Trudeau faces history and political legacy of Vimy

One hundred years ago, Canadian prime minister Robert Borden heard about "Canada's victorious day" while in London, then spent a month visiting the wounded. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marks 100 years since Vimy, he faces many of the same political burdens.

The significance of Vimy has shifted through the decades as new generations ponder the sacrifice

These Canadian soldiers cheer after the capture of Vimy Ridge. The victory was celebrated across Canada and the rest of the British Empire. (Canadian War Museum)

There were many people in chilly, war-weary London who wanted to shake Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden's hand on April 9, 1917.

The first accounts of "Canada's victorious day" on Vimy Ridge filtered through the imperial war cabinet within hours of the battle and well-wishers sought out the prime minister to offer congratulations.

His diary bursts with pride. "I hope that this victory is only the augury of further triumphs," he wrote.

Events may have moved quickly in those day, but news moved slowly. At least when you compare it with today's lightning-speed tweets and live streams.

While late editions of newspapers back in Canada carried initial dispatches, it would be weeks before people knew the horrific cost of that day — 3,598 dead and another roughly 7,100 wounded.

"The story has thrilled me," Borden said in a statement issued on April 10, 1917.

Anxious families wait for news

For anxious families back home, it would be days, even weeks, before they learned the fate of loved ones.

Then prime minister Robert Borden, visited wounded soldiers for a month and promised the government would care for them. (Library and Archives Canada)
"This is the age before the internet and information was being passed by telegram, but usually from soldiers to their families by letter," said historian Tim Cook.

"You can imagine the agonizing waiting on the home front. The mothers, the fathers, the children, waiting to hear that their son, their father, their uncle was safe."

The political burdens — and benefits — unleashed by that day extend far beyond the battlefield.

Some of that legacy was carried up the ridge on Sunday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Canada's drive toward an independent foreign policy from Britain found strength and credibility in the aftermath of the battle.

Today, there is no shortage of international crises for Trudeau to deal with, from U.S. missiles pummelling Syria to gently renegotiating NAFTA with the Trump administration.

Borden's promise to wounded soldiers

Unlike his predecessor Borden, Trudeau won't follow Sunday's ceremony with more than a month of visiting wounded and dying soldiers in hospitals.

Casualties freshly evacuated, some them still caked in mud and bloody bandages, started arriving in Britain within hours of the battle and they kept coming.

It would be weeks before people knew the horrific cost of that day — 3,598 dead and another roughly 7,100 wounded.

"They're in the hospitals and Borden visited them, to his credit," said Cook, author of 10 books on the Great War, including Vimy: The Battle and the Legend.

"It must have been a gut-wrenching thing. He talks about visiting over 50 hospitals over a two-month period. He met these young guys. He was visibly shaken."

Prior to the battle, Borden visited troops in the field and promised the government would take care of the wounded and the families of the fallen.

Expectations created by his promises underlie the loud, politically unruly, battle over benefits with modern-day veterans. Both Trudeau's government and the Conservative one before him have fought in court with ex-soldiers from the Afghan war, who say they are not being treated the same as survivors of the First World War. 

So what does Vimy mean?

Historians and even those who fought at Vimy have argued about its significance down the decades.

The victory of 100 years ago Sunday was hailed in newspaper reports as "the beginning of the last great battles of the war," but for the Canadians it actually marked the midway point of the slaughter. Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens, and the 100-Day Campaign still lay ahead.

Canadian soldiers take part in the sunset ceremony at Vimy Canadian National Memorial, on the eve of a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

Militarily, Amiens, with the first massed use of armoured warfare, was perhaps the most significant. Canadian troops led the way with an early victory at Amiens on Aug. 8, 1918, setting in motion an end to four years of horrific trench warfare and leading to the Armistice three months later.

The single Canadian corps

Cook argues that Vimy only took on iconic significance in later decades, partly because it was the first time Canadians of stripes fought together as a single corps, but also because in many ways it encapsulated the memory of the entire Great War.

"The country was never the same afterwards," said Cook, who added that each succeeding generation has reflected the significance of the battle in different ways.

"The memory of the war and what it means to us as Canadians is not a static thing. Each generation comes back to the Great War, reappraising it through a new lens. And that changes the meaning of it over time."

At the 50th anniversary, former prime minister Lester Pearson used it as a call for national unity.

Ironically, Vimy set in motion one of the most divisive events in Canadian history, one that exposed fault lines that Trudeau is still required to manage to this day.

Divisions over conscription

Borden returned from London determined to introduce conscription, something he'd pledged not to do in 1914. He faced a furious response in Quebec and in parts of the Prairies that were already starved for manpower.

"Upon my return from England on May 15, 1917, I speedily embarked upon an exceedingly stormy political sea, which was swept, from time to time, by gales of varying intensity from many quarters," Borden later wrote in his memoirs.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire, visit the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Northern France ahead of Sunday's commemoration ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Philippe Huguen/Reuters)

Wilfrid Laurier, the leader of the opposition, told Borden he could not accept conscription and at one point demanded referendum.

Anger eventually boiled over in deadly riots in Quebec City, where the following spring Archbishop Paul Bruchési warned the province was "nearing a racial and religious war."

The conscription bill became law on Aug. 29, 1917, but not before it divided Liberals and Conservatives in the House of Commons.

The fury over conscription played out during the fall 1917 election, where the casualties of Vimy paved the way for women relatives of soldiers to vote.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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