Ever since 1931, Canadians have paused on November 11 to mark Remembrance Day, a commemoration of those who have died serving in our country’s wars. (From 1919 to 1930 the observance was called Armistice Day and held on the Sunday nearest November 11.) Men and women from Canada have died battling the empires of Japan, the Habsburgs, and Kaiser Wilhelm, the Communist regimes of China and North Korea, Islamist terrorists from ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and the fascists of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Over 100,000 Canadians fell in these conflicts, defending Hong Kong, attacking Ypres, manning convoys to Britain, fighting house-to-house in the streets of Ortona, or hunting down mujahaddin in Afghanistan.
What is particularly remarkable about the dead we have lost is that almost all were volunteers. And thereby hangs a tale for this Remembrance Day musing.
In both of the World Wars, there were considerable sections of the Canadian population who were opposed to our participation, who hindered efforts to enlist volunteers and who resisted military conscription when it was introduced. Both conflicts were supported strongly by English-speakers who volunteered in large numbers but voters in Quebec and many recent immigrants groups in the west of Canada were far less enthusiastic. During World War I heavy casualties among our troops on the western front had led the government to pass the 1917 Military Service Act which permitted a call-up of 400,000 young unmarried men. This led to severe strains on Confederation and bloody riots in Quebec where it was felt that the war was a British imperialistic adventure with no relevance to French Canadians.
The memory of the 1917-18 drama convinced William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s Prime Minister during World War II, that another such crisis would tear the country apart. King was opposed to Canada having a large field army that would naturally suffer the sort of casualties that would necessitate conscription – he thought that naval commitments in the North Atlantic and the Commonwealth Air Training Plan should be enough. He promised Canadians that men conscripted under the National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA) would not have to serve overseas. The Japanese entry into the war in December 1941, however, convinced King to hold a plebiscite to release him from his promise – overall Canadians agreed but Quebec was strongly opposed. Rather than provoke trouble with French Canada, for over two years King allowed the buildup of a massive home-service-only army, deploying these troops to guard British Columbia from an imaginary Japanese invasion and the Maritimes from an even more unlikely German landing. Such soldiers wore a distinctive uniform and were called “zombies” – the living dead — subject to all sorts of pressure, some of it quite nasty, to volunteer for overseas duty.
As Canadian infantry casualties mounted in Italy and in northwestern Europe after D-Day, pressure on King to send the zombies to Europe grew. King sacked his Defence Minister for recommending this action while the First Canadian Army, lacking sufficient volunteer reinforcements, was bleeding to death. Finally, in November 1944 the Prime Minister agreed to order conscripts overseas. Within days zombies began deserting, troops marched in public protest, and, in B.C., NRMA men mutinied, seizing weapons, including artillery, disobeying their officers, and demanding to be sent home. Bloodshed was only just averted and the disgraceful affair was covered up. In the end, fewer than 2,500 conscripts ever reached the front lines and only 69 died in battle.
If significant numbers of Canadians could not see their way to supporting a war against Nazi horrors, it speaks to a failure of national identity and unity. Most French-Canadians and many immigrant groups had not been convinced that they shared the same values as Anglophone citizens. If this was true in 1945, are we any more one nation now on Remembrance Day 2020? Over the past few decades, our governments have spent a lot of time and money dividing us on the basis of race, denying that there is a real Canadian set of values, and promoting ethno-cultural chauvinism. If talk of separatism has waned for the moment in Quebec, it is now an issue on the prairies. Politicians, particularly from the left, are intent on destroying the reputation of our heroes and inculcating an ethos of shame where they should be promoting pride in the creation of one of the most congenial countries in history. When we remember those soldiers who died clearing the Wehrmacht from the Scheldt estuary, or the airmen who were shot down over Hamburg, or the sailors who were torpedoed on the Murmansk Run, let us do so with a determination that we are not simply an aggregation of individuals or a constellation of ethnic interest groups – we are a nation.
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.