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Visiting the Colonel John McCrae Memorial Gardens, Guelph, Ontario: tranquillity, remembrance and kaleidoscopic truths

Updated on March 14, 2015
Provincial flag of Ontario
Provincial flag of Ontario | Source
Colonel John MCrae Memorial Gardens, Guelph
Colonel John MCrae Memorial Gardens, Guelph | Source
Colonel John McCrae Memorial Gardens, Guelph
Colonel John McCrae Memorial Gardens, Guelph | Source
Colonel John McCrae Memorial Gardens, Guelph
Colonel John McCrae Memorial Gardens, Guelph | Source
Colonel John McCrae Memorial Gardens, Guelph
Colonel John McCrae Memorial Gardens, Guelph | Source
Commemorative plaque, Colonel John McCrae Memorial Gardens, Guelph
Commemorative plaque, Colonel John McCrae Memorial Gardens, Guelph | Source
Sir Robert Laird Borden
Sir Robert Laird Borden | Source
Map location of Guelph, Ontario
Map location of Guelph, Ontario | Source

Recalling also a tool of Sir Robert Borden's Conscription policy

The Colonel John McCrae Memorial Gardens, in Guelph, Ontario are a well maintained and indeed historic, small park in a quiet area of the city, close to the Speed River.

When I visited these Gardens, their hundreds of tulips, planted in neat, symmetrical patterns, were at their best.

The formal entrance to the Memorial Gardens is at the intersection of Water Street and McCrae Boulevard. There is also open access to the Gardens via the Colonel John McCrae Birthplace at 108 Water Street.

A commemorative plaque indicates that the Memorial Gardens were opened in 1946 by Branch #257 of the Canadian Legion.

The Gardens are divided diagonally by a footpath extending from the entrance towards a monument. This monument includes a large representation of an open book, with Colonel John McCrae's often quoted poem 'In Flanders Fields'. This poem, which speaks of keeping faith with the fallen, was made more poignant by the death (by illness rather than injury) of the author at Wimereux, France, in 1918. Particularly in English Canada, generations of schoolchildren have learned to recite this poem, the representation of which is also the focal point of the Memorial Gardens.

One can understand how in English Canada the words had a particular resonance. In 1917, Sir Robert Borden's government, bent on imposing Conscription on Quebec, undoubtedly used the emotional momentum that this by then popular poem carried in English Canada to push Conscription through the Dominion Parliament. Amongst other consequences, this resulted in scenes approaching civil war in Quebec, with Toronto-recruited soldiers machine gunning protesters in Quebec City. It is sometimes claimed, even, that the poem did more than all the pro-Consrcription speeches put together, in swaying the numerically preponderant Anglophone Parliamentary ridings to accept the measure. In fact, the language of both poem and speeches may be said to coalesce; it is to be noted even that Sir Robert Borden's own frequent talk of 'keeping faith' with Canadian casualties was a quotation of the poem itself.

Colonel John McCrae's own views generally accorded with Sir Robert Borden's determination to railroad Conscription on Quebec; to a friend he wrote at the time of the Dominion election of 1917: 'I hope I have stabbed a [French] Canadian with my vote' (1). Bearing in mind that 'Flanders Fields' was also popular in Great Britain and the United States also, historian Paul Fussell has, in fact, claimed that a careful reading of the poem even seems to argue against a negotiated peace (2).

The Memorial Gardens are a beautiful and peaceful location, certainly, which honors the sacrifice of many Canadians in World War One, and a Canadian Maple Leaf flag flies optimistically above the Gardens. The divergent historical memories which the Conscription issue evokes — the fortunes of which were bound up with the poem's popularity — still, however, stir a challenge for those who aspire to Canadian national leadership.

One is left wondering if the poem in question, despite its historical reputation in the popular mind, might even have helped to prolong the very War, the sufferings associated with which it purportedly showed empathy. One wonders also just how famous the poem would have been if Sir Robert Borden and successive Education departments in Anglophone Canada had not politicized it (3). In any case, in war, truth is the first casualty.

May 13, 2013


(1) Colonel John McCrae, qu. in:

(2) Paul Fussell, qu. in:

(3) This opens a whole range of theoretical questions in the realm of 'intertextuality' and 'deconstruction' raised by Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida respectively, and others. Is is fair, even, to name Sir Robert Borden as author of the poem's co-text, or co-author of the text as an historiographical entity?

Also worth seeing

In Guelph itself, gracious, riverside walks may be obtained close to the Memorial Gardens, near the confluence of the Speed and Eramosa rivers, where a Covered Bridge is also located; in the Downtown area there is a number of striking church buildings in stone; the University of Guelph has several, architecturally distinguished structures.

Puslinch (distance: approx. 13 kilometres); the ground of historic Ellis Chapel contains a pioneer cairn with the graves of early settlers.

West Montrose (distance: 23.4 kilometres) a covered bridge dates from 1881.


How to get there: Air Canada, flies to Toronto Pearson Airport, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available. (Distance from Toronto Pearson to Guelph: approx. 71.2 kilometres.) WestJet and Bearskin Airlines fly to Region of Waterloo International Airport, from where car rental is available, from Calgary and Ottawa respectively. (Distance from Reg. of Waterloo Int. Airport to Guelph: 16.5 kilometres.) Via Rail connects Guelph with a wide range of destinations in Ontario and beyond. You are advised that some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. Please check for up to date information with the airline or your travel agent.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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