Five lessons we learned about Canada in wartime

A historian looks back and finds some major takeaways and hard truths about Canadians at war


Canadian Infantry during World War 1

It is now 115 years since Canada first sent troops overseas to fight. Since the Boer War, we have fought in the Great and Second World Wars; the Korean War; in some warlike peacekeeping operations as in Cyprus on several occasions; in Somalia; and the former Yugoslavia; peripherally in the first Gulf War; then in Kosovo and most recently in Afghanistan. More than 115,000 Canadians have died in service. This country has paid its dues again and again.

But what have we learned from our war experience? What lessons can we draw from a century’s conflicts, loss, defeats, and victories?

Historians don’t really believe that there are lessons in history. Assad is not Hitler. Ahmadinejad was not Mussolini, even if he was a dangerous buffoon. The times are never in sync, the people involved always different, the challenges and opportunities never the same. And yet, some things do stand out when we think about Canadians and war. Let me point to five maxims that might be construed as lessons of history.

The first maxim is that we will always fight someone else’s war. Canadians have never been the aggressor, and we will never start a war. We go into battle to be a good, loyal ally. This is not to suggest that Canada’s national interests have not been at stake in our wars, only that they have never been decisive factors in our decision to fight, and we have never considered what they are before we go to war. That was certainly true in South Africa, and true again in 1914—the Dominion was a colony with as much say as the Gold Coast in determining British policy. It was true again in 1939, notwithstanding the Statute of Westminster of 1931, which made Canada as independent in foreign policy as it was in domestic matters. Canadian loyalty to Britain was our reason for going to war, not fear of Nazi aggression. Canadian interests were not directly at risk until the fall of France in June 1940 or, more likely yet, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. This was also true in Korea and Kosovo; it was true in Afghanistan, although Canadian national interests are probably more directly involved in the fight against Islamist terrorism than they were in opposing the kaiser and führer in 1914 and 1939. But that is a discussion for another time and place.

Secondly, we will always go to war as part of an alliance, but we will never have much say in shaping alliance strategy. Canada is simply too small a player to get a very loud voice. We had almost no say in the Great War, although prime minister Sir Robert Borden used the Canadian Corps’ battlefield performance to win more autonomy within the Empire. We had almost no voice in Allied strategy in World War II, although Mackenzie King used the nation’s huge war effort to get a role in the combined boards that ran the Allies’s economic war and to establish Canada’s middle power status. We had no say in Korea, none in Kosovo, and none in Afghanistan—except in trying to get other NATO allies to buy into the war and largely failing. The reality is that Canada is a small power, and small powers do not determine the policies of the great. A little realism on the part of our politicians, our media and our people would be useful in assessing our role and responsibilities.

A third and more contentious point: Canada is unlikely to be united in war. The sharp anti-military attitudes of the present have their resonance all through our history. We have never fought a war where Canadians en masse supported the effort. And in truth, in all our wars, one substantial part of the population—with many honourable exceptions—largely opted out, public opinion in French Canada being sharply against participation. This was attributable to a lack of political leadership, not to character. We need to remember that it was a Quebec politician—Louis St. Laurent—who brought Canada into NATO, into the Korean War, and to spending seven per cent of GDP on defence because he was unafraid to lead. We have not had a political leader since 1957 who has done so, not one who has been willing to talk national interests to Quebec instead of pandering to the nationalistes.

Then, preparedness matters. There will be another war. No historian could say otherwise. There has always been war and, barring an extraordinary change in human nature, regrettably, there will always be wars. Thus Canadians either pay for their defence with dollars now or with lives later. The lack of realism, the sense that Canada has only values and no national interests to defend, or at least none we think about, has always meant we are unprepared. We all have fire insurance on our homes against the small chance of a fire, but we refuse to have the national insurance policy that a well-equipped, well-trained military provides. Canadians have never been and are not prepared now. And we will pay in lives yet again. If that doesn’t prove that there are no lessons in history, what could?

Finally, Canadians do well fighting wars once we set our mind to the task. At Vimy, Passchendaele, and in the Hundred Days Offensive; at Ortona, the Gothic Line, in Normandy, and at the Scheldt; at Kap’yong and Kandahar, Canadian grit, determination, and military skill shone through. Though the losses were terrible, uncommon courage was the norm.

On November 11 each year, some Canadians stop to remember. They all should because we live in freedom and relative peace thanks to those who put their lives on the line for us. We must remember all the men and women who gave their todays for our tomorrows. All Canadians must never forget.

J. L. Granatstein, OC is a Canadian historian who specializes in political and military history. He served in the Canadian Army from 1956 to 1966. His latest book is The Greatest Victory: Canada’s One Hundred Days, 1918. This essay first appeared in Lest We Forget, a booklet accompanying an exhibition of First World War paintings by Charles Pachter on view at the Lieutenant-Governor’s Suite at Ontario’s legislature until June 2015, or through the vice-regal website. Copyright 2014, Office of the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.


