Gov. Gen. David Johnston reflects on Vimy and horrors of war
Published Friday, April 7, 2017 10:00PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, April 7, 2017 10:06PM EDT
In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on Sunday, CTV National News Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme interviewed Governor General David Johnston in Arras, France – once the site of a First World War battlefield -- to discuss the historic centennial, Johnston’s personal connection to the war and the importance of learning from history.
Lisa LaFlamme: One hundred years ago they were using mustard gas, in the First World War. And now this week we see chemical weapons being used in Syria.
Gov.-Gen. David Johnston:Tragic.
So what have we learned -- do we learn -- anything?
War is terrible, and you do everything you can to avoid it. We think of Canada, of course, it’s played such important roles well beyond our size in going to war when necessary and performing really quite remarkably, as we recognize in Vimy, but also being such a pioneer in peacekeeping, conflict resolution, humanitarian relief around the world. Those are important signals of the Canadian character as well.
What about the bond? It’s undeniable when you’re driving around, you see Canadian flags flying off of farmhouses and lamp posts.
It continues, doesn’t it, 100 years later? It’s so strong, it’s so evident. When we were here for the 95th anniversary, we had, I think, 5,000 school children on that occasion. This time we have over 10,000 for the 100th anniversary.
And there is a delegation of mayors from the small towns that came to me, obviously with a kind of formal statement, and they said to me, ‘We want to thank you, the government of Canada, for sending these young people here so that they will remember and keep the understanding alive. It is really remarkable of your government to take this initiative.’
And I said, ‘Well please don’t thank the government of Canada. These young people have paid their own way.’ They have raised the sums of money. Now I think mom and dad were part of a lot of bake sales for that to happen, but isn’t that something, that our own young people said this is important enough that I’m going to go there and pay the cost of it and learn from those experiences.
Are you concerned at all that there are no voices left anymore from the First World War to keep these stories alive in young people, and that education is robust enough that these commemorations can continue?
I suppose with a commemorate ceremony like we’re part of over this weekend, that’s an important feature of never forget and kindle the memories so that they remain vivid in the minds of the next generation. I think of John McCrae’s poem with the image of the torch being handed from one generation to another. And of course, in his poem, it was the torch of courage fighting for the freedoms from those who were dead to those who were still alive, but the torch is also an illumination, an understanding of knowledge. And it’s that torch that we keep alive through the eyes and the minds of young people who in turn carry it on to the next generation.
With World War Two, of course … the memories of those people who actually lived through it are disappearing, and so all the more reason that we have commemorations like this and we build into our school curricula these stories so that people understand the lessons of war, the horrors of war, and the resolution for peace.
Will there be one moment for you on Sunday that you look to?
I’ll think of my uncle who disappeared. And then think of the so many other families who had the (similar tragedies). Sharon’s grandfather was a Scottish engineer with the British army and he was gassed in the trenches. It was at the Somme, an earlier battle, and (he) did not die in the battlefield but came home to a very difficult, grisly death. So that’s a part of our family history as well.
But I’ll think of so many families who have suffered directly and painfully from these experiences. And I suppose at the same time, I’ll have a sense of the enormous pride in our men and women who bear the Canadian uniform.
And just finally, the significance of having the Royal Family coming -- Prince Charles and his sons. What does that mean to you, personally?
Well, all three of them, of course, have quite a military tradition. Prince Charles both as a fighter pilot and a helicopter pilot and a navy person, and Prince William and Prince Harry -- Prince Harry is still in active service, of course, and (has been) very active in the Invictus Games … So that’ll be a wonderful representation, and for me a great delight to renew friendship and respect for those three individuals.
CTV National News will be broadcasting live from France on the morning of Sunday, April 9 to mark the special event.