There are three myths that colour Canadians’ attitudes towards deciding how much and what sorts of defence they need and how much they should pay for it:
- The American Myth;
- The Militia Myth; and
- The Peacekeeping Myth.
The American Myth says that we needn’t do much of anything to defend ourselves because the USA would never allow any foreign power to interfere with Canada. Like some other myths it is grounded in a bit of truth. Every couple of years, maybe more often, a gaggle of very, very senior US admirals and generals explain to even more senior political leaders that the defence of the US homeland requires that the US military has unfettered access to Canada’s territories, the adjacent waters and the airspace over both. They explain that the Canadians are about 98% cooperative on an ongoing basis and the other 2% will be there if or when ~ one hopes never ~ it is needed. The US does “need” Canada, but not, perhaps, quite in the way most people think.
The other element of the American Myth is the famous Ogdensburg Agreement. It, essentially, turned the “good neighbour policy” on its head and aimed it North but it didn’t promise “non-intervention,” in fact, in Roosevelt’s own words (“I give you assurance that the people of the United States will not stand idly by if domination of Canadian soil is threatened by any other empire.“) it promised the reverse. America promised to intervene if Canada could not, on its own, defend its vast territories. That promise still stands and both it and the American “need” for access to Canadian territory and airspace are at the root of the North American Aerospace Defence Command arrangement which has worked (well) since 1957.
But there is a corollary to Roosevelt’s speech at the Ivy Lea Bridge in 1938 and, in Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s own words, delivered just two days later in Woodbridge, Ontario: “we, too, have our obligations as a good and friendly neighbour, and one of them is to see that, at our own instance, our country is made as immune from attack or possible invasion as we can reasonably be expected to make it, and that should the occasion ever arise, enemy forces should not be able to pursue their way, either by land, sea or air to the United States across Canadian territory.” It is a two way obligation: America will not stand idly by if Canada is threatened by “any other empire,” but Canada must ensure that “our country is made as immune from attack or possible invasion as we can reasonably be expected to make it.” The second part is something many, many (most?) Canadians prefer to forget.
So, we have a defence arrangement, an agreement, with the United States. It is a “good” agreement because it give both sides what they need: the US gets access to our territories, the contiguous waters and, perhaps most importantly in this day of guided missiles and space based weapons, the airspace over both; we get the “mass” of military power that we cannot “reasonably be expected” to provide for our own defence. But the question is: do we live up to our side of the agreement? I have no doubt that the USA can and will live up to its side ~ it is in its vital, strategic, self-interest to do so. But too many Canadians, including many Canadian politicians do not see an adequate national defence ~ a defence of Canada and of North America ~ as being an important priority.
The Militia Myth surfaced not long after Canada became a dominion, which happened, in some part, because the British were tired of paying for our defences. The Militia Myth has deep roots in our British colonial past: for 400 years, from the mid 16th to the mid 20th centuries the British pursued a maritime strategy: it made good sense for them as an island people and a trading nation … and, in the early years it was cheap, even, now and again, profitable as the monarch shared in the spoils of her pirates. There were, still soldiers, but, in Britain proper, the Royal (government) army was small and relatively specialized. Great landowners had some bands (regiments, although, in practice, more like platoons) of professional soldiers which could be loaned to the crown when the realm was under threat. Later the British had a huge and very, very effective army in India, but it was privately “owned” by the East India Company. Great British generals, like John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, fought at the head of, largely, mercenary and foreign armies. The notion that armies could be recruited, trained, deployed and employed relatively simply, relatively quickly and relatively cheaply was well established in British thought before 1763 and, indeed, it was an early transplant to Canada: think of both land grants made to whole regiments and the notion of fencible regiments.
The performance of Canadian militia in 1812-14, in the Fenian Raids and the North West Campaign solidified the myth … even when the performance was sub-par (and it often was) the locals rewrote the official record and burnished both the reputations of local leaders and of the Militia Myth, itself.
Of course, in 1914-18 and 1939-45 the tiny Canadian “permanent force” was able to provide a base upon which first almost 650,000 and later over 1,000,000 Canadians could join and be trained and equipped for active service. It wasn’t always a smooth or even very effective process but the (mostly) men and (some) women served bravely and adapted well to the challenges.
By 1950, however, the government of the day (Louis St Laurent was prime minister) understood that it was just a myth and that a real, regular, professional army was needed for the rest of the 20th and the 21st centuries.But, it always appeared to me, the people of Canada were never quite convinced.
The Peacekeeping Myth is the newest and, in some respects, the most pernicious. As I have explained, back in the 1940s, when Dr Ralph Bunch, and American, and his British colleague Sir Brian Urquhart “invented” UN peacekeeping, in order to prevent a perpetual war in Kashmir. Canada was an early supporter for one, and only one, very good reason: to stymie Soviet/Russian attempts to make gains in what was then the “non-aligned” world.
In 1956 when Lester B Pearson was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize it was not because he invented peacekeeping, it was because he, adroitly, found a way to “save the US led West” from what appeared to be a train-wreck, which could only further embolden the USSR, when the British and French made a colossal strategic blunder by invading Egypt and upsetting President Eisenhower’s carefully laid Middle East stability plan. No one, least of all Pearson, gave a damn about peace in the Middle East: they, and that included the Norwegian Nobel Committee, cared, a lot, about avoiding a global nuclear war which seemed more likely if the unity of the West was damaged. Mike Pearson deserved his prize: you should agree that he deserved it even more when you understand why he got it. The “stakes” were much higher than many people appreciated.
Canada did not get involved in UN peacekeeping because it was cheap or easy. We played a leading role because:
- We were (still are) possessed of a highly skilled, professional military force that can undertake the full range of tasks, from combat to theatre level logistics support; and
- We are a charter member of the US led West, but not a former colonial power.
But two groups were seized with the very word “peacekeeping” and with the notion that it was something uniquely Canadian: the media, which is, most often, profoundly ignorant about grand strategy, and school teachers, who are generally, even less informed than journalists. They, of course, being opinion makers, were able to embed the Peacekeeping Myth in the minds of most Canadians … where it remains: smiling, fluffy, sunny, peaceful, and enduringly wrong.
The three myths, taken together, make it nearly impossible for even a realist, principled government (much less a post-Pearson Liberal one) to convince voters of the need to recruit train, equip and pay a Triple A+ military force.