The victory at Vimy had huge importance for the soldiers at the front and the civilians back home. As one young sergeant at the time put it in a letter home that curiously omitted Ontario’s thousands in the Corps, the victory had been won “by men of Cape Breton, sons of NS and NB, FCs [French-Canadians] & Westerners—all Canucks. Canada may well be proud of the achievement.” Vimy made the Canadian Corps an elite fighting force.
And to many then and today, Vimy truly made Canada a nation.
Canada had gone to war in 1914 as a colony. When Britain was at war, Canada was automatically at war and subject to attack. But in 1917, after two and a half years of fighting, after raising an army of almost 400,000 overseas and at home, many Canadians had begun to believe that Canada was on the verge of gaining genuine autonomy. The victory at Vimy cemented this feeling: Canada had become a nation on the world stage.
But was it? That question played out at the fronts and in Canada through the rest of 1917 and 1918. Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden had been in England and France while the battle at Vimy raged. He exulted in the Corps’ success, but he was horrified by the more than 10,000 killed and wounded in a few days of fighting. The British politicians and generals were pressing Canada hard for more men, and Borden knew that recruiting at home had slowed dramatically. To the prime minister, there was only one answer: conscription.
That issue tore Canada apart, pitting French against English, labour against capital, farmers against city dwellers. Borden offered a coalition to Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier, but this idea failed. There were riots against compulsory service in Montreal from May to September, a sign of the worsening political climate. Borden soon gerrymandered the electorate, giving women relatives of soldiers the vote and taking it away from enemy alien immigrants. Soon farmers’ sons were promised exemption from the draft. In the election in December 1917, the most racist in Canadian history, coalition propagandists deliberately painted francophones as cowards unwilling to defend Canada.
Borden won re-election with a big majority, and soon the army called up 100,000 men, though almost every one of them sought exemption. When the great German attacks of late March 1918 almost broke the British lines, Ottawa cancelled the farmers’ exemptions and chased down all who refused to serve. There were riots and deaths in Quebec City, soldiers shooting civilians on the street. The divide was enormous.
So, was Canada born a nation at Vimy? English-speaking Canadians were largely in favour of the war and conscription, farmers and labour notwithstanding, and the Canadian Corps overseas was disproportionately anglophone. Perhaps the victory helped form an anglo-Canadian nationality.
But French Canada was in a rage, little interested in what it saw as a British imperialist war of no real concern to Canada. Relatively few francophones had enlisted—only one battalion in the Canadian Corps, the 22nd Battalion, was French-speaking, and the imposition of conscription had created fury at the actions of the anglo majority. A Québécois nation in formation? Perhaps.
So was Canada a nation formed at Vimy? Far from it: Canada was instead deux nations divided by the Great War and conscription.
J.L. Granatstein is a historian and former Director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum.
Read the rest of our debunked Vimy myths:
Check out archival images from the battle:
20th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, taking ammunition to forward guns during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917.
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