A Salute to a Brave and Modest Nation

Reprinted here is a remarkable tribute written by Irishman Kevin Myers about Canada's record of quiet valour in wartime. This article appeared in the April 21, 2002 edition of the Sunday Telegraph, one of Britain's largest circulation newspapers and in Canada's National Post on April 26, 2002.

Until the deaths last week of four Canadian soldiers accidentally killed by a U.S. warplane in Afghanistan, probably almost no one outside their home country had been aware that Canadian troops were deployed in the region. And as always, Canada will now bury its dead, just as the rest of the world as always will forget its sacrifice, just as it always forgets nearly everything Canada ever does.

It seems that Canada's historic mission is to come to the selfless aid both of its friends and of complete strangers, and then, once the crisis is over, to be well and truly ignored. Canada is the perpetual wallflower that stands on the edge of the hall, waiting for someone to come and ask her for a dance. A fire breaks out, she risks life and limb to rescue her fellow dance-goers, and suffers serious injuries. But when the hall is repaired and the dancing resumes, there is Canada, the wallflower still, while those she once helped glamorously cavort across the floor, blithely neglecting her yet again.

That is the price Canada pays for sharing the North American continent with the United States, and for being a selfless friend of Britain in two global conflicts. For much of the 20th century, Canada was torn in two different directions: It seemed to be a part of the old world, yet had an address in the new one, and that divided identity ensured that it never fully got the gratitude it deserved.

Yet its purely voluntary contribution to the cause of freedom in two world wars was perhaps the greatest of any democracy. Almost 10% of Canada's entire population of seven million people served in the armed forces during the First World War, and nearly 60,000 died. The great Allied victories of 1918 were spearheaded by Canadian troops, perhaps the most capable soldiers in the entire British order of battle.

Canada was repaid for its enormous sacrifice by downright neglect, its unique contribution to victory being absorbed into the popular memory as somehow or other the work of the "British." The Second World War provided a re-run. The Canadian navy began the war with a half dozen vessels, and ended up policing nearly half of the Atlantic against U-boat attack.

More than 120 Canadian warships participated in the Normandy landings, during which 15,000 Canadian soldiers went ashore on D-Day alone. Canada finished the war with the third-largest navy and the fourth-largest air force in the world.

The world thanked Canada with the same sublime indifference as it had the previous time. Canadian participation in the war was acknowledged in film only if it was necessary to give an American actor a part in a campaign in which the United States had clearly not participated -- a touching scrupulousness which, of course, Hollywood has since abandoned, as it has any notion of a separate Canadian identity.

So it is a general rule that actors and filmmakers arriving in Hollywood keep their nationality -- unless, that is, they are Canadian. Thus Mary Pickford, Walter Huston, Donald Sutherland, Michael J. Fox, William Shatner, Norman Jewison, David Cronenberg and Dan Aykroyd have in the popular perception become American, and Christopher Plummer, British. It is as if, in the very act of becoming famous, a Canadian ceases to be Canadian, unless she is Margaret Atwood, who is as unshakably Canadian as a moose, or Celine Dion, for whom Canada has proved quite unable to find any takers.

Moreover, Canada is every bit as querulously alert to the achievements of its sons and daughters as the rest of the world is completely unaware of them. The Canadians proudly say of themselves -- and are unheard by anyone else -- that 1% of the world's population has provided 10% of the world's peacekeeping forces. Canadian soldiers in the past half century have been the greatest peacekeepers on Earth -- in 39 missions on UN mandates, and six on non-UN peacekeeping duties, from Vietnam to East Timor, from Sinai to Bosnia.

Yet the only foreign engagement that has entered the popular non-Canadian imagination was the sorry affair in Somalia, in which out-of-control paratroopers murdered two Somali infiltrators. Their regiment was then disbanded in disgrace -- a uniquely Canadian act of self-abasement for which, naturally, the Canadians received no international credit.

So who today in the United States knows about the stoic and selfless friendship its northern neighbour has given it in Afghanistan?

Rather like Cyrano de Bergerac, Canada repeatedly does honourable things for honourable motives, but instead of being thanked for it, it remains something of a figure of fun.

It is the Canadian way, for which Canadians should be proud, yet such honour comes at a high cost.

This week, four more grieving Canadian families knew that cost all too tragically well.
 

Kevin Myers is an Irish journalist and commentator, who currently writes for the Irish Independent. He is a former contributor to The Irish Times newspaper, where he wrote the An Irishman's Diary column several times weekly. Until 2005, he also wrote for the Sunday Telegraph in the UK.

True Canadian Heroes in the Air

These two selections are from the book "True Canadian Heroes in the Air" written by Arthur Bishop, son of WW I ace William Avery "Billy" Bishop, with a Foreward by Lt. Gen. Sutherland.

  "During the First World War 22,811 Canadians served with the British air service and one Canadian served with the French air service; 1,563 of them gave their lives."
 
  "In that conflict the top four Canadian air aces accounted for a total of 230 enemy planes shot down, more than any similar group among the Allied nations. By the end of that war, one third of those in uniform with the Royal Air Force (an amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service) were Canadian."

  "In her brief military history Canada's principal contribution to the cause of freedom was the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during World War II. During the period of 1939-45 this vast university of the air produced an arsenal of trained air crews from Australia, Britain and New Zealand, as well as from Canada herself. It inspired President Roosevelt to praise the Dominion as the 'aerodrome of democracy'."
  
  "The Royal Canadian Air Force (formed in 1924), which at the outbreak of hostilities numbered a mere 4,000 officers and men, grew to 249,662 men and women of all ranks to become the fourth largest air force in the world. In five years it trained a total of 131,553 aircrews - pilots, observers, navigators, gunners. wireless operators, flight engineers - from the Commonwealth as well as from some occupied countries. That aside, the RCAF posted a combat record of 38 squadrons that served overseas and another 28,500 Canadian airmen who served with the Royal Air Force. This is an impressive accomplishment even for a country that in two world wars produced more warriors per capita than any other nation."

Arthur Bishop

 "Canadians can take deserved pride in their reputation as the great peacekeepers of the twentieth century, and Canada's commitment to that noble pursuit remains second to none. But no nation which considers itself a keeper of the peace can command respect from other members of the world community without a demonstrable and commensurate will to bear arms to make or regain the peace if no other alternative exists.  Several times in the 20th century, as a last resort, Canada has reluctantly but resolvedly gone to war in the name of freedom and humanity. In each instance, most recently in the Persian Gulf, Canadians have served with distinction and have contributed significantly to the successful resolution of aggression."

F. R. Sutherland, CMM, CD
Lieutenant-General
Former Vice Chief of the Defence Staff

 

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