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Legion Magazine – Feb 2005 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – Feb 2005

Often as a writer I come on statements spoken or in print which dovetail with some on my mind. Often I have thought of issuing such opinions but lacked the courage to cope with the arrows of rebuttal to such frankness.

I found the latest, telling example of such pithy opinion last October, elicited by the troubles at sea of the Royal Canadian Navy’s submarine, Chicoutimi, that caused the death of Lieutenant (Navy) Chris Saunders. The author was Christie Blatchford, writing in the Globe and Mail. She is as frank a Canadian working journalist as I have read. The heading of her column expressed the core sense of what our defence policy should seek to be. This is her summary admonition: Let’s Figure Out What We Are, And Be That Thing.

The following two paragraphs from her story are a measure of Blatchford candour.
“Whenever young men and women of the Canadian Forces die in service of their country, federal politicians are there to preside over the corpse, just as they have for decades presided over the systematic reduction of a once-magnificent fighting force to its skeletal remains….

“That undoubtedly they genuinely feel badly, that absolutely they ought to be present, that Canadians and even perhaps Lieut. Saunders’ family would be wounded if they were not there—none of this reduces the breadth of their galling hypocrisy, or the rage that the sight of them invokes in me.”

After this cameo of the funeral’s effect on her, the columnist turns to the acquisition from Britain of four submarines, emphasizing how the Canadian minister of defence at the time had declared it “a great purchase for Canada, giving our navy a vital capability at a fraction of what it would otherwise cost.” She gets into the nub of the purchase with this: “the bargain basement find of a nation baldly looking to equip its military on the cheap.”

Our government can do this “because in this country defence spending is seen by influential players within the Liberal Party, and increasingly among Canadians themselves, as inherently immoral.” The grand Canadian efforts in two world wars matter less and less, and at budget time “the military is treated as just another department, as subject to budget cuts as any other, though the fat was trimmed long ago …”
Blatchford notes the most popular theme of politicians, that “the nation’s best sense of self comes from the sprawling, dysfunctional health-care system, and the majority of Canadians accept this as truth, forgetting that the national identity was forged in battle …”

One of Blatchford’s friends has a simple motto: “Know who you are and be that thing.” It is a good prompting phrase for a deliberate national ‘think-in’ on the military we should have.

And we should have the “fortitude” for a deep examination. Here Blatchford comes out close to where I reached a year or so ago after almost six decades of pondering as a veteran of WW II what had been happening in our foreign affairs and our defence programs.

As a democrat I believe by and large that our nation’s policies ought to be what a majority of Canadians believe in and want. An instant criticism of defining sensible military roles for Canada is that doing it is far harder than saying it, primarily because it requires a credible analysis of the central external factor in our international affairs policy—the United States of America.
Historically this factor has been in play since the early 19th century, and it became a continuing factor in our politics, relevant to Confederation in 1867, when it became clear from the Union victory in the American civil war that the U.S. had immense military powers.

As Desmond Morton, one of our shrewdest military historians, has said, the overriding factor in the security of Canada as a nation was openly recognized by Sir Wilfrid Laurier as resting on the United States. Morton said this merely confirmed what our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald had recognized without trumpeting it. The U.S., whether we wished it or not was our shield; and a shield which relieved Canadians of facing the future with a developed and maintained military capability. This scenario of a shield for Canada was crystallized in 1940 in the deal Mackenzie King negotiated with Franklin Roosevelt. It created the Permanent Joint Board of Defence. As the historian put it: “Canada had moved from the British orbit to the American.”

One has to be a happy-go-lucky Canadian today not to appreciate the recent and current surge in antagonism of so many Canadians against American foreign policy and military power. It gained impetus after the end of the Cold War doused the Communist menace. Since the advent here in the British colonies of the United Empire Loyalists there has always been some harsh critics of Americans. Like them many Canadians are suspicious of or alienated by the twinned American instruments of domination: free-market economics and a saturating pop culture.

So many Canadians today see Canada as a more caring, sharing and cherishing community than the United States; and as one which only needs to be militarily dedicated to maintaining forces enough for aid to the civil power, ceremonial functions, patrolling our borders, and to stints abroad serving as peacekeepers or where natural disasters have been savage.

Not for Canada any more tough, trained-to-kill forces equipped with ever more deadly weapons and capable of well-trained co-ordination with American forces and other allies. Canada, relative to its resources, spends much less than all but one member of North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As one minister of National Defence in Jean Chrétien’s years told me: “You’ve obviously no idea of the skepticism and bubbling hostilities there are in both our cabinet and caucus to military spending. Other interests—health, welfare, even culture—rate well ahead.”

