In the social studies classrooms that I remember, the story was that Canada achieved "nationhood" by sending thousands of men to their deaths in the trenches of World War I. How the transformation occurred was never explained; instead we were given pious observations of the hardiness of Canadian shock troops and the mellifluousness of "In Flanders Fields," a poem supposed on its own merits to be evidence enough that Canada had "grown up" during that war.
Only now, eighty years after the war, are we given the explanation of that process of transformation, in the pages of Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War, by Jonathan F. Vance (UBC Press). Vance tells the story of a tiny country of eight million people traumatized by the slaughter of 60,000 (25 times the American death rate in the Vietnam war) and the maiming of 160,000 of its citizens. Five percent of the population served in France and Belgium, and more than half of them were wounded or killed. Half the families in the country suffered casualties. And when it was all over, not a single corpse was returned to Canada for burial. A great emptiness had appeared at the centre of Canadian life.
Vance's book is an account of how that emptiness was covered over by waves of cenotaph building and the construction of "meaning" through fantasies of "victory," "sacrifice" and "redemption" won in a cause that was no cause at all. This was the contest for memory that carried on into the sixties when the last cenotaphs were finally completed, a process that marginalized the Quebecois, Native people and every identifiable "immigrant" group in the country. The nation of Canada created by World War I was a collection of broken fragments whose separation from each other had only begun.
This is a great book and the story it tells is utterly compelling. There is also a Web page filled with materials that couldn't be fitted into the finished volume. Check it out: www.ubcpress.ubc.ca.