Wednesday, November 6, 2013

1913: on the edge of the abyss

Remarks I made at Rockglen School on November 6, 2013 at a community Remembrance Service

Thank you very much for asking me to speak today on this important occasion.

Today, I look both backward and forward -- backward to what Saskatchewan was like 100 years ago in 1913, and forward to the next six years.

The next six Remembrance Days will be special ones, I believe. In 2014, the world will mark a sad centennial, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I in August 1914. Two years from now in 2015, Canada will mark the centennial of that powerful poem, "In Flanders Fields." In 2016, we will remember the horror of the Battle of the Somme.

In 2017, Canada will not only celebrate 150 years since Confederation, but also the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which many consider to be as important as Confederation in marking Canada's independence from Britain. In 2018, we will celebrate the centennial of the Armistice of November 11, 1918, which brought the horrors of the First World War to an end.

And finally, six years from now, we will celebrate the centennial of the First Remembrance Day on November 11, 1919. Since King George V called that first one, it has been one of the most solemn and sacred days on the Canadian calendar.

In remembering the sacrifices of our ancestors, and in our work to create a future without war, the next six years of remembrance could be important.

More than 15 million people died in Europe in the First World War of 1914 to 1918. If we cast our minds back 100 years to what Canada and the world were like just before war began, we might get a sense of why that terrible War is considered to the beginning of the modern era.

100 years ago, in 1913, this part of Saskatchewan along the border with Montana was just being settled. Rockglen didn't even exist in 1913. That didn't happen until 1927 when a spur line of the Canadian Pacific Railway was built.

When I moved here two and half years ago, I was surprised at how young this border area is. I wonder if this might be the last agricultural region of Canada to be settled by non-native people.

Saskatchewan was an exciting place 100 years ago. While we have boomed over the last decade, today is nothing compared to the years before World War I. The population of Saskatchewan went from under 100,000 people in 1900 to more than 600,000 in 1914. How did the province ever handle this massive influx of people?

The settlers of this area came from many different countries -- Norway, Germany, Sweden, Romania, the Ukraine. People of Scottish, English and French origin came from Eastern Canada. It was sort of a mini-European Union.

For centuries, Europe had been divided into small kingdoms, and it had endured many wars. Here in Borderlands, people from all over Europe settled and built the first schools, post offices, and churches. Everyone learned English, and lived in peace. Despite the hardships of settlement, it must have seemed like a dream as well.

1913 was an optimistic time. Trade, technology, and knowledge were all exploding. There hadn't been a war in Europe since 1871. Britain, France, Holland, Germany and Russia had colonized most of the world. There was a sense that life would continue to get better and better.

But then one year later in August 1914, the European powers divided into two sides and began the bloodiest war ever. On one side were Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Turkey and their colonies. The other side included Britain, France, Holland, and Russia and their colonies.

The key leaders on our side were King George V of Britain, the great-great-great grandfather of Prince George who was born to William and Kate this summer, and Czar Nicholas II of Russia. The key leader on the other side was the Kaiser of  Germany, Wilhelm II. Strangely, these three leaders -- the Kaiser, the Czar and the King -- were all first cousins! Each empire had a state church that supported the war effort despite the fact that the soldiers on all sides were mostly Christians.

The war was a bloody stalemate until the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1917. At the war's start, the U.S. was reluctant to get involved because Russia, which was perhaps the most brutal and oppressive of all of the European empires, was one of the Allies. Only when the war-weary people of Russia overthrew the Czar in March 1917 did the United States feel it could enter the war on our side. The arrival of the Americans, allowed the Allies to finally defeat the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians the next year.

The War must have discouraged people here in southern Saskatchewan. The settlers had left Europe and its conflicts behind. Here people of many backgrounds and languages were building a province of peace and friendship.

There was overwhelming pressure on young Canadian young men to return to Europe to fight. The same was true in all countries. Each King, Czar, or Kaiser along with church and political leaders said it was the patriotic and Christian thing to go to the trenches to kill and be killed.

When I was a student, we were told that the question "What caused World War I" had no good answer. It was an insane horror that seemed to happen by accident and which no one could stop.

World War II is different. The racism and aggression of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 are so outrageous that it is easy to understand why we had to go to war. But World War I seems different to me.

I hope that you who are still in school today will learn a lot about World War I during the centennials that will be marked in the next six years.

65,000 Canadian soldiers were killed in the Great War at a time when Canada had only 8 million people. The impact of 65,000 young men killed in such a small population is truly hard for me to imagine.

Despite war in their former home countries, the settlers here in Borderlands continued to build our communities. No matter where we were from, we all became Canadians. Together we have enjoyed the peace and prosperity that followed the end of the two world wars.

Today, as I think back to 1913, and forward into the future, I pray that we will learn the lessons of Europe's bloody past. May the peace that has largely reigned there since 1945 spread to the whole world.

May all countries learn to settle disputes without war. May we focus instead on mending the wounds of our world in a spirit of peace and harmony.

99 years ago European leaders showed us how not to settle disputes, and many of our young men paid a terrible price. At the same time, the settlers here from Europe were learning to live together.

The first generations of Saskatchewan people have now thrown us the torch of peace. May we hold it high to light our way into a future of peace and freedom for everyone.

Thank you

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