The Battle of Vimy Ridge: History, Myth, Memorial and Remembrance

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the costliest and most successful military engagements in Canadian history. Due to the extraordinary bravery of thousands of Canadians, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was hard-won against great odds. Today Vimy Ridge is commemorated in Canada as the defining moment when we shed the cloak of the British Empire and defined our own identity on the world stage as a victorious nation.

But.

History really is not the same as remembrance, as I discovered last June when I visited the battlefield. The Vimy Ridge memorial, built in 1936 on land donated by France to “all Canadian people,” has become enshrined in a national narrative honouring Canada’s “coming of age” and “birth” as a nation. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, this memorial perpetuates this narrative, while reminding us both the astounding scale of the First World War, and Canada’s role in that international conflict.

Once the feelings of overwhelming awe towards the immense bravery of all soldiers fighting in the First World War passes, and once you dig deeper into Canada’s exact reasons in 1917 for attacking this dreadful graveyard in France, and once you actually question what the hell so many young men were doing in such a devastating conflict, you begin to realise that the way we remember battles has become more important than the reality of what actually happened.

 The “Facts” that Fuel Canada’s National Narrative

Vimy Ridge was a heavily fortified seven-kilometre ridge in northern France that held a commanding view over the Allied lines. Previous attempts by the French to secure the ridge resulted in over 100,000 causalities, who lay in the open graveyard between the lines.

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Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. Canadian troops seen here advancing over no man’s land and through the German barbed wire whilst under fire. (Photo: Huffington Post).

The Canadian Corps spent weeks practising the attack. After the disaster at the Somme, British tactics were forced to change. Instead of relying on officers for leadership and strategy (many of whom had been slaughtered at the Somme), regular soldiers were now equipped with enough tactical details to adequately survive if their leader was killed in action.  For the first time, regular infantrymen were briefed on the terrain and maps, and encouraged to think for themselves. They were also armed with machine guns, rifle-men and grenade throwers, giving them more versatile tools to overcome obstacles.

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Prior to the Canadian attack on April 9th, 1917, the Canadian Corps had around 1,000 men working on 12 underground passageways. Each of the tunnels housed soldiers, ammunition, water, and communication lines, and most were lit by electricity.  See Valour Canada website for more details.

Elaborate tunnels in the rear lines (the longest being 1.2km in length) allowed for quick communication between rear and front line trenches. This also allowed for critical supplies to reach all the troops in the weeks leading to the attack.

But the chief reason for success was the devastating artillery barrage that isolated German trenches and forced German machine gunners to stay in their deep dug outs. A week before the attack, more than a million shells were fired at the German lines, and even targeted at the villages in the rear. The Germans called this “the week of suffering.”

The new artillery fuse (called 106) meant that shells detonated upon impact, rather than burying themselves in the ground, which meant that hard defences could be more easily destroyed. One Canadian observer recorded that the shells poured “over our heads like water from a hose, thousands and thousands a day.”

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British General Sir Julian Byng and the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, warned before the attack on Vimy Ridge, “Chaps, you shall go over exactly like a railroad train, on time, or you shall be annihilated.”

On the morning of Monday, 9 April 1917 at 5.30am, four Canadian divisions, attacking together for the first time, overran the German line. Over 15,000 Canadians accompanied by one British division captured the highest part of the ridge (Hill 145) and within three days, the Canadians and British had won the ridge.

But Vimy Ridge was only victorious at a great cost. Nearly 4,000 Canadians were killed and 7,000 were injured.

The Facts Excluded from the Canadian Narrative

The Canadian War Museum website, the Vimy Foundation website, and the Veterans Affairs website of the Canadian government fail to mention German casualties or prisoners, or even recognise Britain’s involvement as anything but ancillary.

Exact figures for German casualties are unknown due to the destruction of records in the Second World War. But we know that 4,000 Germans were taken prisoner, while the Canadian Encyclopaedia estimates that 20,000 Germans were killed or wounded at Vimy Ridge.

One of the reasons for German defeat was the German Commanders’ failure to adequately use a newly introduced defensive tactic called “defence in depth.” Rather than stubbornly defending every foot of captured ground, German armies would allow attacking troops to probe into their territory just far enough to be beyond their supply lines — and then destroy them in a counterattack. The strategy was very effective, but the German defenders of Vimy were given the traditional order to “hold the line” at all costs. The German commander, Ludwig von Falkenhausen, was promptly reassigned after the defeat.

