April 13, 2017
The photo was created on 1 January 1917: Machine gunners operating from craters on the plateau above the ridge; source: Canada. Dept. of National Defence – This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reproduction reference number PA-001017 and under the MIKAN ID number 3241489, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4351472
In recent days, the Canadian Forces, banks, politicians, sports TV networks, private foundations, the news media, etc. have all promoted the idea that the centennial of Canadian troops capturing some high ground in France during a minor battle in the First World War somehow represented the “birth” of Canada.
Amidst an orgy of martial patriotism that is finally over, there was a sad irony. The notion that the battle of Vimy Ridge “created our country” is bizarre enough but the celebration of First Nations participation in this episode of Canadian imperialism pushed the exercise into the realm of the absurd.
One hundred years ago in northern France, 10,000 Canadians and 20,000 Germans were hurt or killed during four days of fighting to capture Vimy Ridge. Despite the claim it represented the “birth” of Canada, the soldiers were under British command and the battle had little impact on the war. The young men fell in a war spurred by intra-imperialist competition in Africa and elsewhere.
fr: Les tranchées de Vimy en: Trenches at Vimy; source: No machine-readable author provided. Pir6mon assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1050668
Strangely, the recent Vimy commemorations included an Indigenous component. The prime minister’s office put out a number of press releases that mentioned the Indigenous organizations part of his official delegation to France. APTN did a story titled “Métis man with special connection to Vimy Ridge battle will see history up close” while a CKOM headline noted, “Indigenous veteran reflects on personal ties to Vimy Ridge.” A Two Row Times article was titled “’Indian’ warriors of Vimy Ridge” and on CBC’s Unreserved former Native Women’s Association of Canada president Marilyn Buffalo discussed her grandfather, Henry Norwest, who died at Vimy.
Historically, the racist, colonialist narrative erased the contribution of First Nations to Canadian warfare. But, the recent Truth and Reconciliation process has included significant attention devoted to indigenous members of the Canadian armed forces. The Canadian Forces, government commissions and Indigenous veterans associations, often backed by Veteran Affairs, have produced much of the laudatory literature on Aboriginal war veterans.
Preserved World War 1 fighting tunnel in Vimy sector; source: Labattblueboy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3871867
A dozen books and theses, as well as hundreds of articles, detailing First Nations’ contribution to Canadian and British wars mostly echo the military’s perspective of those conflicts. In “The Awakening Has Come”: Canadian First Nations in the Great War Era, 1914-1932, Eric Story depicts the First World War as a noble affair.
“The Great War had put First Nations shoulder to shoulder with Euro-Canadians in a fight for human rights and dignity,” writes Story in Canadian Military History Journal. The editor of We Were There said the aim of the Saskatchewan Indian Veterans Association book is to convince kids they fought for “freedom.” “I wanted to publish… to let Indian children know that their fathers and grandfathers fought for the freedom we now cherish.” (In truth, Canadian soldiers have only fought in one morally justifiable war: the Second World War.)