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In the political trenches, Vimy Ridge fights for the issue of the day

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands in front of the stunning war memorial at Vimy Ridge on April 9, you can bet he will use the occasion to remind Canadians of the sacrifices currently being made in Afghanistan.

In doing so, he will be neither the first PM to recognize the importance of the battle in Canada's history, nor the last to use it to help promote a political cause close to his heart.

From Arthur Meighen in 1921 to Brian Mulroney in 1992, Canadian prime ministers have had something to say about Vimy Ridge. Usually, the message was remembrance, but other times, the message was expanded to include whatever was important to the prime minister at the time.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, for example, used the occasion of the unveiling of the soaring memorial in 1936 to promote peace. It was, he wrote, "the only memorial worthy of the valour and the sacrifice of all who gave their lives in the Great War."

Lester Pearson, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, in 1967, also used Vimy to promote a message of peace, but it had a slightly different meaning in the years after the Second World War. He warned Canadians that it was only through collective security that countries could be safe from the nuclear threat and other perils in the age of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

"Vimy also means that we must now use our powers, not to win a war, but to prevent it," said Mr. Pearson, a Great War veteran. "We must use power for peace. Here Canada does not and cannot act effectively alone. Nor can any other country."

National unity is never far from a prime minister's mind and this was the case with Mr. Pearson. The qualities exhibited by soldiers in war -- selflessness, working for a common cause -- "could do so much to settle our national problems and remove our national difficulties if we could but show them in action in the less demanding and the more dividing times of peace," he said.

Using Vimy's image to bolster a message of domestic unity is not a unique strategy. Brian Mulroney, the only sitting PM to visit Vimy for one of the major anniversaries, did the same in 1992, 75 years after the historic battle.

With his Meech Lake accord dead and national unity fragile, Mr. Mulroney used his visit to the sacred ground to remind Canadians that "the sacrifices we commemorate today . . . have given us one of the finest examples of solidarity since the foundation of Canada."

Even French president François Mitterrand got into the act when he addressed the crowd, reminding them that Canadians who fought at Vimy had come from all across the country.

Of all prime ministers, however, it is Mr. Harper who appears to be making the most of Vimy Ridge. He has already mentioned the landmark event in several of his speeches, including one given last September at the Economic Club of New York.

There, he told his audience that Vimy "constitutes a reminder of the abiding principles on which our country is based, of the aspirations we share for other peoples and of the actions we are prepared to undertake to make this a better world."

These days, those "actions" certainly include Canada's role in the war in Afghanistan. And when the PM speaks at Vimy on April 9, you can be sure that the occasion will be used to remind everyone back home about the mission in Afghanistan. And no doubt, with an election looming, the national unity card will be played as well.

Whether it is hockey, the land, or our precious military history, if a prime minister can get some mileage from one of the country's most revered icons, he or she is bound to do so. Vimy is one of those moments. The best we can hope for is that the Prime Minister means what he says and does so with eloquence and élan worthy of the occasion.

J. D. M. Stewart teaches Canadian history at the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.

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