Vimy Ridge and COVID-19: Canadian lessons on leadership
Photograph of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial: credit Guy Dugas via Pixabay

What was the Battle of Vimy Ridge?

In April 1917, the Canadian Corps fought in an event that would become one of Canada’s most endearing symbols of nationalism: the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In four days, Canadian troops succeeded in capturing the Ridge, a strategic position held by the Germans that both the French and the English had failed to overrun during the first three years of the war. 

Despite the casualties and the loss of many lives, Vimy Ridge remains momentous in Canadian history, embodying lessons on leadership, bravery, and unity that remain relevant today.

Led by Major-General Arthur Currie and Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, the infantry underwent thorough training in the weeks leading up to the attack. A replica of the battlefield was created, and detailed maps were provided. Every minute was planned and every movement was calculated. The troops were more than ready to face what was awaiting them at Vimy Ridge. 

Although not necessarily well-liked amongst the soldiers, Currie was known for avoiding unnecessary sacrifices. Most of all, he wanted his men to remain adaptable and self-reliant on the battlefield, and these were skills that played a major role in ensuring a victory for the Canadians. For the first time in Canadian history, soldiers from one side of the country to the other were united and committed to working towards a common goal that would ultimately determine the course of the country’s history. 

In 1917, the British Empire oversaw Canada’s foreign affairs. Consequently, the Canadian Dominion’s implication in the war was directly linked to their dependence towards Great Britain. How could an army that went to war by default, driven by the military giant that was the British Empire, accomplish a mission that seemed almost impossible? There is one clear answer as to why the Canadians could achieve what the French and British could not: preparation.  

The Major-General punctually sent out smaller waves of soldiers from four different divisions, each with a precise objective in mind, instead of storming the battlefield with hundreds of men. He relied heavily on precision; a strategy that had proved effective, since Currie and his soldiers won this battle. 

Applying the lessons from Vimy Ridge to the COVID-19 crisis

More than a century has passed since Vimy Ridge, a battle which Currie himself called “the grandest day the Corps has ever had.” As Canada, and the rest of the world, are being rocked by the constantly evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the unlikely victory of the Canadian troops should be as inspiring as ever. Yet, in Canada, unifying leadership such as Currie’s is, literally, distant history. As the unforgiving virus swept through the country, the government failed to prepare adequately. Especially in Quebec, the country’s early epicenter of the pandemic, the contrast between Currie’s glorious victory and Premier François Legault’s lack of leadership is striking, especially when it comes to communication and prevention.

In Canada, which is a federation, legislative powers are distributed between the federal government and provincial governments. The Quebec Conference of 1864, which provided the outline of the distribution of powers, put regional competencies such as health and education in the hands of the provinces while the federal government took charge, among others, of national defense and criminal law. This distribution of powers has almost entirely stayed intact ever since. So, when it came to managing the pandemic, the provincial governments had large responsibilities.

François Legault and his office have been under enormous pressure for months now, much of which could have been avoided, or at least alleviated. From January 12th, when China shared the genetic sequence of the virus with the world, to March 9th, the Quebec government was unable to prevent a disastrous outbreak of COVID-19. Legault waited until March 9th to create a response team dedicated to the crisis. The team was only assembled following an intervention from the director of public health, Horacio Arruda. However, these actions came too late. From March 26th to April 16th, 38 residents at a single long term care home passed away. Nurses and patients deemed the sanitary conditions at the home inhumane, and uncovered problems that were deeply rooted in the province’s health care system.

Staff shortage in long term care facilities was a reality long before the pandemic hit the province. CBC News found three decisive factors that could explain these staffing shortages: salary, job instability, and workload. Legault’s effort to attract unemployed Quebeckers to jobs in the healthcare system was not as successful as he hoped. This issue made it clear that Legault’s government needed to implement new initiatives that could directly tackle these factors, such as permanent pay raises.    

To overcome the shortage, members of the Canadian Armed Forces were eventually asked to lend a hand in more than 25 facilities. Canadians praised these soldiers for their efficiency and resilience. The CAF’s response greatly helped to fight the state of crisis in long term care residences, especially due to their meticulous training. According to the Department of National Defense, “members [of the CAF] have undergone instruction in how to integrate with health services staff, they have been trained on the use of medical-grade personal protective equipment, and they have also received a mandatory long-term care facility orientation facilitated by Quebec.” Sound familiar? 

Moreover, it is key to grasp the importance of timing in order to understand Quebec’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. The first week of March marked the schools in the province’s spring break, monumentally increasing the number of travelers returning home between March 6th and March 8th. Most planes flew in from Europe or the United States, countries which were already seeing a significant increase in COVID cases. The government did not mandate isolation for Canadian travelers returning from abroad until March 12th, when Legault suggested a non-retroactive isolation period for travelers. Even so, this 14-day quarantine was only mandatory for health and education workers. In hindsight, it is likely that community transmission rates were already extremely high during the first half of March, a period during which no substantial preventative measures had been put into place for travelers returning from abroad. 

This lack of preparation and prevention can be directly linked to the devastating consequences of the virus in the province. In a matter of weeks, Quebec, representing only 22% of the country’s population, recorded more than 50% of Canada’s total number of deaths.

Misleading communication in the early stages of the pandemic also played a large role in the worsening of the crisis, especially when the issue of masks – to wear or not to wear? – was brought up. The growing confusion on mask wearing slowed the implementation of protective measures, which undeniably contributed to the spread of the virus. Masks were not required in indoor public spaces until mid-July

Contrary to Currie’s specific battle orders and clear transmission of orders, Legault’s messages were not as precise and direct as they should have been, which revealed his discomfort and unpreparedness in the face of the unknown. Legault and Arruda would often go back and forth in their decisions to implement various COVID-19 safety measures, such as the reopening of primary schools and daycares in early May. The pandemic proved that it is harder for a population to follow rules established by leaders lacking conviction and coherence, which, at the time, was even more blatant on the part of Canada’s southern neighbors.

Whether it was a question of preparation or communication, Quebec’s health system and government were not equipped to face an emergency like COVID-19. Indeed, learning from past mistakes or triumphs is easier said than done. This is certainly true in the case of Vimy Ridge, a monumental part of Canada’s history and remarkable display of leadership that should inspire the country in the midst of the pandemic. Will Canada be ready when the next battle comes?