Today is Remembrance Day, a day on which we remember those who went before us. Those who fought, were wounded, and who died at the behest of our nation. What then remains to be said? Again and again, our tiny frontier nation marched to war at the behest of our monarch. Canada fought and bled to secure the British Empire against all of her rivals. What now remains? A desiccated island at the heart of a vanished empire? What was it all for?
We will not cheapen the lives of our dead by making some oft-trod appeal to the supposedly senseless nature of war. From the Invasion of 1812, to the Northwest Rebellion, to the Fenian raids, to the Boer War, and to both great wars of the 20th century, the sons of Canada marched into the fray. The daughters of Canada embraced the great burden of the mournful living. As the Canadian chose, again and again, to march into the steely maw of the guns, be they muskets or great artillery pieces, they did so by the strength of absolute conviction in their duty.
For the majority of the first and second world wars, the men facing battle had volunteered. It is here that the hidden nature of Canada reveals itself. When, at the height of revolution, the American behemoth, hot with the fever of manifest destiny, turned its gaze to Canada, it was thrown back on each occasion by an unyielding Canadian response. When the Americans crossed the Niagara in 1812, Brock led his men into the fangs of the American cannons, giving his life for Canada. When Irish veterans of the American civil war not once, but twice forced their way into Canada, so many men volunteered that they could not all be armed, and many had to be turned away.
It was Currie and the men of the Canadian Corps who served as the tip of the Allied spear, earning victory through spent blood and shattered bone. While the French army was mutinying and refusing to emerge from its trenches, it was the Canadians who were smashed again and again against the iron bulwark of Germany who pressured the line.
Only fifteen years later, after the best and brightest of our tiny nation had been cast into the mud of Europe, once more the call went forth. Once more Canadians were asked to go. Once more they ventured into the fray.
Let us take a moment to reflect on the final stanza of ‘In Flanders Fields’. A song too often deployed to denigrate, by conscious effort or unconscious ignorance, the effort, and the sacrifice: the choice of the Canadian soldier. Despite all odds, Canada exists. A nation sparsely populated across a vast wilderness remains, despite being placed in the centre of the geopolitical struggles of the global hegemons. It is a nation that by any reasonable assumption would have been consumed, rent asunder by the competing wills of these incomparable superpowers. Yet, by grit, grim duty, and iron will, Canada remains. She was forged from disparate towns into a continent-spanning nation by John A Macdonald, and hardened in the crucible of American and British ambition. Thus let us return to McCrae’s poem.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Canada was and remains a nation worth fighting for. Despite the influence of both China and the United States in our political, economic and cultural affairs, despite the state of our government, and despite the state of the modern world, we are called, by our forebears, to take up the quarrel with the enemy. We are to carry their mission unto the next generation, and to maintain our faith, our compact with the hallowed dead. This is not a weeping dirge lamenting a cruel and unearned fate. It is a harsh demand. It is a demand that Canada’s past be remembered, that Canada’s future may be preserved.