He went further, making the case that except for a scatter of conservatively minded members of Parliament, the majority of MPs in recent parliaments have been against scarce money going into a much more up-to-date and larger military.

So the American factor is a dicey one. It demands priority in our thought on what to do about a military, now in a relative shambles. Above all a quick recall of our possible economic miseries should be to the fore before we decide roles for Canada’s military. A century and a half ago Montrealers burnt much of their city in protest of American trade barriers. Ever since the substance in that protest has been a keen Canadian concern. Many of us thought the die had been cast in the 1980s and later with the North American Free Trade Agreement. In 2004 it is likely we would soon be in Third World shape if NAFTA was forsaken. Losing even a quarter of our export trade with the U.S. would be catastrophic. Why would we lose it? Well, as I see it, the Americans are neither blind, deaf, or gullible, and increasingly they are aware a majority of us are fierce critics of their nation and its values.

An incipient hostility to our criticism of the American way of life may harden and become ever more punitive if Canadians continue to talk up the plans and behaviour we reject. Most of us recognize the mockery abroad in all the sweet talk of our two peoples, standing together against terrorism on this continent. So many of us see the Americans as super-patriots, hipped on themselves as the bastions of global liberty and democracy. Further, more and more Canadians are irate as they suffer from U.S. embargoes of such basic products as lumber, beef, wheat, etc.. There are those here ready to have Canada bargain hard for a fair deal, even to denying our commodities like oil, natural gas, base metals, lumber, and maybe water.

The most telling Canadian item in the present estrangement of Canadians and Americans, is the obvious majority opinion in Canada that we should not enter into a partnership with the U.S. for a defence system designed to secure the continent from rocket-carried nuclear bombs.

Obviously a Canadian rejection of partaking in the missile defence system may have grim consequences for our big trade exports. Such a prospect should set us to consider a refurbished military, more effective in numbers, equipment, and training for good service abroad for the UN or for NATO or in concert with the U.S. as in theatres like Afghanistan and the Balkans.

In the mid-1960s I recall Lester Pearson, then prime minister, rejected a suggestion during a public discussion that Canada end its economic dependence on American trade. He rejected it; it might appeal to Canadian idealism but it would mean a drop of 25 per cent or more in our Canadian standard of living, one that would last a long time.
Something as brutal as that estimate of the havoc that would be wrought here from Canada having its exports to the U.S. reduced may be needed to counter the present Canadian distrust of the U.S. and its presidents. It is also hard to see how we can continue to be hostile and almost isolationist towards the U.S. in our defence policy without shouldering the burden of providing our own security.

Now let me to turn to the one book I want to recommend—Soldiers Boys by Gary F. McCauley, published by General Store Publishing, Burnstown, ON, K0J 1G0, (phone 1-800-465-6072) This long novel would exasperate a literary critic but I enjoyed it very much despite its inordinate length, huge cast of characters, and many insertions of deeds grand and minute from far and wide that trace the course of WW II among Canadians from brave despair in 1941 to victory over Germany in mid-1945.
The core locale of the novel is literally a moving one: the Algonquin Regiment, recruited largely in Northeastern Ontario, and eventually a part of the 10th Infantry Brigade, 4th Canadian Division.

I recommend Soldiers Boys to any ex-service person who wants a playback of the war through the military and recreational doings of plain infantry soldiers and what they did while they trained, guarded, entrained or sailed. Eventually, after some three years preparing they fought until over half of them were gone—either dead or severely wounded.

The central character, a sergeant taken prisoner near Bruges after being severely wounded and barely surviving a grim prison, was the uncle of the author, Gary McCauley. The latter was an Anglican pastor before he became a Liberal MP in 1979 for Moncton , a seat he lost in 1984. Much of his time since must have been spent in deep, wide research. I can vouch for the authenticity of so much in the activities and locales as this small group of stick-together local lads lived and grew dependent on each other, training at Camp Borden, guarding German prisoners of war near Monteith, training at the Lakehead, guarding power plants at Niagara Falls, then some Newfoundland shoreline, then more training at Debert, then moving to, and around England before going into Normandy in July 1944 and costly action later in the Low Countries until early May 1945.

I used to drive Algonquin fellows into Port Arthur from their camp early in the war, and McCauley has it right: they loved their Lakehead months and the people there loved them back.

In the fall of 1944 our squadron was dismounted to fill a part of the front at a quaint village, Damme, just east of the medieval city of Bruges, Belgium. It was as the allies eventually advanced along the canal east of Damme into the Breskens Pocket that the author’s uncle was badly wounded and taken prisoner. As a reader who’d been at Damme and has gone back several times since the war, MCauley’s story is true to the housing, the skylines, the poplars, the canal, the weather, and the diversities in German fire. It’s as if you were there—though perhaps with more details than a reader needs.