David Frum July 28th, 2007 at 12:00 am
About this time of the year, almost every year, the Toronto papers fill up with complaints against naming a holiday in honour of John Graves Simcoe. The founder of the city that became Toronto (readers will be reminded) was an elitist and an imperialist. Why should he be honoured on the first Monday in August?
These complaints will trigger counter-resentments in the rest of the province, and the rest of Canada. Don’t those self-centred Torontonians realize that the Simcoe holiday stops at Steeles Avenue? In Ottawa, the first Monday in August is named for Colonel By. Elsewhere in the province, it carries no name at all, just the generic “Civic Holiday.”
In the rest of Canada, the first weekend in August goes by other names, just as generic: B.C. Day, Heritage Day in Alberta, New Brunswick Day and so on. Why not call it “Holiday Day” and be done with it?
Or better yet, why not give the day a real name to honour a true national achievement? Not just “heritage” generically, but the actual heritage of the actual Canadian people? Might there be something big and important that Canadians as a people did in early August that deserves celebration now and forever?
You’ve probably already guessed that I have an answer in mind.
Of all the experiences of the Canadian nation, none was more terrible and decisive than Canadian participation in the two great wars of the 20th century. This one small country mobilized more than 600,000 men in the First World War, one million in the Second. Almost 110,000 Canadians gave their lives; a quarter of a million suffered wounds. They won victories on land and sea — and by useful coincidence, perhaps the most important of those victories was won in the first week of August.
By the spring of 1918, Germany seemed to have won the war. Russia had surrendered. The full might of the German army could be concentrated against the Western allies. On March 21, the Germans launched a fearsome offensive, pushing through the British and French armies, reaching toward Paris. They came to a halt barely 75 miles from the capital.
Now the Allies hit back. And the troops chosen to lead the great counterattack were the three divisions of Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps and the two divisions of the Australian Corps.
In the early morning of Aug. 8, 1918, the Canadians and Australians, massed just south of the River Somme, east of the city of Amiens, launched themselves at the German lines. For the first time on the western front, German troops broke and ran. The Canadians and Australians took thousands of prisoners. In a war where Allied gains had till then been measured in yards, they took eight miles in a single day. From Amiens till the Armistice, the advance never stopped. The German commander, Erich Ludendorff, later called Aug. 8, 1918, “the black day of the German army.”
Almost as soon as the war ended, the work of remembrance and commemoration began. Canadian cities and towns built cenotaphs and monuments. Schools held special assemblies. The date, November 11, was set aside as a special date of remembrance. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.
Even now, decades later, we still feel the pain of the human loss of those great conflicts. If anything, Canadians today emphasize loss even more than did Canadians in the immediate aftermath of war. See for example the CBC’s April, 2007, film The Great War. The Canadians who lived through those wars understood the stakes as well as the suffering; they experienced victory as well as loss. By slighting their triumphs, we abridge and impoverish our remembrance of their sacrifices.
Today, Canadians are waging another costly fight. The losses in Afghanistan do not begin to compare to those in Canada’s European wars, but they are painful enough: 66 fatalities to date. Yet recruiting has reached record heights, up 40% in 2007 over recruitment in 2006.
It is past time to honour these forces as fighters, and not just as casualties. Let’s replace Civic Holiday with genuine civic spirit, and dedicate the first Monday in August to Canada’s military victories past and present. We could call it “Amiens Day” — to prod Canadians to ask and discover what “Amiens” was and what their ancestors did there. Or, if that name seems to slight Vimy and Juno Beach and Kapyong and Panjwaii, perhaps simply, “Canadian Victories Day.”
At the very least, such a renaming will give newspaper columnists something better to write about than John Graves Simcoe’s derelictions of contemporary political correctness. At best, it will renew and preserve the memory of accomplishments Canadians once promised themselves never to forget.