The deaths yesterday of six Canadian soldiers from the Royal Canadian Regiment on a dusty road west of Kandahar city represent this country's largest single-day loss in war since May 1953. A solemn Prime Minister Stephen Harper broke the news to veterans gathered in France for commemoration of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which began on Easter Monday 90 years ago. Said the Prime Minister of the casualties: "Our hearts ache for them and their families." The loss gives Canadians today added cause for reflection on the bravery and sacrifice of their soldiers.
Vimy is important for many reasons. It was the first time that Canadians fought for king and country as a distinct national army, with all four divisions of the Canadian Corps entering the battle together. Their determined walk across no man's land, behind a creeping artillery barrage -- the largest in history up to that point -- called for almost unimaginable courage. The risk of death was extreme, and the losses were horrendous: more than 10,000 casualties, including 3,598 killed. Yet it ended in a monumental victory.
Canadian soldiers captured a strategic high ground, a fortified German position that French and British troops had repeatedly attacked over two years but failed to win. Not only did the victory at Vimy Ridge, along with other great Canadian sacrifices at the Somme and Passchendaele, help to turn the tide against Germany in the First World War, but they also helped to lay the groundwork for Canadian independence, resulting in Canada becoming a separate signatory to the Treaty of Versailles. Vimy Ridge is aptly characterized by historians as representing Canada's "coming of age."
Despite its great military and historical importance to Canada, there is a pervasive and persistent ignorance about the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The Dominion Institute has been monitoring public awareness about Vimy since 1998, and the results show awareness levels consistently between 33 per cent and 36 per cent. This has been interpreted by some as a good result, demonstrating that the historical memory is not eroding with time and with the passing of elderly Canadians, and suggesting that some young people are learning about Vimy and retaining that awareness.
However, the levels of recognition are, over all, still remarkably low. Is it enough that about one-third of Canadians, and only 25 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34, when asked this question -- "Canada's most famous single victory in the First World War consisted of the capture of a key ridge on the Western Front. What was this battle called?" -- can correctly answer, "Vimy Ridge"?
There have been efforts to perpetuate the memory of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and some of those will bear fruit today, with the expected presence of 5,000 Canadian high-school students among those who gather for commemorations led by the Queen and Prime Minister at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.
Still, Canadians have not done a particularly good job of popularizing a watershed moment in Canada's history. Imagine what our American neighbours would have done with a monumental story like the Battle of Vimy Ridge had it been a U.S. victory. Official Canada at least is doing its part. Today, joining the descendants of those who fought will be the grand-daughter of the king for whom they fought. The Queen will rededicate the striking and solemn Canadian memorial atop Vimy Ridge. She will then speak, her words no doubt a tribute to the sacrifice of nine decades ago and a reminder of the soldiers' gift to all Canadians, a gift of nationhood.
All Canadians need to be aware of that poignant fact and, with the deaths in Afghanistan yesterday, aware also that it is the sacrifice of soldiers that keeps Canada strong and free.