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Statement - World War I - Role of French Canadians


Hon. Serge Joyal: Honourable senators, last Friday, at my own expense, I attended a commemorative symposium on World War I in Paris, at the Hôtel national des invalides, which houses the military museum. The theme of the symposium was Quebec's participation in the war.

Thirteen French and Canadian historians spoke. I want to share some figures about this war, which are absolutely staggering to think of now.

In total, there were more than 120 million people involved in the war on both sides. Of those, 15 million died and 34 million were injured.

It is difficult to imagine the scope of that devastation today.

The war was fought in mud-filled trenches that stretched for thousands of kilometres along the front lines, and in an attempt to move forward a few hundred metres, thousands of soldiers would lose their lives, often needlessly, as troops ended up back where they started.

Canada, as a dominion within the British Empire, was automatically involved in the war, although it was able to choose how many soldiers and how much equipment it would send.

Canada sent nearly 700,000 soldiers. Of that number, 68,000 lost their lives — most of them are buried in Flanders and France — and more than 280,000 were injured. Nearly 10 per cent of the Canadian population at the time served in the war. That is a huge number for a country that was fighting on foreign soil.

In total, 39,000 French Canadians served in the armed forces. Of those soldiers, 21,470 were Quebecers and 8,750 were Acadians and francophones from elsewhere in the country. There is little known about their participation even today. Few historians have focused on it, even though they made such a remarkable contribution.

Quite early in the war, Canada realized that it needed to create a unit for unilingual French Canadians, so that they could be trained and commanded in French. Thus, the 22nd Infantry Battalion was created. After the war, it became known as the Royal 22e Régiment. Our colleague, Senator Dallaire, is a distinguished representative of that regiment.

This battalion distinguished itself at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which we are commemorating today, April 9. It is a victory that has remained one of Canada's finest military moments.

Honourable senators, what do these events tell us about ourselves, about how we define our connection to Canada and our connection to France, England and America?

I would like to conclude by saying that next fall, the Canada- France Interparliamentary Association, led by our colleagues, Senators Claudette Tardif and Michel Rivard, will sponsor a joint commemorative symposium with French parliamentarians. The first public session will be held here, in Parliament, during the week of November 11. This interparliamentary symposium will give us an opportunity to reassess the understanding that we have, 100 years later, of the Great War — the "Der des Ders" as it's known in German — so that current generations, who live in a different reality, can remember. It will also help us better understand why it is important to keep a close connection with the past and what it takes to maintain peace in contemporary times.