Yesterday, the prime minister attended a ceremony to mark Canada's entry into the First World War. The standard interpretation of Canada's part in that war is that we blindly followed Britain to war. But we emerged from it a mature, independent nation. Andrew Cohen writes that the one hundredth anniversary of that war is a good time to ask some hard questions. After all,
It was a wasting conflict – a slaughterhouse, really – killing more Canadians than all of Canada’s wars before or since. As the superb historian Tim Cook says: “It was a total, unlimited war … felt all the way back through Canadian society.”
Some 620,000 Canadians served, of whom 60,000 died. It was devastating in a country of eight million; today, the equivalent would be 250,000 dead.
But was it worth it? And would we do it again?
In a fine essay in the current Maclean’s, Peter Shawn Taylor puts some of these questions to leading historians and commentators. He comes up with some hard truths.
One is that the Great War evoked a depth of sacrifice in a conservative, Christian, rural, lily-white, Anglo-Saxon country that seems “unfathomable” today. Canada was a more deferential society, half its population of British descent, willing to follow the mother country into the killing fields.
In reflecting on the Great War a century after its outbreak, what is striking is the consensus that Canada could mount no such effort today, that we lack the kind of pride, attachment or national honour that that enterprise demanded.
These days, our patriotism is rather facile:
These paroxysms around the Olympics or other boasts (the strength of our banking system, our successful multiculturalism) inevitably bring a predictable breathlessness. We’re the best in the world! We’re the greatest!
This is what passes for patriotism in Canada in 2014. It demands nothing of us. Our pride in country, however real, does not seem to manifest itself in anything very substantial, such as volunteerism, voting, or national service, community or military.
Our prime minister talks like General Patton. But he treats voters as consumers:
Balance the budget, keep cell-phone rates low, fill in the potholes. No big ideas or no national projects, please.
On the other hand, that very attitude might have kept us out of World War I. And, one hundred years later, the whole enterprise seems rather futile.