Bon Courage Mes Ami(e)s

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 9 November 2014

In Gabrielle Roy’s classic novel, Bonheur d’occasion (translated to English as The Tin Flute), a son tells his mother he has enlisted in the army. He's off to fight a war and it's the last thing his mother wants. “You must be drunk,” she says.  “You’re too young.  You can still back out.”  

But the son persists, “What else can someone like me do?”  He has no trade, no skills, not much education, and no job.  He knows that the $20 a month he’ll send home will enable his family to eat.  As he watches his mother gently tuck his younger brother into bed, he tells himself that now, for the first time in his life, he can do something for her.

Sons and daughters go off to war to save the world, to find fortune or to save face. There are all kinds of reasons that armies are filled with the rank and file. This moment in Bonheur d’occasion happens at the dawn of the Second World War, but it could be at the dawn of any war.

I said that today I would speak about Quebec and the First World War.
Warning!  I guarantee that there is something to make everyone uncomfortable in this reflection.  In a month when our theme is courage, I figure it makes sense for me to take some risks.  I apologize if you were hoping for the traditional platitudes. I do this with respect for all of you, for your intelligence and your openness of heart.  

This past August marked the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, La Grande Guerre.  Since then, there have been many programs on radio and television, and articles in the newspapers, in English and French, commemorating collective and individual experiences of the war.

It was a horrible war that, like any war, is still hard to fathom.  It was one of the deadliest in human history, with 16 million dying either in combat or from disease or starvation -- including 7 million civilians.   Another 21 million were wounded and returned from war broken in body or mind. The effects rippled across generations.   

Look at the list of those in this congregation who died in service during both the First and Second World Wars.  It gives me chills to imagine the enormity of those losses.  Imagine us losing 12 beloved members to war and then, 20 years later, losing their sons and daughters to another war. Their names reflect who we were at that time, an anglophone community that felt loyalty to the crown.  

In fact, Rev. Frederick Griffin, who served this congregation at the dawn of the First World War, was American and pacifist.  Had he been serving a mostly francophone congregation, he might have been viewed as a hero.  But he served a resolutely anglophone community.  He radically opposed Canada’s joining the war effort, in stark opposition to the congregation’s mostly conservative members.  It was a dangerous position to take.  Yet, despite these tensions, he managed to minister with pastoral sensitivity throughout the darkest days of war.  Still, there remained a “disconnect” between Griffin and the congregation and, in 1917, he moved on.
Long ago, the elders of this community impressed upon me how important this day is for them.  Each year I have tearfully watched our veterans of the Second World War carry the remembrance wreath forward.  Each year, we have shared the sadness, seeing their ranks diminish.  This year, only three men stood before us (Rev. Charles Eddis, Dr. Sketch Terry and Rex Batten), flanked by a younger generation who will carry on the tradition.  I remember the many men and women who had served during World War II and who used to walk with these three; I miss them all.  But today, we are also a changing community.  We can no longer tell our stories from the perspective of one solitude, and I am glad for that change.  So here’s a history lesson, as much for me as for anyone else.

When the First World War began, the patriotic call to arms rang hollow for French-speaking Canadians.  Neither France nor Britain was the mother country, which was pretty much the same way that those south of the border felt.  (In fact, it would take three years before the U.S. entered the war.)  In 1914, tensions were running high: Ontario had passed a bill severely limiting French-language schooling for its French-speaking minority.  The francophone majority here in Quebec saw this as a blatant attempt at assimilation, leaving little enthusiasm for the wartime appeal to arms.  In truth, the number of Canadians who chose to enlist were few, whether they spoke French or English.  Much of rural Canada stayed home, and when the first soldiers sailed to Europe in October of 1914, there was only one company of 150 French-speaking men on board.

Yet, names that we know well here, in Montreal, were responsible for forming the first and largest French-Canadian regiment of the war. The publisher of La Presse at the time, along with Wilfred Laurier, Canada’s first francophone prime minister (then retired from office), and Georges Vanier (who would later serve as Governor- General) lobbied the Canadian government to launch an entirely French-speaking regiment.  With $50,000 put up by Montrealer and pharmaceutical entrepreneur Arthur Mignault, the 22nd Regiment was formed.  It would become known as the Van Doos (as in vingt-deux – 22 in French).  Their founders’ mission was to give French Canadians the opportunity to serve their country in their own language, and Vanier served as one of the regimental officers.  Van Doos fought, were wounded and died at all the major battles of the war, including the Somme, Ypres and Vimy Ridge.   Today that regiment is 100 years old and the largest in the Canadian army.

In 1917, after the famously bloody and costly Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge, the government passed the Military Service Act.  Emotions ran high as many English Canadians felt they were being bled to death in the war while proportionately fewer French Canadians served.  English Canada thought that conscription would force Quebec into the war, but riots broke out in Montreal. Conscription was, in fact, unpopular across all of Canada, but tensions were especially palpable in Quebec.   In March of 1918, troops from Toronto opened fire on a crowd in Quebec City, killing four and wounding dozens.  That day opened a collective wound that would be felt for decades.

I am not an expert on the history of World War I, but I do know that the events of those years altered much in the Western world.  I hadn’t realized how divisions between French- and English-Canada could be traced to that time.  We often grow up being taught different histories.  Who knows if the lens we are given to see through is ever clear?  When so many lives are lost, we want to believe that they are not lost in vain.  Does that lead us to rewrite our history?  

