Yesterday, while most Canadians were enjoying the last day of their long weekend, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, appeared to get his Canadian history wrong.
Prime Minister Harper was one of the dignitaries who attended yesterday’s ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War.
In his speech on Canada’s major involvement in the First World War, Prime Minister Harper declared that “Canadians do not turn away”.
He was right about that. Between 1914 and 1918, over 650,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders fought in the war and some 67,000 died. But he was right for the wrong reasons.
Prime Minister Harper was implying that Canada was not obliged to fight, but that it bravely chose to commit its blood and treasure to a distant European war because it was the right thing to do. Specifically he said:
“This great conflict on the other side of an ocean need not have involved us.”
Oops. Wrong! Plain wrong.
The domino theory circa 1914
The beginning of the First World War was a study in obligation.
One hundred years ago yesterday, on Tuesday, August 4, 1914, Germany’s invasion of Belgium gave Great Britain very little choice but to declare war on Germany.
In 1914, Canada was not a sovereign nation but rather a British Dominion—part of the British Empire.
As a Dominion, Canada enjoyed the privilege of home rule but all foreign policy matters stayed in the hands of the British Government.
When the British government declared war on Germany it did so on behalf of the entire British Empire, including the British Dominions of Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Great Britain’s declaration of war automatically meant Canada was at war with Germany.
Prime Minister Harper was trying to make a slightly jingoistic point that Canada under a Harper government still stood by its friends and opposed its foes—blah, blah, blah—just like in 1914 when Canada chose to do the right thing.
Except that the vast majority of Canadian living west of Quebec in 1914 would have said they had no choice at all. They were, after all, British subjects, were they not?
A Canadian Prime Minister should know better
Harper’s comment actually glosses over how the war aggravated the divisions between French- and English-speaking Canadians, as illustrated by the Conscription Crisis of 1917 when French Canadians took to the streets to oppose being forced to fight in the war.
And Harper jumps the gun ascribing such independence to Canadians at the start of the war.
All my life, Canadian historians have stressed that Canadians entered the First World War as British subjects—that it was actually only in the four-year-long crucible of that awful conflict that Canada finally forged its identity as an independent nation.