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Captured German prisoners after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917. Photo credit: the National Post and Library and Archives Canada.

In the aftermath of Vimy Ridge, German soldiers were photographed smiling after being taken prisoner. This, despite the fact that Canadians had earned a grim reputation for killing those who surrendered. (For an excellent article on this, see Tim Cook’s The Politics of Surrender).  But smiling for the camera was no coincidence. A year previously, Germany had suffered through the “turnip winter”, when adults were living on just 1,200 calories a day. So, becoming a POW often meant receiving better rations. Also, the Germans had just undergone weeks of night attacks and raids on their trenches. They were obviously exhausted and relieved to be no longer fighting.

Despite Canadian proclamations of victory, Germans viewed Vimy Ridge as a draw rather than an outright defeat. Historians, such as Andrew Godefroy, admit that due to a lack of sources, it is difficult to fully reconstruct events on the German side. But he revealed that although General von Falkenhausen was assigned most of the blame for losing the ridge, other commanders including General Georg Karl Wichura and Oberstluetnant Wilhelme von Goerne, received medals for their leadership. Also, because the Canadians took the ridge but failed to break the German line, the Germany army recognized, to some degree, that Vimy Ridge had not entirely been a defeat.

Most importantly, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was strategically insignificant to the outcome of the war. Other battles, such as Amiens and Cambrai had far greater impact. As historian Andrew Godefroy writes in Vimy Ridge, a Canadian Reassessment: “To the German army the loss of a few kilometres of vital ground meant little in the grand scheme of things.” After Vimy Ridge, the repute of Canadian troops was certainly increased, especially as elite shock troops in 1918, but Vimy Ridge itself was not strategically important.

Commemorating Vimy Ridge: Let’s Build a Memorial!

After the First World War, nations devastated by conflict erected thousands of monuments (both large and small) to acknowledge those who died. France and Belgium donated sections of land to its allies for the purposes of commemoration. And Vimy Ridge was one of eight battle sites (five in France and three in Belgium) awarded to Canada.

In 1920, the newly established Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission organized a competition for a Canadian memorial to be erected on each site. Walter Allward, an experienced sculptor and a well-known designer of memorials, won the competition in 1921. Due to Vimy Ridge’s vantage point, accessibility and significance, the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission decided that Allward’s memorial would be built at Vimy Ridge (although it did take 2.5 years to clear the 100 hectare land of unexploded bombs, some of which still remain there today).

After ten years of construction (it took two years to find a suitable quarry for the limestone, which, ironically, was located in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia where the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife had started the First World War), the memorial was completed in July 1936. 6,000 Canadians were given “Special Vimy” passports by the Canadian government to make the “pilgrimage” to the unveiling.

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Over 100,000 spectators attended the unveiling. His Majesty King Edward VIII and various Canadian representatives met with mothers whose sons had died. One veteran remembers: “The service lasted only an hour but never had anyone experienced one more solemn or moving” (Saburo Shinobu, Japanese Branch of the Canadian Legion).

Adorned with twenty sculptures, Allward’s memorial is topped by figures representing the universal virtues of faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge and hope. The Christian symbolism is obvious and clearly references “traditional images of the Mater Dolorosa (the Virgin Mary in mourning), while the figure spread-eagled on the altar below the two pylons resembles a Crucifixion scene.”

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“Between the pylons stands a figure holding a burning torch. Entitled ‘The Spirit of Sacrifice’, it is a reference to one of the most famous poems of the Great War, ‘In Flanders Fields,’ by the Canadian Army Medical Corps officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.” (Canada War Museum)

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Although not a part of the original design, over 11,000 names of all the Canadians who had died with no known grave are etched into the base of the monument. (Photo from Amerique Francaise)

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A maternal figure at the base of the memorial. Note the engraved names around the base.

In 1940, as German armies swept through western Europe, destroying many of the First World War monuments in its wake, Vimy Ridge was exempted. In fact, Hitler visited the monument and was so impressed that he apparently assigned Waffen SS guards to protect it. This prevented regular soldiers of the German army from defacing the monument.  As most of the Australian WWI graves and memorials had been destroyed by advancing German troops, this likely saved Vimy Ridge from a similar fate.

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Although saving the memorial was also a propaganda stunt to demonstrate Hitler’s goodwill to the conquered French people, perhaps we should all be a little more in awe of a structure that even Hitler himself wouldn’t destroy.

