CANADA’S ROLE IN WAR AND PEACE © David Watts 06/03/2004

Canada was the first modern state to be born without revolution or civil war. This was less a mater of virtue than of timing.

Because our emergence came after that of most of the major powers, we were able to watch their experience and learn from it.

Because our development was not as hurried, there was more time for our first peoples and newcomers to be able to get to know and adjust to each other.

And in their choice of leaders and policy, our three colonial powers—France, Britain and Spain—showed greater wisdom here than they had shown elsewhere.

Yet we began from the same origins as other states that went in very different directions.

Warfare was part of the lives of our first peoples as it was of most nations in the old world. They fought over territory, over trade, over hunting and fishing rights.

With Europeans’ arrival in the New World, aboriginal warfare intensified. The Dutch introduced scalping to obtain a body count in battles. The Spanish introduced horses.

Competing in the fur trade, the empires of the Hudson and St. Lawrence spurred their aboriginal allies to greater ferocity against the others’ allies and settlers. The French gave firearms to the Huron. The English armed the Iroquois.

In this competition the English settled and remained close to the seaboard, where their contact with the first nations was limited to their own forts and trading posts.

The French penetrated farther inland, thanks to the St. Lawrence River and a more inquisitive spirit. Relations with their aboriginal allies deepened as a result.

Out of this contact came the Métis, a new people born of the intermarriage of first nations and the voyageurs and European traders and explorers.

James Douglas, father of British Columbia was himself the result of the marriage of a Scot and a Creole in Jamaica. He married Amelia Connolly, daughter of a Cree Factor. Many other Nor’westers and Hudson Bay traders also married first nations women.

The Métis served as a buffer between the first peoples and the advance of Europeans.

Some, like Pierre “Tête Jaune” Bostonnais who gave his name to Yellowhead Pass, and Jerry Potts, who escorted the Mounted Police, became translators and guides.

With the Métis people in the middle genetically and geographically, it became harder for first nations and Europeans to think only in terms of Us and Them.

This became part of the Canadian character. It softened our boundaries, made us less prone to see other societies as polar opposites of our own, not so quick to resort to conflict when faced with differences.

This Canadian advantage—a result of the flexibility and resourcefulness of New France—was recognized and continue by Britain when she acquired Québec.

In 1774 Britain affirmed the French character of Québec, and transferred to this new colony the responsibility for overseeing the interior Indian Lands to the south.

This decision had immediate consequences. It became a contributing cause of the American Revolution and it ensured Québec would stay out of that Revolution.

It also created a haven for English speaking refugees from the Thirteen Colonies who refused to join the Revolutionary War, or who had fought on the losing side.

The nonviolent character of Canada therefore springs from three distinct sources: (1) the relationship between French and first nations, and the Métis people who arose from this;

(2) Québec’s decision not to join the US Revolution which gave us our French population

And (3) refugees from the Revolution who became our first English speaking settlers.

The fourth source of Canada’s nonviolent character is the nature of Confederation itself.

The first colonies joined the Dominion for a number of reasons: trade, defense, transport, greater autonomy for Québec than had been the case under the 1840 Act of Union.

Britain’s major interest in encouraging Confederation came from a desire to reduce her defense costs. A semi-autonomous Dominion would be seen as less of a challenge to the United States than a string of fortified British dependences on her northern border.

For Britain creation of the Dominion of Canada was an act of de-militarization. These four factors are the foundation of Canada’s orientation towards peace.

Our involvement in foreign wars over the last 400 years has grown out of our being a satellite first of the French and British Empires, then of the American one.

The clashes of 1627-28 and 1690, the ongoing wars between Huron and Iroquois and the wars from 1745-60 were a New World extension of warfare between England and France

The War of 1812 began as a British-American struggle that was joined by France. Threats of American strikes at Britain though Canada continued until Confederation.

Our participation in the two world wars was a result of our membership in the British Empire. In the First War it was automatic, when Britain declared war.

In 1939 Canada declared war in her own right one week after Britain did. However it was recognized that this came from our ongoing connection with our parent state.

Those parts of Canada’s population that supported our participation most strongly were those whose people had come from Britain most recently.

This explains why anti-conscription feeling was strongest in French-speaking Canada.

French Canadians whose ancestors had lived here more than 250 years were less likely to feel connected to events in a distant homeland.

As a result of this diversity in our population, participation in overseas wars has not been the unifying experience for Canada that it has for some other countries.

In our conscription crises, it proved to be a strongly disunifying experience.

Out of political necessity Canada’s leaders have developed a range of responses to deal with demands by our neighbours and allies to support them in their military campaigns.

