Courtesy of the Trenton Halifax Restoration Team

A late-war Canadian Handley-page Halifax Mark III and its crew from 434 'Bluenose" Squadron.

The Canadian Way of Remembering War: Canada’s “Conflicted” and “Contested” Memory of the Second World War

by Martin Shadwick

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

Considerable civilian and military scholarship has been devoted over the decades to studying, identifying and dissecting the national “ways of war”—including military strategy and military operations—of the United States (anchored, arguably, by such works as Russell F. Weigley’s The American Way of War), Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and a host of other nation states. Complementary cross-disciplinary scholarship, meanwhile, has sought to understand how nation states remember, venerate, celebrate and mythologize wartime events and achievements—how, for example, the actions at Pointe du Hoc and Bastogne, and the raising of the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima, have become so deeply embedded in the American psyche, popular culture and social memory and how, in the United Kingdom, Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the exploits of the Dambusters have been elevated to a similar, if not precisely identical, national stature. The perceived value in remembering such events, both as inspirational symbols in the contemporary world and as still-valuable links between past and present, has reinforced much of this discourse. As a potentially illustrative example, albeit at the risk of overstating the case, one might take note of the astonishing outpouring of affection—and financial support—in the United Kingdom for the COVID-19 inspired fundraising efforts of the 99-year old Second World War veteran, Captain Thomas Moore.

The Canadian understanding of the relationship between the Second World War and the national psyche, popular culture and social memory is far less developed, and consequently, one of the most frustrating and vexing gaps in Canada’s Second World War literature. As Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook, a most prolific author in his own right, has noted, “hundreds of books have now been written about Canada’s participation in the war, covering almost every aspect of the conflict,” but “the many battles to control the interpretation of Canada’s Second World War history” have been “virtually unexplored.” Cook’s most recent book, The Fight for History, attempts to plug that yawning gap by offering a “sustained examination of Canada’s conflicted and contested memory of the Second World War.” In some respects a hybrid, combining military history, diplomatic history, political history and social history in an almost decade-by-decade analysis of social memory and Canada’s Second World War, it seeks “to track the rise, fall, and rise again of the relevance of the Second World War to Canadians,” and reminds us “that if we do not tell our own stories, no one else will.”

Cover of Tim Cook book “The Fight for History”.

Random House Canada

In The Fight for History, he writes, “Canada had contributed to victory far beyond the Allies’ expectations of the poor and small-minded dominion that had stumbled its way out of the Depression, entirely unready for the war to follow. But having significantly aided the Allied victory, in the war of reputations to follow, Canadians reverted to their colonial ways. The Legion was focused on gathering veterans into its fold and on fighting for tangible pension and dependants’ rights. The veterans’ organization saw its role as primarily encouraging remembrance and commemoration, and it hoped others would tell the country’s war stories. Most did not. The failure of the Canadian military and civilian high command to write their personal histories, along with the reticence of the million veterans to commit thoughts to paper beyond the first couple of years, meant that Canadians did not have much of an opportunity to read about Canada’s war experience.” This historical “absence would grow and continue through the 1950s and 1960s, as American and British films, television shows, and books took up that space, mapping those national memories onto the history and offering little mention of Canada’s wartime contributions. Canadians had only themselves to blame.” Indeed.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum/CWM 19710261-2203

The Hitler Line, by Major (Ret’d) Charles Comfort, OC, CD.

Countless Second World War-themed motion pictures appeared—albeit with some notable exceptions, such as Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking Saving Private Ryan in 1998—from the late 1940s to the mid-to-late 1970s. In Canada, however, the virtual absence of a home-grown film industry (and myriad other factors) ensured that Canadian stories from the Second World War went essentially untold and condemned Canadian—and international—audiences to the briefest of references to Canada in genre-dominating American and British films. Two one-word references to Canada in the The Longest Day (1962), some cryptic blink-and-you-miss-it references in 1963’s The Great Escape (particularly galling given the substantial Canadian role in escape planning and tunnel construction) and, in 1968’s The Devil’s Brigade, the liberty-taking retelling of the Canadian-American First Special Service Force, the indignity of no Canadian actors and “Canadian” soldiers who overwhelmingly sported British accents. The Battle of Britain (1969) was a rare exception, presenting Canadian actor Christopher Plummer as a Canadian—complete with “Canada” shoulder flashes—as a squadron leader. In much more recent Second World War-themed television programming, an inordinate number of “Canadian” military personnel have surfaced as incompetents or ne’er-do-wells in British productions. To this day, American and British book writers—in some cases because they continue to draw disproportionally upon older and less analytically sophisticated Canadian historical research—usually have little to say, or little positive to say, about Canada’s military performance in the Second World War. It is small wonder that a 2012 British survey of more than 1000 children aged eleven to eighteen, cited by Cook, found that “not a single child” could identify Canada as a wartime ally of Britain. The Dutch have done rather better.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum/CWM 19710261-4057

