The lingering political problem of World War I: Tories vs. Boulerice and beyond

Thoughts on refighting the past

It’s fascinating to see controversy stirred up over an old blog post by NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice in which he called World War I “a purely capitalist war” and lamented how, at the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, “thousands of poor wretches were slaughtered to take possession of a hill.”

Conservatives, led by Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, have expressed outrage and demanded Boulerice apologize. So far, he hasn’t. For the record, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair had already released a statement praising the legendary efforts of Canadians soldiers in the landmark battle. [I've clarified this sentence since an earlier version might have left the impression Mulcair issued the statement only after the Boulerice blog became an issue.]

I’m not sure how reflecting on the tragedy of thousands dying to capture a height of land would be inconsistent with acknowledging their military prowess in doing so, much less insulting to veterans. More interesting, I think, is the strangeness of how World War I can remain a politically fraught subject nearly a century on.

And I wonder if the Conservatives are quite so comfortable about the 1914-1918 war as their criticism of Boulerice might suggest. Consider how they treat Robert Borden, Canada’s World War I prime minister. A 2011 Maclean’s survey of historians on Canada’s prime ministers ranked John A. Macdonald, of course, the top Conservative (in second spot, after Liberal Wilfrid Laurier) and pegged Borden as the next highest-rated Tory PM (in eighth position overall).

Now, given the enthusiasm of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government for finding ways to celebrate Conservative political heritage by naming things after Tory icons, wouldn’t you expect the party’s No. 2 all-time great’s name to be prominently featured? After all, everything can’t be named after Macdonald, and Harper has already rechristened a road and a building for him.

Yet Borden is all but ignored. He’s not just overshadowed by Sir John A. Even John Diefenbaker—who rates two slots below Borden on the Maclean’s list in tenth—gets far more attention, including having both an icebreaker and a prominent Ottawa edifice, at 111 Sussex Drive, near Harper’s house, named for him.

I suspect the reason Borden hasn’t gotten his due is because of the long-lingering controversy over the 1917 Conscription Crisis. As we all learned in school, Borden’s imposing of mandatory military service late in the war exposed the rift between English Canada, which had enthusiastically backed the war effort, and French Canada, where feelings were far more ambivalent.

English-speaking MPs voted for conscription way back when, while French-speaking MPs opposed it. Apparently, a residue of that old split remains. But while Conservative cabinet ministers today slam Boulerice and urge an unequivocally positive view of how World War I was when Canada “came of age,” I wonder if they will use the upcoming 1914 anniversary of the war’s start to begin celebrating Borden, or if the bitter complexities of history will continue to render that politically unwise.




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The lingering political problem of World War I: Tories vs. Boulerice and beyond

  1. A big strength of Canada is IRs and Quebec give us a chance for best-practices picking. I weakness is the Cons are too hawkish and the NDP/Bloc too passive. Soccer is officiated in a way that makes the top-tier players emotionally underdeveloped, appealing for fouls. And the NBA could use an extra defender, hard fouls allowed if players leave their feet to shoot, more shot clock for more 7ft passes, WWF style floors. Soccer is just happy not to WWIII, ruining Northern Europe’s positive influence (a little religion is okay but too much limits biomedical research). The biggest flaw of the American ethic isn’t market forces, it is that the cowboy culture presupposes no government. Liberty from WMDs and Tyranny should’ve been. The Tyrannies in Europe were easily converted to nearby democracies.

  2. I don’t believe Canada “came of age” due to a war, or even more specifically the great sacrifice of those who served. If it did I wouldn’t think much of a people who saw mayhem and the death of their fellow citizens, as the defining moment in their history.

    Formative moments in Canada’s history are numerous and complex; not easy selling points for any politician who values self-serving rhetoric over substantive fact. We must honour those who served and serve our country but make the distinction that we hate what they must do, just as a doctor regrets they pain they sometimes inflict in their effort to heal.

    As well, the naming and renaming of buildings, etc. to honour politicians is absolute foolishness. I would argue that naming anything after a single person is most often wrong. Who amongst us is perfect, and therefore deserving of such honour? I would like to return to the use of adjectives and adverbs as much as possible, or even simple nouns such as geographic locations. (Think Protecteur or Enterprise.)

    Ideologues typically attempt to sway public opinion to their own narrow views, while people of good intentions and intellect encourage numerous views and open discussion.

    • I agree and think that armchair versions of military history as our defining moments overlook the intense and personal relationship with the land around us that formed our economic survival and national identity. While most of Europe was already urbanized some Canadians were digging sod houses on the prairies and growing their first wheat crop for export. Fishermen were rowing out to catch cod and bring back to a plant that sold the catch onto somewhere with a larger population.

