The lingering political problem of World War I: Tories vs. Boulerice and beyond

Thoughts on refighting the past

It’s fascinating to see controversy stirred up over an old blog post by NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice in which he called World War I “a purely capitalist war” and lamented how, at the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, “thousands of poor wretches were slaughtered to take possession of a hill.”

Conservatives, led by Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, have expressed outrage and demanded Boulerice apologize. So far, he hasn’t. For the record, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair had already released a statement praising the legendary efforts of Canadians soldiers in the landmark battle. [I’ve clarified this sentence since an earlier version might have left the impression Mulcair issued the statement only after the Boulerice blog became an issue.]

I’m not sure how reflecting on the tragedy of thousands dying to capture a height of land would be inconsistent with acknowledging their military prowess in doing so, much less insulting to veterans. More interesting, I think, is the strangeness of how World War I can remain a politically fraught subject nearly a century on.

And I wonder if the Conservatives are quite so comfortable about the 1914-1918 war as their criticism of Boulerice might suggest. Consider how they treat Robert Borden, Canada’s World War I prime minister. A 2011 Maclean’s survey of historians on Canada’s prime ministers ranked John A. Macdonald, of course, the top Conservative (in second spot, after Liberal Wilfrid Laurier) and pegged Borden as the next highest-rated Tory PM (in eighth position overall).

Now, given the enthusiasm of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government for finding ways to celebrate Conservative political heritage by naming things after Tory icons, wouldn’t you expect the party’s No. 2 all-time great’s name to be prominently featured? After all, everything can’t be named after Macdonald, and Harper has already rechristened a road and a building for him.

Yet Borden is all but ignored. He’s not just overshadowed by Sir John A. Even John Diefenbaker—who rates two slots below Borden on the Maclean’s list in tenth—gets far more attention, including having both an icebreaker and a prominent Ottawa edifice, at 111 Sussex Drive, near Harper’s house, named for him.

I suspect the reason Borden hasn’t gotten his due is because of the long-lingering controversy over the 1917 Conscription Crisis. As we all learned in school, Borden’s imposing of mandatory military service late in the war exposed the rift between English Canada, which had enthusiastically backed the war effort, and French Canada, where feelings were far more ambivalent.

English-speaking MPs voted for conscription way back when, while French-speaking MPs opposed it. Apparently, a residue of that old split remains. But while Conservative cabinet ministers today slam Boulerice and urge an unequivocally positive view of how World War I was when Canada “came of age,” I wonder if they will use the upcoming 1914 anniversary of the war’s start to begin celebrating Borden, or if the bitter complexities of history will continue to render that politically unwise.

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