Canadians are polite, reserved, and say sorry … A lot. We certainly don’t start wars — we try to prevent them. After all, Canada is a nation of peacekeepers… Right?
Well, yes… and no. Actually, it’s complicated.
While Canada has taken part in many peacekeeping missions over the decades, this land also has a long history of conflict that stretches back millennia.
The ancestors of today’s Indigenous peoples engaged in warfare for a variety of reasons.
When Europeans reached the New World, they sometimes clashed with the Indigenous peoples who lived here. The newcomers also fought with each other.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, North America was wracked by near constant warfare between Britain and France — and each side had its Indigenous allies.
In 1763, Britain and France finally declared an end to the “Seven Years War.” After centuries of conflict, many colonists thought that peace would finally reign.
It wasn’t meant to be. In 1776, thirteen of Britain’s colonies rebelled, sparking the American Revolution.
After that conflict came the War of 1812 — when America tried to conquer Canada as a way of hurting Britain. Canadian and British troops not only stopped the American invasion — they also burned the White House in Washington.
By the mid-to-late 1800s, Indigenous peoples in the West were facing waves of settlers encroaching on their traditional territories.
In 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold Rupert’s Land to Canada, sparking a major crisis.
This was the traditional territory of several First Nations and also the homeland of the Métis people. No one consulted them about the land sale.
When Canada sent surveyors to the territory now known as Manitoba, Louis Riel and his Métis forces turned them away.
Then they took control of Red River Colony, in modern-day Winnipeg.
Canada declared it a rebellion. The Métis called it a resistance.
In 1885, the situation repeated itself in what’s now Saskatchewan. Louis Riel, returning from exile in the United States, led an alliance of Métis and First Nations fighters against the Canadian military. Riel hoped to stop Canada from taking over the region — but his “Northwest Resistance” was defeated.
In 1899, Canada — for the first time — sent troops to fight overseas. More than eighty-three hundred soldiers joined the British Empire’s war in South Africa against Dutch Boer settlers.
When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada — as a Dominion in the British Empire — was automatically at war.
Most Canadians supported the conflict. Tens of thousands rushed to enlist.
But dreams of grand adventure turned into a nightmare of trench warfare and terrible slaughter.
Canadian forces made a reputation as the “shock troops” of the British Empire — but paid a heavy price, with more than sixty thousand Canadians killed.
The war also caused major upheaval on the home front.
There were political fights over conscription. Gender roles were overthrown as thousands of women worked in factories and on farms to support of the war effort.
On the world stage, Canada’s sacrifice earned the respect of Britain, the United States, and other major powers.
Canada also developed a stronger sense of separate identity, and joined the League of Nations — the precursor to the United Nations.
In 1939, Canada joined the Allied nations in the fight against Nazi Germany. From the tragedies of Dieppe and Hong Kong, to the victories in Italy, France, and the Netherlands, Canadian forces fought courageously on land, in the air and on the sea.
At the same time, the rights of some Canadians were trampled. Thousands of Japanese Canadians, along with people of German, Austrian, and Italian descent, were forced into internment camps during the war.
The Second World War proved to be a global turning point. Out of the ashes arose a new organization, the United Nations, with a mission to spread peace.
Canada, again, was there to help to the cause. Canada fought as part of a UN security force during the Korean War, and also engaged in robust diplomacy.
In 1956, Canada suggested that a UN military force be created to intervene in the Suez Crisis. Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s minister of external affairs at the time, helped to create the concept of “peacekeeping.” He was rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize.
This was the beginning of the transformation of Canada’s image — from the “shock troops” of the British Empire into a “nation of peacekeepers.”
Canada went on to join peacekeeping missions in Cyprus, Syria, Rwanda, and several other countries.
By the 1990s, many Canadians believed peacekeeping was Canada’s most important military legacy. However, the Al-Qaida terror attacks of September 11, 2001, were a stark reminder of the continuing threat of violence.
Canada joined a military coalition in Afghanistan to fight the terrorists and oust the hardline Taliban government that was harbouring them.
More than forty thousand Canadian troops served in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014. One hundred and fifty-eight Canadians died and two thousand were wounded.
Today, Canadian peacekeepers are serving in missions in Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean. More than one hundred and twenty-five thousand Canadians have worn the UN’s iconic Blue Beret. Many have lost their lives while serving the cause of peace.
Is Canada a “nation of peacekeepers?” Yes, it is. But it is also much more.
The truth is, war has shaped our country and its peoples for centuries — and will likely continue to do so.
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