrior nation” Canadian self-image. One of the best examples of this mythology finding its way into the arts was the 2007 movie Passchendaele, filmed in Alberta in 2007. It was a remarkable film that won several Canadian awards. The film gathered up and re-used First World War mythology, including a variation of the story of “the crucified Canadian,” a story that motivated many Canadian units to stop taking prisoners on the Western Front. In the culminating scene in the movie Sgt. Michael Dunne (played by writer-producer Paul Gross) dies after saving a man who had been flung by an exploding shell onto a cross of debris erected in No Man’s land. Dunne drags the injured man back to the Canadian lines as German soldiers watch in silence, their rifles and machine guns stilled. (In the wartime myth, a Canadian was spiked to a barn door with bayonets by leering German sadists. The story cropped up in both world wars and was believed by many Canadian soldiers. The Dominion-Historica Institute used the film as a teaching aid, issuing material to go along with the film as part of its “Passchendaele in the Classroom.” “Of all the Allies, the Canadians were the most feared,” Gross write in it, repeating the popular view that the war represented the country’s “coming of age” and that “our notion of what it means to be Canadian was forged in the crucible of the Western Front.” Gross received an Order of Canada soon after the Passchenaele project. (Richler 86.) The conservative Canadian military clique, with its media boosters like Jack Granatstein and Mark Steyn, is a formidable group, as journalists who have crossed them have learned at great cost and pain. Yet in Britain and Germany, historians abandoned the myth of a heroic First World War long ago and the United States pretty much ignores the entire conflict as a sort of military-political train wreck.
Canada clings to it because the country’s leaders believe it needs war heroes. After Canadians began fighting in Afghanistan, journalists set out to make two groups of heroes. One group was the journalists themselves, who tried to be as swashbuckling as the great 19th Century colonial correspondents who filed from that same nasty little corner of the world. The other heroes were the dead. Using the same propaganda constructs that Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Northcliffe used so well for the British in the First World War, the dead were not – as confidential military reports of the First World War called them – “wastage.” And they were not “killed.” They made “sacrifices.” The Highway of Heroes, the stretch of Highway 401 in southern Ontario leading from the big air base at Trenton to the media capital of Toronto, was re-named “the Highway of Heroes,” and people stood on bridges over the highway not to see the triumphant return of the living but to wave to the dead. Richler examined then-Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford’s rephrasing of Capt. Nichola Goddard’s death in Afghanistan as “heroic” rather than “tragic”: “Her death, wrote Batchford in May 2006 was “not a tragedy at all [but] an honourable death, a soldier’s death, in the service of her country and of another, Afghanistan, she had come to admire and love.” There could be no question of this new definition of heroics. (Richler 204-205). There would be no decoration ceremonies to remind the Canadian people of killing. Instead, the government wanted people to see each dead soldier as a sort of payment for our nationhood.
A new war museum opened in Ottawa, mainly because of the lobbying of Granatstein. The new road built beside it was, of course, called Vimy Place. The museum’s tone was upbeat up-beat about war. Canada’s peacekeeping, and the idea of peace and loss itself, was kept down to a dull roar. There is little in the museum to suggest war causes actual death and maiming: almost no mention of military medicine, for instance. There’s virtually nothing about displaced people (who made up such a large group of Canadian immigrants) or of domestic opposition to any war.
At the same time, the Vimy Myth crowd went to work to dismantle what was left of the country’s self-image as a peacekeeper. Sean Maloney, a professor at professor at Kingston’s Royal Military attacked Canada’ss “feel goodism” and the “hollow façade” of peacekeeping’s “myth-making exercise.” Canada may have been involved in peacekeeping for years and had even built a now-ignored monument to it within sight of Parliament Hill, but what Canada really needed to do to be a real power was to link itself to the hard power of NATO (Richler 67) The attacks of 9-11 helped move that along. The Canadian Forces began recruiting infantry, changing its ads to focus on combat rather than on peacekeeping and learning trades and leadership.