BTL Glasbeek leaderboard

What we forget when we remember

For a nation that often links its evolution to its military exploits we show a profound historical illiteracy on matters of war

Canadian PoliticsWar Zones

Thousands of Canadian flags honouring fallen soldiers are planted on the front lawn of the Manulife head office in downtown Toronto. Photo from Flickr.

Today across the nation Canadians of all walks of life, beliefs, identities, and political orientations, will gather in communities large and small, by cenotaphs of equal variety, to remember the dead of wars past, if not necessarily remembering why they died, and whether it was worth it.

Remembrance Day has changed from when I was younger, not only in that it once featured many more veterans of the First and Second World Wars, and the Korean War—people who had seen the utter brutality of combat up close. I remember sombre affairs where reserved old men allowed themselves half a moment to get misty eyed, thinking of lost comrades and their equally lost youths. It was rare for television stations to carry live feeds of the ceremonies, largely because there wasn’t much to see other than a lot of sad old men.

Today there seems to be much more in the way of spectacle. More guns, bigger parades, recruiters, displays of military equipment. The Ottawa Tourism website even has a dedicated page for Remembrance Day, which is odd enough in and of itself, though it also mentions a “rousing fly-past (weather permitting).” The idea of fighter jets screaming over sanctuary cities, breaking the two-minute silence, seems so perfectly on brand for a country that’s forgotten what it’s supposed to remember: war is hell.

For a nation that so often links its evolution to its military exploits—such that some historians have claimed Canada only became a truly independent nation at the Battle of Vimy Ridge—Canadians display a profound historical illiteracy on matters of war, one used to the advantage of the political class. In much the same way that fascist organizations throughout history have captured the public’s attention by defining their enemies as omnipotent and ubiquitous, yet simultaneously (and paradoxically) marginalized and weak, Canada’s political elites dazzle and bewilder the electorate with stories of a mighty military that punches above its weight whilst simultaneously bemoaning it as underperforming, outclassed, underpinned, and ill-prepared. A nation with an endemic lack of confidence such as our own becomes easy for politicians to bully; its people all too ready to sign off on criminally expensive military acquisition projects for offensive weapon systems of dubious necessity and little hope of ever being used.

Despite the collective trauma brought on by war and endured by multiple generations of Canadians—those who were born here as much as those who fled war in their birth countries—Canada’s political class today employs war as a tool of first resort. Our historical illiteracy is manipulated to serve their interests. Meanwhile, the general population, equipped with little direct connection to conflict, becomes convinced of an inherent moral supremacy. The lesson of the world wars was supposed to be that our victory came at tremendous cost, and that they should never be repeated. What was learned, unfortunately, was the misguided belief that might makes right. And so the political class commits the nation to interventions that leave other nations in ruin; to obsolete alliance systems that seek to justify themselves; and to maintaining the illusion of a constant and shifting enemy. As whispers emerge that Washington wishes for peace with Eurasia, the empire prods, pokes, and proselytizes for war with East Asia.

Remembrance Day was once, in a sense, apolitical. But political pressure has made it both political and performative. We don’t know what we’re remembering anymore, so we find ourselves increasingly told not to forget. Where we once heard stories of the horrors of war, today we hear horror stories of low poppy sales, or lamentations that not enough of us are participating in the mass spectacle. Remembrance Day becomes a kind of veteran and military appreciation day, detached from what the troops experienced, and whether they did any good. It’s almost sacrilegious to ask such questions anymore, though I really can’t imagine any better time or place. The nation that so prides itself on peacekeeping seeks to attain new heights of belligerency—albeit increasingly using the poor of other nations as cannon fodder.

The extreme degree to which we have forgotten the truth of war is perhaps most aptly demonstrated by the fact that this nation recognizes the so-called Black Ribbon Day, a commemorative day of historical white washing invented by the ancestors of the Eastern European ultranationalists who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War, and were rebranded as liberators and freedom fighters three decades ago as the Soviet Union collapsed. Scholars call Black Ribbon Day nothing less than Holocaust denial. The same people who equate Nazism with communism as equal evils—a narrative endorsed by federal and provincial governments, and all the major political parties in Canada—are busy erecting a monument to what they term the ‘Victims of Communism.’ Some of the funds for the monument were dedicated to Nazi collaborators, war criminals, and assorted fascist groups. It will stand in Ottawa, just a short walk from the National War Memorial, and perhaps more provocatively, closer still to the National Holocaust Memorial.

Were that not bad enough, Remembrance Day ceremonies will take place in Canadian cities with monuments to Nazi collaborators and the SS units they commanded, perhaps even attended by the far-right elements in our society who preach white nationalism and fear the mythological “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. The same politicians who will tell us what to remember and what not to forget, look the other way when monuments are erected in our own cities to the enemy those we are supposed to be remembering fought against. On the rare occasion anything is said at all, we are told simply that the history is complex, that the figures are controversial. The facts of the matter are weaponized and occasionally we are told this is enemy disinformation.

In truth, it is we who have already been brainwashed. Don’t forget to remember that.

Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian from Montréal. In addition to writing regularly for Canadian Dimension, he contributes to the Toronto Star, Jacobin, Cult MTL, The Maple, DeSmog, and the Montréal Review of Books, among others. He holds an MA in Public History from Duquesne University and has worked on the restoration of playwright August Wilson’s childhood home. He is also a frequent contributor to the Canadian Encyclopedia, and once debated several Canadian prime ministers at once on matters of foreign policy.


Broadbent leaderboard

Browse the Archive