Montreal·Analysis

Does Vimy mean something different to Quebecers?

There is a wide divide between Quebec and the rest of Canada when it comes to the country's military history. That divide was exposed in the outcry over a plan to rename Outremont's Vimy Park after Jacques Parizeau.

The First World War invokes more division than unity for many French-Canadians

Around 11,000 Canadians were killed or injured during the Battle for Vimy Ridge. (Files/The Canadian Press)

Outremont's Vimy Park is tiny, and most Montrealers would be hard-pressed to find it on a map.

But that hasn't stopped it from becoming the focus of a controversy that is national in scope.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre was announcing changes to the city's toponymy earlier this week when, almost as an afterthought, he mentioned that Vimy Park would be renamed after former Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau.

Former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau speaking during the 1995 sovereignty referendum campaign. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Cue the sound of nationalisms colliding 

The city's executive committee signed off on the change seemingly unaware of the controversy it had just stumbled into.

That lack of awareness is symptomatic of a wide divide between Quebec and the rest of Canada when it comes to the country's military history.

Outside of Quebec, the April 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge is seen as a unifying moment for the young country. It was, after all, the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought as one in France.

Canada took the German stronghold — something the British and French armies had failed to do. But around 11,000 Canadian soldiers were killed or wounded doing so, contributing to Vimy's powerful, nation-forged-in-blood-and-fire narrative.

Canadian soldiers manning the trenches at Vimy Ridge in 1917. (Files/The Canadian Press)

Vimy, from the French-Canadian perspective

That unifying moment, however, was anything but in Quebec, where the war was seen as a British struggle in which many French Canadians wanted no part.

Just weeks after the Canadian victory at Vimy, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden introduced compulsory military service to replenish the diminished Canadian ranks. 

The Archbishop of Montreal, Monsignor Bruchési, tried to warn Borden about how conscription would be received in Quebec:

Sir Robert Borden ignited French-English tensions when he passed a conscription bill in 1917. (National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)
"The people are agitated ... In the province of Quebec; we can expect deplorable revolts," he wrote to the prime minister. "Will this not end in bloodshed?"

It did.

The Military Service Act was pushed through Parliament with the almost unanimous support of English-speaking MPs, and the near-unanimous dissent of its French-Canadian members.

It became law in August 1917, and was met with almost immediate riots in Montreal. The following year, over Easter weekend, Quebec City erupted in violent unrest that saw soldiers open fire on protesters, killing four and wounding dozens more.

Painful episode, largely forgotten 

For Quebec's nationalist leaders, the bloody conscription crisis became a go-to example of why French Canadians would be better off on their own, paving the way for the modern sovereignty movement that Parizeau would go on to lead.

Outside of Quebec, Parizeau is best remembered as the man who brought the province to the brink of separation from Canada as the premier during the 1995 referendum.

One critic of the name change described Parizeau as the man who "tried to tear us apart," expressing a sentiment likely shared by many federalists.

Some have taken the renaming decision as a deliberate slight to Canadian unity.

But it may simply be reflective of the different meaning the First World War carries in Quebec. 

Far from its status as part of Canada's founding mythology, it's a painful episode largely forgotten.

Not even Coderre, a former federal Liberal cabinet minister, seemed to recognize the potential controversy in swapping Vimy for Parizeau as the name of the park. 

That a federalist could rename a park after a sovereigntist is perhaps a welcome sign of détente within Quebec's political world. But that it comes at the expense of a park named after Vimy is, for many, a step too far.

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