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Vimy 'affirmed our national identity'

PM hails First World War bloody assault as a coming-of-age moment for Canada

From Monday's Globe and Mail

ARRAS, FRANCE — Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid tribute to the "spectacular victory" of Canadian Forces at the historic Battle of Vimy Ridge today as thousands gathered to mark the 90th anniversary of the bloody assault.

"The events here 90 years ago were, for our country, a coming of age," Mr. Harper said in a speech to a ceremony marking the anniversary in the main square of this town in northern France, 10 kilometres from Vimy.

"At the Battle of Vimy Ridge, troops representing all four divisions of the Canadian army fought together for the first time, achieving a spectacular victory that affirmed our national identity and national character."

The Queen is to rededicate the Vimy memorial, the massive limestone monument to Canada's war dead in the First World War, at a ceremony today attended by Mr. Harper and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. The memorial, completed in 1936, has just undergone a $20-million refurbishment to reverse years of water damage and general deterioration.

In Arras, Canadian troops were granted Freedom of the City, a symbolic gesture representing the historic ties between the town of 43,000 -- which was virtually destroyed during the war -- and Canada. The ceremony included participation by 300 members of the Canadian Forces, along with marching bands from Canada, France and Britain.

Massive wooden doors were erected in the middle of the square through which the Canadian Forces sought and received authorization to enter the city.

Earlier, Mr. Harper and his family participated in an ecumenical Easter service in the village of Vimy, just a short distance from Canada's Vimy memorial.

Accompanied by his wife, Laureen, and their children, Ben, 10, and Rachel, 7, the Harpers participated in the private service alongside Canadian officials, members of the military and the RCMP.

The simple stone church was flattened during the war, along with most of the village and was rebuilt soon after. Its stained-glass windows, depicting war scenes, are dedicated to "Brave Canada."

Mr. Harper noted in his speech that the battle had a particular meaning to his family. Mrs. Harper's great uncle, James Teskey, fell in the Battle of Arras at 19 and is buried in one of the hundreds of cemeteries dotting the landscape of northern France.

After the service, the Harpers travelled to Canadian Cemetery No. 2, a pristine burial place where rows of Canadian and British soldiers are buried in the 100-hectare park surrounding the memorial.

Clutching her father's hand, Rachel peered at the gravestones, many of which carry no name, only the simple inscription, "A Soldier of the Great War" and beneath it "Known Unto God."

The anniversary events have attracted pilgrims from Canada and Britain, some with a personal connection to the site, others with none.

"My father fought at Vimy," said Senator Norman Atkins, a Conservative from Toronto. "I'm the only politician here who has a direct link to the First War."

"I'm here for my grandfather," said Carolyn Grant, a retired nurse from Winnipeg. "He was Private Frank Willis. He was a stretcher bearer. He died on Aug. 15, 1917 during the Battle of Hill 70 near Lens. We have no gravesite for him."

Pte. Willis is one of the 11,285 Canadians who fell in France with no known grave, who is memorialized on the base of the Vimy memorial.

Ms. Grant and her son, a Hercules mechanic for the RCAF, travelled to the Vimy memorial on Saturday to look for their forebear's name. "We found it last night," she said. "It was very moving. . . . When they lit it up, it was awe-inspiring."

Danny Shanahan and his 16-year-old son, in contrast, have no familial ties to Vimy Ridge or the First World War. "I'm patriotic. It's a passion of mine," said the 48-year-old civil engineer from Mimico, a Toronto suburb.

Vimy also has significance to the British, whose soldiers fought and were killed alongside the Canadians in seizing the ridge. Maureen Unsworth, a retired nurse from Bolton, England, travelled to Arras with her husband, daughter and son-in-law to honour her grandfather, who fought in the Battle of Arras.

"We've been doing it on a regular basis, a couple of visits a year," she said.

For residents of Arras, the ceremony also evoked memories, although nothing as clearly emotional as the gratitude still felt by the Dutch for the Canadians who liberated them during the Second World War. The crowd was polite but the numbers in the square were disappointingly small and there was a lack of exuberance.

Collette and Pierre Hoburg said they were immersed in talk of the First World War growing up.

"We have a particular regard for the Canadians. It's as if they are our brothers," said Mr. Hoburg, a retired salesman.

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