"We know the name of Vimy best of all, because it was here for the first time that our entire army fought together...and the result was a spectacular victory, a stunning breakthrough that helped turn the war in the Allies favour."

- Stephen Harper, speaking at the Vimy Memorial in 2007.


The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place a century ago, but the myth that it was "the birth of a nation" is only half as old.

The notion was conceived in 1967, during the euphoria of the semi-centennial, when Vimy vet Brig.-Gen. Alexander Ross reflected on the battle, writing: "It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation."

Ross was a Brit, and the unit he helped recruit was 80 per cent British also. In fact, around two thirds of our first overseas contingent was made up of men not born on our soil, most of them British. The nominal rolls show that many had no relatives in Canada.  Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper might have said they were "just visiting."

The capture of Vimy at Easter back in 1917 was indeed the first time the Canadian Expeditionary Corps had fought as a whole, an event well worth noting. But Vimy Ridge was a sideshow to the wider Battle of Arras, which was a failure. Calling it a "spectacular victory," as Mr. Harper did in his 2007 address, is a bit over the top, given that no further Allied success came from it. "Stunning breakthrough" is misleading, too, given that once atop the ridge, all forward movement stopped.

At the time, Vimy was a bright spot in a vista of gloom. But little changed. More than a year of calamitous fighting and slaughter were yet to come. The Corps fought in many larger, and more successful efforts, including Passchendaele, and the final pursuit of the beaten German army to Mons.

Visit Vimy with Peter Mansbridge13:00

To call 1917 the birth of Canada is also to ignore the triumphs and history of the nation that preceded it: the deep Indigenous roots, the success of Confederation in 1867, the settling of the west and so forth, all of which could just as credibly be called the beginning of Canada as we know it.

Perhaps that's being pedantic. But it's worth considering other factors that affect the way we reflect on Vimy, namely that, when it came time to select a site for our war memorial, Vimy was chosen partly because it was more easily accessible than the other sites. The sweeping monument looked good up there. Had it been put somewhere else, we probably wouldn't be making as much of Vimy Ridge today.

87th battalion - vimy

Men from Montreal's 87th Battalion hold a memorial service for members of the unit who were killed at Vimy Ridge. (Library and Archives Canada)

We also like to say that the war unified us, but Canada was more divided than ever by 1918, due to largely to the Borden government's treatment of French-speaking citizens, who were often turned away from recruiting centres in favour of Brits and Anglophones. Militia minister Sam Hughes, who most now consider to have been crazy, loathed French-Canadians. When they came forward in 1914, they were largely turned away, as were blacks and Indigenous Canadians.

Many countries have myths. They can be dangerous, as was the myth that Germany was "stabbed in the back" in 1918. Or they can be a source of amusement, such as the one that America won the War of 1812.  

Early memorial at Vimy

Canadian soldiers stand before the first memorial erected on the crest of Vimy Ridge in 1917. (Courtesy of the Royal Montreal Regiment Museum)

Vimy is important because we say it is. That's where we put the memorial — a striking symbol of grief and loss.  But myths that go unchallenged harden into indelible "facts."

If future generations think Canada began in 1917, what will they think of those who lived and worked before to create this nation in the previous centuries? Our military history is more than one battle, and glorifying a single event eclipses that reality.

As we attend those upcoming ceremonies, we should view our military history in the clear light of fact, not through the rosy lens of myth.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.