The war to end all wars slowly disappears from history

World War 1 tanks and soldiers, probably British or American. [Great War Observer, Creative Commons]

by Tom Regan

For Canada and the United States, World War 1 has very different meanings.

In America, it is a barely remembered oddity. Very few Americans know that 100 years ago today, April 6, 1917, America entered the First World War. Buried under the tsunami of the Greatest Generation that won World War II, and wedged in between that war and the Civil War some 50 years beforehand, the war to end all wars rates barely a blip in a country that pays scanned attention to its history at the best of times.

It’s a completely different story in Canada. World War I is very much present in the minds of many older and younger Canadians. And that is primarily because of one battle – Vimy Ridge which started 100 years ago this coming Sunday, April 9. It was the first time that all four Canadian divisions in the war fought together. Both the British and the French tried to take Vimy Ridge but failed. In reality the repeated assaults on the Ridge were little more than diversionary tactics designed to draw German strength away from a more important battle, the battle of Arras. But that did not matter to Canadians, who stormed and captured Vimy Ridge in a battle that became mythologized, true or not, as the “moment” Canada became a country.

In America, World War I was seen as a problem that the United States needed to avoid. The imperial powers of Britain and France fought the imperial powers of Germany, Russia and Turkey for control of the European continent. Although Britain and France upheld democratic ideals that were very close to what Americans believed in, American politicians distrusted their long-term objectives and saw the war as a way for the countries involved merely to increase their territorial holdings. (And in some ways, this was very true, particularly in areas like the Middle East, where the Sykes-Picot agreement on how to divide up that part of the world between the imperial powers continues to haunt us to this day.)

Two events changed America’s perspective on the war. The first was the sinking of the British ship the Lusitania in 1915 where 128 Americans were killed when it was torpedoed in the Irish Sea by a German submarine. After this, American President Woodrow Wilson became much more vocal in his support of Britain and France, despite the attempts of German-Americans to keep America out of the war.

The final straw was the Zimmerman letter. Issued by the German Foreign Ministry in January 1917. The Zimmerman letter or telegram was sent to the government of Mexico and proposed a military alliance between the two countries and Japan if the United States entered the war. (Germany, which had decided to return to unrestricted submarine attacks on merchant shipping, anticipated this would draw in the US.) It called on Mexico to invade United States and Germany promised that it would help recapture and hold the land it had lost in the 1840s including Texas and Arizona and New Mexico. The letter created a firestorm in the United States and after that it was only a matter of time before the Americans went “over there.”

But despite its current low profile, World War I did affect America in many important ways. Perhaps the most important way was how many immigrants, who had always been viewed with suspicion by Anglo-Protestant Americans, came to be seen as “real” Americans for the first time because of their willingness to sign up and fight. It also promoted America’s move from a mostly rural culture to a much more urban one. For many of the thousands of troops who went to Britain and France this was the first time they had been more than 20 or 30 miles away from the spot on which they had been born. And, as the song says, “How ya going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris.”

A copy of the Vancouver Sun from April 10, 1917 celebrating Canada’s role at Vimy Ridge. [Vancouver Sun, Creative Commons]

Meanwhile Canada had been involved in the struggle from the very beginning, but always under the command of British officers. Which was what happened at Vimy Ridge was so important because the Canadians won that battle with minimal British help.

There were dark moments. In Newfoundland, which back then was in a colony of Britain and not yet a part of Canada, July 1 does not only mark the day Canada became a country in 1867. July 1 marks the day that 758 Newfoundlanders took the field at Beaumont-Hamel on the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916. By the end of that day 90% of the Newfoundland Regiment were dead, dying, or wounded. At the next day’s roll call only 68 men were present. There was hardly a town or an outport in all of Newfoundland that was not touched by that day’s events.

For me, World War I is also very present. I was named after a great uncle, my grandmother’s brother, who was killed by a sniper during the war. I have very strong memories of watching First World War veterans taking part in ceremonies at the National Cenotaph in Ottawa when I was growing up. As a youngster, I met several men who had fought in the war. It does not seem like it was 100 years ago to me.

After the war, Canada was different. It no longer saw itself as a colony of Great Britain but as its own country and some 20 odd years later when World War II started, Canada did not declare war on Germany the same day as Great Britain but purposely waited several days before doing it on its own to make the point ‘we call our own shots from now on.’

Taking a more realistic view, World War I was an unnecessary slaughter ofmillions of men on both sides for reasons that are still not very clear. And while Vimy Ridge was an important moment for many Canadians, it’s fair to say that it means more to English Canada than to French Canada, so the claim that it is the moment that Canada became a country needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

I think that after this year’s anniversaries, World War I, the war to end all wars, will continue to disappear into the background, perhaps only commented on in British historical dramas, Canada’s National Film Board documentaries, and maybe some Ken Burns-like filmmaker in America deciding to do a series on PBS. For a war that meant led to so many changes for so many countries, I doubted 50 years from now it will be little more than a few paragraphs in high school history books.

