by Adam Kostrich
Nov. 11, our Remembrance Day, marks the signing of the armistice which ended the First World War 96 years ago. Because 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak, present-day governments of the war’s supposedly victorious Entente powers — the only nations which formally celebrate the end of the war — are celebrating this anniversary with monumental pomp and ceremony. In most of these countries the celebrations will continue over the next four years. Some have created national commissions for this very purpose.
As each nation’s experience of the war was different, so are their acts of collective memory. These acts are united not only by their common origin but their fiscal and social cost. Millions in public funds are being spent on commemorating the war at a time when austerity budgets are cutting essential services including, ironically, state services for the welfare of war veterans.
This feature looks at planned and existing commemoration of the First World War in Canada and other nations in this light.
Promoting Canada’s military history has been a focus of the Harper government since it came to power in 2006. The First World War’s centennial is merely one part of a series of commemorative programs which began with the $28 million commemoration of the War of 1812’s bicentennial two years ago and includes planned celebrations of the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, both in 2017.
The eight year project, named “Operation Distinction,” was, according to documents released by Access to Information requests completed in March, mandated and overseen by the Prime Minister himself. It will run until 2020, ending with the commemoration of a battle in the Boer War.
The same documents revealed that, although Operation Distinction does not have a budgeted cap, most of the money for the project will come from the Department of National Defence’s operational budget. In fact, the brunt of the cost will be borne by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).
The VAC budgets for 2013-14 and 2014-15 reveal that while overall funding is set to drop, and will continue to drop into 2015-16, most (small) funding increases contribute to the execution of Operation Distinction.
Existing programs for health and disability care for returning veterans will take a hit. Disability and death compensation will fall four per cent. Funding for the VAC’s health care and re-establishment program will fall 4.2 per cent. This amounts to almost $140 million in cuts.
Spending for the Canada Remembers program, however — a branch of VAC whose mandate is to “keep alive the achievements and sacrifices made by those who served Canada in times of war, armed conflict and peace and to promote an understanding of the significance of these efforts in Canadian life as we know it today,” and which will almost certainly foot the bill for Operation Distinction — is up nearly $10 million, or over 20 per cent.
These are just the latest in a long line of budget cuts for VAC. Cuts dating back to 2006 and extending into the future are projected to save the government nearly $260 million by 2016.
Some of these cuts actually affect how and whether veterans see any pension or disability money at all. In 2006, the Harper government enforced Liberal legislation under the heading of the New Veterans Charter (NVC). Under this charter veterans are awarded a lump-sum payment for non-economic (read: permanent physical, mental, or emotional) losses. The maximum payout under the NVC is $350,000. (Before 2006, disabled soldiers were eligible for a tax-free pension for life of roughly $31,000.)
This summer, it was revealed that nearly half of Canada’s most severely wounded veterans were seeing no money from this agreement at all and that 92 per cent of Canada’s most severely wounded veterans receive the lowest grade of allowance support.
In the wake of these hotwater accusations, VAC’s advertising budget rose by $4 million this year. Part of this money was used to sustain an advertising campaign during the NHL playoffs in May to counteract public criticism of the new charter.
Yet public criticism continued and organized opposition has sprung up. Earlier this year, several veterans groups announced a co-ordinated campaign to remove the Harper government from office in next year’s election. In response, the Harper government capitulated and announced on Oct. 1 that it would revamp the way in which disability and pension payments are handed out.
Regardless of the government’s promises, these numbers and stories ought to raise the question: What is our government really doing to support veterans? The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is in a place of perpetual honour, a stone’s throw away from Parliament and a rhetorical phrase away from eternity. Our known soldiers, on the other hand, are shoved aside, physically and financially crippled by their service.
While we’re considering whether or not the Harper government could better spend public money on memory of war and those who participated in wars, we should also consider who is included and excluded from these forums of commemoration and what this means for our sense of national identity and self.
This just goes to highlight how the war, specifically the Battle of Vimy Ridge, is often popularly (and uncritically) seen as a watershed in Canadian independence. Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently stated that “Canada as an independent nation was forged in the fires of the First World War,” but this ignores not only the fact that Anglo-Canadians in 1914-18 would have viewed such a bold declaration as downright treasonous to the British Empire, but that it is a laughably one-dimensional interpretation of the significance of the war for Canada.
Wars, let alone national identities, mean very different things to different people involved. For many Canadians — be they Francophones, Indigenous, working-class immigrants, the list goes on — continued involvement in the war rose tensions to the point where our conscription crisis of 1917-18 nearly tore the nation apart.
