War and Remembrance

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum/CWM 19710261-0056

Over the Top, Neuville-Vitasse, 1918, by Lieutenant Alfred Theodore Joseph Bastien.

November 11th in Canada (From 1919 to the Present): The History of a Commemoration

by Mourad Djebabla-Brun

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Mourad Djebabla-Brun, Ph.D., is a history professor at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean. He specializes in Canadian military history of the First World War period, with a particular emphasis interest in the situation in Canada and sociocultural perspectives on the conflict.

Every year on November 11th, we honour the troops who have lost their lives and who, through their past combat, have upheld the ideals that Canada defends. We also honour the men and women who, through their current sacrifices, are writing Canada’s military history.

Paying tribute in this way, by holding high the torch every November 11th, is a relatively recent tradition that is just shy of 100 years old. It was the trauma that resulted from the First World War’s widespread carnage and the need for an entire generation to give meaning to the lives cut short at the front that led to the creation of this commemoration. It is a time when we stop our hectic daily lives for a minute on a specific day every year and remember, as Victor Hugo said in his poem “Hymne” that [translation] “[t]hose who for their country gave their lives should hear the prayers of many at their grave.”

Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo/G39GA2

French novelist Victor Hugo in old age (1802–1885).

Remembrance Day, as November 11th is referred to in Canada, has a whole history behind it – one that reflects the political evolution of the country and the relationship that Canadians have with their veterans and troops. In Quebec, it is also a history marked by the tensions of 1917–1918. Remembrance Day is more than just a commemoration: its history is closely tied to the history of Canada in the 20th Century – one of sacrifice, assertion and conflict.

This article invites the reader to delve into the past and uncover the origins of November 11th, from the time it was designated in 1919, until it formally became Remembrance Day during the 1930s. It will explore how the history of November 11th reflects Canada’s military commitments on the international stage throughout the 20th Century and the start of the 21st Century. Those commitments influenced the commemorative discourse and the way that the commemoration was perceived by Canadians through the decades.

It is important, first of all, to properly understand what a commemoration is.1 Even if, in reality, a commemorated act is rooted in the past, historians often choose to distance themselves in their approach. History and commemoration only have the past in common – each takes its own path in providing an account of the events.

History, as it is written by historians, is intended to be the most accurate account possible of the past, in all its complexity. Thus, the key foundation of a historian’s work are historical sources produced by various contributors to a given history.

Commemoration, by contrast, moves away from the realm of history and into that of remembrance: the motto “Lest We Forget” is the very foundation of commemoration, with the “We” being both collective and individual. The term ‘commemoration’ includes the notion of something that is ‘common’ or shared: to commemorate is to share in remembering the past. That sharing takes place on a number of levels: family, occupation, nation, and so on and so forth. To remember is to activate one’s memory, both privately as individuals and collectively as a group.

Remembrance can be seen as a way of forging a more personal relationship with the past – it takes into account experiences and events gone by, but it is also a way of using the past. It makes it possible to use certain elements of the past to shape an identity, at both an individual and collective level.

Commemorating is therefore never uncomplicated. There is an intention – an agenda – that leverages the past. “Lest We Forget” also involves forgetting: the past is remembered based upon how we want it to be generally, rather than how it actually was specifically. It is therefore through that lens that we must examine November 11th. November 11th may be rooted in the history of the First World War (1914–1918), but as a collective act of remembrance, it is also part of a larger agenda.

In the beginning, the impetus for having a commemorative ceremony was closely tied to the First World War and the human impact of that conflict. An article from Montreal’s La Presse newspaper dated 11 November 1918 makes it possible to better understand the origins of the November 11th ceremonies, and why the men and women who lived through the First World War needed them. The La Presse article describes the scene in Montreal on 11 November 1918 when it was announced that Germany had signed the Armistice:

[translation] In front of McGill University, a stage was erected where the university dignitaries and military representatives assembled […]. One of the more poignant moments involved an elderly woman who was dressed in black and wearing a white armband, a sign of military mourning. As a regiment of Canadian soldiers passed, she stood up on her tiptoes and, brandishing a flag, began shouting a joyful cry of victory. […] Suddenly, her shouts turned to sobs, and all she could say over and over was, “Poor boys! Poor boys!” No doubt, in the glory of the present moment, before her tear-clouded eyes, the vision of a loved one had appeared, struggling in the throes of agony that was noble, yes, but oh, how cruel.2

What is interesting about this article is that it articulates, all on its own, the complexity of November 11th observances for the First World War generation: they felt joy at having vanquished the enemy, but heartbreak at having lost troops and loved ones.