Although the sculpted figures need repair throughout the years, and the monument undergoes regular cleaning, even today the Vimy Ridge memorial looks brand new. Its white stones contrast the blue skies and rolling hills in the large valley below. Just a kilometer away, a new visitor’s centre offers tours to over 700,000 people a year by real Canadian guides. They take groups through the trenches, preserved as they were a hundred years ago.

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After the war, the trenches were preserved by pouring concrete into the original sandbags.

Myth Making of a Nation

While I would never minimise the great cost of human life associated to any battle, Vimy Ridge, as a cornerstone of Canadian national identity, is perpetuated by this imposing memorial and its regular commemoration. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the choice to build this memorial at Vimy Ridge “was a less a result of the battle’s importance than of Vimy’s extraordinary geographic location – a high vantage point with a commanding view, visible from miles around.” And, to be fair to the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission in 1920, it really is a glorious view.

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Canadian historian, Tim Cook, claims that Vimy Ridge was elevated above other Canadian battles, at least partly, for political and national purposes. He addresses the divergence between history and mythmaking in his new book Vimy: the Battle and the Legend (2017):

“Canada is a country – like most – that places little stock in its history, teaching it badly, embracing it little, feeding it only episodically. As Canada developed over time, we cast aside much that grounded us in the past; yet there are some ideas, myths and icons that persistently carry the weight of nationhood. Vimy is one of them.”

The meaning behind Vimy Ridge – whether a bloody sacrifice of countless young men in a war forced upon them by an outmoded commitment to Empire, or perhaps a remarkable story of miraculous nation-forging against all odds – is evolving through a process of forgetting and remembering. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, and bewildered Americans, Vimy Ridge is reinterpreted and reconceptualised again and again to the waves of spectators in awe of its remarkable history.

But what I asked myself, one hundred years after the Canadians had won this beautiful vantage point in France, while standing under its majestic pillars on a sunny day in June 2017:

What would we remember of Vimy Ridge if it wasn’t for this impressive memorial?

Vimy Ridge is both a lesson in history and a lesson in remembrance. While Vimy Ridge might unify the two in one immaculate feat of human creation, they are not synonymous. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was an epic victory, where men from each corner of Canada joined together for the first time in a victorious campaign against their sworn enemy. But it wasn’t entirely Canadian – it was led by a British officer and supplied by British provisions. And it wasn’t entirely a victory – it had no decisive impact on the war and the German lines remained intact. Despite those important details, remembering Vimy Ridge at this grand memorial is a testament to a country mourning the great loss of its youngest citizens.

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Should the Youth be given the Vote? Historical Reasons Why Age is Arbitrary

I made a rather startling discovery. Those who suffer from dementia can still vote in the UK and Canada. “Really?” you may ask. “Really,” I reply.

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Voting in an inalienable right in democratic nations. Once you gain the right to vote, it is extremely difficult to lose.

Criminals are some of the only disenfranchised groups. In Britain, a criminal’s right to vote is suspended while you serve your sentence. This is the same for Australia, except prisoners who serve less than three years can still vote. In Canada, criminals still retain the right to vote, regardless of the prison sentence. The United States has some of the most punitive measures against voting for criminals and because it varies drastically between states, I excluded the USA from this article. (Apologies to my American friends, but you can read more about the almost 6 million felons, or nearly 2.5% of voting Americans, who could not vote in the 2012 federal election here).

Voting is a pillar of equality among citizens and the act of voting is a benchmark in a person’s life.

What about the Youth Vote?

Historically speaking, the argument that youth aged 16 and above should get the right to vote is a very recent phenomenon. Before the Second World War, only people aged 21 years and older were given the right to vote in most major western democracies. In the 1970s, this age was lowered to 18 years of age in the UK, Canada, Germany, and France due to the fact that 18 years was the age of military conscription. However, some nations retain 20 or 21 years as the age of suffrage. Only since the 1990s have some nations successfully lowered the youth vote to include 16 year olds. Scotland is one of them.

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Over 75% of Scottish youths voted in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum

After years of campaigning, the Scottish National Party were able to give youth the right to vote in the June 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. Impressively, over 75% of those youths aged 16 and over (who registered) turned out, compared with 54% of 18- to 24-year-olds. This turnout was considered hugely successful and resulted in Westminster granting new electoral powers to the Scottish Parliament in December 2014. Now, all youths aged 16 and over can vote in both parliamentary and municipal elections in Scotland.

