If we believe that Remembrance Day is about honouring the sacrifice of life in service of high ideals of democracy and freedom, we must believe that all lives laid down in the cause are worth honouring.
A hundred years later, that simple baseline is still to take hold.
We know so little beyond the default image of a Canadian soldier that Indigenous men in uniform or Black Canadian soldiers are still considered an anomaly.
For instance, how many of us have heard of Francis Pegahmagabow, the Anishnaabe chief who is one of the most highly decorated First World War heroes in Canada?
How about the Cree code talkers, whose messages in Cree that the enemy couldn’t decipher helped Allied forces win the Second World War?
My blood flowed as freely as yours, mixed in the fields one could not be distinguished from the other
Yet when we came home, when the nation’s colours were removed
Difference became apparent, not between you and me, God willing never
But in the eyes of those for whom we laid down our lives.
These were some of the examples sent by teachers around the country when asked how they mark Remembrance Day in a way that honours sacrifice but doesn’t elevate colonialism or western imperialism or contribute to nationalist mythmaking.
One place ideas get shaped and set is in schools where students are often uncritically taught what adults themselves learned: that Canada is good, others evil, Canada a winner, others losers, Canada the noble peacemaker among warmongers.
There is truth and untruth to this, but this simplistic one-sided narrative is fuelled by anachronistic aspirations of nation-building. It turns children into adults who are unable to differentiate between insult and critique.
Unpatriotic, they call criticisms of Canadian policies whether it’s higher deportations, shutting the door to refugees or its continued sale of arms to human rights violators. Ungrateful, they say, when the RCMP or police — also sometimes feted at Remembrance Day ceremonies at school — are slammed for their role in ongoing colonialism and racism.
“I spend a lot of time talking about uncomfortable emotions we might experience and defensive reactions we might have when our sense of Canadians being good and kind is challenged,” says Cathryn van Kessel, who teaches future teachers at the University of Alberta.
The nation is already built and we should be ready for more complex narratives.
“I see the more helpful approaches as: recognizing the horrors of war, striving toward better support for veterans (physically and emotionally), working to prevent the myriad of factors that lead to violence and brutality, and avoiding an overly nationalistic approach (i.e., Canada as the hero, other countries evil),” van Kessel says.
Also absent in the narrative of Canada the Good are the experiences of descendants of non-Europeans who served but are ignored, families dealing with the post-traumatic stress of a serving member, refugees and people whose families are still in war zones among others.
“My white grandfather William Craigen fought in World War One,” says Megan Glanfield, a high school teacher at Rick Hansen Public School in Aurora. “What I learned from my grandpa was that war is an atrocity that he never wanted to talk about. From him, I learned that war creates pain. He and others like him have an experience that is deserving of respect but so are many others. To me, the focus is on Armistice and the enduring work and effort that needs to be put into peace because of the traumatic global human toll of war.”
For van Kessel, “The ‘story of Canada’ to some people has been comprised of only Anglophone men of British heritage, and I prefer an emphasis on how a variety of identities contributed to the war effort.”
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In a similar vein, Debbie Donsky, a school effectiveness lead at the Peel District School Board, shared her Remembrance Day slides that honour soldiers of different backgrounds. If there is a slide of King George V visiting soldiers at the Battle of Ypres, there are also images of Black soldiers in the trenches, or Cecilia Butler, the Black woman, who worked for John Inglis Co., a munitions plant.
Here is John Ko Bong, a Chinese Canadian with the 16th Canadian Scottish Reserve in the Second World War and there is his sister Mary Ko Bong who enlisted even before he did.
On other slides are images of Sikh Canadian soldiers, Japanese Canadians and European Jewish refugees.
“Expanding our discussions of those in the Canadian Armed Forces helps prevent unhelpful and potentially dangerous rhetoric like ‘old stock Canadians,’” said van Kessel. “Recognizing the heroic, innovative and courageous people of all ethno-racial identities during Remembrance Day is one tiny step of many that are needed.”