They felt joy at having vanquished the enemy – between 1914 and 1918, Canada, as a dominion of the British Empire, was brought into the conflict by London. Through voluntary service, Canada sent 450,000 men to fight overseas in the Canadian Corps. The names of the battles – Ypres in 1915, Vimy in 1917, and Amiens in 1918 – emerged as proof of the invaluable role of Canadian soldiers.

As of 1917, with the Imperial Conference in London, the Canadian government supported its claims for more autonomy within the British Empire regarding how its men had fought at the front alongside the major European powers. Pride at being on the winning side and pride at the maturity that it had acquired on the battlefield in the eyes of Europe: that is how one might describe the first approach to the Canadian experience in the First World War.

The spectre of death nevertheless casts a long shadow and feeds the sadness of loss: 60,000 Canadians died in the First World War – 60,000 men from a country that was still young, with a population of barely seven million people. The trauma caused by that bloodshed scarred a generation. How could this great loss of life be recognized? November 11th, as a commemorative day, was aimed at taking families’ grief out of the private sphere so that they could all rally around the same activity: remembering. The death of soldiers during the First World War was to be understood as something noble – as the ultimate sacrifice for the greater community.

However, in Canada’s case, it remained unclear what this ‘community’ was. In 1918, there was a great amount of ambiguity surrounding that question, which was reflected in how the November 11th ceremony came into being. The first time that November 11th was observed in Canada, in 1919, it was on the initiative of the British sovereign, King George V.

Lebrecht Music & Arts/Alamy Stock Photo/ERGFP2

King George V visiting a soldier’s grave on the Western Front.

Great Britain emerged from the First World War enfeebled, both economically and with respect to its image within its own empire. During the hostilities, London had shown its weaknesses, as it had had to rely significantly upon its colonies during the war for men, provisions, and equipment. Within the Empire, the colonies were well aware of the sacrifices that they had made for Mother England. In exchange, they asked to be shown more consideration or even to be given more autonomy: in India, support for Gandhi’s movement had taken off; in Australia, the authorities had set their sights on taking over the defence of the Australian territory; and in Canada, the government had wanted to play a role in peace negotiations and upon the post-war international stage. Such was also the case for France and its own colonial empire, as the First World War had stoked the fires of indigenous nationalist movements.

It was thus against that backdrop that King George V – with the aim of preserving imperial cohesion and perhaps attempting to return to pre-1914 when London was the heart of the Empire – addressed the colonies and dominions in 1919. On 8 November 1919, he sent them a message inviting them to observe two minutes of silence in honour of the soldiers of the British Empire who had died in the war. He said:

To all my People: Tuesday next, 11 November is the first anniversary of the Armistice, which stayed the world-wide carnage of the four preceding years and marked the victory of Right and Freedom. I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the memory of the Great Deliverance, and of those who have laid down their lives to achieve it. To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of this feeling, it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities. […] we shall all gladly interrupt our business and pleasure, whatever it may be, and unite in this simple service of Silence and Remembrance.3

Silence and remembrance: a funereal tone hangs over this invitation, and grief still weighs heavily. It is important to understand that, even though Canada and the British Empire were among the victorious Allies, the victory achieved in 1918 was not in and of itself being celebrated. It was on account of the cost of that victory in human lives that an entire generation felt the need to gather, as was described in this La Presse newspaper article from 1924:

[translation] Today, when we commemorate the Armistice, we think fondly of “those who for their country gave their lives,” as Hugo says, but we no longer appear to be celebrating a victory. It is a sort of pilgrimage that we undertake to remember “our glorious dead,” but nothing more.4

The dead – those victims for whom the First World War was supposed to be the war to end all wars – became the guarantors of the post-war generation. In 1919, several monuments were under construction, including one in NotreDame-de-Grâce in Montreal, but most Canadian cities did not have one. Beyond religious services in churches, 11 November 1919 consisted, in the public sphere, of a pause in activities for two minutes of silence, as described an article in Le Devoir from 11 November 1919:

[translation] As soon as the factory whistles announced the hour of the rite, work was momentarily brought to a standstill. In the big bank offices, all typing came to a halt. Shop employees even stopped their bustling, and everyone had time to reflect on the fact that a year had passed since the Armistice that ended the world war.5

The same scene was repeated on 11 November 1920, as the King once again invited everyone to observe two minutes of silence. In 1919 and 1920, the November 11th commemoration can therefore be placed within an imperial context: the two minutes of silence were observed in Canada in accordance with the British sovereign’s wishes. This imperial aspect of remembering the Canadian troops of the First World War was underscored when, on 11 November 1920, the British government decided to bury the body of an unknown British soldier in Westminster Abbey who would serve as a focal point for the grief felt by all the families in the British Empire.

