“On ‘The Road to 2017’: Reflecting on Canada’s First World War Commemoration Plans”

By Jonathan Weier

Last year on Activehistory.ca I wrote about the lack of federal government funding for First World War commemoration. Despite the fact that the First World War centennial period has started, the federal government continues to offer little support for First World War commemorative activities. The coming federal election, the recent decline in oil prices, as well as the demands of market orthodoxy make it unlikely that this situation will change.

This is in contrast to the commitments Ottawa is making to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Confederation in 2017. Called The Road to 2017, this program has included events around the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. MacDonald among other milestones. According to the official narrative and the opinions of prominent Conservative cabinet ministers, John A. has been portrayed as the sole force behind Confederation and as a statesmanlike, if slightly flawed, father of our country. Most recently, in its 2015 Budget the government announced a $210 million fund spread out over four years to “support local community events such as festivals and concerts, enhanced Canada Day celebrations in the National Capital Region and other major Canadian cities and other national initiatives, such as Rendezvous Naval 2017, that will unite Canadians from coast to coast to coast.”[1]

What The Road to 2017 lacks, however, is an inclusive building and commemoration process designed to leave Canadians with a useful and forward-looking legacy, as was the case for the programs that were initiated for the 1967 centennial.[2] There has been little attempt to bring in a diversity of voices or discuss the years-long process and other milestones that were part of the evolution towards confederation.

The uninspiring and simplistic nature of government involvement in sesquicentennial commemoration would seem to suggest that I was right, that First World War commemoration will be better with minimal active government involvement. I wrote that this could spur grassroots organizations, local communities, historians and others to engage in and organize their own events and create their own materials, emphasizing their own values and priorities and leading to a more organic and democratic period of commemoration. And this has all happened, but it has happened because individual Canadians and community organizations have committed significant time and money to these commemorative activities.

When I wrote those words last year, part of my argument was based on the controversies that were spinning out in the United Kingdom in the lead up to the First World War centennial. Ironically, shortly after that article was published online, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, around whom these controversies had swirled, was shuffled out of cabinet and the tone of British First World War commemoration changed markedly. Since the summer of 2014, First World War commemoration has revolved around the participation of broad sectors of the British population. It has included the involvement of numerous charitable sector and civil society organizations. And it has provided significant funding for community organized and led commemorative activities.

To be fair to Michael Gove, these programs had been put in place while he was still heavily involved in commemorative planning and programming as Education Secretary. But with his replacement, the conflicts that had arisen over commemoration seemed to disappear. What was left was a well-funded, inclusive and community oriented program of commemoration.

When I was in the United Kingdom this fall I witnessed a number of ways in which this commemorative program played out. In London this past summer and fall thousands of volunteers participated in planting ceramic poppies in the moats and along the walls of the Tower of London as part of an evolving and dynamic art installation. Each of these poppies represented a British military fatality of the First World War and were subsequently gathered up and sold to raise funds for veterans’ charities.

Similarly, in the national parade of remembrance on Remembrance Sunday this past November, not only were British soldiers and veterans invited to participate, also participating were numerous organizations that had been involved in the First World War. I was in Britain in October for a conference organized by YMCA England to commemorate and discuss the role of the YMCA in the First World War. The YMCA was excited and honoured by their invitation to participate in the commemorative parade.

This YMCA conference also exposed me to another funding program initiated by the British government. This program directs money raised through the Heritage Lottery Fund to community organizations and local governments for First World War commemorative purposes. This mirrors similar funding associated with the London Olympics in 2012 also funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund that provided funding for community sports programs and infrastructure. This program has provided for numerous local commemorative projects including the recreation of a First World War YMCA canteen cart by the Bradford YMCA.

Not only has this funding allowed for community organizations and local communities to examine and discuss their own place in the First World War, it has led to increasing support for and participation in First World War activities. Many of the participants of the First World War conference organized by YMCA England were YMCA staff members and volunteers who were working to organize their own commemorations within their local associations.

Community driven commemorative projects are happening in Canada, but there is little financial or institutional support. What support the federal government has announced has gone to official projects that are closely aligned with the government’s narrow priorities. Surely there is a way that the government can provide funding for community commemoration without insisting on controlling how Canadians remember our First World War.

Jon Weier is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Western University. His thesis is a transnational history of the First World War work of the YMCA. He regularly posts on twitter as @jonweier.

ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War. 


[1] Government of Canada, Budget Plan 2015, (Ottawa: Government of Canada, April 1, 2015), 302, http://www.budget.gc.ca/2015/docs/plan/budget2015-eng.pdf .

[2] For a particularly thorough account of the 1967 Confederation Centennial planning and celebrations, see Helen Davies, The Politics of Participation: Learning from Canada’s Centennial Year, (Toronto: Mass LBP, 2010), http://www.masslbp.com/download/davies.pdf.

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