Anniversaries of significant historical events are a boon to social studies teachers. They put history in the news and encourage at least a few student to be curious. The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 9-12 April, has already yielded a rich collection of stories and controversy that can both engage students and give them opportunities to “do history” as they tackle the competing narratives.
For me Vimy was an entry point into a unit on both World War one and historical thinking about interpretation and historical significance. The performance task for my students was to create a video using clips from the National Film Board that graduate student Fiona McKellar had organized on a website. Students had to explain what happened and why it was historically significant. Some of the videos were shown to other classes and to the whole school at our Remembrance Day ceremony.
I began by teaching the master narrative that explained how Canada developed as an autonomous and great nation that fights for human rights and freedom. Historica described Vimy as “one of the greatest battles in Canadian history … Canadian bravery and valour led to the tremendous victory for the entire Allied Force and was considered a turning point of WWI.” The “Vimy Ridge” Heritage Minute below is one of their most popular.
With Vimy Canada had “come of age.” Our contribution lead Britain to recognize full Canadian sovereignty. According to Desmond Morton (regretfully, no relation), “Doing great things together…is how nations are formed. Vimy was such a moment.”
I also taught two “counter narratives,” stories that run against the traditional one. The first is less about Vimy and more about World War One and wars in general. Here is how North Vancouver historian Daniel Francis expresses this in his book National Dreams:
For good reason, most Canadians have accepted the official view… To question the war is to dishonour the fallen, and they, after all, died for us. But there has always been a counter narrative, muted but persistent, that found the appalling slaughter pointless, and the people who sanctioned it incompetent, even evil… Soldiers are ordinary men just trying to survive through the horror, not… saintly warriors depicted in memorial paintings and statues.
Vimy from this perspective is still significant, but its relevance, the light it shines on modern questions about war and peace, is very different from the traditional inspirational interpretation.
Moreover, for many people of Québec there is still another very different narrative. The Québec story recognizes the achievement of the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge and other victories in WW I but gives them less importance than the issue of military conscription. The casualties at Vimy pushed Prime Minister Borden to declare conscription. When Quebeckers demonstrated against it in Québec city, English-Canadian soldiers opened fire and killed four.
Many Quebeckers such as Henri Bourassa saw the world war as part of European imperialism. It was not in Canada’s interest even to be involved. Some Quebeckers, moveover, challenged Canada’s commitment to freedom and equality in Europe when French language rights were under attack back in Canada. In the middle of the war in 1916, for example, Manitoba abolished bilingual schools. From this perspective, rather than unite the nation, Vimy and its role in World War I conscription divided it.
For teachers and students who want to explore these conflicting narratives in greater depth there are many articles and books recently published:
David Chan’s Globe and Mail article traces the history of Vimy’s symbolism for our country.
Also in the Globe Robert Everett-Green poses the question, “Birthplace of a nation – or of a Canadian myth?” and gives a well researched and engaging answer.
Jake Edminston in the National Post does something similar: “A century later, what should the battle of Vimy Ridge mean for Canada?”
On the Active History website Dr. Nic Clarke, Assistant Historian, First World War, at the Canadian War Museum, also turns a critical eye to claims that Vimy was a Canadian victory as he traces the rise and fall over the past 100 years of the connection of the battle to Canadian identity. He argues, ” as we come to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge we should take the time to consider the place this battle is often afforded in our national story. In doing so, we should also question whether that position is deserved or whether the great colossus that Canadians have constructed stands on feet of clay.”
In print, the April/May edition of Canada’s History Magazine includes a thoughtful account of the battle by eminent military historian Tim Cook and Kate Jaimet, brief biographies of several of the soldiers who fought at Vimy, and a reflection on the Vimy Memorial in France, “a creation so large and so powerful that it seems almost un-Canadian.”
Tim Cook has also recently published Vimy: the Battle and the Legend. Like the other authors, he seeks to answer “Why does Vimy matter? How did a four-day battle at the midpoint of the Great War, a clash that had little strategic impact on the larger Allied war effort, become elevated to a national symbol of Canadian identity?”
The book The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War by Ian McKay and Jamie Smith covers similar ground arguing that the battle was relatively inconsequential and much-mythologized. The book has been shortlisted for two prestigious awards: the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for best book of Canadian history.