A sacred day

This Sunday, the armistice that ended the Great War will reach its 100th anniversary. As the guns fell silent over the wasteland they had made out of Northern France, there were no spontaneous eruptions of triumph - instead, all sides crawled out of their trenches, and stared at what 52 months of total war had wrought. People were already promising "never again" long before the war ended. As we gather together this weekend, we will renew our vow to that credo.

There is nothing as ubiquitously and uniquely Canadian as our reverence for Nov. 11. Certainly, other nations, particularly our fellow Commonwealth and Mother Britain, have similar ceremonies on the same date. But most also have days of observance for their armed forces or other wars specifically. For this Dominion, the Great War, marked by communal mourning on Remembrance Day, has no rival for significance anywhere on our civic calendar.

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It's sometimes said that at Vimy Ridge, Canada became a nation; what is indisputable is that a country as vast as ours gained a universal focus and connection due to four long years of brutal conflict overseas. There are dozens of hospitals that trace their origins to treating the men who came back wounded, and from the smallest village in the North to the largest cities in the South, stone cenotaphs, with the names of the fallen inscribed, stand at the centre of daily life.

The battle honours earned in the First World War are what succeeding generations of men at arms must live up to, and some regiments still carry patches or regalia that can be linked to the decisions taken then. For that matter, every subsequent conflict involving Canadians has been a distant ripple of 1918: on Juno Beach, at Kapyong, throughout the former Yugoslavia, and in Kandahar province, our soldiers have continued fighting their ancestors' Great War.

There is no space here to begin listing the effects bloody trenches had on our literature, arts, and culture; indeed, Canada is the heir of an unfortunate golden age, as everything that is not from our founding or contemporary culture inevitably seems to be dated between 1914-18 or thereabouts. It is not hard to trace our dark sense of humour to the absurdity many must have seen in attrition; nor is it hard to see or hear the pain expressed in canvas or poems of the era.

So universal and deep is Canada's reverence for Remembrance Day, that even in our time of mad historical revisionism, the Great War's narrative remains almost untouched. More successful conflicts have been discredited and entire centuries of activity recast in the worst of possible lights on spurious evidence. But Nov. 11 retains the aura of a medieval holy day among our people, regardless of background - indeed, it is one of our last unifying institutions.

The First World War left an indelible mark upon the Canadian soul; even a century later, this is still apparent, giving it a nearly supernatural quality. What remains to be seen is how Nov. 11 will be observed as we cross the threshold far beyond living memory, and what will be emphasized as the repercussions of that conflict continue to affect us over time. Perhaps one day the holiday will be pegged to a particular weekday, regardless of date, for convenience.

But if I were to hazard a guess, a century from now there will still be people gathering at graves and cenotaphs throughout our country on Nov. 11. Some of them will bring items to lay at the site; others might volunteer to stand watch, ancient Lee-Enfields in hand; someone will attempt Last Call and Reveille or puffing a tune on bagpipes; and certainly, a man of the cloth or a revered layman will say a word for the glorious dead and pray for peace on Earth.

In short, Remembrance Day's endurance is thanks to the human condition, particularly in our country which has so few sacred things left. We mourn, hope, and pray, lest we forget.

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