What is a great moment in Canadian history

The development of a national identity using the example of Canada from 1914 to 1918

Table of Contents

1 Introduction and question

2 National identity according to Anderson
2.1 Differences in the colonial world
2.2 Asking for a Canadian identity

3 Canada in World War I
3.1 Battle of Vimy
3.2 Monument and importance of Vimy

4 Talbot Papineau's letter as a reflection of Canadian identity
4.1 Canadian Identity in Literary Studies

5 conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction and question

To date, there is no generally accepted record of Canada's involvement in World War I. Considerable attention has been paid to the role of war in shaping the nation of Canada as a pivotal moment in the country's development from a British colony. A strong military history emerged, recording Canada's successes and failures on the battlefield as part of a nation's coming of age. The largest remaining gap is the divide between the war experiences of English and French Canada.1 Despite the interest and importance of the subject, no joint narrative of World War I in Canada has emerged. It cannot be avoided that the version of war taught in Quebec has for generations been different from the version commonly accepted in the rest of the country. Since then, the question has been asked, whose war it was actually?2

This work aims to investigate to what extent Canada was able to develop a national identity in the course of the First World War.

Therefore I will approximate the concept of national identity. With reference to Benedict Anderson's argumentation in “Imagined Communities” and based on Elliot Green's essay “Imagined Communities and Nationalism in the Colonial and Post-Colonial World”, I will assess to what extent the emergence of a national identity can be understood using the example of Canada. In his work, Anderson puts forward a theory of national identity and the phenomenon of nationalism, which he believes to be justified by the emergence of capitalism and the spread of the press and novels.3 I will filter out which criteria are formally decisive to define Canada as a nation and whether colonial differences can be determined.

Then I put the current problems of a Canadian identity in the foreground. I name the challenges for the national identity of the diverse Canadian population. The subject of the study are the research challenges posed by Charles Blattberg for a unified Canadian identity. I will examine these in terms of the conditions of national identity established in Chapter 2.

A further examination, the emergence of a national identity and the developed results, will be carried out on the basis of the Battle of Vimy, which is considered to be an identity-forming event in Canada that has been extensively studied in terms of military history.4 After prior embedding in the military-historical context, I contrast the positions of the dominant opinion (Granatstein et. Al.) And the criticism of it (Jean Martin). The aim is to formulate a statement about the self-image of Canadians, to what extent this event can generally be regarded as creating an identity and whether this applies to all Canadians. Since the Battle of Vimy could be viewed as a dominantly English interpretation of the Canadians' self-image, I use Geoff Keelan's analysis to examine Talbort Papineau's front letters. The question that should be clarified is whether the division into English and French Canadians also results in a division of the national identity of the Canadians as a whole, since a French-Canadian view of the war is being placed here. In Keelan's explanation he comes to the conclusion that a network of cultural products is crucial for the self-image of Canadians. I will compare this thesis with the results from Chapters 2 and 3 and with Samuel Hile's study “Reinterpreting Canadian National Identity”, a literary analysis of national identity5, check for legitimacy and complete.

The work ends with a conclusion in which I bring the collected results together and then formulate an answer to the question.

2 National identity according to Anderson

In order to understand what can be meant by the concept of national identity, I will try in this chapter to approach the concept of national identity. In the following, it can be narrowed down which aspects Canada has to fulfill from 1914-1918 in order to be formally considered a nation. Subsequently, the battle of Vimy Ridge is checked for its identity-forming character.

I will summarize Benedict Anderson's argumentation in Imagined Communities and use Elliot Green's essay "Imagined Communities and Nationalism in the Colonial and Post-Colonial World" to assess the extent to which the emergence of nationalism in the colonial world can be understood using the example of Canada.

Benedict Anderson sets out several key paradigms that complicate our conception of a nation. In an anthropological sense, Anderson proposes a definition of the nation as an imagined political community - imagined as limited and sovereign.

It is introduced because the members of a nation never know, meet or hear from most of the others, but the concept of their community exists in everyone's mind.6 This can be seen in the example of Canada. From Vancouver to Halifax, citizens of Canada's easternmost and westernmost cities will refer to themselves as Canadians. Even if they would never have been able to speak face to face during the set period due to the distance to one another.

