To geologists, human time is meaningless. To humans, geological time is incomprehensible. We live year by year, decade by decade, one lifetime to a customer. Some short, some seemingly long. All just moments in history, crumbs in the cosmic muffin pan.
This moment in history, ramping up to Saturday's commemoration of Remembrance Day, may best be measured by one century.
One hundred years ago, most of the world's population couldn't read and write; only about 23 per cent of people were literate. It took five days to steam from London to New York on the speediest ship afloat. The humble hamburger finally got its own bun and the seeds were sown for what would become North America's favourite sandwich. To wash it down, Coca Cola introduced its still-popular formula.
One hundred years ago, most people in Canada still got where they were going by horsepower, real horse power. Even in cutting-edge New York city, cars outnumbered horses as a mode of travel for the first time ever. There were approximately 8 million Canadians in 1917 and the number was dwindling faster than it was growing, owing to the First World War. For the first time ever, you could walk into a room and turn on your electric lights with a toggle switch. Women were granted the right to vote in British Columbia, joining their sisters in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Of course, women didn't include First Nations women, Japanese, Chinese or South Asian women.
And 100 years ago, 1917, was the worst year in Canadian history. Or possibly the best, a groundbreaking year for this country's rise to full nationhood and international recognition. Likely it was both.
Canada was mired in the depths of the First World War that had begun three years earlier with thousands of young men enthusiastically joining up to support the United Kingdom fight the Hun. Three years later, it struck home daily in grim dispatches from the fronts and the painful ritual of reading the names of the dead to see who you might have known who wouldn't be returning.
After two-and-a-half years of inconclusive trench warfare, the Allied forces mounted an offensive in April near Arras, France; Canadians were tasked with capturing a vitally important, but otherwise unremarkable, bit of ground called Vimy Ridge.
The ridge, as the name implies, was the high ground. It had belonged to the Germans since early in the war and they were dug in with trenches, machine guns and artillery. The Allies had tried to capture it twice before. The result was hundreds of thousands of casualties.
April 9, Easter Monday, upwards of 20,000 Canadians — the first wave — tried again. Books have been written about what happened over the course of the next four days. The Canadians were victorious; the Germans withdrew; Vimy was ours... at a cost of nearly 3,600 dead and another 7,000 injured. A national identity was forged in blood.
The year saw Canadians fighting and dying again at Passchendaele. Unlike Vimy, where Canadians advanced methodically behind a barrage of artillery shelling, Passchendaele was a flat, exposed, muddy meatgrinder. By the time victory was achieved, more than 4,000 Canadians were dead and nearly 12,000 wounded, a significant contribution to the country's total loss of more than 66,000 lives in the whole of the First World War.
But 1917 wasn't through with Canada. While the war hit home every day, it never touched Canadian soil. At least not until Thursday morning, Dec. 6.
Between Halifax and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, there lies Halifax Harbour. The harbour is connected to another wide stretch of water, Bedford Basin, by a choke point called the Narrows.
On the morning of Dec. 6, the Norwegian ship SS Imo was out of position in the Narrows and travelling too fast leaving Bedford Basin. The pilot on a French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc gave the approaching Imo a blast on the ship's whistle, reminding the Imo he had the right of way. The Imo responded with two blasts, letting him know the ship wasn't going to change course. Perhaps the Imo would have reacted differently had the ship's captain known the Mont-Blanc was loaded with high explosives bound for the war.
The two ships collided at 8:45 a.m. in the Narrows. Nineteen minutes later, beached near Pier 6 where it had drifted after the collision, the Mont-Blanc's cargo exploded, unleashing explosive power not seen again until the U.S. dropped the world's first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. More than 1,600 Haligonians were killed instantly by a shockwave accompanied by 5,000°C heat. Every building, including several large brick and stone factories, within 2.6 kilometres, was levelled or nearly so. An additional 9,000 people were injured, many of whom never survived their injuries. It brought the war home in a way no one ever imagined and no one from the Maritime provinces has ever forgotten.
That, among so many other reasons that often leave me scratching my head when people apply the word "civilized" to humanity, is why we gather at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to remember.
The Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana, is the one who said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And while that too is why we remember, it's all too ironic that Santayana also said, "Only the dead have seen the end of war." For it seems no matter how much we remember, mankind can't seem to figure out a way to not repeat the horrors and senselessness of war.
This year, we'll be remembering in a new place with an old, familiar focal point. No longer outside the fire hall, in the shadow of the Pan Pacific, Whistler's cenotaph now resides in a new place of honour — centred between the flag poles at the north end of Olympic Plaza. Gone is the noise of turning busses. Gone is the shadow that chilled us on those rare sunny Nov. 11ths. With awe-inspiring views of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, with room to gather and a bit of elevation to see, we will gather Saturday to remember.
And hopefully a number of us — please consider this your personal invitation — will gather at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 10, to dedicate our old cenotaph's new home. There will be brief speechifyin', a few folks who will share their thoughts on remembrance, a prayer and song from our First Nations hosts, and refreshments under the Plaza roof.
It's been an interesting grassroots effort to find and prepare a new home for the cenotaph. But as it does so often, this community pitched in, pulled together and now it's time to enjoy, for the first of many times, its accomplishment. I hope to see you there.