Cohen: Time to move beyond the myth of Vimy

Andrew Cohen on Vimy, with help from Jack Granatstein:

“For the first time, Canadians soldiers fought as one unit, under the command of Canadian officers and employing tactics developed by Canadians,” according to an article in the National Post in 2013. “And we won, trouncing the Germans where our allies had failed and congratulating ourselves ever since.”

As J.L. Granatstein argues, that view “is almost completely wrong. Almost. All that it gets right is that Canadians have congratulated themselves ever since.”

Granatstein, the highly decorated military historian who chaired the advisory board of the Vimy Foundation until 2014, is not belittling the foundation or Canada’s role in the Allied offensive that spring. Nor am I.

But, as he points out in his provocative new book, The Greatest Victory: Canada’s One Hundred Days, 1918, we have come to believe a more comforting mythology. His persuasive point is that our decisive impact came in the last three months of the war, that those were our greatest battles.

At Vimy, Granatstein writes, the Canadian Corps was not commanded by a Canadian but by British Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng. The planners were not Canadians, as widely thought, but Britons. Seven of nine of the Heavy Artillery Groups that put Canadians on Vimy Ridge were from the Royal Artillery. And the supplies, weapons and ammunition were largely from Britain, he says.

While thousands of the soldiers at Vimy were born in Canada, most were recent British immigrants to Canada. (Indeed, we had no citizenship then.)

Most important – and hardest for us to accept – is that Vimy changed little. Yes, we took the ridge with courage, daring and innovation, a magnificent victory. But the Germans retreated a few miles east into new trenches, suffering a “tactical” more than a strategic defeat.

“Vimy regrettably did not win the war or even substantially change its course,” concludes Granatstein.

Yet that is not what Canadians know about Vimy. More likely, they hear that it “began our evolution from dominion to independent nation.” Or, more breathlessly, it marked “the birth of a nation.”

It helped that the battle opened under gun metal skies on Easter Sunday, fostering a poetic sense of resurrection. That some 10,300 were killed or wounded, that they fought through snow and sleet, that it was our greatest victory in the war up to then – all contributed to a national mythology.

But the birth of a nation? Lord, we had been here for 300 years, and organized as a country since 1867. To say that we fell from the heavens in 1917 denies centuries of achievement and sacrifice. That we began to emerge in the world afterward because we went to the Versailles Conference is an empty boast; in reality, we had little international influence until the Second World War.

All this may be useful to those who crave a comforting narrative. A century ago, as an adolescent people, we needed one.

Today we should remember Vimy. But we should also ask what we were doing there, and in the slaughterhouse of the Great War itself, and what the war did to us. That’s what a mature, self-confident people does.

Vimy is a myth. It’s time to move beyond it.

Cohen: Time to move beyond the myth of Vimy | Ottawa Citizen.

Cohen: The shrinking space for books | Ottawa Citizen

Andrew Cohen on the challenges of being a writer today given the decline of bookstores:

Today entering most bookstores is a test of character for the writer. You might find your book amid the baubles; you might not. You might be asked to speak and sign; you might be ignored.

There are a few sanctuaries offering literary asylum: Munro’s in Victoria, Books on Beechwood in Ottawa, Ben McNally Books in Toronto. Books on Beechwood was saved by guardian angels and a passionate staff.

McNally has a rare, crazy commitment to books. He is wonderfully innovative as a seller and marketer – a gift to writers.

The disappearing bookstore reflects the ebbing stature of books in society. The public space for books is shrinking.

The author tour is passé. Twenty years ago a first-time author with a good book could expect to visit five cities or so, speaking, giving interviews. Few do that today.

Newspapers used to review books seriously. The Globe and Mail published a weekly, well-read tabloid on books. The Toronto Star and The National Post carried reviews. Regional papers did, too.

There are fewer reviews in newspapers today and fewer specialty publications on books. Those that survive, like The Literary Review of Canada – the nation’s literary salon – commission reviews often long and learned for which they pay little.

There remain excellent book shows on CBC Radio, like The Next Chapter with the spirited Shelagh Rogers, and unusual hosts on private radio, like Mark Sutcliffe on CFRA, who appreciate books. None has the impact of Peter Gzowski’s CBC’s Morningside, where an author’s appearance on national radio could make telephones ring in bookstores.

Cohen: The shrinking space for books | Ottawa Citizen.

Cohen: A cheap and small-minded museum plan

Andrew Cohen on the parochial nature of Ottawa. All too true:

John Baird, the minister responsible for Ottawa, who speaks of its “treasured” institutions, sees the capital much as he does our historic diplomatic residences abroad, which the government is selling. Too expensive. Too extravagant.