Canadian Tribal Destroyers in Action, by Commander (Ret’d) C. Anthony Law, DSC, CD.

The Fight for History also draws attention to the cross-border ramifications of the debacle in Vietnam and the excessive myth-making surrounding Canada’s extensive participation, largely but not exclusively under the auspices of the United Nations, in international peacekeeping. The vociferous anti-war sentiment that developed in the United States during the war in Vietnam spilled over the border, thereby posing significant challenges for Canada’s armed forces—“to wear a military uniform in Canadian society,” notes Cook, “was to risk being verbally abused, even spat upon”—and eroding or hijacking the meaning and significance of Remembrance Day. At the secondary school level, I can well remember sitting through more than one Remembrance Day ceremony in the later years of the Vietnam debacle that was devoid of Canadian content but whose underlying and troubling message to students was that Canadian motives and conduct in the Second World War and American motives and conduct in Vietnam were interchangeable. On the peacekeeping front, the myth-making that enveloped Canada’s participation in international peacekeeping has been widely studied. Often overlooked has been the assertion, advanced by Cook and others, that the long-running and “comforting image of the peacekeeper had prevented many Canadians from engaging meaningfully with the Second World War. Canada revered its peacekeepers, even though, oddly, most Canadians seemed unable to recognize that peacekeepers were soldiers—not separate from them.”

Cook also posits that “the theme of sacrifice,” which so shaped the postwar Canadian response to the carnage of the First World War, “fit less easily a generation later, where the war was regarded as a great crusade against evil, a necessary war that had to be won, no matter what the cost. Furthermore, the act of commemoration tends to focus on grief. This is one important way that Canadians framed the Great War…but it is not how Canadians initially understood the Second World War, which, at its heart, is about a victory.” The “challenge seems to lie in the fact that it is not easy to celebrate victory in war”—or, in some circles, to even remember, acknowledge or reflect upon war—“without appearing militaristic or vainglorious.” The “language of communication is also not well suited to talking about victory in a meaningful way, and we turn to victims, loss, and sacrifice.”

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum/CWM 19710261-5121

Bomb Aimer, Battle of the Ruhr, 1944, by Flight Lieutenant (Ret’d) Carl F. Schaefer.

If Canada’s experience of the Second World War lacked “some of the emotional resonance of the Great War,” notes Cook, the explanations include “the changing nature of Canada in the [post-1945] years, the haphazard way we told our stories, our fear of dredging up history that divides” (the conscription crisis, for example), “the adoption of new identity-shaping symbols, and the many battles by groups over the meaning of the war through redress, apology campaigns, or seeking veterans’ status.” Indeed, for many Canadians, particularly younger Canadians, the internment of Japanese-Canadians constitutes the dominant story of Canada’s Second World War. “While it was only natural,” notes Cook, “that with time the war would drift from the nation’s consciousness, the lack of a centralizing Vimy-like battle in Canada’s global war effort also hurt the means by which memory was constructed throughout the second half of the century. By the early-1990s, the Necessary War was forgotten by many or so badly misinterpreted as a conflict defined by defeat and disgrace” (i.e., Dieppe) that “it was suitable topic for denigration.” That, he suggests, “is why the high-profile commemoration in Normandy in 1994 and the hugely welcoming celebration in the Netherlands” in 1995 “were so surprising, as was the subsequent emergence of a new desire to tell the Canadian story.” He asserts, too, that Canada’s experience in Afghanistan, also though divisive in “goals and missions,” brought “a greater awareness to Canadians of their own war history and the realization that the country’s contributions during the Second World War had been neglected for too long.”