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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP Party campaigned successfully for years to secure the youth vote (Photo from BBC Article)

For the rest of Britain, youth cannot vote in UK general elections until age 18. Although calculating the youth turn-out rates must not be accepted entirely at face value, in the recent general election one statistic claimed that 72% of all 18 to 24 year olds turned out to vote. This means that turn-out rates for young British voters were remarkably high.

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Molly Scott Cato said that denying the youth the right to vote because they aren’t responsible enough was “elitist rubbish” (Photo from BBC Article)

British politicians hotly debate the voting age. The Tories believe it should remain at 18, while Labour proposes lowering it to 16. The Liberal Democratics are somewhere in the middle, suggesting it should be only lowered for local elections. The Scottish National Party, who are very popular with Scottish youth, believe it should be lowered to 16 for general elections. My favourite, perhaps, was when the Green Party’s Mary Scott Cato said that arguments that claim 16 year olds aren’t responsible enough to vote is “elitist rubbish.”

Age is Arbitrary: “Childhood” is a Young Concept

Age as a marker is quite arbitrary, especially when you look at it historically.  In the wake of the Second World War, when over 15 million children were left homeless and resettlement was a huge crisis, the United Nations defined anyone under the age of 17 as a child. Today, childhood ends in the majority of sovereign states at age 18.

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These Polish war orphans at a Catholic Orphanage in Lublin, on September 11, 1946, are among the 15 million children displaced by the war. To expedite the settlement process, the UN defined all children under age 17 as a “child”

But childhood as a historical concept has only been closely examined in the last few decades. That is not to say that children or childhood were never discussed in historical sources. But, similar to race and gender, age was often overlooked, understudied or poorly represented within historical accounts.

In the 1970s, a revival of the historiography of childhood occurred as the result of the book “L’Enfant et la vie familiale soul l’Ancien Regime” (or “Centuries of Childhood,” 1962) by a French medievalist named Philippe Ariès. He argued that childhood was actually a recently-invented modern term, which evolved from the medieval period. Importantly, the concept of childhood was not static but underpinned heavily by the culture of the time. This revolutionized social history and led many scholars to investigate how Europeans transitioned from a pre-children-conscious world to one which had ‘invented’ childhood. (For an excellent overview, see Nicholas Stargardt, “German Childhoods: The Making of a Historiography,” German History, 16 (1998): 1-15).

With state intervention in education in the 19th century, and the subsequent child labour laws from the Industrial Revolution, children’s ages became both legally and economically relevant. How old must a child be to work? Can a child be charged with crime? Records of child delinquency are often the first historical accounts that children existed in certain cultural contexts. For example, historians are aware of the punishments of child delinquents in 19th C Irish workhouses, but we know little else about Irish children’s experiences in workhouses who were not delinquent.

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Illustration of children in a 19th C workhouse courtesy of workhouses.org.uk

Even biological markers of age are debatable. In the USA, lawyers have used science to argue that grey matter is still being developed well into our 20s in the same area of our brains that regulate self control; this has led to numerous cases where juveniles charged with murder have had their prison sentences reduced.  The use of puberty as a reproductive “line in the sand” has also changed in the last few hundred years: the age of puberty today (10-12 years for girls, 12 for boys) is lower today than it was centuries ago (15-16 for girls). And unlike a few centuries ago, “Puberty today marks the transition from childhood to adolescence more than it does childhood to adulthood.” Meanwhile, in the animal kingdom, biologists define animals as adults upon sexual maturity. It seems that neither the historian or biologist can agree about childhood.

And, to make it even more complicated, children as individuals also vary greatly.  Children’s experiences and what they’re subjected to also vary greatly. When in doubt, think of Joan of Arc, Malala Yousafzai, or Anne Frank.

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Anne Frank was just 15 years old when she died in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp

So what does this have to do with voting?  

If our definitions and beliefs about childhood are culturally dependent, then the ages we assign it, or the assumptions we have about it, are a product of our culture, and not necessarily an authentic reflection of “childhood.” (If such a thing actually exists).

During the medieval era, children were considered “little adults” who needed to be civilized, which presumes that children are born with inborn rationality and intelligence, but lacking social graces. A medieval parent therefore viewed childhood as a rigorous lesson in civility.

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During the Medieval era, children were viewed as “little adults” and as as Bucks-Retinue points out, even their clothing was just “smaller versions of adult clothes.”

