Skip navigation

Queen, French leader echo PM's link to Vimy

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

VIMY, FRANCE — The dead soldiers being honoured yesterday had lain in the ground for 90 years. But on every leader's lips, on every observer's mind, was another group of Canadian soldiers, killed in an equally contentious battle on the other side of the world less than 24 hours before.

It was probably inevitable that yesterday's Vimy commemoration would end up being used as a metaphor for the NATO war in Afghanistan -- specially after six Canadian soldiers were killed in a roadside-bomb explosion there Sunday.

But for the 25,000 Canadians here, the connections between the two wars followed very different lines. For some, Vimy is a shining example to the Canada of the 21st century. For others, it is a grim warning.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had invoked the Afghan campaign in a speech to veterans Sunday by drawing direct parallels between Kandahar and Flanders Fields, was careful yesterday to avoid any mention of the latest losses in his address to the crowd before the memorial.

But the Queen and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin were explicit in linking the Canadian sacrifices of 1917 with those of 2007.

After praising the "courage and sacrifice" of the Canadian soldiers, the Queen dedicated the restored monument to their memory and to "those who have so recently lost their lives in Afghanistan."

The Afghan mention was not in the text of the Queen's speech distributed to the press. It was clearly added at the last moment.

Mr. de Villepin's homage to the fallen soldiers in Afghanistan was more extensive and formed a major sub-theme for his speech, which emphasized France's debt to Canada for its role in the defence and liberation of France in two world wars.

He said the heroes of Vimy had died for the same values that continue to unite Canada and France: the values of peace, liberty, tolerance and the respect of mankind.

General Rick Hillier, Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff, was happy to support Mr. Harper's view, expressed in a speech Sunday night, that the sort of military courage and idealism exhibited at Vimy, where 3,598 Canadians died in a four-day effort to gain three kilometres of land, should be the model for Canada's reinvigorated modern military.

"You know, there is a link, one that goes back 90 years," Gen. Hillier said. "We are commemorating that today, we are celebrating the victory of 90 years ago today, but we are also remembering the lives of our six soldiers, and those who continue to serve our country . . . there is a link, certainly, but today, perhaps a little difficult to draw that link because we are thinking of those deaths.

Diplomatic officials said that there was a deliberate effort to draw a link between the two wars. But for some of the 25,000 Canadians here, the link simply wasn't made.

Deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff reiterated his view that the two wars cannot be confused with each other.

"I think we have to be careful," he said. "Vimy was a hard-fought victory and we're in the middle of something in Afghanistan. I think it's right to take pride in our military traditions but we ought to be very, very careful about using them to justify current conflicts. Let's keep them separate."

Other links between the two wars became apparent. The First World War was enormously divisive among the Canadian public. The losses at Vimy caused Ottawa to begin conscripting soldiers, a development that led to riots in Quebec.

Afghanistan, like the First World War, has inspired enormous loyalty among some Canadians and deep resentment among others. Like the First World War, it is a war in a distant country that has no direct influence on Canada, and one that tests loyalty to Canada's military allies, including Britain.

These divisions were dramatically apparent among the 25,000 Canadians spread across the slope of Vimy Ridge yesterday.

A survey of several dozen of the 5,000 high-school students here failed to find a single one who felt that the Afghan war deserved the full support of Canadians. "If there were a challenge to democracy like World War I, I might think about joining up," said Geordie Rose, a 17-year-old West Vancouver resident whose grandfather fought at Vimy. "But not for Afghanistan; it's not the same kind of war, it's a lot more abstract."

Recommend this article? 95 votes

Back to top