[This article appeared in The National Post on June 6, 2016]
Monday, June 6 is the 72nd anniversary of D-Day. What’s that again? Well, if you don’t know, it was the invasion by Allied forces of Nazi-occupied Europe on the beaches of Normandy. In France. Canada played a major role that day. Along with forces from the United States and Britain, 14,000 Canadians stormed Juno Beach and when the day was done those Canadians penetrated farther inland than any other Allied forces. But the price was high: 359 Canadians died and 715 were wounded. Another 18,700 Canadians were later killed or wounded in the Normandy campaign.
D-Day, in other words, was a turning point of the Second World War. But of course you know that, don’t you? Well, if you are a student in a Canadian high school, or a college or university, maybe not.
Many years ago, I did a feature profile on Richard Rohmer, a military man who, back on June 6, 1944, was a young reconnaissance pilot. He witnessed the entire Normandy invasion from the air. I remember him telling me about it. I remember his eyes tearing up when he told me about another pilot who was shot down right in front of him.
Another time when I was a newspaper reporter, I did a story on this remarkable reunion that took place at a Toronto hotel. A group of Belgian citizens were holding what would be their last get-together with the Canadian soldiers who had liberated them from Nazi Germany. The love in that room was profound. Today more than 1,500 Canadian soldiers are buried in Belgium.
So what is it worth? To Canadians, apparently not much. History is now a low priority in our schools. In Ontario, you can take a history course for one semester in the first year of high school and never touch a history book again. I know from years of teaching college courses how aware most students are when it comes to history.
When my agent was shopping around my novel, The Last Witness, which is about the last living survivor of the Holocaust in a near-future world that doesn’t know history, one publisher turned it down because they didn’t buy the premise that people would know so little in one generation.
So I made a video. We interviewed university students in Toronto and asked them questions about the Second World War. Most had no idea who the Allies were. They couldn’t identify Franklin D. Roosevelt or Winston Churchill. They didn’t know how many were killed in the Holocaust.
They told me D-Day happened on Feb. 14. That it took place in London. That it was some battle we lost. Or — the more common response — they had no idea what it was all about. The video was shot three days before Remembrance Day.
What would a Canadian veteran who stormed Juno Beach on June 6, 1944 — he would be about 90 now — think when he hears that university students in this country know next to nothing about D-Day and this country’s monumental efforts on that day and in that war?
The problem is not unique to Canada. In the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries, the level of knowledge among the young is also feeble.
I can cite all kinds of surveys and polls that would make your hair stand on end. But why not find out for yourself? On Monday venture onto a university or college campus and ask students about D-Day. You might be in for a surprise.