04/23/2013 01:08 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT

96 Years Later, Vimy Still Inspires


There are many who assert that we live in a society without memory. As tweets begin to dominate public discourse among today's youth and young adults, even recent history seems to become more distant. For this reason, Canada's achievements and sacrifices at Vimy Ridge 96 years ago have become a very meaningful touchstone for Canadians. But exactly what is the Vimy legacy and why is it an important element of our national identity?

The First World War was indeed a very tragic conflict. It was the intersection of the imperial age with a new industrial era and gave birth to an energetic modernism. New technologies overwhelmed military planners, killing and maiming like never before. Sixty-thousand Canadians lost their lives, close to 4,000 killed at Vimy alone in April 1917.

As young Canadians learn in high school, Vimy was the first time that Canada's four divisions came together - and defeated our German opponents where both the British and the French had previously failed earlier in the war. Two factors in particular seem to have made the difference: thorough preparation and innovative and inclusive Canadian military strategy. The latter was a metaphor for our young and open Canadian society, where even the views of frontline soldiers contributed to strategic solutions. Unfortunately, our European allies had previously been hampered by a rigid class system that could not envision such an open dialogue; only their officers' views counted.

In 2008 on the eve of the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War, a national poll commissioned by the Dominion Institute and Ipsos Reid revealed a shocking ignorance on the part of Canadians, especially young Canadians. Less than half the respondents even knew that Remembrance Day marks the end of WWI - and fewer than 20% could identify our opponents, never mind the achievements and sacrifices at Vimy, Ypres, or the Somme; those monumental battles seemed to have faded from public consciousness.

Since the death of Canada's last World War One veteran -- John Babcock -- three years ago, something has changed in this country. There appears to have been a notable resurgence of interest in our role in the Great War, particularly amongst the young.

Last year close to 4,000 Canadian teens travelled with their teachers for the ceremonies marking the 95th anniversary of the Canadian victory at Vimy in early April. Also, the annual "Vimy Weeks" offered by the Vimy Foundation and Encounters with Canada in Ottawa to high school students from coast to coast, were oversubscribed. I spoke to those students gathered at the Terry Fox Leadership Centre and accompanied 130 teenagers who represented all young Canadians at the national War Memorial on Vimy Day, last April 9. These students showed great pride in the achievements and sacrifices of their forefathers. They also expressed a meaningful connection to and better understanding of the emergence of a more independent and confident Canada in the early twentieth century -- an open and civil society committed to social justice.

And what about the large, striking white stone Vimy monument on a hill in northern France where battle raged generations ago? Designed by Canadian artist Walter Allward, it is an enduring symbol of special Canadian attributes. When unveiled in 1936, it was unlike any other war monument erected anywhere - most were arches or obelisks. The Vimy monument's beauty and unique design still speaks to our special Canadian capacity for creativity and innovation as well as core values such as respect and compassion. If only every Canadian could make a personal pilgrimage to see that monument in person, allow the soul to be stirred and quietly reflect on wartime sacrifice and what it means to be Canadian. Every April 9 in Canada, Vimy Day should be a day of national celebration. We should all learn from the thousands of young people who have sought out and benefited from recent active learning opportunities. Let's all consider our unique history and Canada's place as a civil and open society -- a beacon to the world. The Vimy legacy has helped to build a bridge to a well-deserved national sense of pride and achievement. Vimy inspires!

The Vimy Foundation will officially kick off the countdown to Vimy 2017 at a special Gala event on Tuesday April 23 at the Four Season hotel in Toronto. Be part of Canadian history! A few tickets are still available by contacting Bassett Events at (416) 966-4660 or This annual event will be held each April to coincide with the Vimy anniversary.