The Canada of 1920 was no longer the Canada of 1914, as can be seen from a La Presse article that came out when the unknown American soldier was buried in Washington, D.C., on 11 November 1921. The article asked: [translation] “Our own [unknown soldier] will continue to lie four feet underground in France. Will we ever exhume him?”6 It was only in 2000 that the unknown Canadian soldier was buried in Ottawa, at the foot of the federal capital monument dedicated to those who died, as the country moved into the 21st Century.

DND photo SU14-2017-1331-001

Cenotaph in Ottawa with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The Canadian identity evolved in the 1920s as the imperial mindset was gradually abandoned in favour of a more nationalistic approach. A national Canadian discourse emerged concerning the dead of the First World War, supported in large part by the veterans of that war. These men, from across the country, had managed to raise Canada’s esteem as far as Europe was concerned. The role that the veterans played was all the more important, given their numbers. They were a source of pressure that led the Canadian Parliament, in 1921, to declare that November 11th would become Armistice Day across Canada. From then on, everywhere in Canada, ceremonies would be organized on the first Monday of the week of November 11th.7

Nevertheless, that 1921 law had one shortcoming: it meant that November 11th was celebrated at the same time as Canadian Thanksgiving. At the end of the 1920s, the veterans exerted political pressure so that November 11th would be recognized as its own day of commemoration dedicated to those who had died in the Great War. In the face of criticism, in 1931, the Canadian Parliament bowed to pressure from veterans and passed legislation regarding Remembrance Day. From then on, every November 11th would be devoted to remembering the fallen soldiers.8

In accordance with – and even in support of – Canada’s political claims as they related to London and on the international stage, an increasingly nationalistic approach was taken to the November 11th commemoration in the 1920s, as was summarized in a La Presse article from 1920:

[translation] We need a great amount of resilience – even more than other nations, perhaps – to sustain us in our enormous undertaking to develop our young country. Let us look to our glorious dead. Their memory will give us the strength and encouragement we need to never give up.9

Thus, the country was starting to move away from an imperialistic mindset in order to adopt a more nationalistic one, but a dual approach remained in the 1920s: imperialism and Canadian nationalism still seemed capable of coexisting. The tipping point had not yet been reached, as was evident in the speech made by the mayor of Montreal on 11 November 1924, on the occasion of the unveiling of the city’s cenotaph:

Be assured that the people of Montreal will ever cherish the memory of those who fell that they may live and enjoy the benefits of civilization and liberty, under the good of old British Flag.10

Particularly beginning in the 1930s, the scale tipped more and more in favour of a nationalistic Canadian approach, notably in an era when, as a result of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, Canada became an autonomous nation within what would thenceforth be known as the British Commonwealth.

In the 1920s and 930s, the speeches given on November 11th highlighted the Canadian soldiers of the First World War from a nationalistic perspective, painting veterans as the guardians of Canadian values. The apex of that approach was no doubt the unveiling of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France in 1936.11 The Canadians who died in combat and the veterans were officially defined as the foundation of the young Canadian nation.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum/CWM 19670070-014

Unveiling Vimy Ridge Monument, 1936, by Mr. Georges Bertin Scott.

Here, it is important to discuss the willful forgetting of November 11th’s “Lest We Forget.” In taking on a nationalistic tone, November 11th omitted a whole chapter of the troubled Canadian experience during the years 1914–1918: conscription. The 1917–1918 conscription, during which Canadians were forced to enlist because there were not enough volunteer recruits to maintain the strength of the Canadian Corps at the front, gave rise to tensions from one end of the country to the other, particularly among bluecollar workers and farmers. In May 1918, farmers from Ontario and Quebec marched on Ottawa to force the Prime Minister to hear their case and exempt them as a group; in Montréal, workers protested, often violently; in the city of Québec, on 1 April 1918, the Army had to fire to disperse the crowd of anti-conscription protestors, and four people were killed. The clashes that took place in Québec were, of course, compounded by the cultural state of affairs. Conscription exacerbated the existing tensions between French and English Canadians concerning the recruiting that had taken place in 1914–1917.12

Dollard des Ormeaux poster.

