Remembrance Day, as the Canadian War Museum observes at its’ website, has gone through periods of both decline and increased observation over the years of its existence.
The 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995, as well as Canada’s participation in the Afghan wars, marked a noticeable upsurge of public interest, which has not ebbed in recent years. Large ceremonies are attended in major cities by tens of thousands. The ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa is nationally televised, while most media outlets, including newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, and internet sources , run special features, interviews, or investigative reports on military history or remembrance-related themes.
For some, Remembrance Day is a federal statutory holiday, a paid day off work for federal employees and a statutory holiday in some, but not all, of the provinces and territories.
For others, Remembrance Day is a yearly memorial day, observed in many Commonwealth countries including Canada, to remember those who died in military service, and honour those who served in wartime.
For veterans, Remembrance Day has a long history. Canadians memorialized fallen soldiers on Decoration Day and Paardeberg Day for many years before Remembrance Day was first observed, as Armistice Day, in 1919.
Veterans have always led the way in commemorating our war dead. It can be argued that, for Canadians, Remembrance Day started in 1890 when veterans of the Battle of Ridgeway held a protest at the Canadian Volunteers Monument at Queen’s Park, in Toronto, by laying flowers at the foot of the monument on the 24th anniversary of the battle.
The Battle of Ridgeway was fought on the morning of 2 June 1866, near the village of Ridgeway and the town of Fort Erie. That episode has always been muted in Canadian military heritage and history, and the Canadian government has always been reluctant to acknowledge the veterans of the battle.
In the skirmish that day approximately 850 Canadian soldiers clashed with some 750 to 800 Fenians, Irish American insurgents who had crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York. It was the first industrial-era battle to be fought by Canadians, the first to be fought exclusively by Canadian troops and led entirely by Canadian officers.
The Canadian losses that day were 9 killed in action (known today as the “The Ridgeway Nine) and 33 wounded, some severely enough to require amputation of their limbs. Four more Canadian militia volunteers eventually died in the months following the battle, either of wounds sustained or disease contracted at Ridgeway.
Fenian casualties are more difficult to determine, but it is estimated that approximately 14 Fenians were killed at Ridgeway and in Fort Erie.
While the Canadians were well deployed and arrived in the vicinity of the Fenians within several hours of their incursion they were no match for the Fenians, who were well-armed and supplied Civil War veterans.
The Canadians were unable to hold their positions and the Fenians took and briefly held the town of Ridgeway. Then, expecting to be overwhelmed by British reinforcements, they quickly turned back to Fort Erie where they fought a second battle against a small but determined detachment of Canadians holding the town.
A tactical failure the battle can be considered a strategic success as the Fenians ultimately withdrew back to the United States.
In the aftermath of the battle the inefficiency of the militia department under Canada West’s attorney general and minister of militia, John A. McDonald was whitewashed by military courts of inquiry who found that, notwithstanding the facts that Canadian Forces were poorly trained and unprepared for combat with scarce ammunition, no food or field kitchens, no proper maps, no provisions for medical care, no canteens for water, no tools for the proper care of their rifles and only half of the troops had previously practised firing their rifles with live ammunition, the blame lay with inexperienced frontline troops, who panicked and broke, and not with the officers who led them or the government who undersupplied and undertrained them.
That attitude toward appropriate support for the military and responsibility for the consequences of that support continue to set a standard to which generations of Canadian politicians have aspired.
The Battle of Ridgeway veterans’ protest became an annual memorial event known as Decoration Day. Graves and monuments of Canadian soldiers were decorated in flowers and for the next 30 years, Decoration Day, commemorated on the weekend nearest to 2 June, was one of Canada’s popular military memorial days. As well as remembering Canadians who died in the Battle of Ridgeway soon expanded to those killed during the North-West Rebellion, the South African War and the First World War as well.
The horror and mass slaughter of the First World War changed Canadian perceptions of war. A Celebration of victory was replaced by solemn commemoration, and a sense that the country owed a collective national debt to the ordinary soldiers, mostly young men, who had lost their lives in battle. It was felt that this debt could be paid, in perpetuity by successive generations, by the simple act of remembering the soldiers’ sacrifice.
In April 1919, after the First World War ended a motion was introduced in the House of Commons to institute an annual “Armistice Day “to be held on the second Monday of November each year and in May 1921, an Act of Canada’s Parliament declared that an annual Armistice Day would be held on the Monday of the week in which 11 November fell. Oddly, the day was joined with the celebration of Thanksgiving Day, a day featuring sports, turkey dinners and light recreation.
This incongruity, which confused the public and angered veterans of the First World War, came to an end on 18 March 1931, a motion to have Armistice Day observed on 11 November and “on no other date” was approved.
Another veteran who sat in parliament, C.W. Dickie, moved to change the name from Armistice Day to Remembrance Day. This renaming placed the emphasis more upon the soldiers whose deaths were being remembered. Parliament adopted these resolutions as an amendment to the Armistice Day Act, and Canada held its first Remembrance Day by that name on 11 November 1931.
In Canada, as the Canadian Encyclopedia notes, Remembrance Day has become a flexible and enduring observance. It has grown to include the remembrance of war dead from the Second World War, the Korean War and the War in Afghanistan, as well as from peacekeeping missions and other international military engagements. In all, more than 1.6 million Canadians have served in Canada’s Armed Forces and more than 118,000 have died in foreign conflicts.
However after the Armistice Day Act was passed in 1931, the casualties of Ridgeway and the North-West Rebellion were no longer found in national memorialization, limiting Remembrance Day to Canadian casualties overseas, starting from the South African War.
Petitions to the federal government in 2013, from the City of Toronto and from the Town of Fort Erie, to restore the Ridgeway Nine to Canadian military memorial heritage by including them in national Books of Remembrance in Ottawa, were not heeded.
On this Remembrance Day we attempt to pay our debt by remembering the ‘Ridgeway Nine’ who died in the Battle of Ridgeway on June 2, 1866.
Ensign Malcolm McEachren,
Sergeant Hugh Matheson,
Corporal Francis Lackey,
Lance Corporal Mark Defries,
Private Christopher Alderson,
Private Malcolm McKenzie,
Private John Harriman Mewburn,
Private William Smith,
Private William Fairbanks Tempest.
“Their names liveth for evermore”
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
We will remember them.