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Returning to Vimy Ridge : Canada's narrative of battle and remembrance Lermitte, Janet L.


The approach of the centennial of World War I (1914-1918) has marked an increase in domestic and international interest in war narratives. In Canada, this can be most clearly seen in the institutional focus on remembering Canada's first major military victory in that war, the Battle of Vimy Ridge. This study begins with the question of why the grand narrative of Vimy Ridge continues to persist in the national consciousness, especially as it relates to identity construction and commemorative practice. And why do Canadian artists, educators, historians and war veterans continue to return to Vimy? Through my examination of three texts that represent three different genres in Canadian literature, Pierre Berton's popular history book, Vimy, Jane Urquhart's novel The Stone Carvers, and Vern Thiessen's play, Vimy, I endeavour to make conclusions about the role of contemporary artists in challenging and disrupting traditional representations of the Vimy narrative. In particular, this study explores how these authors (especially Urquhart and Thiessen) are engaged in an imaginative retelling or revision of the meta-narrative or "myth" of Vimy. I employ Jonathan Vance's use of the term "myth" to capture the imaginative and epic elements of the Vimy story. At the same time, I examine specific ways in which Thiessen and Urquhart interrogate traditional representations of soldiers and the home front through their depictions of gender, ethnicity, religion and art. These two writers are exploring alternative narratives, or in the words of Herb Wyile, "speculative fictions" that unfold in the inventive blend of history and fiction. My field work at the site of Vimy Memorial Park near Arras, France, and at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, also has as its focus the commemorative role of Vimy in national narratives about WWI. At these two sites, I found evidence of the institutional mandate to remember juxtaposed with the material evidence of social and cultural suffering and healing. My conclusions argue that the Vimy narrative continues to play an important role in the Canadian social ethos, but contemporary approaches to the narrative provide critical interventions to the representation of war in Canada.

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