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Prayer space in Canadian public schools a mistake

Canada has had publicly supported religious schools since its founding. But the open practice of religion in public schools has been frowned on by Canadian courts since the mid-1980s. (Above, St. Phillips Elementary Catholic School in Ontario) [Photo by Amir Syed, Creative Commons]

By Tom Regan

One of the best things about public school in the United States is that religion is left “at the school house gate,” to borrow a phrase from a famous Supreme Court ruling on a different issue.

It’s not quite the same in Canada. There is no “separation of church and state” in Canadian law. Religious schools, in particular publicly supported Catholic schools, have operated in Canada since the country’s founding in 1867. For instance, the province of Ontario supports a Catholic school system. I know because I once attended Corpus Christi school in Ottawa. Right across the street was Mutchmor school, the ”Protestant” school, but basically it was for everyone who wasn’t Catholic. They would call us “Corpus Crispies” and we would chant back they were “Mutch Less.” Such is the nature of how religion brings us together.

There is also public financial support in some form across the country for other religious schools, including Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh.

Canada public schools, however, are like those in the US and openly practicing religion during the school day is frowned upon. At least that what courts in Canada have been saying since the mid-1980s, when the courts ruled that schools cannot conduct religious exercises that favor one denomination. Even voluntary exercises were found to be unconstitutional, as “opting out” can create a stigma for the student who opts out.

It is constitutional to wear expressions of your faith in a public school: a yarmulke if you’re Jewish, a hijab if you’re Muslim, a cross if you’re Catholic. And that is as it should be.

But what about putting aside a space for a group of students so that they can pray during the school day? That’s the question after a school in Brampton, Ontario put aside space for Muslims students to pray on Fridays. This is not the first time this has arisen as a potential issue – in 2012 a public school in Toronto allowed a Muslim Imam to come and talk to students at lunchtime on Fridays.

Both situations are a mistake. If schools are prohibited from holding opt-out religious exercises, then opt-in is also a problem, potentially for the very same reason.

To quote Ed Morgan, a University of Toronto constitutional law expert, who was interviewed about the 2012 conflict, “I think this looks like a school practicing religion. The school may be conveying a message that they endorse religion and that’s what the school is not allowed to do.”

And that’s the way it must be, regardless of the religion. While the Canadian approach to religion in public schools is certainly more open than in the US, this is a road the country does not want to go down. What happens when every religious denomination starts to ask for “accommodation”? Many schools currently refuse to allow parents to pull their children from a class every time something they find questionable is taught – which is as it should be. It’s going to be a lot harder to argue in favor of this rule if you’re giving students from any religion a room to pray in during public school times.

There are numerous publicly supported religious options for school in Canada, where open expressions of religion are welcome. Or before or after school, fine. But the minute the public school day starts, then it’s time for religion to leave.

It’s a particularly hard time for Canadians Muslims. The recent murder of six Muslims in Quebec City and the very public race-baiting tactics of Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch have exacerbated fears in the community. But this is a question that not only affects Muslims, but all Canadians. And if Canada is going to make sure that there is a level-playing field for all people of faith in public schools, then open practices of faith are going to have to be left at that school house gate.

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Why are Canadians doing so much better than Americans?


Canadians are quickly moving farther ahead than Americans in important social, economic and political measurement. [Photo of Canada Day 2014 in Calgary, taken by Thanks for Visiting, Creative Commons]

The latest results are in and it’s not looking good for Americans as compared to their neighbors to the north. An article in Canada’s national news magazine, Maclean’s, lists a few of the ways that Canada has moved ahead of the United States in important economic, social, and political measurements.

For instance, Canadians live an average of 2.5 years longer than Americans. They are six times less likely to find themselves behind bars. They are the 6th happiest people in the world, while Americans are in unlucky 13th place. Almost 60% of Canadians have a college degree while in the United States it’s only 46%.

The libertarian Cato Institute ranks Canadians as the sixth freest people in the world, while the US can be found in 23rd place. The conservative Heritage Foundation puts Canada ten places higher than the US for economic freedom. Home ownership is 5% higher in Canada and Canadians earn more money per capita than Americans. Yet, Canadians also work 80 fewer hours per year than their American cousins and take an extra three days of vacation.

One of the stats that matters the most in a free society is press freedom. Reporters without Borders ranks Canada 18th, which is not what it should be, but the US limps in at 41st. (Yes, 41st.)

Oh, did I also mention that Canadians also have universal healthcare?

But why? Why has this happened? What differences have created this startling result between these two neighbors?

Let’s start with size. There are about 320 million people in the US, and only about 1/10 of that in Canada, despite the fact that Canada is a larger country. Finding the right mixture of economic and political policies for that many people is much more difficult. There is a reason that countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland rank so high in many measurements of a successful society. Countries with smaller populations are just easier to govern in most cases.

