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A Young Historian Reflects on Remembrance Day and Collective Memory by Kellen Kurschinski

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Most viewers of Don Cherry’s Coaches Corner know that for the past several years Don has devoted numerous segments to supporting, and mourning, our Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. This past Saturday I watched with particular interest because it was his annual ‘Remembrance Day’ show. Love him or hate him, Grapes is a man with a deep conviction and passion for our soldiers, and a love and admiration for the military history of our nation. His public grief over the losses suffered during the past nine years of operations in Afghanistan are equally well known. Notwithstanding his own political and ‘historical’ opinions – admittedly I am an ardent critic of both – Cherry’s segments are a powerful reflection of English Canada’s memory of war over the past hundred years. The imagery of Cherry walking through a Canadian war cemetery, his reflections on great Canadian military victories, and the dedicatory honour roll featured at the end of each yearly Remembrance Day show are all emblematic of a culture of collective bereavement.

We should still remember that the meaning and character of Remembrance Day has changed quite dramatically since the original ‘Armistice Day’ ceremonies that began in 1919. The lingering trauma of the Great War compelled English Canadians of the 1920s and 1930s to remember the war as a noble crusade for Christianity and civilization. Grief was certainly present, but the underlying importance of the ceremony was to find a way of justifying the human cost of victory. This became progressively more difficult after Hitler beg an his campaign of European expansion in 1936. The moral primacy of the fight against Hitler and Nazism in the Second World War had the further effect of cementing Remembrance Day as an occasion to mark the noble contributions of Canada’s soldiers. Taken together, these two conflicts provide the foundation for our current understanding of war, sacrifice, and mourning in English Canada.

Like Don Cherry, I too have had the incredible opportunity to walk through Canadian cemeteries in Northwest Europe, speak to veterans, and put on my own Remembrance Day ‘show’. For two years I co-ran the Remembrance Day ceremonies at Wilfrid Laurier University. I found this to be a rewarding, but very challenging experience. I had a responsibility to help design a ceremony that reflected the aforementioned tradition of mourning and sacrifice, as well as the broader values of the student body. Each year campus anti-war activists played a part in the ceremony, urging us to incorporate new elements that highlighted the negative aspects of warfare. This included an exhibition of famed German impressionist artist Otto Dix’s work in 2007, and a performance by a campus activist choir in 2008. I had mixed feelings at the time over modifying the ceremony in such a manner, but in hindsight I now recognize that trying to strike a balance between two very different conceptions of Remembrance Day was a positive experience. After careful contemplation, I also realize that it had the further effect of fundamentally reshaping my views on the current state of popular memory and the character of our rituals on November 11th.

Between the two diametrically opposed conceptions of Remembrance Day that I have presented, I searched for a middle ground. In a sense, I found myself at the centre of a battle between Don Cherry and anti-war activism. What I ultimately discovered is that Don Cherry and the anti-war activists were actually not much different from one another. I know, shocking, but hear me out. Despite their differing conceptions of the ‘values’ posited by Remembrance Day, both parties intrinsically centers their memory of the war on those who did not return. Almost dogmatically, the fallen are used to reflect on the experience and measure the value of war.

What I have learned from this conceptual dilemma, my own doctoral research on disabled veterans, and my role in planning WLU’s ceremonies is that Remembrance Day is problematic in its contemporary manifestation. November 11th is a day that far too often is focused on Canada’s experience in times of war rather than the long-term implications of conflict on its participants.

There is a good reason for this. War is a socially traumatizing experience. Canada has lost over 100,000 soldiers in combat operations since the beginning of the First World War. It is a tragedy that has reverberated through generations and continues to shape popular memory of war today. Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan has also brought the tragedy of war much closer to home over the past several years. All told 152 soldiers, two aid workers, a diplomat and a reporter have been killed since Canadian operations began in early 2002, our largest military losses suffered in a single campaign since the Korean War.

These deaths are a tragedy, and rightfully deserve to be commemorated, but the full impact of war does not stop with the dead.

