How Do Canadians Remember World War II 75 Years Afterward?

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Although this year was the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, the pandemic diminished the national Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa. Instead of thousands of people filling the streets around Confederation Square, a few hundred people came and stood or sat socially distanced around the National War Memorial.

As always, World War I loomed large over the event, providing most of the ceremony’s symbolism, particularly the poppies in people’s lapels and, this year, on masks. The National War Memorial, where the ceremony takes place every year, is decidedly a memorial to that earlier war.

Given that more than one million Canadians and Newfoundlanders served in the military during World War II and more than 44,000 died — at a time when Canada had a population of just 12 million — the continued dominance of World War I in how the country commemorates its war dead is striking. Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum and author of eight books about Canada at war, has made how the nation remembers World War II the subject of his latest book, “The Fight for History.”

The end of World War II, by contrast, kicked off a buoyant period in Canadian history. Rather than mourn, many Canadians wanted to move on.

“We treated our veterans well when they came home in 1945,” Dr. Cook told me. “Really forward-thinking legislation and programs helped veterans reintegrate.”

That fit the national mood.

“A modern Canada emerges out of the Second War,” Dr. Cook said. “We’re looking forward to a prosperous 20th century. A casualty of that prosperity is reflecting upon the service and sacrifice during the war.”

With relatively little fuss, veterans accepted that the symbols of World War I remembrance, like the poppy, would also be used for those who died in the Second War.

Instead of building more monuments, however, Canadian governments went for what were sometimes called living memorials: civic buildings or facilities dedicated to the memory of the dead. Until reading Dr. Cook’s new book, however, I didn’t know that the Royal Canadian Legion and other groups pushed back against that approach and demanded, among other things, a national monument devoted to World War II in Ottawa near where the National Gallery of Canada now stands.

“The Legion and other groups said that these memorials are fine and good but they’re not sacred spaces. You’re not standing in the memorial, tennis court or hockey arena bearing witness to the fallen,” Dr. Cook said. “History bears out the Legion. Within 20, 30, 40 years, most of those memorials were knocked down or we just lost the sense of what the memorial was supposed to remind us.”

It took until 1982 for the dates of World War II to be put on the National War Memorial, and no World War II monuments to Canadians have been erected at overseas battlefields, unlike for World War I.



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