The misuse of November 11: How the Harper government exploits Remembrance Day

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The National War Memorial in Ottawa. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This Sunday, on November 11, millions of Canadians will pause to lament the human cost of Canada's wars past and present. But this year, like last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of his government will urge Canadians to think about other things, too. Things like Canada's historical excellence in trench warfare and the country's vital contribution to the Cold War.

Remembrance Day in Canada has always cast a jingoistic sort of shadow. "In Flanders Fields," with its message, "Take up our quarrel with the foe," is practically a recruitment poster. But, since the beginning of his tenure as PM, Harper has made a concerted effort to turn Remembrance Day into a celebration of military exploits rather than a commemoration of loss and sacrifice. 

In 2006, Harper kicked off his first Remembrance Week as prime minister with a speech in which he called the Battle of Vimy Ridge the beginning of a new era for our country. And although Remembrance Week is ostensibly about remembering fallen soldiers, and over 30,000 men on either side of Vimy Ridge were killed or wounded, Harper made no mention of human loss. Instead, he made the claim that Canada's veterans had inspired our country to help NATO face down the Soviets.

Four years later, Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney took the opportunity of a Nov. 11 speech to pay tribute to the 7,000 Canadians who participated in the Boer War. 

Now, in that speech, Kenney did not mention that Canada's role in the South African conflict was that of a recently independent colony supporting its imperialist British master. He made no mention that the purpose of the war was to squeeze the Boer settlers off their land so that Britain could expand its colonial stranglehold on Africa. And he did not explain that the Boer War is largely remembered for Britain's internment of Boer and black civilians in concentration camps, at which at least 48,000 people died of disease and malnutrition. Kenney did, however, take the time to recount the gratingly eugenic anecdote of Lord Kitchener having been "astonished by [the Canadian soldiers'] size, by their sheer physical stature."

The greatest trouble with Harper's Conservatives using Remembrance Day to construct an image of Canada as one of history's great military powers is not merely that they glorify war. Rather it's that they intentionally ignore some of history's great atrocities in the interest of presenting a sanitary story with Canadians as the heroes. In reality, Vimy was a slaughterhouse and the Boer War was the epitome of imperial oppression but, according to the Conservative version of history, both were among Canada's finest hours. 

In an October appearance on TVO's Allan Gregg in Conversation, author Noah Richler expressed his view that the Tories have taken a selective approach to Canadian history when invoking our military past. "Tell me why [one] bit of history is ours and not another," he said, rhetorically. 

To Richler, that picking and choosing of historical facts is an example of the Conservatives having "stage managed" Remembrance Day into an advertisement for the Canadian military. By lauding events like Vimy Ridge as defining moments in our history, he explained, the government is saying, "If we want Canada to be strong and a better place for Canadians in the future, this is what you need to do. You need to fight this way."

Richler's insight goes some way toward explaining why the Harper administration has foisted a greater pro-war ideology onto Remembrance Day. Viewed in the context of Afghanistan, Libya, billion dollar National Defence satellites and fighter jet spending controversies, the Tories' Remembrance Day jingoism can be seen as creating a new national identity, one in which the military is of utmost importance.

In that sense, the Harper approach to Remembrance Day is a throwback to the way "In Flanders Fields" was used as propaganda during WWI. According to Dr. Ronald Granofsky, Professor Emeritus at McMaster University's department of English and Cultural Studies, the poem took the voice of the collective war dead portray fighting as an honourable pursuit. In so doing, "In Flanders Fields" inspired, and guilted, men at home to keep the front lines stocked with volunteers. "It help[ed] to perpetrate the slaughter," he said.

Similarly, the Conservative government now exploits the memories of heroic Canadian soldiers to imbue Canada's current military actions with a sense of duty, honour and righteousness which, as Richler suggested, helps them gain the public's support for their own military exploits.  

After Kenney had finished lecturing his audience about the Boer War, he urged them to reject the notion that peace can be achieved through pacifism. He drew a direct line between Canada's fight against Hitler in WWII and the modern-day War in Afghanistan. After all, he said, Canadians in Afghanistan had "protected the civilized world from a new and dangerous form of fascism."

The upshot of the Conservative approach to remembrance is that there is now a day observed across the country at which the state celebrates our historical military superiority, remembers our glorious victories in battle, champions the righteousness of our wars, and urges the public to carry this tradition into the future.

Overshadowed are the veterans who lost their lives in the thousands in wars around the world, the ones whose memories are supposedly being honoured each Nov. 11. Ignored is the simple fact that, no matter the motivations, war is always horrific, it is always ugly, and it is never really glorious. 

Criticizing "In Flanders Fields," Granofsky said, "To make these dead … into benign admonitory figures is a sacrilege both to the actual dead and to the survivors who grieved their loss." And still, this Remembrance Day, as in years past, the Harper government will do just that. 


Peter Goffin is a writer and recent political science graduate living in Toronto. His work has appeared in The Toronto Star, OpenFile, and This magazine.

Photo: The National War Memorial in Ottawa (Wikimedia Commons).

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