What did the war mean for Canada? Granatstein and Morton call it “[t]he war that changed everything.” They argue that as costly as the war was for this country, Canada gained more than it lost. It was a just war as there was no choice but to fight and defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany; the alternative was unthinkable. But in particular, it had been a good war for Canada. As a result of industrial expansion, the country was richer in 1945 than it had been in 1939, when it was still emerging from the Great Depression. As well, Canada had become more powerful internationally as a nation. Canadians had become more outward looking than at any previous point in their history.
Yet the cost for this shift in our post-war fortunes was high: over 42,000 men and women killed overseas, the reemergence of political divisions over conscription, and stains on Canada’s human rights record due to the internment of the Japanese – a policy widely accepted at the time but judged harshly in retrospect. But Canada did emerge as a major military power. Canada fielded an overseas army of five divisions and two armoured brigades. By the end of the conflict, Canada boasted the world’s fourth-largest air force and third-largest navy – not bad for a country that, in 1939, was armed largely with First World War castoff weapons and staffed by one the smallest militaries in the British Commonwealth.
How should Canadians remember the Second World War? Remembrance Day is held on 11 November 1918 – the day the guns ceased firing in the First World War. The Somme, Passchendaele, and especially Vimy Ridge are Great War battles with which many Canadians are familiar. Can we say the same about the Scheldt, the Rhineland, and the battles fought to liberate the Netherlands? It is not surprising that our memory of the First World War is so strong. It was Canada’s first major overseas war and demanded a complete national commitment. In a country of just eight million people in 1914, more than 650,000 men and women from Canada and Newfoundland – about one in 12 — joined the military. Over 66,000 of them died, and another 172,000 were wounded. It is not surprising that this level of commitment and sacrifice was commemorated in most communities across the country. If you look at the local war memorial, you will see that most were built to commemorate the Canadian sacrifice in the First World War. Even the National War Memorial in Ottawa – the large granite monument beside the Parliament Buildings which represents 22 Canadian servicemen engaged in fighting the 1914–1918 war – was unveiled in 1939, before the start of the Second World War.
There is no single overseas memorial commemorating Canadian efforts in the Second World War. After the First World War, the Canadian government built a series of monuments in France and Belgium. The Vimy Ridge monument is the most famous and striking, but national sites of remembrance were also created at St. Julien, Passchendaele, and Hill 62 in Belgium, as well as Courcelette, Bourlon Wood, Dury, and Le Quesnel in France. The Newfoundland government erected memorials in Beaumont-Hamel and a number of other locations, and Canada adopted all these after 1949, when Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation.
For the Second World War, the federal government initiated no similar program of remembrance.
Canada’s Second World War monuments also tend to be different in nature from their Great War counterparts. Very few were built in the traditional style. Instead, many communities simply added “1939-1945” to their existing structures, along with the names of the fallen from the area. As well, new types of commemorations were created, including war memorial arenas, auditoriums, and other public buildings in Ontario cities such as Kitchener, Hespler, and Listowel, and British Columbian urban centres including Victoria, Vancouver, and Kitsilano. Numerous other communities across the country followed suit. Aside from the many Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries that dot Western Europe, the only major permanent Canadian memorial is the Juno Beach Centre in Normandy. This museum and visitor centre commemorates Canada’s efforts in the Second World War and was built by veterans who expressed disappointment that no such facility existed. It only opened in 2003.
In spite of these rather lukewarm commemoration efforts in Canada, the Dutch have never forgotten. Each year, they celebrate their liberation and welcome back Canadian soldiers who are treated like heroes. The 50th anniversary, in 1995, was a particularly memorable moment. At the main event on 7 May, over 1,000 Canadian veterans paraded in Apeldoorn through a cheering crowd estimated at over 150,000 people. It was a moment no one who was there will ever forget.
This year, the 75th anniversary, will feature many fewer veterans, as the ravages of time do what the Germans could not. In the summer of 2019, on Juno Beach, fewer than 50 Canadian veterans, all in their mid-to-late-90s, made the trip. But the Dutch memory of their liberation remains strong. They remain grateful to Canada for the freedom they continue to enjoy today. One hopes this will not change in the future, given that time heals and memories can dim.