Christie Blatchford: Canada couldn’t have taken Vimy without citizen soldiers
Christie Blatchford | April 9, 2017 | Last Updated: Apr 10 8:03 AM ET
The Vimy 100th anniversary ceremony, televised live Sunday morning, was so Canadian in the tepid modern manner that it could have been designed by the CBC, not merely broadcast by it.
Held at the gorgeous Walter Allward-designed limestone memorial in France on the piece of land that is by dint of blood a part of Canada, the government-planned show featured trilingual singers, children’s choirs, dancers, Canadian performers all acting out the story. Suitably sombre politicians and dignitaries gave predictable speeches and said predictable things.
Aside from the setting, a few nods to the fact that Vimy was the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Corps had fought together, a bagpiper, a little military music — and of course the names of the dead on the walls – it could have passed for any Ottawa-centric bit of business.
There was no mention that I heard or saw of the 40 infantry and armoured regiments, which came from every corner of the country, who now carry Vimy 1917 as either a battle honour or a guidon (which the armoured regiments carry in lieu of a colour).
— The 48th Highlanders of Canada (Toronto, Ont.)
— The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada (Princess Louise’s) (Hamilton, Ont.)
— The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada (Montreal, Que.)
— The Calgary Highlanders (Calgary, Alta.)
— The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (Ottawa, Ont.)
— The Canadian Grenadier Guards (Montreal, Que.)
— The Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s) (Victoria, B.C.)
— The Cape Breton Highlanders (Sydney, N.S.)
— The Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment (Windsor, Ont.)
— Governor General’s Foot Guards (Ottawa, Ont.)
— The Lake Superior Scottish Regiment (Thunder Bay, Ont.)
— The Loyal Edmonton Regiment (Edmonton, Alta.)
— The North Saskatchewan Regiment (Saskatoon, Sask.)
— The Nova Scotia Highlanders (Truro, N.S.)
— The Princess of Wales’ Own Regiment (Kingston, Ont.)
— Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (Edmonton, Alta., and Shilo, Man.)
— The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada (Winnipeg, Man.)
— The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada (Toronto, Ont.)
— Royal 22nd Regiment (Valcartier, Quebec City, Laval, Saint-Hyacinthe, Que.)
— The Royal Canadian Regiment (Petawawa and London, Ont. and Gagetown, N.B.)
— The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (Hamilton, Ont.)
— The Royal Montreal Regiment (Montreal, Que.)
— The Royal New Brunswick Regiment (Fredericton, N.B.)
— The Royal Regiment of Canada (Toronto, Ont.)
— The Royal Regina Rifles (Regina, Sask.)
— The Royal Westminster Regiment (New Westminster, B.C.)
— Royal Winnipeg Rifles (Winnipeg, Man.)
— The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada (Vancouver, B.C.)
— The Toronto Scottish Regiment (Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s Own) (Mississauga, Ont.)
— 1st Hussars (London, Ont.)
— The British Columbia Dragoons (Kelowna, B.C.)
— The British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own) (Vancouver, B.C.)
— The Governor General’s Horse Guards (Toronto, Ont.)
— The King’s Own Calgary Regiment (Calgary, Alta.)
— The Ontario Regiment (Oshawa, Ont.)
— The Queen’s York Rangers (1st American Regiment) (Toronto, Ont.)
— The Royal Canadian Hussars (Montreal, Que.)
— The Saskatchewan Dragoons (Moose Jaw, Sask.)
— The Sherbrooke Hussars (Sherbrooke, Que.)
— The South Alberta Light Horse (Medicine Hat, Alta.)
The regiments are the everyday keepers of memory and tradition, as a wise friend reminds me, those who “through their own voluntary service have taken on that sacred task of keeping the memory and honour alive in perpetuity.”
From Kelowna to Sydney, they were urban and rural, French and English, immigrant and indigenous Canadian, but at Vimy Ridge, on that battlefield of corpses, boot deep in mud, deafened by artillery, they didn’t fight as hyphenated Canadians.
It was enough that they all were Canadian, period.
It still is.
Of the 40 regiments with Vimy colours or guidons, 37 are reserve units, what used to be called the militia.
The troops are part-time soldiers, citizen soldiers. Many are still in school, or work regular jobs and parade a night a week and the weekend at the armoury. These young men and women are among the best, smartest and proudest in the country.
Canada couldn’t have taken Vimy Ridge without citizen soldiers. Canada couldn’t have been in Afghanistan for nearly a decade without citizen soldiers.
And yet, unacknowledged publicly, the reserve regiments are starving. Funding for the military generally has been shrinking since the end of the Afghanistan mission in 2010, but the reserve, as ever, bears more than its share of the burden — thanks not to government, but to the bureaucrats in the regular army who have been waging a quiet war against the reserves for years.
A Department of National Defence report earlier this year showed the reserves have 5,293 vacant positions, most in the army reserve. That’s 25 per cent under strength.
This is how it worked.
Say, a reserve unit might lose 20 men and women a year to attrition and the like; it was allowed to recruit only five new people: thus, every year, the unit was down by 15 people. That’s gone on for five years.
The abysmal recruiting policy — it was centralized, with the result that applicants could wait years — has been handed back to the regiments. But the reserves have been told their budgets this year will be 10 per cent less than they received last year when the whole institution was short 25 per cent of its authorized number of soldiers.
It’s funny, but as Prince Charles said Sunday of Vimy, “This was Canada at its best,” and it was: politicians, leaders, the army, and most of all the troops. As my wise friend reminds me, “It was service before self. We could do anything.”
The scale of accomplishment and sacrifice at Vimy Ridge merits more than saccharine remembrance, particularly that even as it unfolds, the very regiments that gave so much are once again in jeopardy.