First, a caveat: What follows is a lengthy and rambling thought piece on what Remembrance Day means to me, with specific reference to the impact of my current location and context on that. For most people this will likely be very boring. Nevertheless, I feel it’s important to think about and share thoughts on a day like this. If you’re just interested in what I’ve been up to, the following will likely suffice: I went to the Vimy Ridge Memorial with my travel companions on the way back from Belgium to Trier. It was cold, rainy, and above all, moving. I’m glad I got the experience.
I promise I’ll try to write shorter and more entertaining posts in the future. Like I said though, I think this one is important.
Now, if you’re still with me, I’ll go on with the boring stuff!
It’s not easy writing or even thinking about Remembrance Day, above all when one is in Germany. I’m not trying to be cheeky there about the wars; rather, I can’t help noticing how much tradition and ceremony connects with space, whereby some actions or observances feel right in one place, but totally false in another. It has little to do with Germany. I’m sure I’d feel the same if I were in Brazil or Taiwan or somewhere else far from home.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on Remembrance Day and what it means for myself as a Canadian often in the last few weeks. Last week I even led a class of Year 12s through a special podcast of the Vinyl Cafe, where host Stuart McLean told his friend Chris Irwin’s story of playing his bagpipes at the Vimy Ridge Memorial. If you’re interested in Canadian navel-gazing, I’d recommend it. I’ve listened to it many times and still find it moving three years later.
Last time in Trier I had wanted to get to Vimy, or perhaps another Canadian war memorial in France, so many that there are. To my disappointment however I just couldn’t seem to work it out. Without a car it’s very difficult to get to many of those places in Northern France and in Belgium. You can understand then that, as our trip to Belgium introduced the possibility of renting a car, I quickly suggested a side trip to the Vimy Ridge Memorial. I wondered, could we make it there for Remembrance Day? It didn’t look like it; we were booked up already anyways, committed to another assistant’s Diwali party that weekend, something we didn’t want to miss. But then while looking at the Veteran Affair’s website and their entry on Vimy, I noticed that this year’s ceremony would be held at the monument on Sunday, 4. Nov. “That’s perfect”, I thought.
In all honesty I more or less forced my plan on the others. This was a chance I didn’t want to miss. It’s only 120km from Bruges to Vimy, an hour’s drive, maybe a bit more; in any event, nothing of consequence to a group of North Americans. Whitney, Chris, and Patty, like all good Americans, were up for anything. I easily swayed Beth too, as she has her own relationship with the day.
On that Sunday morning we checked out of our hostel and piled back into our car, bidding a final farewell to the hostel cat. Our route lay to the southwestward, a route which would take us by Paschendaele, Ieper (Ypres), and on to Arras, names that are so important in the Canadian historical consciousness though they lay so far from our own borders.
We found the monument easily enough outside the small village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, a few kilometres north of Vimy itself. The Government of Canada has clearly marked signs (the large red maple leaves give them away) directing visitors from the highway to the site. Upon our arrival you could hardly see the monument, shrouded as it was in a deep, thick fog. I could only make them out because I had been expecting them. I knew their shape from photographs, but above all from seeing their replicas in the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.
I had been in Ottawa on a Rotary-sponsored trip, the theme or title of which was “Adventures in Citizenship.” The week-long trip brought together young Canadians from the West, East, middle, and even North of Canada to our nation’s capital to discuss, debate, and learn from one another what being Canadian means. The experience opened my eyes to the breadth and variety of the Canadian experience. I’m sure it kindled my interest in the question that is Canada as well. As a disenchanted Westerner you learn quickly that, rather than sticking out from the rest, you find yourself part of a unity in disunity (a pity then that this is not our normal way of discussing what it means to be Canadian. But that’s another conversation).
And yet despite or perhaps even because of this disunity, there are occasions that somehow manage to bring us together, a mari usque ad mare ad mare. Some are positive, like the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, especially the final men’s game. Others are less positive, like questions of sovereignty.
We face large questions about unity in Canada, and what it means to remain together, if we even should. I have no answers to these questions. But I feel they’re important, because they illuminate our history and how things aren’t always as easy as they seem. In lieu of easy definitions of Canadianness, we bicker among ourselves and point fingers, opportunistically making then rejecting allies. That we all struggle in this way brings us together.
Powerful then that such a place as Vimy can bring people together as it does. Not people interested in war mongering or jingoism, at least I hope not. But people for whom this place, this monument, is important, even if we can’t define why that it is. The fact that we feel it and that we struggle with it is, I think, enough.
It was moving standing beneath those pillars as the fog turned into pouring rain, then, as the ceremony ended, the breaking sunlight. It’s hard to describe what exactly you feel there. One feels the presence, the weight, of history. Not the history of a European war, but of a people reflecting on their communal past from the safety of the present. I’m not one to argue that Vimy or the War galvanized Canadians into a coherent national identity. That’s a ridiculous idea. But that doesn’t mean our remembrance of the war and those places doesn’t play some part in our national consciousness.
We are, to quote Thomas King, the stories we tell about ourselves. Our stories tell us who we think we are, becoming our truth, our identity. They are powerful.
People criticize Remembrance Day, saying it celebrates war. While I believe much of the language around it does, that isn’t the point. The very observance and communal act of remembrance brings us together, offering us a rare moment of unity when, across the country, people go silent and listen in sadness to the speeches and prayers, and, to quote Stuart McLean’s Chris Irwin, “to feel the silence at the pipe tune’s end.” Moments like these humble us. They make us feel small and sad and thankful and, maybe, selfish, in awe of such horror and death on a scale so many of us in Canada today have thankfully never experienced.
Why do I observe Remembrance Day, why do I Remember? I’m not sure. My parents taught me to, told me that it was important. When I went off to university in Victoria I could have stopped going to ceremonies. Still I found myself going downtown every 11. November to the legislature in the Victoria harbour. It has been a part of my life for so long now, and I felt sad, almost ashamed, when I didn’t know how to observe in 2009/2010 as I was in Trier for the first time. As much as I had wanted to, it didn’t make sense.
Since then I’ve thought about things more. And I’ve observed my silence at Vimy, under those white marble pillars of memory and hope, and with a hundred of my shivering countrymen from around Europe and four good friends at my side.
I’ve spent more time considering history. Grad school will do that to you, making you insufferable to have around as you consider everything in nauseating depth and detail. I can’t help it now though. We should however consider the past, and the role memory plays in defining who we are. Our memories, what we choose to remember, and the stories we tell, are unique to us as individuals. By collectively coming together in silence we approach harmony, a peace and stillness and time for reflection so often absent from our noisy everyday lives.