Well after war ends, its effects are still felt by veterans, their families, friends, spouses, and communities. Since this country was founded, hundreds of thousands of Canadian veterans who have served their country on home soil and overseas have faced their own unique challenges in coming to terms with their experiences and returning to civilian life. Some have been able to adapt and reintegrate into civilian life after suffering extreme mental and physical trauma with admirable courage and success. But we should also remember that throughout history veterans have had to cope with addiction, homelessness, mental illness, physical disability and poverty. Canada’s latest generation of veterans will face similar challenges, something we should be keenly aware of as academics and caring citizens.

A disabled soldier learns to use his prosthetic limb at the temporary quarters of the Military School of Orthopaedic Surgery and Physiotherapy, Hart House, University of Toronto, 1917. The federal government established the school. 

From the Museumof Health Care at Kingston, 1974.4.70. (Original Here)

Canadian historians have come up short when trying to explain this aspect of Canadian social and military history. Veterans, their families, and their place in popular memory have generally been absent in accounts of Canada’s experience at war. In fact, Desmond Morton and Glenn Wright’s study of Canada’s First World War veterans is the only comprehensive historical account on Canadian veterans. It was published almost 25 years ago, and since then only a few historians have tackled the subject. Most recently Serge Durflinger has expanded our understanding of the physical impact of war with his study of blinded Canadian veterans. Terry Copp and Mark Humphries have also made contributions to the study of mental trauma in Canada’s military past. Despite these welcome additions to the historiography – and I apologize to several other authors that I have omitted – historians still know very little about what life was like for soldiers who returned home. No comparable study to Morton’s exists for Canada and the Second World War, or the numerous conflicts Canadians fought in during the latter half of the twentieth century. Even less is known about the impact of war on families of both veterans and those who died in action.

I would go so far as to suggest that the lack of scholarship on the long-term impact of war in Canada has had a direct influence on our own collective memory of conflict and how we commemorate it on November 11th. University history courses and high school curriculums rarely address the issue of reintegration and the lasting mental and physical impact of war for those who fought. If veterans and the human legacy of war are addressed, it is normally as an afterthought contained in a concluding lecture. Courses and historical studies on ‘war and memory’ have helped illuminate the more complex question of ‘when war truly ends’ to a degree, but there is much more that needs to be done. The orthodoxy of Remembrance Day and the existing historical scholarship alike restricts the human toll of war to a rigid chronology. This serves as a useful organizational tool, but it inevitably leads us as students, teachers, and participants in collective memory to exclude war’s enduring consequences from the historical narrative.

A photo from St. Joseph’s Health Care in London (Original Here)

What I am suggesting is a reorientation of how we examine the impact of war as historians, and how we collectively commemorate this experience on Remembrance Day. The reciting of ‘In Flanders Fields’, a moment of quiet reflection, and the playing of ‘The Last Post’ are essential to commemorate the fallen and will continue to serve that purpose. Bereavement has the social utility of bringing people together, and in my estimation it will continue to be a central feature of our collective memory of war for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, we need to expand our commemoration to include the stories of veterans beyond their own wartime experiences. Speeches by veterans are a common feature of many ceremonies, but particularly with a new generation of young veterans emerging, historians and the wider public alike need to take an interest in understanding how war has affected the whole of their lives, not just their time in service. Doing so will raise further historical awareness of war’s enduring impact and the challenges it poses to those it touches directly. ‘Lest We Forget’ is an axiom that can transcend the chronology of conflict if we are willing to expand our horizons and critically assess our own memory of war in Canada’s past.

Selected Further Reading:
Desmond Morton and Glenn Wright, Winning the Second Battle: Canadian Veterans and the Return to Civilian Life, 1915-1930 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987).
Jonathan F. Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997).
Peter Neary and J.L. Granatstein eds., The Veterans Charter and Post-World War II Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998).
Michael Wert, “From Enlistment to the Grave: The Impact of the First World War on 52 Canadian Soldiers,” Canadian Military History 9, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 43-58.
Serge Durflinger, Veterans with a Vision: Canada’s War Blinded in Peace and War (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010.
Mark Humphries,“War’s Long Shadow: Masculinity, Medicine, and the Gendered Politics of Trauma, 1914–1939,” Canadian
Historical Review 91, no. 3 (September 2010): 503-531.

Kellen Kurschinski is a research associate of LCMSDS and a PhD Candidate at McMaster University where he studies Canadian history. His dissertation examines the experience of Canada’s disabled Great War veterans.



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