But today’s parent does not view it quite like that. Due to the legality of certain social freedoms – driving a car or drinking alcohol – the state has defined a child in contradictory ways. You can join the military at age 16 in the UK, but you’re not legally entitled to toast the Queen’s health until age 18.  The predictable argument is that if you can join the military, drive a car, leave school for full-time work, pay taxes, marry (and thus have the state’s endorsement to be a parent), then you should have the right to vote. I see no fault in this argument.

So why did I start this conversation by talking about people with dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for various progressive neurological disorders that includes memory loss, anxiety/depression, personality and mood changes, and problems communicating. We most often associate dementia with Alzheimer’s disease, which has no cure. 46 million people suffer from dementia world wide, which is expected to double every 20 years.

In Britain, 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia, or a total of 850,000.  But having dementia, similar to having learning difficulties or other mental health problems, does not preclude you from voting. According to the Electoral Commission’s Guidance:

“A lack of mental capacity is not a legal incapacity to vote: persons who meet the other registration qualifications are eligible for registration regardless of their mental capacity.”

If someone suffers from mental incapacity or physical disability, they may assign a close relative as a proxy to vote for them (These situations are generally meant to help those serving overseas, or temporarily inaccessible, so they can still exercise their democratic rights and, sometimes, must be approved by a health practitioner or social worker). If a proxy is authorised, the Electoral Commission makes is absolutely clear that no one – whether relative, doctor, nurse or lawyer – can decide how to cast that ballot. The choice alone lay with the voter. Period.

In Britain, you cannot vote if you reside in a mental institution due to criminal activity or if you are severely mentally incapacitated and cannot understand the voting procedure. Those with dementia are still legally entitled to vote because it is not considered legally incapacitating (especially in its early stages) and worthy of disenfranchisement. Usually it is not until a doctor is requested to authorise a proxy vote whereupon someone possibly becomes disenfranchised, depending on the doctor’s judgement.

In Canada, 1.5% of the Canadian population (around 480,000) have dementia, most of which experience this after the age of 75. The Canadian Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate against persons based on age or (dis)ability.

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Age is the number one risk factor for dementia.

Canada was one of four countries (Italy, Ireland and Sweden) which did not impose any mental capacity requirement (dementia included) upon the right to vote. After a legal challenge in 1992, the call for a minimum mental health requirement was repealed and by 2008, only Nunavut will disqualify someone from voting based upon mental incapacity. Thus, similar to Britain, Canadians with dementia also retain the right to vote.

What does this tell us about our society?

It is impressive that people suffering from dementia (often elderly) still retain this right. This demonstrates that nations like Britain and Canada strongly respect equality among citizens, irrespective of (dis)ability, mental (in)capacity, or age. And, importantly, this demonstrates that these nations honour the incontrovertible democratic rights of its aging and sick citizens. Discrimination is fundamentally not tolerated.

BUT to deny the youth vote while granting it to someone with a progressive neurological condition seems unfair. Should a 16-year-old “child” be considered less politically capable than someone with dementia?  Is that fair?

Youth Vote vs. “Elderly” Vote

In my frustration at this quandary, I read a provocative and humourous commentary calling for disenfranchising all elderly in Time Magazine. Joel Stein said simply “Old people aren’t good at voting”.  Although Stein avoided getting his hands dirty with dementia, he highlighted the “out of touch” policies endorsed by “old people”: They’re twice as likely to be against gay marriage, twice as likely to be pro-Brexit and nearly 50% more likely to say immigrants have a negative impact on society. Although funny, I am a staunch supporter of democracy and believe we should enfranchise people even if we disagree with them. That’s the point of democracy: to find consensus among disparate voices. Young, old, sick, healthy, rich, poor, all should be allowed to vote.

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In June 2017, Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama had an intimate dinner

Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama recently enjoyed their enviable bromance over a candlelit dinner in a little Montreal seafood restaurant. They spoke of a great many things, but one was “How do we get young leaders to take action in their communities?”

Such conversations among politicians reflect a growing interest to include the youth’s voice and agency within our political process and communities.  If what medievalist Philippe Ariès said is true – that our concept of childhood is culturally-dependent – then how our culture interprets our youth needs to change. Historically speaking, it appears that that change is already beginning. And although Scotland has taken remarkable strides towards giving political agency to Scottish youths, this can be taken even further.