Library and Archives Canada/1983-28-781

In 1919, the November 11th commemoration made no mention of the conscription crisis that had occurred in the country, focusing only upon the front and the sacrifice of the Canadian troops overseas. In Quebec, the main consequence of that memorial censorship was that French Canadians turned their backs on the November 11th ceremony. Because they did not recognize themselves in it, they fell back on a past that they found more honest and evocative: that of New France and its heroes, such as Dollard-Des-Ormeaux, whose legacy was rapidly growing at the time.13

Saluting the crosses of the fallen.

Library and Archives Canada/Fonds National Film Board/e011176647

In 1923, while the cities on the island of Montréal with a majority of English Canadian residents were building or had already created monuments to the people who had died in the First World War, a project was submitted to the Montréal city council by the Canadian Club. Frustrated with the way that Montréalers had failed to honour their dead, the members of this Canadian patriotic association decided to take things into their own hands.14 On 11 November 1924, thanks to a fundraiser organized by the Canadian Club, the Montréal cenotaph was inaugurated and presented to the City of Montréal.15

In the 1920s and 1930s, the influence of veterans increased during the November 11th ceremonies, which were held first in churches, and then progressively at war memorials. The monuments were erected through local initiatives and, for the communities, they became a testament to their sacrifice and their contribution to the Great War. As the November 11th ceremonies began to be held around the war memorials, the commemorative liturgy took on a more concrete shape during the 1920s, progressively adopting the format that we know today in Canada:

  • “O Canada” or “Maple Leaf Forever” (the national part of the tribute).
  • Prayer (the religious part of the tribute).
  • The “Last Post” (a reminder of the fallen’s military association).
  • The minute of silence (enabling a more personal relationship with the fallen).
  • The “Reveille” (a reminder of the fallen’s military association).
  • The laying of flowers (the corporate, collective, widows’ tribute).
  • “God Save the King” (the imperial, constitutional part).
  • Veterans’ parade (the link between the fallen and the brothers and sisters in arms).

Bibliothèque et Archives nationales Québec/Fonds Conrad Poirier/BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (P48.S1.P1542)

Armistice Day, Dorchester Square, Montréal, 11 November 1937.

If the First World War was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars,’ the Second World War disrupted the November 11th ceremony, as the focus slowly shifted from the veterans of the 1914–1918 conflict to those of the Second World War. During the years 1939–1945, the November 11th ceremony became a veritable platform for the Canadian war effort against Nazi Germany. For example, on 11 November 1939, after the ceremony at the Montréal cenotaph, 6,000 First World War veterans took part in the traditional veterans’ parade and were joined by 9,000 current soldiers. Le Devoir reported the following: [translation] “[…] this year, the parades will not only be made up of those who have served but of those who will serve – mobilized soldiers will be joining the veterans.”16

The soldiers of the Second World War could look to the dead of 1914–1918 to try and find a lineage of heroism. Within the context of the November 11th ceremony, the men of the Great War were a benchmark of bravery. During the war years, the November 11th discourse concerning the fallen took on a softer tone. After the increasingly-pacifist approaches adopted during the interwar period in response to the rise of bellicose Nazism in Europe during the 1930s, there was a more mobilizing discourse during the Second World War: the dead of yesteryear, through their example, were now the guarantors of the soldiers in the face of Nazism. The themes of victory and duty thus served to accentuate the approach taken regarding those who had died in 1914–1918. In other words, during the years 1939–1945, November 11th took on the aspect of a kind of blessing of the young soldiers by their elders, to commune with those who had come before them before going to face enemy fire themselves. Thus, the inevitable blending of the two conflicts. The Great War progressively lost its specificity, particularly when the first Canadians were killed in the Second World War. On 11 November 1943, at the Montréal cenotaph, a La Presse article noted the following: [translation] “[H]ere and there in the gathered crowd were women dressed in black, either grieving a recent death that had been announced in an official telegram or grieving an older one, crying for a husband or son who had been killed [in 1914–18].”17

As a result of the Second World War, veterans also lost their monopoly with respect to heroism. Although they were able to serve as an example to the new recruits, the Canadian soldiers of 1939–1945 then went on to write their own new pages of Canadian military history and present the public with heroes whom they found to be more relevant. For example, in Montréal, during the ceremony on 11 November 1942, the newspaper L’Évènement noted the following:

[translation] At the Dominion Square cenotaph, Verdun-born Pilot Officer George Beurling, the Canadian hero of Malta, attended the wreath-laying ceremony while still limping from injuries he had sustained in battles over Malta […].18

DND photo PL14940

Pilot Officer George “Buzz” Beurling on a public relations tour of Canada, 1942.

