By Owen Griffiths
As most everyone knows by now, Don Cherry was fired recently for saying that “you people” should wear a poppy on Remembrance Day. Love him or hate him, and with Cherry there is no middle ground, he has been known throughout his broadcasting career for his unequivocal championing of Canadian players and his denigration of those foreign born. From “face mask wearing Swede” to “Hockey night in Russia” to “you people,” Cherry bombs became an accepted part of his on-air persona: an old-fashioned, rock ‘em, sock ‘em, Canadian patriot.
Lost in the controversy over Cherry’s bigoted reference to immigrants is the reason he claimed “you people” should wear the poppy. “These guys paid [the biggest price] for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada,” he said, referring to the consequences of our (male) soldiers’ sacrificial death. Here, we confront a commonplace that the soldiers who fought in Canada’s wars (especially WWI and WWII) did so for us and that without this greatest of sacrifices we would not enjoy the life we have today. These claims are not just Cherry bombast but are regularly expressed throughout Canada: from the Moncton Times Transcript’s statement that “they gave their lives so that we may live in peace” and Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan’s assertion that our soldiers sacrifices “allow[ed] us to have the wonderful life that we have in Canada” to my son’s elementary school song teaching that our “soldiers, sailors, and airmen… fought across the sea… keeping Canada free.” These stories are comforting. They reassure us that sacrifice was not in vain. And they ground our identities as Canadians by reminding us of our debt: There but for the grace of “they” go “we.”
However, such statements are deeply problematic for many reasons, four of which I will address here. First, they are exclusionary.
Until recently, our remembrances have been predominately white, male, and English and have ignored the reality that many soldiers (and their families) never enjoyed the freedoms and ways of life we believe they were fighting for. Consider, for example, how sacrifice in war has made the lives of our indigenous brothers and sisters better, even counting the contributions of men like Tom Longboat and the thousands like him. Consider, too, the Louie brothers and hundreds of other Chinese who fought in WWI only to be humiliated four years later by the Immigration Act. We might also ask Viola Desmond’s view of Canada’s role in liberating Belgium and Holland as she was being arrested for sitting in the main floor area of the Roseland Theatre just a year after those triumphs.
Only in the last decade or so have the wartime contributions of women and minorities been recognized at all. It is impossible to argue credibly that Canadian soldiers fought for their freedoms. War has a place in the struggle for equality in all its forms but war’s role is dwarfed by the work of innumerable people whose actions long predate Canada’s 20th century wars. Freedom’s price may be terrible, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once claimed, but focusing on wartime death as the ultimate sacrifice ignores those who dedicated their lives to the betterment of Canadian society in ways that did not involve killing and dying in war.
Second, claims that they died for us are problematic because they impute a causal relationship between sacrifice in war and our freedoms that cannot be substantiated. Looking at WWI and WWII, for example, there is little evidence to suggest that such freedoms as Canadians enjoyed at the time were in peril at all. We have evidence that during both wars some Canadians believed the country to be in danger. The immense pre-WWI popularity of future-war fiction lent credibility to the idea that Canada could be invaded, for example, as did the “yellow peril” and fears of 5th-column activity by Japanese in Canada in WWII. However, we now know these fears, however real in the minds of their believers, were unfounded. Neither Germany nor Japan had the will or the ability to seriously threaten Canada’s lifeways.
Third, the link between past sacrifice in war and our freedoms today is also tenuous because it requires us, for its proof, to imagine another outcome for history where our troops did not fight and Canada thereby became degraded. This is commonly expressed with statements like “if it were not for the sacrifices in war, our life in Canada would be worse.” These statements are counterfactuals, “what if” stories that can neither be proved nor disproved. But they render history into myth through the reassurance that the believer can know the unknowable, that the infinite number of alternate pasts all would have led to a degraded present.
Finally, let’s consider what we know of why our soldiers fought. There were numerous reasons why young men took up the call in 1914, ranging from adventure and escape from boredom to king, country, and empire. A close reading of soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs, however, reveals little concern for democracy and freedom, present or future, but a deep attachment to one’s comrades. What most powerfully emerges is a general sentiment that to stop fighting would render the sacrifices made to that point a waste. Thus, soldiers continued killing and dying because they imagined no other way than to move forward unto victory. Even the war propaganda of the time did not invoke freedom, democracy, or the future. Recruiting posters, for example, focused primarily on “not being left out” and on “doing your bit.” The language of freedom and democracy and the talk of “our way of life,” so common to us today, was largely mute in WWI.
Don Cherry’s comments about war and remembrance, especially about war’s legacy, transcend any one individual. They have been uttered by Canadians in all walks for life for a long time. Wars can be powerful catalysts of change and identity. But mythologizing our past with specious and unsubstantiated claims about war does a disservice to history and to the soldiers’ experience of combat and its aftermath.
In the midst of WWI, R. H. Tawney told those back home that “… between you and us there hangs a veil … You have chosen, I say, to make an image, because you do not like, or cannot bear, the truth.” Tawney was telling his readers that what they read about the war bore no resemblance to its prosecution. His words remain a caution and a challenge for us today, especially for history. Grounded in argument and evidence, history can help us to lift the veil that separates past and present and perhaps even that which divides combatant and non-combatant.
Owen Griffiths is an associate professor of history at Mount Allison University.