Why Remembrance Day matters
When we remember the casualties of Canada’s past wars, it is helpful to recall what the soldiers who were maimed or lost their lives gained for their world and ours. This is especially critical in an age when the core principles of freedom are in routine danger of being forgotten, ignored or deliberately injured.
First, the numbers: Veterans Affairs estimates nearly 300 Canadians lost their lives in the Boer War, over 68,000 in the First World War, over 47,000 in the Second and 516 in the Korean conflict. Another 1,800 were killed in peacekeeping operations and in Afghanistan.
For what did Canadian men and women die? Some historians argue, persuasively, that men in combat fight for each other first and less for a grand cause. Accurate as that may be in the immediate moment, the animating impulse against tyranny also mattered, certainly in the Second World War and the previous one.
German bellicosity pre-1914 was a real threat and British and French assumptions on liberty preferable. In the next war, Germany’s anti-human death cult and Japanese militarism were, of course, murderous to civilized peoples everywhere.
These days, threats to personal, family and national liberties are not as stark, and, in fact, the out-working of past assumptions in favour of freedom only flowered for some after the Second World War. One example: Aboriginal Canadians were only given back the vote in 1960 by a prime minister himself a ferocious defender of civil liberties, John Diefenbaker.
But the first principles of freedom are always at risk of being overrun by politicians and others who seem not to understand their own hubris and how it plays out.
One local example: When an Alberta government assumes a default legislative position that parents are not be trusted vis-à-vis their potentially gay child, the message sent to such kids is: Trust politicians over your parents and teachers.
Bad idea. And that political pride actually inverts the proper organic relationship in life and in a liberal society: Parents first, then teachers and only later if necessary, government intervention. Such a political intrusion also hollows out a core, long-assumed liberty: family units, as units, are to be protected and assumed healthy unless in a specific case the parents demonstrate otherwise.
That creeping interference in what undergirds free societies and its institutions — family for one — does not rise to the level of world-consequential autocracy; but it is yet corrosive of historic Canadian norms.
Worse is the international threat to historic, hard-won freedoms that protect people from undiluted power, i.e. tyranny. An example: The rise of a Russia that undermines free societies through its intervention in countries that pose it no threat, such as Georgia and Ukraine; worldwide propaganda that deliberately makes it more difficult to separate fact from fake news and fiction; and the murder of the Russian regime’s political and media opponents.
Whether “petty” interference, or a grand injury to hard-won freedoms, Canadian soldiers and others perished to protect people from just such unjustifiable interventions.
Perhaps the best summary of what Canadians and others fought for comes from a recent book that traces the development of the anti-tyranny views of the wartime British prime minister, Winston Churchill, and his contemporary, the journalist George Orwell.
In Thomas Ricks’ Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, the author summarized their impact but also their internal compasses: “Both steered by the core principles of liberal democracy: freedom of thought, speech, and association.”
It is those core principles which some ignore or undermine. It happens via short-sighted domestic spasms against necessary, functional protection and privacy for families’ right as families — the first association that matters. It arrives from others on a grand scale, from those who care nothing for free, societies because their only interest is power.
Our dead heroes fought against such small and large interventions in our lives, lest we forget.
Mark Milke, Calgary Herald, November 11, 2017
Mark Milke is president of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary.