Who we forget when we choose to remember
World War I (WWI) began on June 28th, 1914 due to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, or so we could say it did for the Imperial Allies. Certainly, for those living under imperial rule prior to the First World War, this was just another opportunity for the Allies to gain more power and obtain more resources. At the exploitation of thousands, through starvation and famine, and because of the colonial desires for land and resources, we have the story of WWI.
While the reasoning behind WWI is often thought to be predicated upon worthy ideals, in reality, it was a war motivated by a colonial desire for wealth. Lofty wartime efforts made the narrative of the First World War one of necessity; and here in Canada, we patriotically believe that Canadian soldiers “fought for our freedom” and gave us “our way of life.” In the simplest sense, it becomes a fine opportunity for us to become beneficiaries of freedom and democracy.
The cause of WWI lay deeper, however. Freedom and democracy cleverly glaze over the colonial motivations that too often go unspoken. The war was for the “ownership of materials and men in the darker world,” as the American writer and civil-rights activist W.E. DuBois writes, and it is “the real prize that is setting the nations of Europe at each other's throats today.” Here, DuBois is referring to those in Asia, Africa, South and Central America, the West Indies, and the islands of the South Seas. More specifically, he is referring to those who were already under colonial rule for years prior to WWI, as seen in the Scramble for Africa in the 1880s. It was a time where the motivations for carving up resource-rich nations were not just for economic gain, but also for Europe to gain political supremacy.
This supremacy is nuanced in the understanding that WWI was simply between nations when, in fact, WWI was most evidently between empires. At the time, it was between the Ottoman Empire (which controlled a large part of what is now considered the Middle East) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Turkey). It was largely driven by colonial motives to conquer land and oil reserves. These empires were not simply independent countries fighting for safety, but rather empires that sought wealth and expansion. Thus, the uncomfortable truth remains: “our way of life” is dependent upon the exploitation of people in what DuBois terms the “darker countries.”
The result of such exploitation resulted in the Darker Countries being coerced into a war, which only served to benefit the Empires. Persia, which is now modern Iran, was never part of an empire, and declared their neutrality in WWI early on. Sadly, Persia had oil and became a key source of British occupation, who reaped the benefit of Persia’s rich reserves at the expense of a region that is often forgotten in WWI history classes. The result was a famine in Persia that killed over 2 million citizens.
Yet, these kinds of colonial subjects are overlooked in wartime history, if not completely ignored. We do not mention Persia in our commemoration because we risk losing the positive rhetoric of Canadian soldiers being the necessary saviours of our nation. The result is ritualistic Remembrance Day ceremonies that perpetrate Canada as a victor who “gave us our freedoms.” Yet, I question: what freedom, and for who? Canada’s freedom was not under threat, and WWI surely did not remedy any pre-existing problems. If we assume that the lush wealth and modernity of Canada were obtained through the trenches of WWI, we are only overlooking the more abstract reality: it was obtained through greed. Alas, there lies a cautionary tale for what can happen when capitalism takes precedent.
For Canada, the narrative of WWI is not much different from our Allied forces; we remember the Great War as something of a necessity, and as something that would prompt the “Birth of a Nation.” Yet, Canada itself was never placed at risk. We joined WWI as Allies of Britain, and then made the legendary claims that Canadian soldiers fought for “our freedom” and for “our way of life.” These claims are unlikely to be surprising for any Canadian who has grown up in the public-school system, and who has partaken in Remembrance Day ceremonies. Bagpipes, poppies and “In Flanders Fields” are all too familiar for the average Canadian citizen.
But nothing takes precedent like the story of Vimy Ridge. The idea that Canada fought and defeated a battle that no other could – it gave us a legendary story to identify ourselves with. The problem here is that labelling the Vimy story with such victorious terms overlooks too many realities that go unsaid: Vimy, for one, was not just fought by Canadians, it was also conquered by Allied forces. Yet more than anything, this perceived victory just becomes a falsified legend to assume a positive narrative of Canada.
