By Tim Cook
The Second World War shaped modern Canada. It led to the country's emergence as a middle power on the world stage; the rise of the welfare state; industrialization, urbanization, and population growth. After the war, Canada increasingly turned toward the United States in matters of trade, security, and popular culture, which then sparked a desire to strengthen Canadian nationalism from the threat of American hegemony.
The Fight for History examines how Canadians framed and reframed the war experience over time. Just as the importance of the battle of Vimy Ridge to Canadians rose, fell, and rose again over a 100-year period, the meaning of Canada's Second World War followed a similar pattern. But the Second World War's relevance to Canada led to conflict between veterans and others in society--more so than in the previous war--as well as a more rapid diminishment of its significance.
The Fight for History is about the efforts to restore a more balanced portrait of Canada's contribution in the global conflict. This is the story of how Canada has talked about the war in the past, how we tried to bury it, and how it was restored. This is the history of a constellation of changing ideas, with many historical twists and turns, and a series of fascinating actors and events.
Tim Cook is Chief Historian and Director of Research at the Canadian War Museum. His bestselling books have won multiple awards, including three Ottawa Book prizes for Literary Non-Fiction and two C.P. Stacey Awards for the best book in Canadian military history.
Melany Franklin will read The Fight for History by Tim Cook. As a lawyer and workplace mediator, Melany brings a special understanding of conflicts and their resolutions. She will represent The Town of Blue Mountains.
The Canadian historian, Tim Cook, had already written a celebrated two-volume history of the Second World War when he suddenly realized he wasn’t finished. There was still a very important Canadian story to be told — one that had never been written before. The Fight for History is that story.
As the sub-title 75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering and Remaking Canada’s Second World War promises, Cook sets out to show how history is made and unmade and ultimately remade. He wants to understand, and have us understand, why the telling of Canada’s Second World War has been so complicated. Cook brings his considerable skills to the task. He is an historian at the Canadian War Museum. His eleven books have won many awards, including the J.W. Dafoe Prize and the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. Cook has also received the Pierre Berton Award for popularizing Canadian History.
Cook depicts Second World War history as a contested space, with uniquely Canadian experiences strangely absent. This despite Canada’s astounding commitment to Allied victory at the time, with 1 in 10 Canadians (1 in every 3 men) having served in the war.
In contrast to every other country in the conflict, our politicians were silent, our Generals were silent — even returning veterans, with few exceptions, did not write about the war. In the post-war years, the interpretation of the war was left largely to Hollywood and to a plethora of British and American historians and autobiographers. Not surprisingly, unique Canadian experiences and Canadian heroism did not figure in these stories.
Also absent, at least until this century, were dedicated commemoration sites, on the battlefields and at home, to honour the 100,000-plus Canadians who lost their lives and whose bodies are buried overseas.
As James Alan Roberts (an ice cream salesman who rose to the rank of Brigadier) commented, "while Canada is not a war-like nation, we played an unbelievably important role in the defeat of Hitler’s Germany." Perhaps this “not war-like” identity explains some of the ambivalence. But Cook adds further context. He reminds his readers of the impoverishment of the Depression years, how Canadians as a whole were fearful that those hard times might return. Veterans were intent on making economic progress. They returned home to jobs and were able to take advantage of the Veterans Charter to go to post-secondary school and to find affordable housing. They raised families and lived their lives.
Honouring the service and sacrifice of Second World War soldiers was increasingly relegated to veterans organizations. The character that looms largest in Cook’s account is the Canadian Legion. Cook chronicles the Legion’s herculean efforts to make a memorial that “represents a quiet and reverent tribute to those who laid down their lives for their country and for freedom.”
As early as 1945, the Legion had asked for a “simple but authoritative memorial” to mark all the nation’s war dead. But they were stymied at every turn. The media and other Canadians voiced their uncertainty and even opposition to the investment in a national shrine. The indifference was painful. Many veterans felt hurt, silenced and ignored.
It is almost as if Canadians needed validation from other countries before our staggering contribution to the Allied victory would be acknowledged at home. If so, that validation finally came, in 1994 and 1995, when Canadians watched the national news, spellbound, as hundreds of thousands of French and Dutch citizens lined streets in cities, towns and villages across France and Holland to commemorate the 50th anniversaries of D-Day and the Dutch liberation.
We watched them pay homage to our veterans, their true liberators, and heard them renew their pledges to our veterans never to forget.
For some aging veterans, this recognition encouraged them to break their own silence. They began to share their experiences, including of Dieppe, Italy, the Battle of the Scheldt, the Rhineland Campaign and others.
Even as Cook promoted his books, The Necessary War and The Fight to the Finish, many people expressed their thanks. They hadn’t known or appreciated the important role so many Canadians — including parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts — had played in the Second World War. Some were finally able to discuss their war experiences with loved ones.
I never had the chance and I know I am not alone. My Grandfather, a member of the Hastings & Prince Edward Regiment, who served in England and Italy from 1939 to 1944, died young, well before I was old enough to appreciate his service. I have had to piece together that history from the stark pages of his war record and from books. What I do remember is the Hasty P’s Regimental Sergeant, Sergeant Major Reginald Duffy, saluting my Grandfather’s grave and dropping a poppy on his coffin. I learned later how “Duff” continued to look out for his men until his own “transfer to the white brigade.”
We can’t afford to take our history for granted. As we approach the 80th anniversary of Dieppe this coming August, the invasion of Sicily next July and D-Day the following June, as well as many other significant anniversaries, our living memory, the upwards of a million men and women who returned from the Second World War, has dwindled to just a few.
Today is no different. We live our histories in the present and make sense of them only in retrospect, if at all. In the midst of our lives, there is both too much and too little to dwell on. As Cook writes, we contribute to the forgetting. "It is a self-inflicted wound."
Fortunately for us, Tim Cook and others like him have taken up the struggle, the fight for our history. Because it is a worthy struggle. And a fascinating read. Grey County, I hope you will read this book.