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Antony Anderson: Remembering John McCrae, Canada’s most viral poet

Commentary

Canadians’ ignorance of our own history is a pervasive and regrettable problem. The Hub is pleased to play a small part in attempting to turn this tide by presenting a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

January 23, 1918: John McCrae falls ill

Born in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30, 1872, John McCrae would write “In Flanders Field,” the most well-known and celebrated poem of the Great War.

For years he was enveloped by death. Working in it. Inhaling it. When his own came, it was brisk, indifferent to the fact that he was a surgeon trained to defy mortality. He began to feel sick on January 23rd, 1918 with what turned out to be pneumonia and meningitis. He seemed to sense this was the end. He died a few days later on January 28th, aged 45. 

He had always longed for adventure; all the better, if it could be interwoven within his keen sense of duty. In 1899, he had interrupted medical studies at McGill to volunteer with the Royal Canadian Field Artillery and sail off to South Africa to serve the British Empire’s cause—thus Canada’s cause as well—fighting the beastly Boers to preserve democracy and decency. He nearly drowned when his horse lost its footing and fell on him in the midst of crossing a river. He came back to Canada to teach medicine at McGill, practice as a pathologist at Montreal General Hospital, run his own private practice, and—perhaps this set him apart somewhat—jam with the city’s literary set, writing and reading poems. He never married.  

In 1914, distant adventure beckoned once more and he could not resist. In the blinding patriotic rush, he signed up as a medical officer in the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery. One gets the sense he saw himself as much as a soldier on active duty as a doctor. “He would often direct the fire of the batteries in his sector when time permitted and when there was a lull in his duties as a doctor.”Pamphlet put out by Veteran Affairs 1980

McCrae’s masterpiece was inspired while stationed in northwest Belgium in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, during the second battle of Ypres where the Germans made the unspeakable even more horrific by using chlorine gas for the first time. In a letter to his mother, McCrae wrote, “The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare…And behind it all, the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed—and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way. But how tired we are. Weary in body and wearier in mind.”John McCrae to Janet McCrae, 10 May 1915. Cited in Dianne Graves A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae (Spellmount 1997) p. 205

On May 2, 1915, one of McCrae’s junior comrades, Lt. Alexis Helmer, then 22 years old, was killed instantly by a German shell. His remains were gathered in a sandbag and wrapped in a blanket for burial that same evening. No ministers or chaplains were present so McCrae presided over the makeshift service, reciting the psalms and prayers from memory. He had seen much death by then but the loss of this friend seems to have cut through the numbing routine. 

Lt.-Col. John McCrae, author of the famous poem In Flanders Fields. National Archives of Canada.

McCrae is believed to have written the poem the very next day, though accounts differ. One comrade has McCrae writing it in a matter of 20 minutes while sitting on the backstep of a field ambulance with his friend’s fresh grave in plain view. Another version has McCrae writing in between rounds of treating incoming wounded. Someone else recalls that McCrae threw away his draft and a comrade had to salvage the crumpled paper.John F. Prescott In Flanders Field: the Story of John McCrae (Boston Mills Press 1985) p. 95 – 96 Perhaps the first draft did come in one of those wonderous waves that startle even the writer but what’s certain is that McCrae continued to refine his work over the summer and fall. He called this new work, “In Flanders Fields”.

He took his writing seriously. While at the University of Toronto medical school, McCrae had seen his poems published in the university’s student newspaper and various arts journals, after which they vanished, if they had ever even surfaced. McCrae felt strongly enough about his latest work to submit it to a popular British magazine. It was rejected. Then a visiting journalist read it, was impressed, and offered to take it back to London to Punch magazine which published it, anonymously, in its December 8, 1915 edition.Marsh, James H. “In Flanders Fields”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 24 February 2016, Historica Canada. It went, as we now say, viral, becoming the most well-known poem to emerge from the conflict. 