Some scholars have pointed out the shortcomings of the Vimy Ridge mythology in its nationalistic attempt to highlight how exceptional Canada is. We overstate the positive aspects of the Vimy story, which assumes a victory that claimed benefits for Canada as a nation. We commemorate Vimy Ridge because it paints a picture with broad strokes to tell a comfortable story. We perpetuate this comfortable story in the classroom and in yearly Remembrance Day ceremonies without any kind of critical reflection on what kind of narrative it reinforces.
The sheer structure of the public-school system assumes commemoration as the only way to understand WWI. As it stands, the Royal Canadian Legion Teaching Guide is the primary source for teachers to use as a guide for WWI curriculums. At first blush, the guide seems harmless in its goals. It aims to educate youth in Canada on the importance of Canadian symbols through stories, songs and poems. It assumes a Canadian perspective of WWI that encourages proud reflection over critical critique – and this year, Canada 150 has only exaggerated such patriotism.
The danger here is that the symbolism of Canada’s 150 has placed the emphasis on the ritual act of remembering rather than calling us to critically engage with the implications of WWI. I worry that the overly positive Canada 150 discourse is replacing the need to call ourselves into a deeper understanding of the implications of colonial WWI. As I have reflected on these materials, I now realize the importance of situating myself in relation to WWI.
It has only been this year that I’ve found myself interacting with these types of concepts, and one of the most important realizations I made in doing so, was recognizing that Canada 150 should not propel these conversations. Constantly engaging with our own assumptions is difficult at the least, and not something we are trained to do, yet the timelessness of these conversations needs to be constantly problematized. So, my hope is this: as this new year begins, such conversations will permeate our classrooms and ceremonies for the years to come, and that we will learn to engage in these kinds of discussions outside of the Canada 150 narrative. It’s a troubling realization that the true cost of “our way of life” was the exploitation of people in other parts of the world. DuBois reminds us of a simple but uncomfortable truth: the White man is ruling the Black man for the White man’s gain.
I acknowledge that these kinds of conversations are ripe for hostility, but the cost of not being critical is seeing history repeat itself again. Unfortunately, the grounds which propelled WWI into action are not unlike some of those we currently see: racism, ideological divisions, and economic expansion are just some of the factors that have prompted similar civil strife today. None of this is to say that we should not mourn lives lost, but rather to ask the uncomfortable question of: whose lives are we mourning, and who are we forgetting? As author Timothy Winegard writes, when we remember WWI within the context of it being for “our freedoms,” we also forget the Indigenous Soldiers who fought in a war that would never go on to benefit them.
I have come to realize that when I choose to remember Canadian soldiers, I am also forgetting the Indigenous people who have little to celebrate when it comes to WWI. When I choose to remember the fallen soldiers from trench warfare, I am also forgetting the thousands who became impoverished and faced starvation because of the war. And when I remember “our” country, I am also forgetting that this land was never ours in the first place.
DuBois suggests three concrete actions that need to take place to reconcile relationships with the Darker Continents. Firstly, land must be given back from the Whites. Gold, palm oil, rubber, diamonds and ivory are only some of the resources that have caused Africans to be enslaved for thousands of years, only for the White man’s gain.
Secondly, he suggests a uniform education system that comes about “honestly and effectively.” An education system that does not just recognize the narrative of the White man, but rather one that calls us to understand a narrative of WWI other than our own.
Thirdly, DuBois suggests that we must rid the idea that self-government is the only viable option, recognizing that “home rule” must extend to groups and nations. Understanding the arbitrariness of borders helps us to recognize that power-struggles can be significantly reduced when do not assume the legitimacy of these borders.
Here in Canada, recognizing the impact of WWI for Indigenous people is just a small step we should take towards reconciliation. WWI exhibits and memorials are scattered throughout Canada on Indigenous land, which in most cases was never fully surrendered. We come at these commemorations with our own patriotic assumptions, only to remember the White man’s sacrifice. In our own time, I hope that our act of commemorating will make the emblematic shift into critique. Critique that calls us to understand something bigger than ourselves, our freedoms and democracy – that instead we will remember the real cost of “our way of life.” Canada 150 has urged these conversations to be more pressing than ever – and so, we ask ourselves: who are we forgetting when we choose to remember? It is when we stop asking this question that we risk the greatest injustice of all.