This happens on the local as well as the national level. During last week’s Remembrance Day ceremony in Toronto, Indigenous veteran Davyn Calfchild and two other men carrying First Nations flags were arrested at Toronto’s city hall for protesting the lack of Indigenous representation in the ceremony. One Indigenous veteran’s affairs group estimates that 12,000 Indigenous people participated in the Canadian forces during the two World Wars and the Korean War.
As Canadian historian Robert J. Talbot writes, “rather than having been “forged in fire,” Canada’s constitutional evolution was a gradual, decades-long and (relatively) peaceful process. It was driven more by the political necessities of compromise and accommodation than by any desire to thump our chests on the international stage.” Perhaps more importantly (and concerning), “the imagery [that Harper’s statement] conjure[s] up — of swords instead of ploughshares — suggests a readiness for future violence in asserting the nation’s worth.”
Dutch historian Eeclo Runia writes that commemoration is self-exploration. For generations which experienced the trauma of the First World War, commemoration purges the experience; for generations such as ours, generations which have had no existential trauma to face, we commemorate out of “a desire for reality,” regarding survivors of trauma much like the men who walked on the moon; as those “who have stared at the face of ‘truths’ which normal life keeps hidden from us.”
To this end, Runia writes, “The more we commemorate what we did, the more we transform ourselves into people who did not do it.” But we continue to “do it” — we support through our silence the killing of innocents, the occupation of unceded lands, and the perpetuation and the deepening of those socio-economic conditions which lead to tension and violent strife. If in commemorating the past we isolate it by rendering its significance historical and national, rather than acknowledging that it lives today and effects each of us as members of the same human species, then our commemoration — paid for as it is by lifting money from essential social services and at a time when we participate in organized violence, albeit indirectly — is somewhat empty.
There must be a better way to remember. One which revolves around a humane, rather than historical, treatment of veterans. One which pledges to realize rather than idolize Peace. One which works anxiously, fervently, collectively and tirelessly for disarmament and divestment from the war industries that bring great wars about and keep them raging for us, but far away from us.
What follows is an account of how other supposedly victorious nations have spent public money on commemorating the war along nationalist lines. The hundreds of millions of dollars listed here is not exhaustive, but it should paint a picture, and hopefully stir our imaginations, of better ways to remember.
Along with Belgium, French territory saw most of the fighting on the war’s Western front. A total of 1.7 million French soldiers and civilians died in the First World War, more than any other Entente power.
The totality of these losses have led the French government to focus on recovering the stories of their war dead. It has set up 70 different stations for citizens to drop family records, photographs, diaries, and anything else which might help put a face on known or unknown casualties.
President Francois Hollande’s government also commissioned an €8 million “ring of remembrance” to commemorate over 800,000 German, British, French, and other soldiers who died in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France throughout the war.
The German government has come under fire from inside and outside its borders for its lack of open commemoration. Some still blame Germany for the start of the war (as the Entente powers did in the infamous War Guilt Clause of the Treaty of Versailles 95 years ago). This hangover of perceived guilt and the cumulative effects of both world wars on German historical consciousness is perhaps responsible for subdued national remembrance of the events. Thus Germany, unlike the so-called victorious nations, does not formally celebrate the war’s end on Nov. 11. Still, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government committed €4.7 million to commemorate the war earlier this year.
Belgian territory saw untold carnage on the Western front, and most of it was occupied by Germans for the duration of the war. The city of Flanders has earmarked €55 million for commemorative projects; the national government is spending even more on an extended run of exhibitions, lectures, and historical research on Belgian involvement in the war.
The United Kingdom has earmarked £50 million to fund national centenary commemorations, focusing on major events in British experience of the war (including the opening of the Battle of the Somme and the 1918 armistice). Most famous of these was the unveiling of a moat of 800,000 ceramic poppies around London’s Peace Tower this month.
An additional £5 million was allocated for the redevelopment of the Imperial War Museum, and a further £5.3 million will fund battlefield tourism by English students.
In 2012, the Australian government set aside $83.5 million for a seven-year program commemorating Australian involvement in the First World War. The money has been used to refurbish art galleries, soldiers’ graves, and war memorials, and is being used to support a number of multimedia initiatives to emphasize Australia’s military history, including (according to a 2012 government report) “the setting up of an Arts and Culture Fund to support individuals, artists, and cultural institutions to develop commemorative displays and artistic creations to showcase Australian military history.” The money is also being used to prepare and fund a travelling showcase of Australian First World War memorabilia and prepare and fund a restaging of the launch of Australian ships for Gallipoli, the Vimy Ridge equivalent of Australian involvement in WWI.
New Zealand’s national government has set aside more than $22 million for commemorative projects. Between $7-10 million has been set aside for local commemorations, and the rest has been earmarked for “one or more large-scale projects of national significance.”
This article first appeared in the Leveller, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Nov/Dec 2014).