“In Flanders Fields” has stayed viral, woven into our national collective consciousness, so pervasive, so familiar. McCrae had a journalist’s eye for telling detail. Poppies. Larks. Wooden crosses. You can picture them. I can’t think of another Canadian work of art that has stood this global test of time for so long. Possibly Anne of Green Gables. Maybe songs by our various poet laureates—Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen—will still be played in a century the way “In Flanders Fields” echoes around the world, even now in social media posts emanating from Ukraine in its brilliant fight for survival. 

This is not a poem for pacifists. It is anguish that reflects the horror of war while still calling us to confront the foes who have unleashed that horror. Maybe it’s that tension between the desire for peace and the need to do one’s duty that enables the poem to continue to inspire us—or at least to wonder how to keep faith with all those who have died in our name. 

Tara Henley: What happened to Canada?

Commentary

As 2024 begins to take shape, one reoccurring question I hear on the street and on my podcast is: What happened to Canada?

The question was posed to me after school libraries in Peel, a municipality west of Toronto, purged thousands of books published before 2008 in the name of “equity.” And it happened, many times, when the government froze the bank accounts of truckers protesting pandemic measures.

With each new development and each new conversation, I’ve been forced to wonder: What has happened to my country? How did we go from being a proudly pluralistic liberal democracy to a polarized nation that memory holes The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and de-banks those who reject the party line? 

I never used to get asked about what happened to Canada.

We’ve long been viewed as a model country. But recently, the social fabric has frayed dramatically, and in a remarkably short period of time, with the culture wars apparent in Europe and the United States playing out here in extreme ways.

The next question on many people’s minds is: How did we get here?

A housing crisis

To understand Canada’s cultural and political decline, one must begin by looking at economics. It is significant that over the past decade or so, ordinary Canadians have been priced out of affordable housing. In Vancouver, where I grew up, home ownership is out of reach for all but the top earners, with one report showing that the minimum annual income needed to buy a house is $246,100. Rents have skyrocketed too, decoupled from local incomes. In Toronto, where I live, the median individual income is $39,200 a year, while the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,594 per month. 

This math clearly does not add up, and it generates a level of ambient desperation that’s as unhealthy for individuals as it is for society—particularly when combined with inflation, high food costs, and the rise of gig and contract labour, with more than a third of Canadians now precariously employed.

One in four Canadians report that meeting basic financial needs has been difficult, or very difficult, in the past year.

This struggle to make ends meet also contributes to our epidemic of social isolation, with many working long hours, leaving little time for friends, community, public service, arts and culture, or faith.

For obvious reasons, these conditions also impact Canadians’ ability to start a family, delaying the life cycle, and, at scale, contributing to a birth rate that’s been steadily declining since 2009, with our country now well below population replacement at 1.4 children per woman. (Statistics Canada has warned we are in danger of becoming a “lowest-low” fertility country, with a rapidly aging population that places stress on the labour market, health care, and pensions.) Behind such a statistic stand legions of lonely souls who were told growing up that if they worked hard and respected the law they could afford a decent life and a family if they wanted one.

It would be difficult to overstate just how much rage Millennial and Gen Z Canadians feel about the collapse of this social contract—and just how much resentment exists towards older generations, who failed to preserve it.

A powerful ideology

Enter identitarian moralism, often referred to as “woke” politics. 

During the same decade or so that housing affordability was tanking in Canada, an ideology arrived that took a radical posture on social issues while maintaining the economic status quo. 

This new line of thinking originated at elite American universities and spread to Canada through social media. It presents itself as leftist but eschews key leftist concepts such as class analysis, universalism, and the importance of free speech. Instead, it views politics through the lens of identity, focusing on equalizing outcomes between identity groups, as well as on problematizing language, criticizing social, cultural, and interpersonal norms, and building up a vast administrative class to advance such efforts.

Critically, it presents its ideas as moral imperatives, trading persuasion for campaigns of public shaming.

It is a political project that’s been widely embraced by economic elites in Canada, from individuals to corporate and governmental leaders, including Justin Trudeau. Though clearly well-intentioned in some instances, in practice it serves to assuage the guilt of the haves and to signal their virtue to the have-nots. (See the prevalence of Indigenous land acknowledgments at public events in Canada. This exercise makes participants look and feel good but does nothing to improve the living conditions of Indigenous people.)

