Presenting On the First World War: Memory and Remembrance

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to present at the Humber Liberal Arts @IFOA Conference, “Representing World War I: Perspectives at the Centenary. The First World War was a monumental event and the way it is remembered is important. Recently it has become important to look at the way the war is remembered by those outside the dominant narrative. The paper I presented on, titled “Red Man On The Warpath”: The Problem of Native Canadian Enlistment During the First World War,  dealt with these themes:

Close to 4,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were of Aboriginal descent, a very high number given the limited civil rights afforded to Aboriginals in the early twentieth century. This number is especially striking given the problems that many Native men faced when attempting to enlist in the war.

When war broke out in 1914, Canada did not have a clear military policy and the Militia Act of 1904 was especially ambiguous regarding the role Aboriginals were to play in the military. Much of this ambiguity was due to the idea at the turn of the century that Aboriginals were “a disappearing race.” Because at the state of the war, recruitment centres were flooded with volunteers, local recruiting officers could afford to be very picky, and most agents would have relied on their own personal prejudices against Natives when considering their attempts to enlist.

This paper will build on much of the scholarly research done on Native Canadian contributions to the war effort, but focus purely on the early days on the way and the problem of recruitment by looking at popular images of Aboriginals in Canada at the time. Within these popular images includes the reoccurring tropes of the “Nobel Savage” or the “Bloodthirsty Redskin.” Local recruiting officers would have accepted or rejected Native recruits based on personal prejudices, which would have been necessarily informed by the dominant images of Native Canadians at the time.

The response to the paper was largely positive and I fielded some really engaging questions from the audience. The question on everyone’s mind however, seemed to be “Why did they fight?” It is a difficult question to answer, and can be applied to almost everyone in the First World War. The truth is I don’t think we’ll ever really know. Native Canadian men enlisted in the First World War to show their support for the crown, to better their own communities, for a sense of adventure, and for many other reasons that we may never be aware of. Not knowing the reasons for enlisting makes remembering the war difficult. We remember those who fought and died, but do we remember what they died for? With the case of the First World War it is quite tricky and the reasons for fighting were not as clear as they would be 20 years later. As many others who spoke mentioned we need to re-evaluate what we remember on November 11th. Yes we remember the Canadians that died in battle, but we also need to remember that they died to ensure a lasting peace. Peace. That is what the remembrance of the First World War, and any war for that matter, should be about.

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