“I just can’t figure out why our boys had to go through that.”
Those 13 words speak volumes about the “why” of war – particularly since they were uttered at the inauguration of Canada’s famous Vimy Memorial in France in 1936. The woman who spoke those words was Canada’s very first Silver Cross Mother.
Charlotte Susan Wood was speaking to King Edward VIII as they gazed across the former killing fields planted with uncountable white crosses, row on row.
Mrs. Wood was a Winnipeg laundry worker whose son Percy had perished at Vimy Ridge before he turned 18. Five of Mrs. Wood’s sons were killed in the First World War.
Canada’s Silver Cross Mother died weeks after the start of another catastrophic war. A working-class woman, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Winnipeg’s Brookside Cemetery. Though a new gravestone was erected over 60 years later, Mrs. Wood’s story has for the most part faded into the mists of history.
This need not be so. Nor should we be content to allow stories of war to be dressed up in patriotic garb as they were last year. That’s when our current government, claiming the war as a founding moment for Canada, spent some $30 million on the War of 1812 and its 200th anniversary.
Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the unspeakable tragedy that took Mrs. Wood’s sons — and so many millions more.
Our culture is preoccupied with anniversaries. We’ll see just how profoundly as the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination approaches this fall.
Such anniversaries offer the opportunity for reflection. What can we learn from watershed events of the past? Should we celebrate war as a glorious, nation-building experience? Or lament it as a terrible failure in human affairs?
As 2014 approaches, a group of people here in Kingston is organizing an initiative that we call “PeaceQuest.” The PeaceQuest symbol is an inch-square piece of white cloth that anyone can fashion for themselves to wear as we encourage Canadians to complete a simple – yet difficult – sentence.
“In our quest for peace in the world, we need to …”
PeaceQuest, initially based in Kingston, will bring together people from faith communities, civic institutions and cultural groups – anyone with an interest in promoting peace – to talk together about what we need to do in our quest for a peaceful world. We will reaffirm a commitment to peace as a core Canadian value.
In the years leading up to 2017, the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and Canada’s 150th birthday, we hope to initiate vital conversations about peace. And about our country’s role in peacemaking, contributing to a more peaceful world.
Canada’s peacemaking traditions were underpinned by our strong support of the groundbreaking 1999 treaty banning landmines – known, significantly, as the Ottawa Treaty.
But in recent years Ottawa has beaten a rapid retreat from peacemaking and weapons control.
With respect to the important international treaty banning deadly cluster bombs, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had this to say: “Canada used to be in the forefront internationally in leading the world in good directions. It is a pity the current Canadian government, in relation to cluster munitions, does not provide any real lead to the world. Its approach is timid, inadequate and regressive.”
Even more recently, a coalition of international civil society groups – in which Canada’s respected arms control group, Project Ploughshares, took a leading role – pressed governments around the world to agree to an important new Arms Trade Treaty. It would finally control the global flows of conventional weapons, including small arms and light weapons. Such weapons sustain civil wars in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo – some five million dead in the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War – and, most recently, Syria.
But Canada’s present government is stalling treaty signature, claiming that it first must ensure what it already knows – that the treaty does not encroach on Canada’s lawful gun owners.
During the anniversary years of the War to End All Wars, PeaceQuest will – in co-operation with educational, faith and cultural organizations – be organizing events that will focus on the history of peace and war and on ways that peace can be promoted in our own time.
Our inaugural event takes place this coming Saturday, Sept. 21 at 4 p.m. in City Park near the corner of Barrie and Stuart streets. We’ll plant a Peace Tree and install a stone marker. Its inscription, in each official language, reads
Grieving the tragedy of war
Committed to the promise of peace
The City of Kingston has proclaimed September 21 Peace Day in Kingston, encouraging all of us to “do something positive to promote peaceful living in our community and our world.”
PeaceQuest hopes that our fellow citizens can join us on this, the United Nations International Day of Peace. Charlotte Susan Wood would, we hope, approve of PeaceQuest. We will be honouring her memory of her sons.
When Mrs. Wood’s ’s grave was finally recognized, the King’s response to her mournful question about why so many had died, was chiselled onto her memorial: “Please God, Mrs. Wood, it shall never happen again.”
Lest we forget.
Kingston writer Jamie Swift works for the Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Office of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.