By engaging youths in political process, supporting their agency and action in multiple national bodies and networks, and listening to their needs and incorporating their voices into politics, then our cultural assumptions will shift. In the same way as we honour our elders and our sick, let us honour our youths.

From a Land of Immigrants to a Land of Colonisers: A Lesson in Canadian Diversity for British Policymakers

This is a big year for Canada. After 150 years of explosively entertaining hockey, igloo-icy winters, and deliciously decadent Timbits, people around the world will celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial. Happy birthday, Canada.

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For those who have ever travelled, studied or lived abroad, you begin to appreciate your homeland in an entirely new way. As American philanthropist Cliff Borgen said “When overseas you learn more about your own country than you do the place you’re visiting.”  The novelty of other cultures is endearing and even helpfully distracting from the monotony of your normal life. But it’s when we are forced into new cultures when we are confronted with the reality that our own customs, traditions and protocols are sometimes arbitrary, bizarre and inefficient.

In this sense, travelling is not just gazing into the porthole of another new place, but actually a much more inverted and introspective experience. You begin to realise the ways you are fortunate, and the ways you are deprived. This even makes you think differently, apparently. According to one study, “People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity.” But, crucially, this depends on openness, an ability to embrace other people, cultures and ideas, which also means you’re happy to accept ambiguity and a lack of closure.

But what happens if you already hail from a country that values inclusivity, openness, diversity? How does that change your experience abroad?

As a Canadian, I think I am already “open” to others. It’s part of my “culture,” eh? Just under 40% of Canadians are immigrants or second-generation immigrants, and that is expected to rise to half the population by 2036. Canada is about as diverse a country as you can experience. A true land of immigrants. Canada is not a melting pot. Unlike the USA, newcomers to Canada are not expected to shed their cultural cloaks, assimilate and promptly adopt the “Canadian Dream.” Instead, Canada’s strength is its diversity. We embrace others.

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Happy Photo of Canadian Diversity from candiversity.com

It wasn’t always like that. In 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau faced a major domestic crisis due to rising French nationalism in Quebec. Separatists wanted quicker political process and to expedite their demands they kidnapped a cabinet minister and British diplomat, resulting in the FLQ or October Crisis. Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act and tanks rolled into Montreal. Martial law was controversial and when asked by a reporter how far he would take such policing, Trudeau famously replied: “Just watch me.”

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Watch Pierre Trudeau’s steely reaction to reporters here

In the background of this domestic upheaval was the introduction in the late 1960s of a new points-based system for immigration. Applicants were awarded points for age, education, ability to speak English or French, and demand for that particular applicant’s job skills. If an applicant scored enough points, he or she was granted admission together with their spouse and dependent children.

These “landed immigrants” were given all the same rights as Canadian-born citizens. A new sponsorship system also meant that immigrants could also sponsor relatives abroad for settlement. This allowed naturalized Canadians to engage in the immigration process. And, importantly for Trudeau, immigrants were given the right to vote.

By opening the doors and flooding the country with immigrants, while espousing a strong multiculturalist ideology, Trudeau and his Liberals diluted the Anglophone vs Francophone tensions. The Liberals, predictably, courted the newly arrived voters and sought policies that would appeal to them. Politically speaking, it was superior “checkmate” move against the radical separatists. Decades later, the same maneuver was used again by Conservative PM Stephen Harper, who needed to win a coalition in order to stay in power. The newly arrived minority voters were wined and dined which, in turn, meant that anti-immigrant groups were kept on the edges of politics. In the 2011 and 2015 elections, the Conservatives won a higher share of the vote among immigrants than it did among native-born citizens.

If it wasn’t already clear from centuries of Canadian history, then such politics firmly cemented the immigrants’ place in Canada’s national identity.

Right-wing, anti-immigrant political agendas are rare in Canada. Of course, there are always exceptions. Canada still has anti-Semites and people shooting up mosques out of fear of “the other.” One study recently claimed that anti-immigration sentiment was rising in Canada, although the same study claimed that over half of Canadians still agree to allow immigrants from poor countries. (Sweden’s 75% approval for immigration is the highest of all nations studied).

But let’s also remember the difference between immigrants and refugees. In 1978, Canada instituted the Canadian Immigration Act, whereby refugees – persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution – would no longer be an exception to Canadian immigration regulations. Although there were some problems, it remains a cornerstone of Canadian immigration policy and law.