Five lessons we learned about Canada in wartime

  1. “Thus Canadians either pay for their defence with dollars now or with lives later.”

    This isn’t true. Let’s say we had been better prepared for the Boer War and had dispatched troops in time for Black Week in 1899. Would being there in time for the three major defeats have saved Canadian lives? If we had been able to send a division in time for the Retreat from Mons and 1st Ypres in 1914 how would that have saved Canadian lives? If 1st Division had arrived in time for the main Battle of France in 1940 how many extra lives would that have cost?

    From the economic point of view what would have been the advantage in the inter-war years of going through two or three generations of tanks and aircraft that would be hopelessly obsolete in 1940? Perhaps we could have built a battleship in 1911 and had it sunk at Jutland or off Hong Kong in 1941.

    Higher peacetime defence expenditures, for Canada, would have resulted in more dead servicemen because our forces would have come to grips with the enemy earlier in the war before new weapons and tactics were developed but without enough power to defeat the enemy. Our economy would also have been harmed by excessive defence spending much of which would have gone on obsolescent equipment, practicing obsolescent tactics or perhaps worst of all increasing the number of permanent force senior officers who would clog up opportunities for reservists on mobilization.

    In every war we have fought we benefited from coming late to the war. In WW 2 and Korea was the intentional plan of the government. There is no reason to change that policy now.

  2. “They all should because we live in freedom and relative peace thanks to those who put their lives on the line for us.”

    This is also incorrect. Since confederation none of the states ( Transvaal, Orange Free Sate, Germany and the Central Powers, Bolshevik Russia, Germany and the Axis, North Korea, China, Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya) we have fought had any capability of enslaving Canada. The one state who could have taken us- the USA- would simply have made us states with the same rights as other US citizens- as they did the territories taken from Mexico. In many ways it would have been a good outcome and actually resulted in us having more freedom.

    For our first 100 years we fought because the British did. It was reflexive like helping out a pal in a bar fight even though he may have started it. Now we fight (or at least bomb people who can’t shoot our planes down) to “get a seat at the table” and to provide a justification for the defence budget.

    The French, Belgians and Dutch can thank us for their freedom although it’s ironic that as soon as they got rid of the Germans they went back to brutally ruling their colonies in Africa and Asia.

    • “In many ways it would have been a good outcome and actually resulted in us having more freedom. ”

      Nonsense. Feel free to move south and enjoy your freedom from Homeland Security.

      • Tell that to the millions of Canadians who have moved or snowbird and the others who line up to go to the States everyday. While you’re at it calculate how much taxes would go up if the US didn’t guarantee our defence.

        • Are you unaware that Canadians travel and move to numerous places all over the earth?

          The US has never guaranteed our defence. In fact the US is the only country that ever invaded us!

          • The US signed the Ogdensburg Agreement in 1940 guaranteeing Canadian defence to free up our forces to go to Europe. It has never been rescinded.

            Go check the figures for Canada-US trade, emigration and travel against any other combination. A lot of Canadians would be very happy to live or work in the US.

        • Lots of Canadians move south for work – and lots of Americans move north. I work with several. It’s economics (or weather, for snowbirds), not perceived levels of freedom, that is responsible for this movement – in both directions.

          We aren’t that far apart in terms of our freedoms; however, my own perception is that we have slightly greater freedoms and protections than our neighbours to the south.

          As for the defense argument… you pointed out yourself in your first post that the Americans are the only ones we realistically need to fear.

          I most definitely do NOT want to be American, nor do I believe we would be much better off as part of the US. The difference in health care policies alone (resulting in lower infant mortality and longer life expectation on this side of the border) tells me where I’m better off.

          • That’s fine, believe what you want but if we had joined or been forced to join the US in 1867 you’d probably be happily flying the Stars and Stripes- not so the flag of any other major state.

          • The link supports what I wrote. Apology accepted.

        • No, I’m afraid it doesn’t Michael.

          And never accept something that isn’t offered.

          • I can’t help it if you’re willfully blind. The US agreed to protect us. Nothing has changed since 1940. I don’t understand what’s so hard to fathom about that obvious fact. It is has been the central premise of our defence policy since 1940- we don’t have to defend Canada by ourselves and don’t even have to try to field enough military force to start.

        • ‘It outlined a permanent plan for mutual defense overseas between the United States and Canada.’

          Plain English, Michael

          • It’s not plain English at all. The first sentence is wrong. “Overseas” should be removed.
            The agreement was about continental defence. If you had read past the first sentence you might have twigged that something wasn’t adding up. This is what you get for relying on a single wikipedia entry.


        • LOL oh I see….you just change the definition when it suits you….by citing an American university of all things!!

          Apparently you’ve never heard of Continentalism and


          Sorry…..they did not agree to defend Canada….we were in WWI and II before the US was, and no one came to our aid. We were aiding the UK.

          If the US was going to do all the defending….we wouldn’t need a military.