      While US citizens were reading 2 pound newspapers in 1950′s New York and Chicago, forestry workers in Canada were still cutting pulpwood with swede saws (in both English and French Canada btw) and hauling it to mills by horse and river drive. Geography, including immigration has had much more to do with our sense of self and nationhood than a faraway battle or series of battles, however noble or ignoble.

  3. I’m not sure the Harper government has ever let the “complexities of history” spoil an opportunity for them to be obnoxious.

  4. “More interesting, I think, is the strangeness of how World War I can remain a politically fraught subject nearly a century on.”

    But that is what happens when there are competing perspectives on history. National governments always insist that every “sacrifice” was “not in vain” even when that is arguable and the costs and benefits of the war were inequitable to say the least. See for instance (U of T history prof) Robert Johnson’s excellent Ideas program Revising History about the still contentious Soviet/Russian debate on World War II:

    http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2013/04/03/revising-history-part-1-1/

  5. I keep thinking one day i’ll wake up and these CPC clowns will have grown up, abandoned or toned down their ideological fire alarm; in short recognized a nation’s history and politics as being complex and multi- faceted.

    In one sense WW1 was a capaltist war – certainly there were reports of factory owners on both sides colluding with one another to make sure their assets remained undamaged as possible – but that’s not all it was of course. Nor does it detract from the bravery of the poor sods, who mostly willingly trudged off to fight it. Their sacrifice, mostly for one another – not some abstract political ideal, was both heroic and worth remembering. But we should remember the whole package – the incompetence of the officers – particularly the British and French ones; the sordid pointless aims of the war, fought by men too short sighted to see what they were setting up for the next generation, when the ordinary men and women of this country would once again have to trudge off to die for many of the blunders of their so called betters. Always it was thus. No reason not too honour the men and women who made the sacrifice regardless.

    We need to see it all. Remember the valour while not glorying in it for political or nostalgic purposes; listen to and read the heart breaking poetry of men like Owen, Brooke and Macrae.

    And watch the brilliant documentaries, like the ground breaking one that was done for the NFB, by i believe the legendary Donald Brittain.[ Was that his name? I haven't seen one of his docs in years. And i haven't been able to find that one online. He did a marvelous one on the bureaucrazy in Ottawa too if i remember right?]

    Harper’s boys and girls will go down in history as a thoroughly myopic, ideologically driven, bunch of nostalgia addicted Tory philistines…and proud of it too.
    Just what has Canada done to ever deserve them?

    • You have no clue about the origin and history of this country.
      You would prefer a Goverment that would roll over and accept this kind of cowardly trash from a comfortable union organizer like Boulerice.
      A Justin Trudeau government would be such a government.
      That is only one of the reasons why he will go no further than leader of a pitiful Liberal party.

      • You’re an idiot. You have absolutely no idea what I know about the history of this country. But I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts I’ve read a good deal more about it than you, even though I was schooled in UK history, rather than Canadian.
        And for your info i haven’t even bothered to read Boulerice’s remarks. Its probably as one sided and ideologically biased as you Tory clowns.

        • “I’ve read more about it than you…” Good gawd, my great uncle was gassed at Passchendaele and even though he lived to an old age, he always had trouble catching his breath between words. My uncle came home to work on the family farm to avoid the conscription. Do you really think that being born and raised in another country, you know more about how this war impacted everyday Canadians than those of us who had family who were impacted by that war?

          • I’m sorry, could you possibly twist my comment into even more of a bizarre pretzel than you already have. Get some perspective lady; your over defensiveness is a little too obvious. And least you forget lots of Brits died bravely in that pointless war too.

      • Another pitiful, party flack who thinks history is what his glorious leader says it is.
        Those brave dead are just another tool to be used as Harper wishes to try and give him some military credibility, because heaven knows he needs all the help he can get in that area. Harper and Blaney are just some more con chickenhawks using the memories of others as a cheap boost to their own aims, all the while cutting the support for injured vets and procuring crap equipment that helps his corporate backers.

    • “factory owners on both sides colluding with one another to make sure their assets remained undamaged as possible.”
      Hmmmm… citation please.

      • Go read a book or two.

        It may be just apocryphal [i'm not a history major myself] but it was certainly a wide spread assertion at the time and since.

        • There was no collusion between factory owners. You’re incorrect and misinformed. Don’t believe everything you “read”. I should know. I was there.
          — God

  6. WWI was a war of empire with houses of royalty jockeying for supremacy to make sure their empire came out on top. It was a waste of a generation, and was a contributing cause of WWII. That our young people were slaughtered in the name of a dying empire should upset people. Saying so does not demean their sacrifice. What it means is that politicians sent that generation to its death for no good reason. It’s why we should never forget, and never allow politicians to pull the wool over our eyes again when it comes to war. But as we’ve seen [Iraq anyone? A decade in Afghanistan just 12 years after Russia pulled out of a useless 10 year occupation of Afghanistan] we consistently fail to learn from our own history.

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