Canada is more than just its military: A response to David’s Bercuson’s piece in the Globe and Mail, “The military is a central actor in Canada’s story”

Over the last couple of years, one could turn on CBC, CBC Radio and TV Ontario to hear the voices of David Bercuson, Janice Stein, Eric Margolis, Michael Byers, Tarek Fatah, Lewis Mackenzie and Brian Stewart. Each would talk intelligently about Canada’s military, economic and political interests in many parts of the world. For the most part, these conversations were non-partisan and well informed. I learned more about the world by the end of the show then I could think was possible.

Consequently, it was very troublesome to read Professor Bercuson’s recent piece in the Globe and Mail. The article was called ‘The Military is a central actor in Canada’s story’. Give me a bit of history and I am a taker. Especially, as the focus was the Canadian Military. While his view was non-partisan, it did put forth a point a view: “Since the 18th century, Canada’s soldiers have played a central part in shaping the nation we are today. Canada’s borders, its French-English constitutional and cultural duality, its unique form of constitutional monarch, its relationship to the United States, is role in major multinational institutions, its very independence were all shaped by wars that were either forced on Canada (the War of 1812 being the best example) or wars Canada chose to take part in out of higher principles or national self-interested or both (the two world wars).”

This is where the trouble begins. For, while I am a booster of the military, our military has never played a central role in our history. By the end of the World War II, Canada had 1.1 million men and women serving in uniform for Canada. Yet, at the beginning of the conflict, the Canadian Armed Forces had suffered from nearly 20 years of neglect. Our forces were small and poorly equipped and unready for war. Our full time army had 4,261 officers and men, while the reserves numbered 51,000. Attempts to modernize had begun in 1936, but equipment procurement was slow and the government was unwilling to expend money to equip the new tank battalions introduced that year.

The same story occurred before World War I. Due to good relations with the United States, Canada had no reason for a navy. In fact, the Royal Canadian Navy was begun as a political compromise. Created through the Naval Service Act in 1910; the RCN was an attempt by Laurier to balance the needs of the British Empire against his own French Canadian political base.

Outside of our attempts to form a navy, at the beginning of World War I, the Canadian regular army was 3,111 men. It is true that two months after the beginning of the war, the Canadian army could boast a membership of 32,001 men. Furthermore, one can note that by the end of the war, 600,000 men and women participated in the war. But at the outset, we had an army of less than 5,000.

While it is true that our armed forces has always been professional, if not the best in the world, their formation is much different than that of our American cousins. Our armed forces were not called on to gain our independence from the British Empire. In 1864, we began to talk about a federation. We sent an army of politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats to battle for the nation we now call Canada. This is my argument and it is very simple to see, if we look at our history.

For example, let us take the history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. One of the forces’ predecessors, the North West Mounted Police(NWMP), was tasked with the keeping the peace in Canada and along its southern border. In doing so, the RCMP had a bigger role to play with our relationship with the United States. Professor Bercuson’s assertion that “… the military is essential to that task [establishment of our borders and safeguarding of our sovereignty within those borders] is demonstrably false. For, the NWMP negotiated and settled a peace with Sitting Bull: an Indian Chief who was at war with the American State. That is right, the NWMP stepped in between the American Army and an enemy to the American State.

Or one could look at the Klondike Gold Rush. While today, the border between Alaska and the Yukon Territory is set, in the 1890’s, the Canada –US border was uncertain. None of the powers who had had a presence in the area – including the Russian Empire, the British Empire, the Canadian or American Governments – had ever mapped the area well. Furthermore, until the Gold Rush, it was thought that the area had little value.  This obviously changed with the discovery of gold in 1896. American, British and Canadian interest in the area suddenly jumped. Each felt that the other might go to war to solve the issue. Consequently, it is significant to note that it was the NWMP who provided order. They controlled hundreds people for including many unruly and independent-minded American prospectors. While, the NWMP took care of the day to day management of the problem; American, British and Canadians created a border. Consequently, instead of an armed struggle; politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats talked out our issues.

This has been characteristic of Canadian and American border disputes.  For our border has been largely negotiated. It is true that battles have taken place because of our border or on our shared border. One can see the War of 1812 and the Pig War of 1859. However, none of those disputes affected the border. Our border has been established by a set of treaties and not war. The Jay Treaty of 1794, the Convention of 1818, the Webster–Ashburton Treaty of 1842 and the Oregon Treaty of 1846 are just examples of how Canada came to be. Again, it was because of politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats talking out our issues.

In fact, from the Act of Union of 1841 to the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences, Canada has been full of hot air. Instead of an Act of Succession or a Civil Wars, our provinces throw referendums at our Federal Government.

None of this is to say that our military is weak or undistinguished. Canadians have lost their lives in World War One, Two and Korea. Our citizens have interceded in the Russian and Spanish Civil War and in Vietnam. Canadians have made waves as peacekeepers through the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and in Cyprus. Our military in Afghanistan has shown it is among the best trained in the world. In fact, our military history has shown that our ability to wage war is second to none.

However, that same history shows a tendency toward peace. Our military has without question listened to its civilian authority. That cannot be said of the United States, for West Point Military Academy trained both Union and Confederate Soldiers. That cannot be said of English or French sides for Civil Wars litter their history as well. What is truly remarkable is that the Canadian Military has exempted itself from their other examples.  So while the Canadian Military is an important institution within Canadian Society, it is the Canadian Civil Society which is the Central actor in Canada’s Story.

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