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The Origins of Remembrance Day

On November 11th, 1918 at 11:00 am, World War I officially came to an end with the signing of an armistice agreement between Germany and the Allied forces. The war that had raged on for over four years had seen more than 9 million soldiers killed, including nearly 60,000 Canadians.

For the last century, nations across the British Commonwealth, including Canada, have memorialized the signing of that agreement on November 11th. The solemn holiday was first called Armistice Day in honour of the agreement and celebrated on the Monday of the week of November 11th. In 1931, a Canadian Member of Parliament, Alan Neill, proposed that the observance be held each year on November 11th and introduced a new name—Remembrance Day.

Remembrance Day has historically included a moment of silence at 11:00 am in honour of Canadian soldiers, both past and present. Many Canadians purchase and wear poppies—the official symbol of Remembrance Day—from the Royal Canadian Legion. The proceeds fund programs and assistance for veterans.

What are We Remembering? – Complicating War

Remembrance Day places the focus on the soldiers who fought in the wars, but little attention is paid to the millions of lives impacted by war beyond the frontlines. War is, by nature, disruptive and dangerous to the people who live in the lands where these wars are fought. In WWI and WWII when combat was bloodier and less technology-based, the number of civilian casualties numbered in the millions.

Centering ‘Collateral Damage’

It is estimated that nearly 6 million civilians died in World War I. World War II saw upward of 40 million civilian casualties (not counting the 11-13 million people killed by Germany’s Nazi regime or in Soviet labor camps). Those deaths were caused by direct acts of war like the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as side effects of war such as disease and starvation.

Even in modern times where war often involves less direct combat, civilian deaths continue to be common. These deaths are often classified as ‘collateral damage,’ an unintended consequence of military operations where non-military personnel are killed by mistake. This phrase is a euphemism, glazing over the reality that the cost of war is often the lives of people who never chose to participate.

Death is not the only cost non-military personnel pay in war. It is common for civilians to lose their homes and livelihoods and be forced into refugee camps to survive. Others experience violence and mistreatment at the hands of military personnel. Civilians who survive the realities of war are likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health disorder often experienced by soldiers returning from war.

How is Canada Culpable?

It is easy (and tempting) to minimize Canada’s role in the inevitable atrocities of war considering our nation’s role and reputation as peacekeepers. In fact, since former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson helped create the UN Emergency Force, peacekeeping has been associated with our national identity. But Canada cannot be absolved of responsibility for the devastating impacts of war, and not merely because we participated. Canadian soldiers were no less violent than other militaries.

War historian Tim Cook noted that, during WWI, Canadian soldiers were known for being particularly ruthless in ways that other Allied forces were not (though they were recognized for their positive treatment of civilians). During WWII, Canadian soldiers evacuated and burned down the German city of Friesoythe after they believed a civilian sniper had killed their commander; it was later discovered that the commander had been killed by a German soldier. Four thousand German citizens lost their home to the razing of Friesoythe.

More recently, Canada’s reputation for peacekeeping came under fire for acts of violence against civilians during UN missions. Two Canadian paratroopers tortured a Somali teenager to death in 1993 while on a peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Canadian peacekeepers were also accused of sexual misconduct against civilian women while deployed to Haiti in the early 2010s.

The simple answer to the question, ‘Is Canada culpable for the atrocities of war?’ can only be yes. Regardless of our reputation, we must understand and accept that there is no way to participate in war without being responsible for its devastating effects.

Why we can’t forget

It is irresponsible to remember war and the men and women who fought it without also considering the civilians whose lives, homes, and memories were shattered by those battles. Civilians are often given little choice on their involvement in war, but they experience the greatest loss and devastation. Because of our colonial history and the theft of these lands from Canada’s Indigenous peoples, this country has not been the battleground for war since 1885. We have not known the fear, danger, or disruption of foreign military presence on Canadian soil for more than a century. As Canadians, we must consider what it means for us to remember and honour the soldiers who have fought in wars on foreign shores without thinking about the negative impact of their presence on the lives of the people who live there.

Memory Discriminates – Racism In Canada’s Military History

Even as we contemplate how we can broaden who and what we ‘remember’ on Remembrance Day, we must also think about how our traditional approach to this observance leaves out certain groups. While Remembrance Day is meant to honour all soldiers who have served Canada, there are a few whose names have risen to acclaim. Billy Bishop, for example, is known as Canada’s most successful WWI fighter pilot and has a Toronto airport named in his honour. Arthur Currie is another who was known for his service in WWI; he was knighted and received the Légion d’honneur after the war.

Other soldiers, like Nicholas Turchyniak, Harry T.H. Stewart, Thomas Victor Rutherford, and Richard I. Clarke, are well known for their bravery and service to Canada. While each of these soldiers are deserving of the honour and respect that they are given on Remembrance Day, it is important to note that they have one key characteristic in common—they are all white men.

This is important because it is not a coincidence. The Canadian Forces who travelled to Europe to serve in WWI were mainly white men, but not because racialized Canadians did not want to serve.

The Struggle of Canada’s Black Soldiers

Racism made it difficult for Black soldiers to enlist. Many fought to serve anyway. Most notably, a group of Black Nova Scotians formed the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada’s first sizable Black military unit. But despite their unwavering commitment, the Battalion was still subjected to racism amongst Canada’s ranks, pushed into non-combat roles to appease white soldiers who did not want to fight alongside Black men. Instead of serving on the frontlines, the No. 2 Construction Battalion provided lumber for the trenches, built roads and railways, worked in weapons factories, and raised funds.