Second, Anderson poses the limitation of the nation.7 Even a nation like Canada, which is huge in terms of territorial scope, is different from other nations. The sovereign character unfolds within these limits. Anderson sees the birth of the concept of nation at the time of the Enlightenment and Revolution, in which the legitimacy of the hierarchical-dynastic empires thought by God's grace was weakened. The standards of freedom and immediacy of the nation are thus an expression of a sovereign state.8 For example, the naming of the Dominion of Canada by the “North America Act” of July 1st, 1867 can be an indication of this very development.

Finally, Anderson mentions the collective association of equals within a nation. In which the nation is presented as a community that is understood as a "comradely association of equals", regardless of real inequality and exploitation. Anderson sees this fraternity among comrades as the reason for dying willingly on the battlefield for their nation.9 Memorials, graves and memorials are thus a secular representation of national ideas.10

According to Anderson, Canada thus fulfills the four standards of a nation. Why Vimy Ridge is now considered to be identity-creating and whether it can be seen as a worldly representation of national ideas must be examined in Chapter 3. How people can come together to form an imagined community over great distances and thus form an identity and whether there are any differences to this rather Eurocentric approach I will clarify in the following chapter.

2.1 Differences in the colonial world

To answer this question, I turn to Elliot Green. In his essay, Elliot Green, summarizes Anderson's argumentation regarding the influence of “print capitalism” on the colonial and post-colonial world and assesses them in terms of their empirical significance. He states that the medium of book printing as a form of communication can be understood not only as the creation of communities, but as a catalyst for national identity.

The influence of capitalism and new printing technologies led to a “printing capitalism” in early modern Europe, which stands for the widespread use of novels and newspapers. These two media were particularly important in the way they enabled readers to imagine other readers as if they were moving together as members of an imagined community at the same time.11 Anderson argues that print capitalism enables national consciousness to be born in three ways: First, by (1) creating simple means of discourse and communication of a particular "field of language", thereby creating an awareness of an actual community. (2) Through the standardization of the language and thus the possibility of identifying with the past and (3) through the appointment of official languages, whereby other language fields are given lower priority.12 As an example, Anderson cites the fact that colonial officials were able to circulate within their own territory, but were largely prevented from taking positions outside their home territory, and therefore began to differ from both the early colonists and their colonial masters.13

While Green notes that Anderson's focus is more on the origins of nationalism as an idea than on nationalism as an ongoing process,14 so it stands to reason that Canada's national identity must have developed from the origins of its colonial past. Due to Canada's colonial history, both as a French and an English colony, it is now necessary to continuously check whether there are differences in their identity formation and in what form print capitalism could have expressed itself during the war. In addition, the question arises whether a Canadian identity can be made tangible at all.

2.2 Asking for a Canadian identity

The question of what it means to be Canadian is difficult and much debated. With his contribution "Canadian Identity", Charles Blattberg provides an overview of the problematic of this question and its different perspectives.

In many countries, the name of the dominant ethnic group is synonymous with the identity of the country. Canada had numerous "First Nations" and several ethnic settler groups from the start. This makes it more difficult to determine a Canadian identity in the traditional sense. According to Blattberg, research sees the question itself as central to identity. The main reason for this is that Canadians have never reached consensus on a unified conception of the country. This is due to the fundamental social divide that prevents such a conception from taking shape.15

First, he argues, there is the division between the indigenous peoples and the European colonists and their descendants. Second, the division between the famous "two solitudes". This term originally referred to colonists of French or British ancestry. Third, widespread immigration since World War II has produced a polyethnic society.16

With the term polyethnic group or "minority nations", the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka differentiates between immigrant groups and national minorities based on the following characteristics: common culture, 4. common language, 5. independent administration by institutions.17

As a result, most notions of Canadian identity have shifted between notions of unity and plurality. You emphasized either a vision of "one" Canada or a nation of "many" Canadas. A more recent postmodern view of Canadian identity sees this as a combination of unity and plurality. Another approach moves in between instead of combining two extremes. Blattberg sees Canada as more or less coherent, characterized by what Charles Taylor called "deep diversity".18

By “deep diversity” Taylor meant that an inclusive Canada can only exist if a so-called “deep diversity” arises in which several types of belonging are recognized. However, this is not possible as long as the model of citizenship is the only recognized uniformity that gives people the feeling of belonging to the same community.19

Up to this point it can be said that a comprehensive definition of what is understood by the Canadian national identity cannot be finally determined. This is shown here simply by the influence of diversity research on the topic. Against the background of the question and the further analysis, according to Anderson, four key paradigms of a nation are fulfilled and, based on Blattberg and Taylor, it is understandable to question whether there is a different perception of the First World War by French and English Canadians. It is important to find out how these differences can be identified. The Battle of Vimy Ridge is used as an example in the next chapter. The aim is to classify its meaning and to find clues as to how the national identity of Canada can be described.