From Macdonald to Chrétien these strategies have included token support, procrastination and sometimes outright refusal when public opinion was not united.

Such policies of self-determination have been challenged by those who claimed it was Canada’s responsibility to offer our allies unqualified support when they asked for it.

Opposition leaders Edward Blake and Arthur Meighen—one a Liberal and one a Conservative—said it was our duty to answer “Ready aye ready!” whenever Britain called. Today some parties believe we should always stand beside the United States.

Some historians see World War I as our coming of age. Our contribution to that struggle did lead to a growing awareness of our existence by the international community.

This may be trying to put a positive spin on what was a terrible and pointless slaughter. Unlike World War II, there were no clear moral or human issues that led to conflict.

It was called “the war to end all wars, to make the world safe for democracy.” That never happened. The régimes that arose after the War were more arbitrary than the ones before.

Many Canadians felt our troops were used as cannon fodder for ill conceived campaigns.

It may be consolation for the losses to say they won us a seat at the conference table.

That is like justifying bloody revolution by what comes after—as if this was the only way to achieve it. Canada’s story, like Ghandi’s India, is evidence to the contrary.

Having fought in the Great War I Canada won the right to sit out of future conflicts. In the next crisis to break out—a revolt in Turkey—she refused Britain’s request for troops.

Prime Minister King went further—he irritated Britain by speaking against the campaign.

John Diefenbaker similarly annoyed the United States for failing to support it in Cuba, as did Lester Pearson for criticizing the war in Vietnam. Both these men served in uniform.

Their stand was not from pacifism or disloyalty. As leaders of different parties, they reflected a Canadian consensus that has been reluctant to embrace conflict as a first resort

As an ally of both the US and Britain, Canada’s independent stand has served not only herself but a wider community—including sometimes the superpower she disagrees with.

On at least three occasions our differences with the Americans have done them a service:

Our staying out of their Revolution provided a refuge for Americans who opposed it, saving the US the kind of bloody purges that followed France’s and Russia’s resolutions.

Our sheltering runaway slaves before the Civil War saved avoided beatings and lynchings

And our providing a haven for Vietnam draft dodgers may have spared the US from more protests that turned violent such as the one at Kent State University.

In these incidents Canada served as a safety valve for pressures in the United States. At other times our differences with Britain have enabled us to broker international situations.

Our opposition to British policy in South Africa and the Middle East won respect in those areas and helped keep the Commonwealth from polarizing on racial lines.

For the last half century membership in the United Nations has given us an alternative to being a satellite of either the US or UK. When we have fought, it is as part of UN forces.

In 1951 our troops fought in Korea as part of a United Nations force. We took part in the first Gulf War with the UN but stayed out of the Iraq War as the UN was not involved.

Fifty years ago Canada’s Lester Pearson proposed the first United Nations Emergency Police Force for the Middle East. Pearson won a Nobel Peace Prize for that initiative.

Other UN forces followed in Africa and Southeast Asia. Canada has been a contributor to many of these forces and our peacekeepers are among the most sought after in the world.

When we fought our presence has been significant. When we’ve been peacekeepers our role has been respected. When we’ve spoken out our voice has usually been heard.

As our support is not automatic, we can offend those who’d like us to be there for them.

Our choice to take part or abstain is based on a sense of responsibility for what we can bring to a situation. One of our assets is out network of ties with many world states,

Sometimes friends give us another point of view. We believe that we are better allies for making our choices thoughtfully, rather than simply following others’ lead.

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright believed that women’s tendency to focus on relationships rather than issues offered an alternative to armed conflict.

That’s a role Canada can play, growing out of our experience at home. Though our own history has been relatively peaceful, there have been slips and skirmishes along the way.

When we’re in a hurry to get somewhere, to force change, we’ve paid a human cost:

At the Massacre at Seven Oaks, the 1837 rebellions, the Red River Uprising and North West Rebellion, and conscription crises when some tried to force their way on others—

These incidents can keep us from becoming smug about our own track record. They remind us of the conditions that can erupt into violence in other countries.

Our many global ties make it hard for us to be uninvolved. Our vulnerability to internal fracture makes our international position more measured and more moderate.

Canada’s role in the world arises from the world within our borders. With differences in our own country, we’ve been less hasty to become involved in conflicts in other countries

We realize that there is not such thing as a “civil war” either internally or internationally. Since war is no longer a way to achieve objectives, the military option is severely limited.

Military action can be effective only as policing action to maintain global peace.

Canada led the world in establishing the first international police force.

As a nation that has served in war and peace, we continue to model this kind of balance.