Cyprus 1965: Canadians man an observation post along the "Green Line" separating Greek and Turkish forces. Some 25,000 Canadian soldiers served with UNFICYP (UN Forces In Cyprus) between 1964 and 1993
Photo Credit: DND Zk-2049

Veterans Week:Canada: Warrior or peacekeeper?


(Veterans Week is the period leading up to Canada’s national Remembrance Day commemoration on Nov 11)

In every war in which Canada was involved, it has fought with complete determination to win. If killing is necessary, so be it. During the Cold War, Canada’s military was involved in some way in all of the UN peacekeeping missions in locations scattered around the world, sometimes, albeit rarely, involving the use of force.  In the general public’s minds in this country, the military became a peacekeeping force.

In the face of this firmly held public perception, a former Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, used to take pains to emphasize that the military’s primary role was that of a fighting force. Peacekeeping was something the force could do, and do very well, but that was not the primary role.

So, is Canada a warrior nation, or a nation of peacekeepers?

Lee Windsor (PhD) is Deputy Director of the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, and Frederick Eaton Chair for Canadian Army Studies at the University of New Brunswick.

Professor Lee Windsor lecturing to a group of UNB students on the Second World War Allied landing beaches at Salerno, Italy

In the First World War, Canada with a 1914 population of less the 8-million,  sent over 600 thousand soldiers to Europe.

It was a motley volunteer force of untrained farm boys, city store clerks, policeman, factory workers, fisherman, lumberjacks, dock workers.

But after just a couple of years of war, Canadians proved to be the fiercest fighters on the Allied side. In the air, several of the highest scoring aces of the war were Canadians. Barker, Bishop, Collishaw to name just three.

On the ground, the Canadians held the line in gas attacks when the others broke and ran. By 1917 Canadians were being used as the shock troops and had to be snuck into the front lines to prevent the Germans from knowing who they were about to face, and rushing in reinforcements.

Canadian soldiers fire a 155mm howitzer at identified Taliban positions from an undisclosed forward operating base in Helmand Province of Afghanistan April 7, 2007 © US Army photo

In the last 100 days of the war, Canadians won every battle they engaged in.

In the Second World War it was much the same story, an all-volunteer overseas force that was highly respected by the Allies and again feared by the Germans for their determination.

In Korea , the story was repeated, Canadians holding hill tops in fierce hand to hand fighting agains vastly superior Chinese numbers, while other UN forces abandoned their positions.

Professor Windsor says these fierce military actions do not make Canada a warrior nation. He says a warrior is fierce but not necessarily for moral reasons, and usually adheres to no particular laws.

This is not and never has been the case for Canada’s military.  The Canadians in all causes he says, fought fiercely but for a moral purpose they believed in, and an altruistic internationalist cause as well.

“Canada’s military experience is very closely tied to its desire to make the world a better place”, he says

Canadian soldiers in Haiti loading water from a Canadian reverse osmosis purification system. Canadian military are trained to handle a vast array of taskings from actual war, to peacekeeping, to disaster relief (in this case following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti), and in all weather extremes. © Cpl D Hardwick © Cpl D Hardwick

In the Cold War era, Canada earned a world-wide reputation as respected peacekeepers, on rare occasions having to resort to force, but almost always seen as a neutral and unbiased presence, and very often able to de-escalate incidents before they became battles between conflicting sides.

Professor Windsor says don’t glorify their nation’s military or its exploits as do, or have done, some nations, nor has our military ever gone to war in support of autocratic ideas, or expansionist goals. Instead he says they have been citizen soldiers who are mindful of the constitution and fought to protect it and its ideals when threatened, but did so in accordance with international rules, something “warriors” do not do.

Asking if Canada is a warrior nation, or a peacekeeping nation is too simplistic, and probably not the right question to ask.  Professor Windsor says unlike many other countries Canada has never really undertaken a study of the military, about who the people who put on a military uniform in this country, and what the military has meant and means to Canada today.

Professor Windsor cites a paper produced by a Canadian Great War officer Colonel E M Slader, of St John New Brunswick who in 1920 wrote,

“All units of the Canadian militia have proved their worth in the past, and have preserved a military spirit in the country, not militarism that elevates the soldier above all institutions, but the spirit of the civilian soldier who fights to preserve that measure of happiness which has been attained through free institutions and good laws…… not seeking to impose upon the rest of the world the will of an autocrat….or assisting in the ambition to dominate others.”

Although written almost a century ago, about Canadians actions in one of the world bloodiest wars, Professor Windsor says it seems to fit very well with Canada’s use of its military, and the Canadian Forces itself.

Posted in International, Politics, Society

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One comment on “Veterans Week:Canada: Warrior or peacekeeper?
  1. R. D. Bradford says:

    This question still intrigues me. I never heard it until the end of the Cold War, and certainly nobody in the Canadian Forces ever perceived themselves as anything other than warfighters who also did peacekeeping (and did it best because they met the standard demanded by general war). Whether Canadians slipped into a state of seeing only the peacekeeper and not the warfighter, or were the “sold” the idea (which would have been easier after 1992), the reality is that the Canadian military, even after the full effects of its social and cultural revolution of the ’90s had been absorbed, has never seen an “either/or” issue.

    Of course, the fundamental question regards the meaning of “warrior” when applied to service personnel and then to a whole people. The label only appeared after the Cold War, and originated in the U.S. to be copied (like so many other things) by a new brand of Canadian military that emerged in the 1990s. Personally, I am uncomfortable with the term and our slavish imitation of others. “Soldier” has real meaning. “Warfighter” has a practical purpose when used correctly. “Warrior?” It has real historical and anthropological meaning, but as applied today in the military invites giggles and deprecation. I have often said that the more benign we become, the more aggressive our plumage. The recent “robbing of the tombs of the past” so we can dress up like and use the nomenclature of our forebears to puff us up is cruel irony.

    The question is an interesting one and I hope it prompts some reasonable discussion.