A few Black soldiers were able to enter the ranks of military units and fight at the frontlines of both WWI and WWII. Among them were James Grant, Seymour Tyler, Curly Christian, and Jeremiah Jones. While some of these soldiers were honoured for their service, it was not without resistance. For example, Jeremiah Jones served in WWI though he was 13 years past the age limit. At 58 years old, he fought at both Vimy Ridge and the Battle of Passchendaele until he was discharged due to injuries. Though he was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his action at Vimy Ridge, he did not receive the medal until 2010, 60 years after he had passed.

How Policy Harmed Canada’s Indigenous Soldiers

Canada’s Indigenous soldiers experienced similar discrimination. When conscription was implemented in WWI, Indigenous peoples were exempted as they were not considered citizens. Many were still eager to serve and more than 4,000 volunteered. When they returned, they struggled to access the financial assistance that white soldiers were given.

These challenges continued in WWII thanks to the Indian Act. According to the Indian Act, First Nations would lose their ‘Indian Status’ if they were away from the reserve for more than four years and their access to many benefits available to non-Indigenous veterans was restricted. This meant these soldiers were left without support despite their service to the nation.

Shifting the Narrative – A More Equitable Approach to Remembrance Day

Who we honour on Remembrance Day is a reflection of who we, as a nation, whether intentionally or subconsciously, view as worthy of remembering. The bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers who are currently pushed to the forefront should continue to be honoured. But not at the cost of the erasure of the Black and Indigenous soldiers who fought alongside them, making great personal sacrifice to wear the uniform, often with little-to-no thanks.

It is important that we take the time to honour and remember all soldiers who performed military service, whether they were fighting on the frontlines or ensuring that those in battle had the support they needed. This should and must include racialized soldiers who served in the face of racism amongst their own ranks and from their superiors.

It is also imperative that we consider the impact of war not only from the perspective of the soldiers who fought it, but for the people living in places that were (or still are) battlegrounds. While the sacrifice of our soldiers is worth remembering, that should not erase the reality that the violence and danger of war has real and immediate impacts for the people who live in embattled spaces and are reduced to ‘collateral damage.’ This is especially poignant as we consider the often imperialist and economic motivations for war.

A Call-to-Action for Educators

 Educators are in the unique position of shaping the way younger generations of Canadians honour Remembrance Day and, therefore, how we as a nation will continue to do so in the future. As such, we encourage educators to take up the task of approaching Remembrance Day in an equity-informed way. The Ministry of Education’s policies call for anti-racist and anti-oppressive programming, making this the perfect time to implement new equitable practices in Remembrance Day observances.

Educators might consider:

  • Including lessons and/or assignments on racialized soldiers, the women and racialized men who operated the factories that supported war efforts, and why they were not permitted to serve in battle
  • Adding stories, poetry, and other forms of content from and by Black and Indigenous soldiers and their families/communities to assembly programming
  • Selecting Black or Indigenous veterans as honoured guests at Remembrance Day assemblies or ceremonies (virtually)
  • Incorporating relevant cultural music such as African or Indigenous drumming along with traditional music such as the Lament or the Last Post
  • Intentionally discussing the overlap of Black and Indigenous history with Canadian War history instead of relegating these subjects to Black History Month or National Indigenous History Month
  • Expanding Remembrance Day curricula to include critical conversations about the impact of WWI and WWII on racialized people in Canada—particularly the oppression of Black and Indigenous soldiers, the internment of Japanese Canadians, and Canada’s refusal to accept European Jews as refugees during the Holocaust[KO1] [TL2] . 
  • Broadening conversations around Remembrance Day to consider the impact of war—namely violence and exploitation—on the civilians of countries where war takes place.
  • Exploring alternate methods of conflict resolution that could limit or eliminate the need for violent intervention and war

Taking an equity-informed approach to Remembrance Day will be uncomfortable. Challenging how we have long approached a holiday that holds so much reverence will be disconcerting. It will likely unveil uncomfortable truths and raise difficult conversations. However, it is essential to note that expanding the way we celebrate Remembrance Day does not detract from those who are already highlighted by it. Instead, it makes room for those who have been erased, acknowledges the value contributed by all of Canada’s courageous soldiers, and recognizes the horrific impacts of war for civilians.

Are you an educator ready to take an equity-informed approach to Remembrance Day this year? We’ve provided a free resource to support your classroom discussions this Remembrance Day and beyond:

K-6 Educators

Middle School Educators

Secondary School Educators


References:

CBC Investigates. (2019, September 16). Canadian law can’t punish some peacekeepers for sex misconduct abroad – and the UN isn’t happy about it. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/investigates/canadian-law-can-t-punish-some-peacekeepers-for-sex-misconduct-abroad-and-the-un-isn-t-happy-about-it-1.5273216
Goldberg, A. (2016, May 6). Canada and the Holocaust. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/holocaust
Granatstein, J.I. (2006, February 7). Canada and peacekeeping. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/peacekeeping
Hopper, T. (2018, November 12). The forgotten ruthlessness of Canada’s Great War soldiers. National Post. https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/the-forgotten-ferocity-of-canadas-soldiers-in-the-great-war
Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. (2012, November 2). Aboriginal veterans: Equals on the battlefields, but not at home. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/aboriginal-veterans
No Stone Left Alone. Why we celebrate Remembrance Day. https://www.nostoneleftalone.ca/why-we-celebrate-remembrance-day
Our Canada. (2020, October 27). 20 Powerful True Stories of Canadian Veterans to Read for Remembrance Day. Readers Digest. https://www.readersdigest.ca/travel/canada/remembrance-day-veteran-stories/
Oyeniran, C. (2018, December 19). Jeremiah Jones. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/jeremiah-jones
Veterans Affairs Canada. (2020, February 19). Remembering those who served: Black Canadians in uniform – A proud tradition. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/black-canadians-in-uniform/history