          Now stop being silly.

          • You’re having me on. You can’t be unable to understand these simple facts and still work a computer.

            Just in case you’re not 1940 was after WW 1 so apart from your confusion I don’t see what that has to do with anything. The 1940 agreement was to defend us if we were attacked. If. If. It means just in case. In the end we didn’t need defending but in 1940 that wasn’t as clear as just a few years later. Our military was able to send people earlier to the UK because the US pledged to defend us.

            Continental defence means defence of North America (like NORAD today). It has nothing to do with Manifest Destiny.

            The US was mobilizing for WW 2 well before Pearl Harbor. The Ogdensburg Agreement was just one part of Roosevelt’s efforts to help the Allies. BTW the first major US ground operations (at Army level) against the Germans started in North Africa in November 1942. The Canadians (at division level) started in Sicily in July 1943. So please stow your “the Americans came in after us” as if that made any practical difference.

        • Michael, having grade 12 and a couple of bumper stickers does not qualify you as a historian.

          WWII started in 1939. Pearl Harbor, which caught the US with it’s pants down, was at the end of 1941

          Canada was a dominion….a colony of the UK…we went when they went…..and the US only showed up after Pearl Harbor. Canada even declared war on Japan before the Americans.

          Russia won WWII….the US showed up to claim the glory.

          You’re posting absolute rubbish.

          • Bumper stickers? Are you drunk or on drugs? If you’re 13 years old or suffering from middle stage dementia please ignore what follows.

            You can’t even understand what I wrote can you? You’re illiterate, woefully ignorant or simply lying to back up some pathetic need to run down the US. There is a sick strain of Canadian nationalism that feeds off the sort of delusions you have. It’s usually crops up on the CBC or at bar closing at darts night at the Legion. Despite the US being the best friend and neighbour we could hope for this type of Canadian patriot hopes to build up Canada by attacking the Americans.

            You can’t even get the most basic facts right. We weren’t a colony in 1939. Canada declared war on Germany (mostly for symbolism) one week after Britain. So we didn’t go when they did as we had had full independence since 1931.

            The idea that the US just showed up- they gave the Russian 50,000 tanks- is laughable. If you were serious you could debate which was slightly more important- the Soviet or American efforts- but to say the US just showed up shows a major level of hatred for the US or massive ignorance

        • Michael, Canada was a ‘dominion’ in 1939….that’s one step up from an outright colony, but not an independent country.

          When the UK went to war….so did we.

          Pierre Trudeau had to patriate our Canadian constitution in 1982…..because it was held in Britain. 1931 did not make us independent.

          In fact we still have a monarchy.

          I would be quite happy to live beside many other different countries…..living beside the US is dangerous.

          The German army was wiped out by Russian tanks hon….not American ones. The Russians lost 20M people fighting the Nazis.

          The US did mop-up….after everyone else, but especially the Russians….did all the heavy lifting.

          I prefer to stick to topics on here…..but if you want to play games, I’m 68, I’ve served in the military…and 3 degrees wipe out bumper stickers any day.

          Now find someone else to bore.

          • So it’s onset dementia that’s been worsened by institutionalization and too much time at the mess bar. Drunken old soldier syndrome. There’s no cure.

  3. I will certainly be glad when all this war porn is over with.

    • Legal porn is good for ya compared to war.

  4. Maybe Canada should declare war on debt, govmint corruption, waste, bloat and taxes for American F35s defects?

    Or economically, there might not be much to come back to in WW III. We are technically bankrupt, no legitimate lender is buying govmint debt. A big war would criple Canda economically for 30+ years, and we are already on the decline.

    But wait, maybe thats why politicians want war, to hide the economic failure of US/Canada/UK and Eurobanks and blame it on war!!!

    • The world revolves around Dave’s taxes.

  5. ‘Canadian interests were not directly at risk until the fall of France in June 1940 or, more likely yet, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. This was also true in Korea and Kosovo; it was true in Afghanistan, although Canadian national interests are probably more directly involved in the fight against Islamist terrorism than they were in opposing the kaiser and führer in 1914 and 1939. –

    If the majority of your readers believe we are in a ” fight against Islamist terrorism” we have already lost the war. We are in fact in a war for the survival of western civilization, against ISLAM (the most vile and evil ideology the planet has ever had to deal with). “Islamist terrorism” is just one of the tactics those who pursue the creation of the next Caliphate use against us. Islamic terrorists have carried out more than 23550 DEADLY terror attacks since 9/11. http://www.jihadwatch.org.

    • Take a Valium Mr Parnell.

      In fact, take several.

  6. With all due respect, there is only one lesson … the higher mortals
    among us (usually pale old fat men) are quite prepared , even eager at times,
    to send the children of lesser mortals to slaughter in aid of whatever opaque
    vision is fashionable at the time. Historians pick at the bones and rearrange
    them in more pleasing form afterwards.
    Also applies to the economy.

    • Hoo boy, I’ll agree with that one!

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