If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Imagine that, five years from now, the Canadian government launches a successful initiative to change our national flag from its current maple leaf banner to something else.  Further imagine that you, or someone near to you, served in the Canadian Forces and died under the old maple leaf flag in a place like Cyprus, Lebanon, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Afghanistan.  The government erects a monument to those who served and died in these places, and on the anniversary of their death, declines to fly the maple leaf flag they fought under.  The flag that was sewn onto the shoulders of their uniforms, flew from their ships, and was painted on the tails of their aircraft.  Instead, it decides that only the new flag must be flown from the memorial — a flag that those who died had never even seen or imagined.

Sound farfetched?  Unfortunately, it is exactly what the Government of Canada would like to do to our Vimy Ridge casualties and veterans of the Great War.

OTTAWA — It’s the flag the Canadians carried into battle when they captured Vimy Ridge in 1917. And it’s the flag that should be flying next month when thousands assemble at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial on April 9 for the unveiling of the restored monument while marking the 90th anniversary of the battle, say members of a campaign to get the Red Ensign to Vimy Ridge for the ceremony.

The Red Ensign was also there in 1936 when the monument was unveiled for the first time, said Ottawa resident John Heyes, a retired civil servant who has been lobbying to have a version of the historic flag taken to France in April.  Photos from the unveiling show the front of the monument draped in a large Red Ensign.

Heyes and Bill Bishop, a maintenance worker in Maple Ridge, B.C., who has written hundreds of letters advocating for a stronger presence for the old flag, don’t expect the Maple Leaf, which Canada adopted as its flag 42 years ago, to take a back seat to the Red Ensign – they think both should be flown.

…In fact, Veterans Affairs has told Bishop and Heyes, who both had grandfathers who fought in the First World War, there is no plan to fly the Red Ensign flag at Vimy.

The ceremony is a Canadian government event and will therefore feature only the Maple Leaf, they were told. Robert Mercer, the assistant deputy minister who is co-ordinating the event, did promise, however, to have a Red Ensign at the visitor’s centre so people can see the flag under which the Canadians fought and, in 3,598 cases at Vimy, died.

— Jennifer Campbell, “Vets call for Red Ensign to fly at Vimy Ridge“.  CanWest News Service / Ottawa Citizen, 19 March 2007.  [Emphasis mine]

The federal bureaucracy, not surprisingly, sees nothing wrong with this decision.  More insultingly, a University of Calgary professor of history blames our poor deluded servicemen (and women) for not knowing that the Canadian Red Ensign was a temporary symbol and not, presumably, worth fighting for or remembering at this late date.

But Veterans Affairs cited a governmental protocol that allows no other flag than the Maple Leaf to fly on federal property. The land on which the Vimy Memorial was build was donated to Canada by France.

“We know where the veterans are coming from . . . but we have to follow protocol,” said Janice Summerby, a spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs.

Many Canadian soldiers who went into battles in the two world wars under the Red Ensign are not willing to give up their standard, veterans’ advocates said.

And the latest debate has laid bare an old wound with veterans, while dividing historians, experts on both sides said.

A lot of veterans are actually saying, ‘when I am buried I want the Red Ensign [draped] over my coffin,’ ” said Dianne Crompton, president of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 486.

But at least one historian would like to see that debate buried in the annals of history. David Bercuson, of the University of Calgary, said the Red Ensign was only adopted with the understanding that it was to be replaced by a permanent standard.

“The ensign was never an official flag,” Prof. Bercuson said. “We left that behind 42 years ago and I don’t see why anybody would want to revisit that.

— Alex Dobrota, “With what flag should we honour Vimy Ridge?“.  Globe & Mail, 20 March 2007.  [Emphasis mine]

Because a professor of history is qualified to determine how veterans should be honoured and their last wishes carried out, much more so than the veterans themselves.  Friend and fellow Anglophile The Flea strikes exactly the right tone in response:

Jean-François Lyotard has described the phenomenon as “memorial-forgetful history”. The monuments reminding us never to forget are often put to the purpose of a grand selective remembrance more effective than trying to cram the whole lot down the Memory Hole.  A case in point is a response to veterans’ pleas to fly the Canadian Red Ensign at the National Vimy Memorial next month (hat tip to Babbling Brooks).   The answer? Couldn’t possibly, says some mouth-piece of the Canadian government. This is a “Canadian government event” and so the Liberal goatse banner must take pride of place. Let us be clear: We are meant to believe the forthcoming ceremony at Vimy is a government event, not a veterans event. It would not do to memorialize the ideals men fought for under the Red Ensign. These are to be erased and replaced by whatever passes for meaning amongst the mandarins of Canada’s eurocracy.

Ghost of a Flea, “Sweepers, man your brooms“, 21 March 2007.  [Emphasis mine, links preserved from original]

Exactly right.  The memorial was erected in memory of those who served and those who died.  It is their memorial, and services on the battle’s anniversary honour the living and dead Canadian veterans of that battle (and the Great War).  This event is in honour of them, not the government.  Honouring the men and women who moved to the sound of the guns and put it all on the line.

Fortunately, Canada has remembered herself.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper has requested the Red Ensign flag fly at Vimy Ridge ceremonies next month, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Mr. Harper told his cabinet ministers yesterday that he wanted both the Red Ensign and the Maple Leaf hoisted in Vimy, France, at the 90th anniversary of the First World War battle, sources close to the Prime
Minister said.

“He said, ‘The Red Ensign of 1917 will fly over Vimy,’ ” one source told The Globe.

The decision was hailed as a victory by veterans’ groups and advocates, who have been lobbying Ottawa to have the historical ensign displayed over the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

— Alex Dobrota, “Harper wants Red Ensign to fly at Vimy, sources say“.  Globe & Mail, 21 March 2007.

Thank you, Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  On behalf of those who have, and will, give their lives for this country — under all of her flags.

(Big hat tip to Babbling Brooks, Quotulatiousness, and Ghost of a Flea for keeping the spotlight on this.)

UPDATE 212023Z MAR 2007: This reminds me of why I like the City of Toronto’s civic war veterans’ colour guard at City Hall’s Remembrance Day ceremonies.  Not only do they carry the national flag, provincial flag, and city flag — but they also carry the Royal Union flag, the Canadian Red Ensign, and the pre-amalgamation service ensigns of the Canadian Army, Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force.

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4 Responses
  1. Nathan B. says:

    Chris, nice post.

    By the way, I’m using IE 6, and I’ve had trouble viewing the first column or two of text on the left hand side of the screen. The problem seems to occur only after a blockquote, and gets worse with each blockquote. Thus, after the first blockquote, the first column of letters is missing. After the second, the first two letters in each line are missing, while after the third, the first three or so letters in each line are missing.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    Hmm… I use Firefox and IE7 at home, and there are some mild differences but nothing like what you describe.
    I don’t have IE6 installed anywhere but the office, so I’ll have to take a look there tomorrow. =)

  3. Red Ensign to fly at Vimy

    Thanks go to the prime minister for indicating his desire that the Red Ensign will indeed be flown at the ceremonies at Vimy Ridge: Mr. Harper told his cabinet ministers yesterday that he wanted both the Red Ensign and the…

  4. Nathan B. says:

    Maybe I should just get with the program and start using Firefox. 😉

    Actually, some time ago I had the same problem with a WordPress template. I really liked the template, but because I use IE 6, I opted to choose another template instead. An acquaintance told me that the problem didn’t exist in Firefox.