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Dr. Peter Vronsky
Department of History
350 Victoria Street
March 26, 2015
Hon. Erin O'Toole
Minister of Veterans Affairs
House of Commons
Dear Minister Erin O’Toole:
I am writing to comment and advise on the call coming from Canadians to enlist the Ridgeway Nine who were killed in action on June 2, 1866 defending Canada at Ridgeway and the twenty-two other Militia volunteers from various parts of Ontario and Quebec who died as a result of wounds sustained and disease contracted during the Fenian Raids 1866 into our National Books of Remembrance and into the Remembrance Day memorial heritage. This is a total of 31 names as recognized by the Canadian Government in 1867. I am attaching for your reference a copy of the original document stipulating those casualties and its archival citation in the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC: Fenian Raid Service Records, Compensation of Injuries, Wounds, etc., Received on Active Service Fenian Raids 1866–1868, Adjutant General’s Office, Pensions and Land Grants, RG9 IC5; Vol. 32.)
This call is not some newfangled idea to “rewrite” history or even change the long standing historical military memorial traditions later incorporated into Remembrance Day. The fact of the matter is that the Fenian Raid dead had been formally memorialized by Canadians from 1890 to 1930 in a memorial day ceremony called Decoration Day observed on or near June 2, the anniversary day of the battle of Ridgeway. When Canadians went to fight in the South Africa War 1899-1902 and the Great War 1914-1918, those fallen in those wars were likewise memorialized on Decoration Day in ceremonies throughout Canada in May or June, before there ever was a November 11 Armistice Day marking the end of the war in 1918.
Our military memorial tradition first began in 1890 at Toronto’s oldest standing public monument today, the Fenian Raid Volunteers Monument on the University of Toronto campus near Queen’s Park. In the 1890s as many as 50,000 Canadians would gather there to honour the ultimate sacrifice of the men who defended Canada against invasion by Irish-American Fenian insurgents in 1866, and eventually the dead in the South Africa War and the Great War in the 1910s and 1920s.
In 1931 Ottawa introduced the Remembrance Day Act which stipulated that only casualties fallen overseas since the South Africa War will be commemorated and with the stroke of a pen, the 31 Canadians who had been previously honoured in our national military memorial heritage were suddenly forgotten and excluded.
It is beyond the scope of this letter to explain why it was at that time politically expedient to exclude the Fenian Raid casualties, however, in short, the Canadians had died fighting an invasion that had come from across the border of our neighbour the United States with which Canada had very unfriendly relations during the 1860s. By the 1930s our relations were diametrically on the opposite: we had since the 1860s developed the friendly allied relationship we enjoy today, and it was thought in 1931 somewhat impolite and “impolitic” to commemorate and acknowledge casualties inflicted on Canadians from across the US border. Thus only those who fell “overseas” would be memorialized.
Today we are confident in both our close and friendly relations with the United States and in the historical evidence that the US Government had not been clandestinely supporting the Fenian invasion and that it was actually conducting bona fide efforts to contain the Fenians from invading Canadian territory. There should be no remaining “sensitivity” in deference to our American friends to enlist our Fenian Raid casualties into our Remembrance Day Heritage and National Books of Remembrance.
Let me address here once and for all, the remaining issues raised about the question of whether your Ministry can right this wrong perpetrated in 1931 when we failed in our promise to all Canadian soldiers: “We will remember them.”
It is true, that on paper the Canadians who died in the Fenian Raids 1866, technically died serving the pre-Confederation Province of Canada and not the current sovereign entity of Canada as it emerged twelve months later in July 1867. However:
casualties were from units that had been formed under the Militia Act 1855
which today defines the lineage and heritage of
current reserve regiments in the
Canadian Armed Forces. The
Ridgeway Nine were members of the Queen’s Own Rifles, formed in 1860 and
Canada’s currently longest continually serving infantry unit whose members
served in virtually every conflict Canada was involved in as recently as
Afghanistan. To orphan the
Ridgeway Nine, the first nine of their regiment to fall from the many who
died in subsequent wars on an arbitrary “technicality” is a painful act of
cruelty still hurting the regiment today.
The other 22 casualties belong to a variety of regiments from Ontario
and Quebec, some still in service today, including the RHLI of Hamilton
which fought at Ridgeway as the 13th Battalion of Volunteer
2. When the 1867 Canadian government inherited the militia previously administrated by the Province of Canada, it also inherited the obligation to continue paying pensions and wound compensations to its servicemen from the Fenian Raids. It likewise inherited the obligation to commemorate and sustain the promise that “we will remember” all fallen in the defence of Canada. It is now directly the responsibility of your Ministry to ensure this part of the obligation is fulfilled and that the error of 1931 be corrected. We owe that to every Canadian serviceman and servicewoman currently serving in our Armed Forces, otherwise our promise to remember rings false;
3. Although the Fenian Raid 1866 occurred a year before Confederation, it is important to point out that at least for the purposes of Battle Honours in the current Canadian Armed Forces, the Fenian Raids 1866-1870 are officially recognized under the provisions of A-AD-200-000/AG-000 (Ch/Mod 7) The Heritage Structure of the Canadian Forces, Chapter 3, Section 3, ANNEX A: Authorized Canadian Battle Honours and Honorary Distinctions, Part C: FENIAN RAIDS, 1866-1870 (LAND), Chief of the Defence Staff , Department National Defence, Ottawa: 2008, page 3A-1;
4. In view of the relatively recent addition to Canada’s National Books of Remembrance the Nile Expedition 1884-1885 casualties, in which there was no official involvement of Canada’s army (they were civilian volunteers) in a conflict in the Sudan, there can be no excuses for the continued exclusion of the Fenian Raid casualties. Perhaps that recent Book of Remembrance entitled, South Africa War/Nile Expedition can be expeditiously revised to now be South Africa War/Nile Expedition/Fenian Raids with an addition of the 31 names of the Fenian Raid casualties;
urgently, I would also like to point out to you, that under the current
“overseas” provision of Remembrance Day, as it stands,
Corporal Nathan Cirillo is ineligible to be recognized in the Remembrance
Day memorial heritage, despite having died literally while “standing on
guard” for Canada, when he was felled at the War Memorial in Ottawa in
November 2014 and not overseas. Warrant officer Patrice Vincent
is likewise ineligible, having been killed in Canada while in service.
This potentially could be of great embarrassment to the Government this coming November 2015. By acting on the Fenian Raid 1866 casualties and amending the “overseas” stipulation for acknowledgement in Canada’s Remembrance Day memorial heritage, your Ministry can seamlessly repeal the “overseas” provision enabling the acknowledgement of the recent deaths of these two Canadian servicemen without the appearance of having directly succumbed to or reacted to acts of terrorism in government decision making and policy, which is the very objective of terrorism.
I understand that there will be in Toronto a revival this year of memorial remembrance services on May 28 at the Fenian Raids Volunteers Monument, the site of Canada’s first “remembrance” day services in memory of modern Canada’s first 31 soldiers to die. It would be wonderful if by then your Ministry had acted to correct the error of 1931, and bring back home to our memorial heritage where they had been prior to 1931, these boys who died in defence of Canada on Canada’s soil.
There is no “expiry date” on our promise, “We will remember them.” It is as perpetual and infinite as the sacrifice made by those who died defending our nation
Dr. Peter Vronsky