3 Canada in World War I

Before the Battle of Vimy can be examined as an identity-creating event against the background of the analysis of national identity, I shall first summarize the course of the Canadian war effort. In the following I will refer to the military history of Canada by Granatstein, Hillmer, Oliver as well as Bothwell and Colbourn, which not only summarize the military history, but also provide the starting point for further analysis of the question.

The war that began in Europe in August 1914 found Canada unprepared in every way. The country's population was only about eight million, and Canada's military was tiny and poorly trained. The navy consisted of two obsolete ships and there was no air force. Industry was small, mainly focused on the domestic market, and agriculture, although producing large quantities of wheat for export, was not industrialized.20

Unprepared or not, Canada was at war. As a colony of Britain, the Dominion had no sovereign control over its foreign policy, and the British declaration of war obliged Canada to fight. At this point in time, however, there was no political doubt about Canada's entry into war.21

With great speed and in the midst of great confusion, Canada set up a division of mostly untrained and poorly equipped soldiers and sent them to Europe in the early autumn. By April 1915, the Canadian division had seen its first battle in Ypres, in which it had suffered around 6,000 casualties, including more than 2,000 dead, while fighting German troops who first used chlorine gas on the Western Front. Such losses were hard to imagine at the time. The long lists of people killed, wounded and captured in Ypres represented the harsh reality of the new industrialized war of the 20th century.22


1 Robert Bothwell; Susan Colbourn: Canada and the British Commonwealth in the Great War: an Historiographical Review, in: Histoire @ Politique Vol. 22 No. 1 (2014), p. 109 (hereinafter cited as: Bothwell; Colbourn, Canada);

2 Bothwell; Colbourn, Canada, p. 117.

3 Mark Sanjaume I Calvet: Anderson and the Imagined Nation, in: Debats. Journal on Culture and Society 1 (2016), p. 65.

4 David T. Zabecki: Hallowed Ground. Vimy Ridge, France., In: Military History (2010),

5 P.76 (hereinafter quoted as: Zabecki, Vimy);

6 Benedict R. O'G Anderson: The Invention of the Nation. On the career of a momentous concept (campus library), 2. to recruit a junior exp. Edition of the new edition. 1996, Frankfurt 2005, p. 15 (hereinafter cited as: Anderson, Nation);

7 Anderson, Nation, p. 16.

8 Anderson, Nation, pp. 16f.

9 Anderson, Nation, p. 16.

10 Anderson, Nation, p. 18.

11 Elliot Green: Imagined communities and nationalism in the colonial and post-colonial world, in: Breuilly, John (ed.): Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities: a symposium, in: Nations and Nationalism 4 (2016), p. 645 (hereinafter cited as: Green, Communities);

12 Green, Communities, p. 645.

13 Green, Communities, pp. 645-646.

14 Green, Communities, pp. 649-650.

15 Charles Blattberg: "Canadian Identity". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 04 December 2019, Historica Canada. https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/canadian-identity (hereinafter cited as: Blattberg, Identity);

16 Blattberg, Identity

17 Monika Salzbrunn: Diversity / Diversity, Bielefeld 2014, p. 36.

18 Blattberg, Identity

19 Charles Blattberg: On Charles Taylor's "Deep Diversity", in: Lehmkuhl Ursula (ed.): 150 Years of Canada: Grappling with Diversity since 1867, Münster 2019, pp. 224-225.

20 J. L. garnet stone; Dean F. Oliver: The Oxford companion to Canadian military history, Don Mills, Ont., Et al. 2011, p. 477 (hereinafter cited as: Granatstein; Oliver, Oxford)

21 Norman Hillmer; J.L garnet: Empire to umpire. Canada and the world into the 21st century, 2nd ed., Toronto 2008, p. 48.

22 Garnet stone; Oliver, Oxford, p. 481.

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