The Second World War also transformed the November 11th ceremony into a platform for propaganda speeches aimed at mobilizing Canadians with respect to the war effort. In the case of French Canadians, that involved highlighting cultural ties by promoting a free France led by General de Gaulle. On 11 November 1940, a La Presse journalist wrote the following concerning the ceremony held at the Montréal cenotaph:

[translation] A wreath that could not go unnoticed, particularly by our French Canadians, was the one laid by Dr. William Vignal, General de Gaulle’s representative in Montreal. It was in the shape of the Cross of Lorraine, the emblem adopted by the General, and bore the inscription, “For a free France.”19

After 1945, the ambiguity that existed in the 1920s and 1930s around the dead in an imperial or national discourse was long past. When it came to the Second World War, the fallen soldiers were definitely Canadian. The November 11th ceremony from then on was a national Canadian ceremony. This evolution occurred during the post-1945 period, when Canada wanted to assert its own identity as separate from Great Britain’s, specifically as a distinct nation that had made its own contribution to the Second World War. Bear in mind that it was after 1945 that Canada adopted its own passport, nationality, and flag, and redefined itself forevermore as its own country on the international stage.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum/CWM 19710261-6231

D-Day – The Assault (Canadians Landing at Juno Beach, 6 June 1944), by Captain Orville Norman Fisher.

The speech that the alderman of Outremont gave on the island of Montréal on 10 November 1946, in front of the city’s war memorial, provides a good summary of the new November 11th approach during the post-war period:

[translation] The dead whose memory we are honouring here today remain quite indifferent to our presence, our floral tributes and our expressions of gratitude. They are dead. They were young, and they hoped to experience the joys of existence […]. But they are dead. They agreed to take on a terrible duty, for civilization, for the Canadian homeland, for everyone who lives in Canada today […].20

Three things stand out in this speech: the weight of death, the value of death, and, most of all, the Canadian aspect of the tribute. It is an approach that to this day characterizes the November 11th ceremony in Canada. It is definitely a communal memorial ceremony and a way of commemorating soldiers of past conflicts, but they are soldiers who died for noble values, defending their own people and country, Canada. Without developing into pacifism, the November 11th commemoration honours the fallen by reminding people of the national value of their sacrifice. Over the years, new conflicts have been added to the war memorials, sometimes after a great amount of pressure from veterans, such as with respect to the Korean War of 1951–1953.

The evolving meaning of November 11th has had other consequences. Because of the growing number of veterans and soldiers killed in combat to be honoured, during the 1950s, the November 11th ceremony in Canada progressively became a commemoration that was specific to military families: a commemoration that was uniquely military in nature. That is what a La Presse journalist noted during the ceremony at the Montréal cenotaph on 11 November 1949:

[translation] Perhaps, probably as a result of the leading role that military units play in commemorative ceremonies, there is a tendency to consider Armistice Day as a ceremony that is rather military in nature – a ceremony in which civilians, if not superfluous, play only a secondary role.21

As such, the general public progressively turned away from the ceremony, a trend that accelerated during the 1960s and 1970s when the young people of the period began to question the generations that had come before them and their values, which they viewed as conservative; in addition, there was a prevailing sense of pacifism in the face of conflicts such as the Vietnam War. All of that had an impact upon the commemoration of November 11th, in reflection of the evolution with respect to how the Canadian Armed Forces were employed in the world.

The period from the 1960s to the 1990s was an era of peacekeeping operations. The commemorative discourse therefore changed. It went from one that honoured only past sacrifices during world conflicts to one that embraced new values that were a reflection of Canada and its peacekeepers on the international stage, with the focus being upon the defence of universal values and the weakest members of society.

Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a drop in the number of November 11th ceremonies. The veterans of the world conflicts and the widows, who had been so present up to that point, were slowly disappearing. The generational change resulted in a period of stagnation for the commemoration of November 11th in the 1990s, all the more so given that the ceremonies remained in the hands of soldiers and families honouring their own.

