How the Vimy myth was created, and why it's wrong to perpetuate it
If there's one thing bitter political foes can agree on, it's that the World War 1 battle of Vimy Ridge was the smithy in which Canadian nationhood was forged. But some historians take issue with this. They argue that the Vimy narrative of heroism, unity and triumph, was non-existent in the years after the war — that it was invented for purely political aims many decades later. Ian McKay is the L.R. Wilson Chair in Canadian History at McMaster University. He's the co-author, along with Jamie Swift, of "The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War."
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One hundred and fifty years ago, the British Parliament passed the British North America Act, the legislation that created the Dominion of Canada ... an independent country as of July 1, 1867.
Notwithstanding the many First Nations that had built their cultures, societies and governance systems for hundreds or thousands of years in what was now Canada, the new dominion was still seen as a fledgling country with one hand still clutching the apron strings of Mother England.
It wasn't until April, 1917, the story goes, when Canada stormed a battlefield in the North of France and seized a hill that had been held by the German army, that the country came of age, emerging as a united, resourceful, vigorous and valourous 50-year-old nation.
The Canadians were given little chance of taking Vimy Ridge from the Germans. But the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force — all fighting together for the first time in the Great War — hurled an awesome artillery barrage at the German position and surged across the battlefield, forcing the Germans to retreat.
After a four-day battle, nearly 36-hundred Canadian soldiers lay dead in the cold, corpse-littered muck and slime, and 7-thousand more were wounded. But they held the Ridge and helped shift the course of the war toward an Allied victory.
Since that time, Canadian politicians have seized on the Vimy victory, as a symbol of Canada's coming-of-age, of its independence from Britain, as the smithy in which Canadian nationhood was forged.
But some historians take issue with this narrative of Vimy Ridge and The Great War.
Ian McKay is the L.R. Wilson Chair in Canadian History at McMaster University. He's the co-author, along with Jamie Swift, of The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War. It was shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the Sir John A. MacDonald Prize awarded by the Canadian Historical Association earlier this year.