A couple months ago we were learning about the creation of civil religion in Israel and how in the early days of the State, there was a need to create days of national importance to help forge a sense of nationalist identity. Our (British) teacher remarked how every country needs to do this in their nascent days, including the United States. Afterwards – in an attempt to stand my ground as the only Canadian in our class – I remarked to him (with that typical Canadian quasi-inferiority complex) that Canada is different, that we’re not an über-nationalist country, and that we don’t really have any national holidays of this import. At least not anymore in 2013.
He responded: “But you have Remembrance Day.”
After 30 years of living intimately close to the holiday, through ceremonies at school, parades with my Zaidy (a Royal Canadian Air Force Squadron Leader, ret.), and years of wearing poppies, this simply hadn’t occurred to me. I had aways felt the significance of the day, but didn’t realized its paramount place in Canadian culture until I was almost 10,000 kilometers away from home.
Rick Hansen writes today in the Globe and Mail that “Remembrance Day is one of the most important days we have on our national calendar.” I would go further and say that it is the most important day on the national calendar. Certainly, for most, Canada Day is simply a day off in the middle of the summer with fireworks at amusement parks and little nationalist sentiments. Victoria Day is an excuse to get drunk at the cottage. Most Canadians likely don’t know what the real meaning of Canadian Thanksgiving is.
But Remembrance Day is ceremoniously observed in schools, houses of worship, and national halls across the country. There is unity and solemnity in observing the day and remembering our national heroes together. We mark ourselves with a common symbol in our communal observance. We recite the same words of memory and memorial. To be sure, it may be the only day on the Canadian calendar that is on the level of civil religious observance.
Observing Remembrance Day from outside of Canada has taken on new significance for me. It has become much more intentional – requiring a special effort to mark the day and remember what it stands for, since it doesn’t just happen around me anymore. I suspect this might be akin to how Israelis feel about Judaism when they leave Israel and go down into the diaspora.
While I don’t write about family that much on this blog, keeping matters more to commentary on religion, philosophy, and other such boring matters, today, in keeping with the “religious” spirit of the day, I will break from tradition…
I am so blessed to have been raised closely by my Zaidy, who has imparted a deep appreciation of the role of the Canadian military in shaping the lives of Canadians – and specifically of Canadian Jews. Far from a hawkish or militaristic inculcation, he has taught me to understand and appreciate the personal way that Canadians have fought for each other, and how incredibly important it is to recognize, mark, and honour these commitments and sacrifices.
I am even more-so blessed that my Zaidy – RCAF Squadron Leader (ret.) Jack Cahan, will be turning 90 this December, and that I was able to see and talk with him this Remembrance Day, from 10,000 kilometers away. I am so proud to be his grandson, and I hope each day that I can carry just a fraction of his dedication and honour with me.