On the anniversary of Vimy Ridge, here's to hope

Exactly 98 years ago this morning, four Canadian Corp divisions were set to go over the top at 5:30 a.m. on a cold and stormy dawn in France.
Exactly 98 years ago this morning, four Canadian Corp divisions were set to go over the top of Vimy Ridge in France. (CBC)

Exactly 98 years ago this morning, four Canadian Corp divisions were set to go over the top at 5:30 a.m. on a cold and stormy dawn in France.

The target was Vimy Ridge, a presumably impregnable land mass that was held by the Germans and critical to the advancement of allied forces.

Numerous French and British troops had attempted to take Vimy in previous years, with catastrophic results.

Desmond Morton, one of Canada's greatest military historians, describes the baffling success at Vimy as such:

The proof came at Easter 1917. After weeks of stockpiling, tunneling, rehearsals, and bombardment, and sensible new infantry tactics, Sir Julian Byng sent all four divisions for the Canadian Corps to capture Vimy Ridge. After five days of fighting, the allies could boast of the first unequivocal victory on the Western Front. Vimy was one of those great deeds, done together, which create nations.

The scene on the front that day was horrific.

The Pierre Berton machine in the famous account of Vimy, describes the sheer monstrosity of human destruction perfectly:

The earth reverberated for miles around, as in an earthquake, and the faint booming of the guns was heard by David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister, at Downing Street in London. Some men could scarcely bear the sound. Lewis Buck, a lumberman from the Ottawa Valley, deep in a dugout with his fellow stretcher bearers, thought he would go crazy from the reverberations above his head. But then, he reasoned, "this is what we came for." Only the rats, he noticed, were unruffled by the noise.

Over 3,500 Canadians lost their lives and 7,000 more were physically injured.

Countless more lost their innocence, youth and sanity.

Back home, Canada was dealing with crises both abroad and domestically.

While progressive movements were availing suffrage to women and yanking the bottle out of the hands of citizens, Robert Borden and his Conservatives were dealing with the creation and maintenance of an unprecedented expeditionary force and also an increasingly bitter divide between French and English over conscription.

The decisions made and the subsequent legislation created at this time are reminders to us of the politics of war and fear.

The War Measures Act, passed earlier in 1914, gave the government extraordinary powers to deal with potential enemy aliens, which resulted in mass internment camps.

Close to 9,000 Ukrainians, mostly young men, were interned in camps and had their civil liberties obliterated due to fear – fear of the other.

To hold onto power in 1917, Borden would have to seek out new partners and new tactics.

Quebec, as we have seen in recent years, voted as a block and resisted any strong-arming to fight in an imperial war.

Laurier, the leader of the official opposition, was in his own "no man's land," and muddled his way through the issue.

This wavering allowed for Borden to snag loyalist Liberals and create a coalition government in the 1917 election.

Borden used the Military Voters' Act to enfranchise soldiers and the Wartime Elections Act to take away the vote from perceived aliens and give it to the wives, mothers and daughters of soldiers.

Borden simply changed the rules of democracy to retain power and his vision of Canada.

By the end of 1917, it could be argued that the fear of war propelled an unprecedented change to the Canadian landscape, including a Union government created out of Tories and loyalist Liberals, a strengthened divide between Quebec and Canada, an enemy alien that was put in his place and election rules changed in favour of the ruling government.

In 2015, we must remember the savagery that these boys endured at Vimy Ridge and do all we can to create peaceful solutions and maintain the value of human life.  

We also must be cognizant of what war and elections can do to our democracy, civil liberties and our values.

Under what pretences are we condemning the other today? How is election legislation being modified to maintain power?

On what lines is the electorate being divided and on what grounds? And how are various political parties using fear, war and division to better their chances in October?

As a citizenry, I would hope that we can look past short-sighted political motives and actions.

My hope is that we can enter into a genuine dialogue and coalition of hope aimed at mitigating the challenges we face as a country.

Matt Henderson is a teacher at St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg.


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