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Earlier Q&A

Michael Valpy on the making of the Vimy myth

Globe and Mail Update

"Canadians and their Queen today are commemorating the 90th anniversary of one of the country's most enduring pieces of mythology — a minor battle for a French hill, transformed by alchemy into Canada's defining moment of nationhood," Michael Valpy wrote Saturday in his article Vimy Ridge: The making of a myth

"Canadians, and only Canadians, call it the Battle of Vimy Ridge . . . In everyone else's historical lexicons, it was a limited tactical victory in the First World War's horrendous Battle of Arras, which the British and their allies lost.

"It had a negligible effect on the war's outcome. The Canadians had equal casualties and more strategic successes in other battles, such as Amiens and Passchendaele. If French or British rather than Canadian troops had driven the German enemy off Vimy Ridge, history probably would have forgotten about it."

The victory at Vimy has become inseparable from the Canadian identity. But how it got that status is a murkier matter, and a more interesting one.

Mr. Valpy has kindly agreed to take questions about his article and about the facts and myths of Vimy. Your questions and his answers appear at the bottom of this page.

Mr. Valpy is a senior writer for The Globe and Mail.

He began his journalistic career on The Vancouver Sun and became that newspaper's associate editor and national political columnist. For The Globe and Mail, he has been a member of the editorial board, Ottawa political columnist, Africa correspondent, deputy managing editor and columnist on social and political issues.

He has produced public affairs documentaries for CBC Radio, written for Maclean's, Elm Street, Policy Options and Time (Canada) magazines, won three national newspaper awards, co-authored two books on Canada's Constitution -- The National Deal (1982) and To Match A Dream (1998) -- and one on Canada's emerging generation of adults (New Canada (2003). Trent University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1997.

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Jim Sheppard, Executive Editor, globeandmail.com: Michael, thanks very much for coming online today to answer questions from the readers of globeandmail.com about your excellent article Saturday on the myth-making — and the facts — that surround the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

As you predicted last week before the article was published, it drew a huge response from our readers.

Given that the reality doesn't quite match the traditional interpretation, why do you think Vimy remains such an emotional symbol for so many Canadians?

Michael Valpy: Jim, if I may, I want to begin with a reference to the nearly 300 comments on the article posted on the Globe's website over the weekend and the letters to the editor published in this morning's paper.

The article was not a denigration of Canadians' sacrifice in the First World War. Quite the contrary.

It wasn't a vituperative attack on Christianity as one poster alleged. It wasn't permeated with Marxist analysis (for heaven's sake!) It wasn't aimed at eviscerating pride in Canadian accomplishments. It wasn't cynical. I am one of the least cynical people I know.

But I am fascinated by mythology, and the article quite simply was an attempt to unpack the mythology around the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

I perhaps should have been more explicit in defining "myth" and "mythology" — the words don't mean "fabrication," "false" or "untrue." Myth is an alternative way to history of looking at the past. Myth is what we believe to be true at some profound level of our beings whether or not the belief is supported by history (which in itself is always contingent upon interpretation or re-interpretation from the present).

What I explored in the article was why Vimy had been invested with the mythology of being the defining moment of Canadian national consciousness, when history tells us that Canadian troops fought and won more strategically impressive battles elsewhere — as indicated not only by historians but by Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, Canada's senior wartime general — and when Vimy led directly to conscription which, rather than forging the nation, almost fractured it.

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