Identitarian moralism, as it happens, has also appealed to a vocal and understandably pessimistic segment of the have-nots—chiefly a class of young, educated knowledge workers, whose economic prospects have markedly declined. As other writers have pointed out in the past, this ethos provides a low-effort outlet for feelings of powerlessness. The causes of Canada’s decline are multifold, complex, and difficult to address. Calling someone a bigot online is relatively easy.

People participate in the Trans Pride March in Toronto on Friday July 1 , 2016. Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press.
A failing media and intellectual class

A robust media might have played a critical role in analyzing these developments, airing out debates on solutions, and giving voice to those shut out of the Canadian Dream.

But during this same period, as in many other countries, our media has been in freefall, with the advertising business model collapsing. In response, our government has implemented high-profile, aggressive interventions into the industry, awarding millions in press subsidies that have both failed to stem the tide of outlet closures and have likely undermined public trust in the media. Add to that, Bill C-18 has resulted in Meta platforms like Facebook and Instagram dropping Canadian news, hampering the ability of digital start-ups to find an audience and further imperiling an already fragile media ecosystem. 

Our press corps faces mass layoffs and precarious employment—and is increasingly made up of those from financially privileged backgrounds, or else the aforementioned disillusioned knowledge workers. Both groups have largely adopted the identitarian ideology and its jargon (regardless of whether their outlet leans Left or Right), further alienating an already distrustful public. 

A creeping censoriousness, driven by social media mobs and amplified uncritically by our media, has only intensified this dynamic.

Against this backdrop of widespread fear over lost reputations and livelihoods, it’s hardly surprising that Canada’s intellectual class has failed to push back. Who could wonder that the literary community, for instance—made up of writers whose average annual income hovers somewhere around $10,000—has remained largely silent, with few speaking up to defend freedom of expression.

All of this is why the pandemic proved so utterly explosive. Canada’s answer to this once-in-a-century crisis was public policy that exacerbated these underlying tensions. Long lockdowns and school closures polarized society even further, protecting, and even enriching, the well-off and those able to work from home, while driving the rest to desperation.

An unidentified demonstrator is taken away in handcuffs by members of the Parliamentary Protective Service on Parliament Hill, as protesters mark the one year anniversary of the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa, on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.
A national crisis sparks a polarization spiral

It was into this combustible moment that Justin Trudeau—already perceived by many as privileged and out of touch with working Canadians—stepped in to trigger an election in the fall of 2021, making vaccine mandates a wedge issue, pathologizing a number of unvaccinated Canadians as racists and misogynists, and, when truckers took over the capital, deploying the Emergencies Act, originally intended for wartime, against them. 

It was a political calculation that had devastating social consequences, ripping communities and even families apart.

During this charged moment—as Lean Out predicted in early 2022—Canadian society transitioned from a tense society to a high-conflict one.

Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley, author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Outdefines the phenomenon as “an us-versus-them conflict that seems to have a life of its own. Where the facts stop mattering very much and it becomes all about the fear of the other side.” In high-conflict societies, the discourse gets simplified, and “the complexity of real life and real problems gets crystallized and gets spliced in half…There’s good versus evil.”

We are now seeing such polarization play out throughout Canadian society, most recently around the Israel/Hamas war.

In high conflict, the polarization spirals as each side reacts to the loudest and most outrageous actors on the opposing side, and ratchets up rhetoric accordingly. Thus, the culture comes to be defined by the most extreme voices on the margins, while the Exhausted Majority checks out.

Interrupting this spiral is extremely difficult, as the conflict is magnetic. And each fresh outrage serves to amplify this magnetism.

But understanding the dynamics of polarization can help us to resist the spiral, and to break out of binary thinking by complicating dominant narratives. It can also help us to take a step back from news and politics, and to focus on more life-affirming and energizing pursuits, like family or hobbies.

Then, with a fresh perspective and renewed optimism, we can return to debates armed with a curiosity about the primary social dysfunction that made polarization possible in the first place, namely economic inequality.

That is the work for 2024—for all of us, journalists and citizens alike.