‘Mother Canada’ elevates bombastic heritage over subtlety of history

There is no one story — no one memory — of the First World War that can express the multiplicity of voices that should be heard.

Canadian soldiers WW1

We are well into the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

Having observed the centenary of the war’s outbreak last year, we have now begun to mark the anniversaries of Canada’s first major battles in Belgium and France.

This is just the beginning. Over the next few years, we will be inundated with laments for the blood spilled and the lives lost during this “War to End All Wars.”

This is to be expected. New military technologies meant that the First World War saw death and destruction on a scale like never before.

Canada was not immune to the horrors of the conflict: approximately 60,000 Canadian lives were lost during the war, or roughly one per cent of our population.

Clearly, the story of the sacrifices made by men and women in uniform is something that we mustn’t forget.

Yet in the coming years, as we go through the process of remembrance, we cannot forget the many other threads that make up the fabric of our collective memory of the First World War.

Memory is contentious terrain fraught with political baggage. There is no one story — no one memory — of the First World War that can express the multiplicity of voices that should be heard.

As historians, we feel that the Never Forgotten National Memorial proposed for Cape Breton Highlands National Park falls into a trap of blind patriotism by lauding only the sacrifices made by our soldiers, sailors, aircrew, nurses, and auxiliary service personnel during the war.

Such a memorial distills history into simplistic “heritage” that reduces the men and women who served during the First World War into a homogenous group.

As we know from the personal diaries and letters of soldiers and their loved ones, each person who lived through the First World War was an individual with his own hopes, fears, dreams and ambitions.

These documents are now finding life online, on museum and archival websites, in ways that bring us closer to the experiences of our ancestors.

Moreover, the story of the First World War is more than just those who served abroad — it is also the tale of thousands of volunteers who were rejected for military service, of conscientious and religious objectors protesting the senselessness of the conflict, of sacrifice and scarcity on the home front, of a colour bar that limited the wartime participation of minorities, of divisions between English and French Canadians.

As much as the First World War instilled a heightened sense of national unity in the hearts of some Canadians, it brought a terrible sense of discord and division for others.

These are less familiar — and less comfortable — aspects of Canada’s First World War experience that were every bit as real as the sacrifice and service of uniformed men and women.

While we must continue to remember and study the experiences of servicemen and women, we should not do so to the exclusion of other stories and other groups.

While history strives to uncover the many voices that make up the chorus of years gone by, heritage simply gives a platform to the voice that yells the loudest.

And therein lies both its appeal and its shortcomings. If history is messy, heritage is clean; if history is difficult, heritage is easy.

We believe that the construction of a colossa, as a private initiative on public land, is the worst sort of heritage project — the drive-by variety that projects an image of a country without complexity, free of the divisions of ethnicity, language, class, and gender.

That does little to help people understand the gravity of global military conflict.

Let’s not repeat the mistakes we made during the commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 — a deliberate political attempt to re-invigorate myths of militarism and monarchism.

This time, let us recognize the many different stories and meanings of the First World War. This time, let us choose history over heritage.

David Campbell, Jonathan Roberts, Corey Slumkoski and Martha Walls are history professors at Mount Saint Vincent University

Source: The Chronicle Herald

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