Despite these and other “encouraging signs of engaging with the past,” Cook identifies a range of “significant” challenges in academia, in the media (“where the CBC continues to ignore the Second World War as a defining event in Canadian history”), in film, and in other domains. In academia, “the history battles continue in the ivory towers of universities, with many professors carrying fierce if misplaced convictions that learning about war is bad, mad, and leads to militarism… It is an absurd prejudice from scholars who are supposed to be even-minded...” There is evidence of similar trends in some departments of political science although, as in some history departments, limited course offerings relevant to Canada’s Second World War (and post-Cold War diplomatic and military) experience may reflect struggles over funding—to, for example, launch new courses in emerging fields and sub-fields of study—as much as they reflect strongly held convictions of perceived ‘militarism’. Nevertheless, some political science departments which once offered an impressive array of courses on Canadian foreign and defence policy now have fewer—in some cases dramatically fewer—offerings in these areas. Some other departments, in contrast, have maintained the status quo or actually increased their course offerings. It could prove most illuminating (and at least somewhat depressing) to compile a rigorous and detailed inventory of current post-secondary courses in Canadian diplomatic, military and related social history and in Canadian foreign, defence and international security policy—mindful, of course, that course titles alone do not always convey an accurate impression of the material being covered.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum/CWM 19710261-4123

Windy Day in the British Assault Area, by Commander (Ret’d) C. Anthony Law, DSC, CD.

It is important to add that concern over the teaching of Canada’s Second World War experience—and Canada’s contemporary role in world affairs more broadly—is neither new nor confined to the post-secondary level. In the 1980s, relatively early career-wise, your scribe dispatched a letter to his Member of Provincial Parliament—who, not coincidentally, was also Ontario’s Minister of Education and Minister of Colleges and Universities—to politely suggest that incoming university undergraduates would benefit from additional knowledge of Canada’s role in world affairs and Canadian diplomatic and military history. The less-than-edifying Ministerial response reported that all was well in this area and made it clear that no curriculum changes were required or contemplated at the secondary school level. A thorough contemporary review of this issue could prove instructive although considerable—and sometimes very disappointing—variations by province, by school board, and by individual schools and individual teachers, should be anticipated.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum/CWM 19710261-4690

Preparing to Attack, by Major (Ret’d) William A. Ogilvie, CM, MBE.

I also believe Tim Cook is correct when he observes that considerable progress in telling the story of Canada and the Second World War, ‘warts and all,’ has been made in recent decades. He further notes, again, I believe, quite correctly, that “as we move into the twilight time of the Second World War veterans, we must do two things. Collectively, we must listen and we must record.” Still, it is impossible to shake the sad and distressing conviction that we allowed time to run out, that we could have done far more to remember. To be sure, some measures would have been far easier to implement than others. Nor could a variety of inconvenient truths, such as the conscription crisis or the internment of Japanese-Canadians, be tidily expunged or reinterpreted out of existence.

Enhanced attention to the Canadian wartime experience—defined in infinitely more than military terms—should have been achievable, for example, in the educational system (even allowing for potentially awkward jurisdictional issues), as should far earlier and sustained government support for a new Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and such entities as the Juno Beach Centre, the far earlier appearance of official histories and the writing of a much wider array of such histories, efforts to encourage the writing of memoirs by both the rank and file and senior military and civilian decision-makers, greater interest in the wartime legacy by both the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board, efforts to promote Canadian content in relevant foreign films (admittedly difficult, but the connections of the Canadian High Commission apparently proved useful in the case of the first British film on the Battle of Arnhem) and in a host of other measures, both grand and grassroots. Innovative measures to recognize peacekeeping and acknowledge its casualties without preventing, as Cook notes, “many Canadians from engaging meaningfully with the Second World War,” could and should have been developed. Earlier and enhanced support by Ottawa for a film industry able to tell Canadian stories—of all types—admittedly would not have guaranteed a Great Escape, let alone a Saving Private Ryan, but it would not have hurt and might at least have avoided a situation whereby Canada was arguably the only significant participant in the Second World War to have forfeited the telling of its own stories by its own film industry. Too little, too late? Sadly, in far too many instances, yes.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum/CWM 19710261-6450

Dive Bombing V-1 Sites, France, by Flight Lieutenant (Ret’d) Robert S. Hyndman.

Professor Martin Shadwick has taught Canadian Defence Policy at York University for many years. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly, and he is the resident Defence Commentator for the Canadian Military Journal.