Recently, Baird went to Washington with Mark Kristmanson, the new head of the National Capital Commission. Kristmanson is smart, innovative and full of terrific ideas, one of which is to illuminate Ottawa in a symphony of light.

If Baird looked around Washington, he would have seen how to remake a great capital where museums matter.In the last 15 years, Washington has renovated the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. It has built the National Museum of the American Indian and is building the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. It is re-imagining The Castle of the Smithsonian Institution.

But don’t stop there. Look at Baltimore, restoring its Museum of Art on its 100th anniversary. Or bankrupt Detroit, where they have saved the Detroit Institute of Arts. Or, Tacoma, Washington, where the art museum has been expanded.

Look at London, Paris, Tokyo, Rome and Berlin, where the German government, in particular, has sunk millions into a multi-year campaign to restore the treasures of Museum Island.

Ottawa? That would be presumptuous.

Cohen: A cheap and small-minded museum plan | Ottawa Citizen.

Cohen: Canada’s conversation about Israel brings shouts and insults

Good commentary by Andrew Cohen, reminding us of the diversity of views among Canadian Jews, and how these are muffled by the larger Canadian Jewish organizations:

But many congregants [of Shaar Hashomayim] worry — more than this prime minister can understand — about the country’s future as a democracy, even a Jewish Homeland, if it does not address its settlements in the West Bank. Or if it thinks the solution to Iran is solely military. Many of us hoped this government would raise reservations, as friends do, and as Ari Shavlit does in “My Promised Land,” his ruthlessly honest book.

Bless Rabbi Scheier. But when he hails a prime minister for speaking “truth” but offering nothing but self-comforting notions, when he lavishes praise on a mission of missed opportunity, he should know that he does not speak for me.

What Jews badly need are not stale notions and soothing platitudes, but that refreshing “gale of conversation” which has not yet blown into Canada.

Column: Canada’s conversation about Israel brings shouts and insults.

Andrew Cohen: Citizenship should mean more

Provocative commentary by Andrew Cohen on making citizenship more meaningful. Opposite perspective to the article by Elke Winter Becoming Canadian » Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Part of the challenge of citizenship policy is balancing the need for meaningfulness (and integrity) with the realities of today’s globalized world and individuals. If our immigration policy tries to attract more skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants, these are also likely to be more mobile and may have a more instrumental approach to citizenship.

While there are further opportunities to strengthen citizenship, many of Cohen’s suggestions are either not real world solutions or reasonable. For example:

  • Five year continuous residency:  are we really going to deny someone citizenship if they visit their parents once a year?;
  • Taxation of dual nationals, and the determination of who should be taxed, is not easy. Some of the problems the Americans have in implementing the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act – FATCA (see The American Diaspora Meets a Polarized America) illustrate this;
  • Making the test tougher and language requirements harder will continue to disadvantage many non-English and non-French native speakers, as well as those with lower levels of education (e.g., family members). Under Minister Kenney, much of the looseness in the process was appropriately tightened and the rationale for further tightening has not be demonstrated.

I am sympathetic to his view on raising the citizenship test exemption back to 65 and over (the Liberal government changed the exemption to 55 and over), although politically this is likely untenable.

If we are serious about giving substance to our citizenship, let the government reinstate the residency requirement of five years, making it mandatory to remain in Canada the entire time. Let it find a way to tax dual citizens who have never lived in Canada.

Let it establish a tougher test on knowledge and language, and apply it everyone under 65, not 55 (as is the case now). And let it address the injustice of the “lost Canadians” who have been denied citizenship through loopholes in the law.

At the same time, we should re-examine our commitment to country, too. For many Canadians citizenship is no more than paying taxes and obeying the law. It isn’t even about voting.

To give new meaning to citizenship, we should consider universal national service (community or military) for young Canadians; national standards in education for the teaching of Canadian history; a new commitment to encourage lifelong volunteerism and civic activity; and mandatory voting in federal elections.

As Canada goes to the Olympics, expect the usual orgy of chest-thumping and fist-pumping with every gold medal. But don’t mistake cheering athletes, wearing red mittens and sipping double-doubles for patriotism. It isn’t.

Real patriotism, and real citizenship, is knowing who you are, how you got here, what you have, and what you would do to keep it all.

If we ask that understanding of others, shouldn’t we ask it of ourselves, too?

Column: Citizenship should mean more.

2017: Canada’s next good year?