For example, the Syrian Refugee Crisis caused the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees to call on western nations to resettle 130,000 refugees. Canada has carefully focused on selecting families, children and members of the LGBT community, while single men will be processed only if they are accompanied by their parents or identify as LGBT. From 2013 until January 2017, Canada has welcomed over 40,000 refugees, or a staggering 248% of its “share” of refugees.

The United Kingdom? It has welcomed 216 Syrian refugees under the UNHCR scheme. Through another domestic policy called the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme, it has welcomed 5,423 Syrians by March 2017, or just 18% of its “share.”

Prime Minister David Cameron, under severe public pressure in 2015, promised to take on 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. Even more mounting pressure caused him to announce the Dubs Amendment, whereby 3,000 lone child refugees from the Middle East were to be welcomed. Due to pressure from Theresa May (who was then Home Secretary), Cameron conceded child refugees should come from Europe, not the Middle East, and the number was lowered to just 350 children.

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Demonstrators in Berlin in November 2015

When Calais’ Jungle Camp was at a breaking point in 2016, and Prime Minister May was securely in control at Downing Street, more public pressure forced to her accept another 750 lone children.  (This was done reluctantly and controversially, as refugee children’s dental records were screened to “verify” their true ages. As Hugh Muir writes, “We want to do right by a handful of children, but it is really a way of shirking our duty to do the right thing”).

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Children in Calais’ “Jungle” Refugee Camp, October 2016

Welcoming 1,000 refugee children by modern day peace-time Britain stands in stark contrast to the 10,000 refugee children resettled via the Kindertransport to Britain in 1938 to 1940. As a historian, I shudder to think what would have happened to those thousands of children if they had stayed under Nazi Germany’s control throughout the war.

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German-Jewish refugee children arrive at Southampton in 1939

Additionally, Theresa May proposes to lower annual net immigration from 273,000 to just 100,000. But it doesn’t stop there. From April 2017 onwards, the Tories implemented a policy whereby British employers must pay £1,000 per year for each skilled migrant they hire. The Tories wish to increase it to £2000/year. That means that if your average Indian IT software engineer or Canadian postgraduate student successfully gets through Theresa May’s restricted immigration net, then they face further fiscal penalization in the pursuit of employment due to being foreign. Thanks, Britain.

As an immigrant in the UK who hails from a country where immigration is a cornerstone of my home culture, I just hang my head in shame. As a historian of refugees and modern warfare, I can say that the same self-serving, nationalist ideologies that caused so many borders to close and so many refugees to flee during the Second World War, are still true today.

So, what are some solutions?  

Political inclusion of minority voters. Enfranchisement of immigrants (including EU nationals). Open (though still selective) immigration policies. Bring back the Dubs Amendment. Invest in affordable housing. Delegate to charities (where possible). Celebrate all forms of Britishness, including minority groups. Delight in globalism and mobility.

But the best solution requires a major attitude shift. 

Britain was once a colonial and imperial superpower. Although this was by no means a peaceful power-dynamic on native populations or settler colonies, British rule also enabled enormous trade of goods, cultures and ideas. Some nations became immensely wealthy, while others were robbed of their natural and human resources. The gap in global living standards today are often a long-term result of colonialism’s exploitation.

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At its height, more than 458 million people and 23% of the world’s population were under British colonial rule

Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, Gurminder K Bhambra, claims that when thinking about today’s refugees and immigrants, we must remember that:

The economic motivation that drives poorer people to migrate has been produced and continues to be reproduced by practices emanating from richer countries and their own deficient understandings of their global dominance… The failure to properly understand and account for Europe’s colonial past, cements a political division between ‘legitimate’ citizens with recognized claims upon the state and migrants/refugees without the rights to make such claims.

It would be unfair to claim that Canadian history has been bloodless and peaceful, while Britain’s has been singularly exploitive and war-ridden. But personally moving from a land of immigrants to a land of colonisers has been an eye-opening experience.  

Canada, as a nation of immigrants, has attempted to confront its differences in an ongoing process of renegotiating and re-conceptualizing national identity, bringing immigrants to the fore with policies that directly value and embrace their diversity. Britain may have neglected to engage in such a process on their own soil, but the opportunity to do so is now arriving alongside the refugees and immigrants who greatly wish to be part of the British community. Myself included.

I am an immigrant and I love my new home in Britain.  By learning from my new culture while sharing my own, I am participating in a “very Canadian way” to integrate in society. I hope my British friends don’t mind.

Happy Birthday, Canada.