The commemorative frenzy surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Normandy Landings in 1994, and the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995, fostered a certain amount of public interest in military history. That was particularly true in Quebec, where Francophone historians published works and organized conferences highlighting the contribution of French Canadians to the world wars.22 Quebec was (re)discovering its place in the history of the world wars, and all of that had an impact upon the November 11th ceremony.

Starting on 11 November 1998, Montréal became the backdrop for two solitudes of commemoration. On the one hand, the traditional Canadian ceremony at the Montréal cenotaph continued to be held, as it had since the 1920s. On the other hand, another commemorative ceremony was being organized by an association advocating for Quebec independence, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal (SSJBM), under the leadership of the organization’s president. On 11 November 1998, the SSJBM began holding a commemorative ceremony at the Cross of Sacrifice in the military square of the Mount Royal/Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemeteries in Montréal. The organization thereby sought to first and foremost separate the memory of Quebec soldiers from the national Canadian dialectic that had prevailed since the interwar period.23 The honoured soldiers’ commitment was then reread and reinterpreted as that of [translation] “the freedom and independence of the people.” After the failure of the 1995 independence referendum, this approach made it possible to more safely integrate the figure of the Quebecois soldier into the political and ideological scheme promoted by the SSJBM. That strictly Quebecois November 11th ceremony was small in the beginning but grew over time and has been able to establish itself as a full-fledged ceremony. Today, it brings together numerous Quebec veterans and dignitaries, such as representatives from consulates in Montréal.

For the years 2000 to 2010, the events of 11 September 2001, the war in Afghanistan, and the threat of asymmetric warfare and terrorism that could strike each and every one of us, once again gave more visibility and a common meaning within Canadian society to the action and sacrifice of troops in defending society. That was very evident in Montréal on 11 November 2001 – the commemorative discourse had just taken on broader dimensions. From then on, it was no longer simply Canadian troops who were being honoured; it was also all of the victims of groups challenging both the universal values that Canada defends and the very foundation of democracy. The year 2001 renewed the appeal of November 11th ceremonies for Canadians. The conflict in Afghanistan also led Canadians to come together, every November 11th, to appreciate the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers. In addition, when soldiers were killed during the attacks in SaintJeansurRichelieu and Ottawa in 2014, it was around the war memorials – the gathering places of November 11th – that crowds and authorities spontaneously congregated.24 November 11th has thus given civilians and soldiers a chance to meet annually and has given Canadians a chance to express their appreciation for the armed forces and for those who have given their lives for them. Of course, we must acknowledge the work done since the start of the 2000s by Veterans Affairs Canada to ensure that the torch of remembrance is passed to a new generation of Canadians by inviting schoolchildren to participate in November 11th ceremonies.

DND photo AR2008-Z140-07 by Corporal Simon Duchesne

Canadian soldiers on patrol through a poppy field in Afghanistan, 2008.

Beginning in 2014, with the launch of commemorative activities surrounding the centennial of the First World War, Remembrance Day also provided an opportunity to rediscover the national Canadian discourse of the interwar period. The First World War was interpreted, according to Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister at the time, as having been [translation] “foundational to the Canadian nation.”25 In April 2017, on the centennial of the ‘mythical’ Battle of Vimy Ridge, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revived the national and Canadian significance of the sacrifices made overseas by saying, notably, that, “It is by their sacrifice that Canada became an independent signatory to the Treaty of Versailles. In that sense, Canada was born here.”26 For the authorities, it was a way of reminding Canadians of the pillars of modern society that rest upon the sacrifice of Canadian troops; 11 November 2018 should be the culmination of this discourse in Canada.

DND photo SU2007-0156-07

Vimy Ridge 90th anniversary, 2007

Today, November 11th is the date upon which civilians and soldiers gather together across Canada in a common place, at the war memorials, to take a minute of silence to both collectively and individually honour the memory of those who gave what was most dear to them – their lives, their youth, and their health – so that their fellow citizens could live in a better world. That is what November 11th means today, that is to say, it is the passing of the torch of remembrance so that we do not break faith with those who have died, as John McCrae’s poem implores.

DND photo SU11-2015-1604-007 by Corporal Chase Miller

The Cenotaph, Ottawa.

That being said, it is important to remain vigilant, as memory is by no means immutable: it evolves with time according to the concerns of each new generation. That was demonstrated in Quebec on 11 November 2017 when some people wore white poppies and vandals scrawled anti-military graffiti on a war memorial in Montréal.27 Still today, the November 11th commemoration in Canada is very much laden with significance.

