As much as any people on earth, Canadians are justified in our tradition of treating summer as the season of hard-earned indulgence. Spend a winter in this country anywhere east of Tofino and you have won entitlement to days of warmth and ease from June to September.
Yet there was a time when Canada's summer began not in stored-up indolence but in the bloodiest sacrifice a nation could call upon its citizens to make. At Dieppe in 1942 and then again on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, Canada asked its young men to run against the guns in hope of freeing the world not only from tyranny but from unadulterated evil.
That too was part of a Canadian tradition, embedded astonishingly deep in the psyche of a country then so young, of heroism and self-giving at Ypres, Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge. Our remembrance of those events conventionally comes as the cold of winter begins to set in again on November 11. But in May 2013, federal finance minister Jim Flaherty was part of a Canadian delegation that visited European battlefields where Canadians fell, en masse, fighting for freedom in two world wars.
Flaherty's recollection of the visit appears in this issue of Convivium. Written in prose at once beautifully spare and evocative, Flaherty's essay is more than just an exercise in memory. It is a meditation on the nature of service so consuming it portends sacrifice of life itself.
"The starkness is sorrowing," Flaherty writes. "We are a small group—no one else is present. We walk on the beach at Dieppe where these young Canadians died. They never had a chance there on the beach, facing the machine guns above. Now we see some of their graves, row on row of individual tombstones. Some bear no name but the inscription "Known only to God."
Sorrowing. Such a perfect word for a paragraph that segues from starkness to knowledge so intimate it belongs to God alone. The intimate knowledge of the name of one—of the many—who fell, bloodied, for service, in sacrifice. Such an Irish keening word from the pen of a man who was notoriously proud of his Irish heritage and its opening into an ancient tradition of storytelling.
Was notoriously proud because Flaherty died suddenly in April, only a few weeks after retiring from his cabinet post after a life of public service.
As Editor-in-Chief Father Raymond de Souza writes in his Sea to Sea farewell for Flaherty, the country was both shocked and saddened by the loss of the cabinet minister who deftly steered us through the global financial calamity of 2008-2009.
"I was too, but counted it a happy blessing that the last thought I had of Jim Flaherty before the sad news of his death was of his humble appreciation for the great blessing of being Canadian, and his gratitude for those who sacrificed to make it so."
It is, of course, the acme of unfashionability in this particular political season to think of gratitude going the other way as well: from Canadians so blessed to live in this country towards politicians such as Jim Flaherty who serve and sacrifice to fulfill those blessings. The vast majority of us are, in our public thoughts and language at least, as incapable of associating political life with sacrifice as we would be of wading ashore in the freezing waves of Normandy onto a narrow beach thanatic with machine gun fire. Our images of political service are invariably hypercrowded with clichés of self-interest, self-importance and silky sinecures.
As our great national truth teller Rex Murphy reminds us in this month's Convivium Conversation, the impulse responsible for that reflex belongs more to the discursive form of phantom limb syndrome than it belongs in the category of things that actually exist. As Murphy notes, we have become experts in exaggerating imagined injury because we have become a people habituated to the indolent rectitude of borrowed thought.
"The thing I most despise in the current culture—and I use my words deliberately, I despise it—is the continuous genuflection to the opinion of your neighbour…. This is the greatest surrender of all that we learned over so many sacrifices and so many generations," Murphy says.
Professor John von Heyking underscores this point in his Last Lecture reproduced in our pages, telling students at the University of Lethbridge that our affected hostility to political life is really a betrayal of our most ancient traditions.
"Indeed, we owe our word idiot to the Greeks, who coined it to describe the individual who took no share in the 'public happiness' of a society," von Heyking says.
Jim Flaherty was but one of thousands in this country who put careers and personal lives aside year after year to participate in the public happiness of political life. It is through his eyes, and through his loss, that we come face to face with the "sorrowing" of those young men dying on those summer beaches so Canadians might live in blessed freedom.
Correction: In the April / May Conversation with Margaret Somerville, the figure 15,000 deaths should have been 1,500. Also, the name of Yourambulla Caves in Australia was misspelled.