Military spending is also another very important factor. The United States spends more than Canada on the military by a gagillion dollars. Money that could be used to alleviate poverty, create the best healthcare system in the world, provide a college education to every American, is spent instead on weapons to keep the US at the top of the superpower food chain. Meanwhile, Canada’s spending on any military necessity is anemic, largely because Canadians count on the US to protect them in times of trouble.

Yet the most important differences are cultural and political. If America had a motto, it would be “every tub on its own stand.” (Which is actually Harvard’s unofficial motto.) There are many pluses to this view of the world. Individual Americans deal with failure better than any nationality in the world, and are quick to pick themselves up off the mat and make a new start. On the other hand, however, many Americans have a hard time caring about other people in the world, let alone other Americans. And the fractured US system of government, that is so local in so many places (and in such a large country), provides benefits but it makes it very difficult to install any national programs that would help all its citizens.

Canada is a nation largely created by its geography. Living in a much harsher climate, the importance of working together just to survive was important in early Canada. It’s an attitude that has remained regardless of the fact that most Canadians no longer live in danger of the elements. And the Canadian system of parliamentary government, while it certainly has its problems, does make it easier to create those much needed national programs.

There are other factors of course, but those listed above may be among the most important. Canada is far from perfect (it’s record on its treatment of its indigenous peoples is abysmal) but appears to be on the rise. As the United States moves into four years of Donald Trump as its president, it’s very likely it will continue to drop in all of the categories mentioned above.

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It can’t happen here, eh

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau [Photo by Alex Gulbord, Creative Commons]

by Tom Regan

When Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, a semi-satirical novel about a dictator defeating FDR and taking over the United States, it was generally assumed that he was writing about what would happen if Louisiana politician Huey Long became president of the United States. Fortunately for the United States, and unfortunately for Mr. Long, it didn’t happen. Long was assassinated in 1936.

An American political novel from the 30s about the threat of democratically elected dictatorship may not seem relevant to Canada today. Many Canadians, particularly those in the middle and on the left, clearly think that the kind of right-wing, populist, anti-governmental wave that swept Donald Trump into power in the United States could never happen in a liberal and progressive country like Canada.

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but it certainly could.

Sobering evidence that this could indeed happen in the great White North was revealed yesterday. For the past 15 years, the international public relations firm Edelman has issued an international “trust index” that basically measures the amount of trust that citizens of a variety of countries have for institutions like the media, non-governmental organizations, business and the government. On Tuesday they released the latest information on Canada and what it showed was disturbing – that basically Canada is poised for the same kind of populist “eruption” that recently brought Donald Trump to power in the United States.

Edelman executives who released the report called its findings “dramatic” and said that the same kind of wave of ingredients that fueled populist uprisings in the United States and Britain are coalescing in Canada. Confidence in the government of Justin Trudeau for instance, has dropped dramatically. While some drop-off is to be anticipated after a year in government, it was much more than expected, from about 55% to 45%. Meanwhile, a staggering 80% of Canadians said they thought that the county’s “elites” were out of touch with ordinary citizens. Almost 2/3 said they didn’t have faith in the country’s leaders to effectively tackle the issues facing the nation. And 50% of Canadians said that they felt immigrants were damaging the country’s culture and economy.

On the one hand, it’s been quite the year in international politics and it would be foolish to assume that Canada would be totally passed over by the nativist wave that swept through the United States and much of Europe. On the surface a 45% approval rate is not disastrous for Trudeau. On the other hand, it would be sheer folly to ignore what this report demonstrates: That government is not connecting with ordinary Canadians, that the government is not doing its job in helping Canadians understand the benefits that immigrants bring to the country, and that the government has ignored the consequences of globalization on the lives of many of its citizens.

There is some evidence that Trudeau may understand what’s happening. His recent decision to skip the summit of world leaders in Davos and instead embark on a cross-country series of town hall meetings would seem to indicate that he senses the political peril of ignoring the common folk to hang out with global elites.

There is little doubt that Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, however, sees the political opportunity of this populist moment. She has seized on the fact that many Canadians are unhappy with the status quo, and hopes to use that populist sentiment to capture the leadership of her party and ultimately 24 Sussex Dr.

Fortunately, Trudeau has at least two years before he has to call another federal general election. It is quite possible that the populist wave will ebb first. The tumultuous first few weeks of the Trump administration in the United States has already dampened the enthusiasm of many for that kind of government, including among a good number of those who voted in. But Donald Trump is an odd and unpredictable fish, and if you’re counting on his erratic behavior to make your argument for progressive policies, then you’re just throwing a Hail Mary pass and hoping for the best.

If Canada wants to avoid the same kind of populist eruption that’s happening in much of the rest of the world, there’s real, hard work to be done to repair the trust between Canadians and their government. And it needs to start right now. Slick, “sunny” PR opportunities are not going to change a thing.

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