Andrew Cohen, contrasting preparations, events and resources for Canada’sC Centennial in 1967 to the meagre offerings in 2017.  I am old enough to remember the Centennial train, visiting Expo 67, and the various nation-building projects.

Changing times,  governments then had a larger nation-building role, the current government has a more minimalist approach, and a general weaker sense of national identity (the 60s were a decade of affirmation of Canadian identity). And of course, in 1967, physical events were the main way to reach people; now one has to be in cyberspace as well.

A good reminder of what was, and suggestion of what could have been. With the risk that we will wake-up in 2017 asking: “Is that all?”

2017: Canada’s next good year?.

Charter all part of the Péquistes’ cynical plan

Andrew Cohen on the proposed Charter. While I agree on his overall assessment on the cynicism of the PQ for playing identity politics, I am not sure that all is working out as well as he portrays for the PQ. Yes, the debate has been largely between Montreal and the hinterland (but Quebec city and Sherbrooke will likely also have reserves), the divisions among the sovereignist ranks, and the strong opposition from the healthcare sector among others make this strategy less of a slam dunk than I think the PQ anticipated. We shall see.

The Jews, Muslims, immigrants and anyone else with eyes see the Quebec Charter of Values for what it is: the sad, fearful cry of a tribal society led by well-tailored cynics.

Charter all part of the Péquistes’ cynical plan.

Quebec’s values debate is revealing – Articles

Starting with a highly critical commentary by Andrew Cohen, arguing that the debate reflects Quebec as an “adolescent” society, then progressing to criticize the federal leaders, save Justin Trudeau, for not taking a strong stand.

Quebec likes to think it looks to Europe. If so, it is becoming less like Europe as a social democracy and more like Europe as an anxious democracy, worried about the challenges of diversity.

Quebec’s values debate is revealing.

In Le Devoir, Jean-Claude Leclerc, provides some useful history to Quebec’s ongoing sensitivity to religion and the other, and is equally critical of the proposed approach:

Personne ne va monter aux barricades au nom du principe de la séparation de l’Église et de l’État. Et surtout, à quoi une autre déclaration sur l’égalité entre les sexes pourrait-elle bien s’appliquer, alors qu’il s’agit, en l’occurrence, d’inégalité visant d’abord et avant tout des femmes. Plus souvent victimes de violence. Plus nombreuses à vivre dans la pauvreté. À devoir se faire proches aidants. Et bien sûr à être encore sous-représentées dans les institutions de l’État, à commencer par l’Assemblée nationale.

Entre-temps, d’aucuns se demanderont sans doute en quoi l’État qui exclut l’Église de la définition des valeurs peut prétendre imposer les siennes à toute une société.

Laïcité et valeurs québécoises – De Maurice Duplessis à Pauline Marois

And another, shorter historical perspective, from Stéphane Baillargeon of Le Devoir, going back five years to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, noting just how lively the debate is, and while the media plays a role in heightening the issue, the media is also responding to popular concerns.

Charte des valeurs québécoises – Brûler pour ne pas s’éteindre

The other truth about Trudeau

Good to see a healthy debate on the legacy of Trudeau, given that so much writing has had elements of hagiography. Bob Plamondon’s recent The Truth About Trudeau provides a valuable counter-narrative that, like many counter-narratives, may try too hard to make its case. On the other side, Andrew Cohen, emphasizes the long-term impact of  Trudeau’s achievements, particularly the Constitution and the Charter,  and his role, sometimes divisive, in trying to keep the country together.

Like all leaders with a legacy of achievement, views and interpretations will differ, but if Trudeau doesn’t ‘haunt us still,’ his legacy continues to shape the country, in big and small ways.

Even the Conservative government, opposed to much of the Trudeau legacy, has to live within it, sometimes with grace (e.g., the 2008 apology to aboriginal Canadians), sometimes churlishly (e.g., refusing to publicly commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Charter). And the reference to multiculturalism in the Charter (the Canadian ‘brand’) has equally sticking power despite efforts to invoke pluralism as an alternative.

The other truth about Trudeau.

Canada’s misguided monarchists

Andrew Cohen’s take on the monarchy. He makes a valid point about how our general fascination with celebrities, and celebrity culture, overwhelms the substance of the monarchy. But I don’t share the urgency of the ‘natural evolution’ and shedding the monarchy; it is part of our history and heritage, is fully embedded in our institutions, generally works well, and change would be a distraction to more pressing issues. On the other hand, changing the oath ….

Canada’s misguided monarchists.