Milke: Let’s build on the past by honouring it

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It’s popular these days to cancel historical figures when their views do not exactly mimic our own. Thus, for those who practise such deliberate historic amnesia, streets, bridges and entire neighbourhoods are renamed, or statues removed, to satisfy an Orwellian need to block out what is assumed to be a blot on the human species — men and women who came before us and built Canada.

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But go down that road and one can inevitably cancel any figure in history who might have accomplished anything useful, despite having error-prone views on some other subject.

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Ponder a few examples. One famous Indian activist once advised German Jews, after Kristallnacht, to practise non-violence toward the German SS. He also wrote Adolf Hitler in 1941 to inform him that he, the writer, did not “believe that you are the monster described by your opponents.”

That was Mahatma Gandhi, who was egregiously naïve about Hitler and the Nazis, but was right to demand independence for India from the British.

In the early 19th century, progressives assumed that eugenics — the assumption that race was a real “thing” and mattered to outcomes — was scientific. They were wrong. Eugenics was pseudo-scientific nonsense.

But many progressives who held that view, the Famous 5 suffragists among them, were also active in the early feminist movement to gain the vote and equal rights for women. Early progressives were thus dead wrong about eugenics but right to argue women deserved the same rights as men.

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Or think about this: Unless one is a deity, all of us in 2024 have beliefs and opinions that future generations will think of as misguided or worse. We should cut some slack to those who came before us and endured mass poverty, a Great Depression and wars, and still managed to carve out a steadily improving Canada, the one we all benefit from today.

To wit, as we approach the 80th anniversary of D-Day, we should object to skipping tough history and cancelling those in it in favour of preening, moral self-congratulations.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill with Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie-King at Quebec Summit, Charney, Que, 1943. CN Archives

More specifically, at the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary, we will soon commemorate (on June 6) the sacrifices of the 15,000 Canadian soldiers who were part of the invasion of Normandy in which 960 were killed or wounded and, additionally, the thousands of Canadian Navy and Air Force personnel who served with distinction that terrible day. We will also commemorate the more than 43,000 Canadians who perished in the Second World War to free Europe from the tyranny of Hitler, and large swaths of Asia from Imperial Japan.

Every Canadian should remember those war dead, and also the lone 1930s voice who warned of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis — Winston Churchill. It was due to their efforts, along with tens of millions of other allies and leaders, that at least part of our planet could breathe freer post-1945.

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That cohort includes thousands of Indigenous Canadians who served in the Second World War and in the First World War with the hope that Canada would one day treat them more justly than had been the case to date. It includes Canadians of every ethnicity, religion and colour who came to Canada in successive immigration waves, and did so in the proper belief Canada was where they and their children could succeed.

Let’s now turn briefly to Churchill, who first visited Calgary and the West in 1929 and who we at the Churchill Society of Calgary also remember. Churchill was fascinated by southern Alberta and its great potential, including its ranching country and the Turner Valley oilfields, and was mesmerized by Banff, Lake Louise and Emerald Lake, where he painted the vistas he thought trumped even Switzerland.

Churchill, too, is an example of why — unless one is Stalin, Mao or Hitler — we should commemorate people for their achievements and not damn them to memory perdition for their flaws, which all of us possess. Churchill was an imperialist but also a politician who early on advocated for the betterment of the working poor; an opponent of Gandhi but a Brit who wanted the Untouchables and Muslims protected from the majority population; and a stalwart defender of basic fairness, as when he refused an American military request that white American segregationist practices be enforced in British pubs against Black military personnel.

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As we approach the D-Day anniversary, the sacrifices of which were key to pushing back and ending Nazi Germany and thus defeating one of the most evil tyrannies in human history, let’s not give in to flippant and unserious voices. They think they have reached peak moral virtue and presume to judge and casually cancel the efforts of previous generations to build a freer, more flourishing world.

Instead, we owe the Second World War generation a tremendous debt of gratitude. Lest we forget.

Mark Milke is president of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary. The Calgary Herald has partnered with the society since its inception in 1966. The Churchill Society’s D-Day commemoration banquet will take place on June 6 and feature the great-grandson of Winston Churchill, Randolph Churchill III, as the keynote speaker. Dinner tickets are available at

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