The cost of war, we know, is great. I think of the balance between those who went to war, those who lost their lives, and those who refused to go.  How can this not be emotionally charged?  I grew up in the U.S. during the Vietnam War. My older brother stayed in school to avoid the draft and made contingency plans to come to Canada if his draft number was called. My family worried constantly that he would be forced to serve in a war we did not support. It was a time when our Canadian Unitarian churches became sanctuaries for many U.S. draft dodgers. Across the street, a neighbour's son was drafted early on. He came home wounded in body and soul. His family could never forgive their neighbours who hadn’t supported the war.

I guess that war often divides communities. Perhaps the opposition and reticence is less visible than in the Quebec of 100 years ago, or in the U.S. during the 1960s. Those with means leave for greener pastures if they can, while others are forced to flee to refugee camps.  

Still, I think of those who choose to enlist, for whatever reason. There is courage in being ready to leave loved ones behind, knowing that you risk your life whether for an ideal or simply to feed your family. There is courage in being willing to lose your innocence. There can be idealism and naïveté in the going and cynicism and remorse in the returning. I know that there can also be pride, as well as regret, at the loss of the camaraderie and excitement that evaporates once a serviceman returns home.

This summer, Radio Canada did a series of programs on La Grande Guerre, the First World War, which was hailed as “the war to end all wars.”  People were invited to share their memories of family members who lived through those years.  It is striking to see how often stories are told of memories that became taboo.  I offer you a few of these remembrances as they were written in French.   The veterans who served mostly chose to keep their silence rather than speak of their wartime experience.  “Why glorify the winning of metals when you have killed?” one grandfather told his granddaughter.

One woman writes of her father:

Papa était un des plus jeunes vétérans de la première guerre.  Il en gardait des souvenirs douloureux.  Il était très discret sur le sujet.

A man writes of his grandfather:

Comme les autres anciens combattants, mon grand-père n’en parlait pas.  Peut-être même, que pendant longtemps, c’était un sujet tabou.

Another woman speaks of her grandfather:

Mon grand-père n’a jamais voulu parler de la guerre.  Il a toujours dit que gagner des médailles pour avoir tué des gens n’était pas un mérite.  Même si mon grand-père était sergent, il a voulu se faire enterrer avec les simples soldats.  Un grand homme qui a gardé le silence sur ce qu’il a vécu.

Perhaps there is courage in learning how to create a life that isn’t destroyed by the painful memories or regrets of war.  Did silence help these fathers and grandfathers to survive?  I don’t know.  

I think of young people giving up their lives all over the world, whether for ideals or because they feel they have no choice, or who are conscripted and are forced to serve. I think of the two soldiers here in the midst of everyday duty, one stopping at a local mall only to be intentionally mowed down by a car, one standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa only to be shot down by a single bullet.

I think also of their two assailants who had struggled with their mental health, who cried out for help, who had been failed by the system, and who came to imagine themselves fighting in their own senseless war for glory.  I mourn for all the parents who will never be able to hug their children again, and all the children who will never be tucked into bed again by their parents or read a bedtime story. I think of the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire who have no Remembrance Day to commemorate their loss. Today, there are those who believe we must go to war again.  I wonder what history will tell us in another 100 years about this moment.

A few years ago, I spoke with a young soldier who had served in Afghanistan.  “Don’t be angry with the work we do,” he said.  “Be angry with the governments you elect.  That’s your responsibility. Don’t blindly accept what the media tell you.  Get informed.”  

This summer, in commemoration of the First World War, Radio France released a book based on a series of polls and writings gathered from around Europe and Canada in response to the question: Pour qui, pour quoi donner sa vie aujourd’hui?  In other words, to what would you give your life today?  Think about it for a moment.  For what would you be willing to die?  For family?  For justice?  For peace? For your freedom?

In this first reading that I’ve selected from the book, an anonymous writer asks, “Would I give my life to protect an innocent victim? I hope so.”

À notre époque, en vivant dans un état de droit, démocratique, il est difficile de s’imaginer se retrouver dans pareille situation.  Je crois aussi qu’on à tendance à surestimer son courage.  Très souvent, on entend parler d’agressions qui finissent en drame avec la mort d’une victime innocente – et où on apprend que personne n’aura bougé le petit doigt.  Personnellement, j’ai envie de croire que j’aurais assez de courage pour m’interposer si le cas se présentait.

In this second reading, an author and activist writes, “I would never give my life for a political conflict initiated by any nation, but I pray I will have the courage to risk everything for my ideals of justice.”

Je ne mettrai jamais mon corps à la disposition d’un conflit politique initié par des états quels qu’ils soient.  Mais pour l’activiste que je suis, engagée dans des questions touchant à nos valeurs fondamentales, la question se pose nécessairement. (…) Martin Luther King, Olympe de Gouges, la Mulâtresse Solitude, le Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X et de nombreux autres ont perdu leur vie pour défendre leurs idéaux (…). Risquerais-je ma vie pour défendre ces mêmes valeurs ? (…) J’espère sincèrement, du plus profond de moi-même que j’aurai le courage de tout risquer pour donner corps à mes idéaux de justice.  (Rokhaya Diallo).

I know that I would give everything to protect my family.  I’d like to believe that I would give everything to protect my community and my ideals.  But at heart I remain a pacifist, and I worry that our love of family and community and our fear of the other are the very emotions that can be all too easily manipulated in the service of those who have their own agenda at heart.  Each generation has the burden of the future upon their shoulders and it takes great courage and wisdom to know when to take action and when to wait.

So I end this Remembrance Day observance with a simple prayer.  You may recognize it.  If you know it, feel free to join me in saying it.  Sometimes it starts with God, sometimes without.  However you know it, this is the Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

May we never take wisdom for granted.

Amen. Blessed be.  Namasté.

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