On April 9, Vimy Ridge Day, we will celebrate and commemorate the 103rd anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge. At Vimy, as we all should know, 100,000 Canadian soldiers fought together for the first time and secured a rare and stunning victory for the Allied forces. Arguably, for the first time ever, the world paid attention to something that our young country had done, and on the largest stage on earth at the time- the Western Front in the First World War.
From Vimy, the emboldened Canadian Corps went to a string of victories starting with Hill 70, followed by the taking of Passchendaele, finished by the never to be forgotten final “100 days” when Canadian forces became the spearhead of the entire British Imperial war effort in Europe.
We recall these momentous events to remind Canadians of what we can do as a nation when faced with enormous challenges, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic. In the four years of war between 1914 and 1918 Canada changed enormously; from a small regular force militia to Canadian Expeditionary Force totalling hundreds of thousands, from a pre-war budget of $185 million to a wartime budget of more than $740 million, with a quadrupled federal debt of $1.2 billion and an additional federal income tax, a totally new initiative, of 4% on all households with income over $2 000 per year.
By the end of the war, over 600,000 citizens had served in the Canadian Armed forces out of a population of 8 million, or nearly one out of every 10 citizens! We had lost 60 000 soldiers, had another 170,000 physically injured and an untold and uncared number suffering from what we now call PTSD.
No one could have foreseen how our young, sparsely populated country could muster such an effort of blood and material – and yet we did.
We are again faced with an enormous challenge in the Covid-19 pandemic, but this too we have done before – the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1920, spread by soldiers returning from Europe after the war. The ‘flu’ raced across Canada, causing Canadians everywhere to wear a mask if they could secure one (does this sound familiar?), resulting in the loss of over 55,000 Canadians. Canadians once again mobilized their communities to fight the ‘flu’, converting public buildings into hospitals and creating the beginnings of a federal public health body to help create policy to manage the epidemic.
Canada is in a new type of war now, where the fighting is done in our hospitals and our health care workers are the ones on the front lines, potentially sacrificing themselves for the greater good, for Canada. But like the two world wars, and other troubles that have beset us, we will weather this storm as we have weathered storms in the past, by being level-headed, organized, compassionate, united, and above all, by rising to the challenge. The nation born at Vimy and during the First World War has untold strengths in its people and resources and is capable of anything required of it. The “Battle of the Pandemic” will be soon followed by the “Battle of Economic Recovery”, and Canada will emerge changed but unbowed by these challenges as we carve out our continuing grand destiny.
– Christopher Sweeney, Chair of the Vimy Foundation