DND photo LF2015-0020-012 by Sergeant Dan Shouinard

A Vimy wreath lies at the base of the Cenotaph in Ottawa on the occasion of the 98th anniversary of the battle, 9 April 2015.


  1. Reflections from Mourad Djebabla-Brun, Se souvenir de la Grande Guerre: La mémoire plurielle de 14–18 au Québec (Montréal: VLB, 2004).
  2. “Tout Montréal sur pied pour célébrer la paix,” La Presse, 11 November 1918, p. 9.
  3. Canada, Executive Council, The Canada Gazette (Extra), Despatches, Vol. LIII, Ottawa, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, 8 November 1919, p. 1.
  4. “Le vrai sacrifice,” in La Presse, 10 November 1924, p. 6.
  5. “Deux minutes d’arrêt,” in Le Devoir, 11 November 1919, p. 3.
  6. “Montréal, 11 November 1921,” in La Presse, 11 November 1921, p. 4.
  7. An Act respecting Armistice Day, Statutes of Canada (S.C.), 1921, c. 16.
  8. An Act to amend the Armistice Day Act, Statutes of Canada (S.C.), 1931, c. 4.
  9. “Hommage aux morts glorieux,” in La Presse, 11 November 1920, p. 1.
  10. City of Montréal, Address given by H.W. the Mayor of Montreal on the occasion of the unveiling of the Cenotaph erected on Dominion Square – Montreal, November 11th, 1924, Archives of the City of Montreal, Fonds VM001_S3_D16999, file 16 999.
  11. Concerning the national myth surrounding the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge, see Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci and Mike Bechthold (eds), Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007).
  12. On the matter of conscription and its impact in Quebec, see Elizabeth Armstrong, The Crisis of Quebec: 1914–18 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937).
  13. Concerning the ‘myth’ of Dollard-Des-Ormeaux in Quebec, see Patrice Groulx, Pièges de la mémoire: Dollard-Des Ormeaux, les Amérindiens et nous (Hull, Quebec: Vents d’Ouest, 1998).
  14. “Monuments à ériger,” in La Presse, 11 December 1923, p. 6.
  15. City of Montréal, Letter from Walter Molson, President of the Canadian Club, to Arthur Matheweon, advocate, 1 December 1926, Archives of the City of Montréal, Fonds VM001_S3_D16999, file 16 999.
  16. “La Journée du Souvenir,” in Le Devoir, 11 November 1939, p. 5.
  17. “L’hommage d’un peuple à ses héros militaires,” in La Presse, 11 November 1943, p. 3.
  18. Hommage du Canada aux héros de la première grande guerre,” in L’Événement, 12 November 1942,  p. 12.
  19. Hommage sans précédent rendu aux héros de ’14,” in La Presse, 12 November 1940, p. 3.
  20. “Cérémonie au cénotaphe d’Outremont,” in La Presse, 11 November 1946, p. 16.
  21. “Montréal, 11 November 1949: Hommage à nos morts glorieux,” in La Presse, 11 November 1949, p. 4.
  22. Mourad Djebabla, “Historiographie francophone de la Première Guerre mondiale: Écrire la Grande Guerre de 1914–1918 en français au Canada et au Québec,” in Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 95, No. 3 (September 2014): p. 407–416.
  23. “Une cérémonie empreinte de recueillement, d’émotion et de fierté,” in Journalssjb, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 2001): p. 3.
  24. “50,000 personnes assistent à la cérémonie à Ottawa,” in Journal de Montréal, 11 November 2014, at http://www.journaldemontreal.com/2014/11/11/un-jour-du-souvenir-avec-une-resonnance-particuliere.
  25. “Ottawa souligne les 100 ans du début de la Première Guerre mondiale,” in Le Devoir, 5  August 2014, at https://www.ledevoir.com/politique/canada/415119/ottawa-souligne-le-centenaire-de-la-premiere-guerre-mondiale.
  26. Site of the Prime Minister of Canada, at https://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/news/speeches (accessed 8 November 2017).
  27. “Un monument aux morts de Montréal couvert de graffitis,” in La Presse, 12 November 2017, at http://www.lapresse.ca/actualites/justice-et-faits-divers/faits-divers/201711/12/01-5143272-un-monument-aux-morts-de-montreal-couvert-de-graffitis.php.