Remembrance: Canada’s reluctance to talk about its courageous military history

By: Marc Montgomery
As we approach Remembrance Day on the 11th when Canadians will honour their fallen soldiers, the question is, why do Canadians, and the world know so little about the vital Canadian contributions to victory and the incredible individual exploits of Canadians?
Most people, including Canadians have heard of the WWI flying ace Manfred von Richtofen, the top ace who along with two others were in the top 12 aces of that war. Britain had two, France had two, S.Africa one, but very few realise that the then tiny population of Canada produced four on that list.
Many Canadians will know of the mostly Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge, which was a huge morale boost at a time when the Entente forces had had very few successes, and where Canadians finally  prevailed when the others had failed in several previous attempts with astronomical cost in lives.
Very few had ever heard of the entirely Canadian victory at Hill 70, a very similar situation, or know that Canadians finally won at the meat grinder of Ypres (Passchendaele), where again tens of thousands of lives had been previously lost by Britain and France.
Nor are many aware that Canadians became the ‘shock’ troops of the allied side, feared by the Germans to the point that Canadian movement to the front had to be carried out secretly so as not to alert the Germans that an attack was coming.
There are no Canadian films to tell the incredible assault on Mt Assoro in the Sicily/Italy campaign of WWII. Or of the Walcheran Causeway in the Netherlands. No films show the amazing story of Leo Major who single-handedly liberated an entire town, nor that of any of the multitude of Canadian fighter pilots, or bomber crews.
No films show the world how Canadians stopped the Chinese from taking Seoul in Korea at hill 355 and Kapyong.
Tim Cook wrote about this ‘reluctance’ to talk about individual heroism or Canada’s collective vital contributions in his latest books.
Tim Cook is a historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, a member of the Royal Society of Canada, and a member of the Order of Canada and author of 13 books on Canadian military history and experience.
Why did you write this book?
This is my 13th book of Canadian military history, and so I’m not unfamiliar with our military history, but I have always found it perplexing that Canada has placed so little interest in its wars and veterans. In particular, this is the third volume in my series on the Second World War, with The Necessary War and Fight to the Finish exploring Canada’s vast and deep wartime contributions.  When I wrote those books, I received many letters from Canadians thanking me for the contributions, but also with the message that they knew little about our history. I found it strange that Canadians had not done a better job in telling our country’s story and in teaching its history over several generations.
How important to victory are Canada’s contributions to the WW, Korea , peacekeeping, Bosnia, Afghanistan etc/
Canada has contributed to victory in its many wars of the 20th century, and it has also provided a guiding hand in the search for peace.  Canadian service personnel earned a reputation as rough riders in the South African War, as shock troops in the Great War, as dependable fighters in the many land, sea, and air campaigns of the Second World War, and as highly effective professional during the Cold War and the conflicts of the 21st century.  For a country that has often seen itself, and sometimes made myths about being a nation of peacekeepers, we have a lot of war in our history.
Throughout the book you note Canadian reluctance, from the lowest ranks of army, navy, and air force, to top generals, to talk about their individual experiences and the country’s substantial contributions to victory?
Some 1.1 million Canadians served in the war against Fascism and Nazism in the Second World War. It was a war of utter necessity and it had to be won. And despite incredible contributions at home, through wartime industry, food production, and training Allied airmen, or in fighting around the world in multiple theatres of war, Canada did a poor job in telling its history after victory.
One of the reasons is that Canada was moving forward into the prosperous second half of the 20th century, which the country’s contributions during the Second World War led to, everything from urbanization and industrialization to a new social security net. But as we embraced the new Canada, one forged in war, we did not do a good job in telling our stories.  In the book, I look at the failure of our politicians to herald Canada’s contribution and also the challenges of service personnel, from the highest-ranking officers to the privates, who also did not write histories or memoirs. It is a complex story of silencing, but we have a better sense today of the invisible wounds of war and the challenge of veterans in speaking about war.
The Americans especially, but also Britons, French, Australians, Russians and so on have all popularized their “wars”,  The Americans for example not hesitating to even invent their contributions such as in the hit film. The Great Escape. a primarily Canadian affair and in which Canada was barely mentioned,, or the completely fictitious 1960’s American TV show Rat Patrol in the north African desert amongst so many others.  There was a wonderful National Film Board series on WWII called Canada at War, now long forgotten, and unknown outside the country,, and we had a good feature film attempt with Passchendaele about Canadians in that horrific WWI battle, and an even better film about Canadians in Afghanistan called Hyena Road, but with all the film and tv talent  available, why haven’t we promoted our contributions much better than that?
In The Fight for History I explore our failure to tell our story. During the war, the NFB, CBC and other organizations publicized the Canadian war effort. But we failed to carry that forward into the postwar years. We did not build the same memorials to the fallen as we did in the Great War.  There were very few cultural products, and the Canadian story was swamped by the American tide of popular culture.  I note in the book that other smaller countries told their stories, but Canada, decade after decade, let silence reign. With few unique Canadian monuments to the Second World War (and in the book I recount the failed fight by veterans to have a separate Second World War monument in Ottawa), and nothing overseas like the Vimy memorial until veterans built the Juno Beach Centre in 2003, there was little for Canadians or even Europeans to know of the incredible contributions and loss of our service men and women during the Second World War in liberating Western Europe.  These were self-inflicted wounds.
Is there a problem in our school system that if taught at all, Canadians learn about unpopular issues like Japanese-Canadian internment, of failures at Dieppe, which was more a British leadership failure than any fault of Canadians.
Contributing to our failure to know our Second World War contributions to the Allied victory, we also failed to teach our history to subsequent generations. Canadians knew little of the six long years of Canadian contribution in the Battle of the Atlantic, or the 100,000 Canadians serving in Italy, or much about the fighting beyond D-Day. We wrote ourselves out of history through neglect and apathy, and, when we taught the war, it was often as a series of attacks on civil liberties or the clear-cut defeat at Dieppe in August 1942. Veterans and historically-minded Canadians watched this with utter disbelief as we reduced Canada’s war effort to a series of defeats or disgraceful actions.
Are things better?
The subtitle of the book traces the arc of memory over 75 years, and I argue we have done a better job over the last 25 years in engaging with our history. The turning point was in 1994 and 1995.  Thousands of veterans returned to Europe and were greeted by the French in 1994 and then the Dutch in 1995 as the liberators of old. Canadians woke up to these surprise celebrations of veterans, especially with the national networks and journalists finally covering these stories.  The Europeans had not forgotten that Canadians had delivered freedom in 1945; sadly, it took Canadian fifty years to remember this.
From that point forward, we can see more Canadians coming together on Remembrance Day to bear witness to the past.  We have better history books, new media productions, and we’ve recorded veterans’ memories in oral history projects.  But the fight for history – in telling our story and in the fight against apathy – is never over, and but it is a necessary fight that Canadians must engage in generation after generation.
You’ve written several books on Canadian military history,  what do you hope this book will accomplish?
With The Fight for History, I hope that Canadians will have a better sense of their own history, and especially the epic contributions of Canadians during the war against Nazi Germany and other fascists.  The book also reminds us that our history is fragile and liable to be left in the past, forgotten and forsaken, unless we work at it.  We need champions to tell our stories, both the sad and terrifying, and the brave and glorious.  It is our history – complex, messy, and contested – and if we don’t tell these stories, no one else will.