Resistance to wars is as much a Canadian tradition as fighting them
What is often forgotten in the blitzkrieg of commemoration that is taking place in support of the centennial of World War I is that the war was one of the most divisive events in Canadian history. We are asked to remember it as the moment that Canada “came of age.” We are even told that the country was made possible by the sacrifices of our soldiers on the battlefield. But while we may all concur that the war was an important milestone on the road to nationhood, we seem to forget that it also came close to breaking us apart.
Seldom were Canadians as divided against each other as we were during the period 1914–1919. English speakers despised the Quebecois for failing to rally to the war effort with adequate enthusiasm. Working people suspected that manufacturers were enjoying windfall profits while the cost of living soared and soldiers lost their lives. Ethnic tensions ran high as “enemy aliens” were harassed, arrested and interned behind barbed wire. The federal election of 1917 was the most undemocratic in Canadian history as the Conservatives led by Robert Borden brazenly manipulated the vote to force through conscription. Borden got what he wanted but the election did not end the civil unrest. If anything, it made it worse. The following year in Quebec City soldiers fired on a crowd of anti-draft demonstrators, killing four people, while elsewhere in the country labour disturbances and anti-war protests reached unprecedented levels. In retrospect we think of the war as a time when Canadians were united in struggle against a common enemy; it didn’t seem that way to those who were living through it.
One aspect of an alternative history of the war is the story of anti-war resistance. The centre of the resistance was in Quebec, of course, where the newspaper publisher Henri Bourassa articulated a passionate opposition to Canadian participation in the conflict. Bourassa was an anti-imperialist. He did not believe that Canada had any obligation to take part in British campaigns. But antipathy to the war was shared by many people in English-speaking Canada as well. Farmers preferred to have their sons at home helping with the harvest, and the labour movement became increasingly militant as wages failed to keep pace with inflation. The story of this resistance is the subject of a new book of essays, Worth Fighting For: Canada’s Tradition of War Resistance from 1812 to the War on Terror (Between the Lines), edited by Lara Campbell, Michael Dawson and Catherine Gidney. As its subtitle suggests, the book considers two centuries of opposition to war by a wide range of people and organizations. But the essay on World War I by David Tough, a historian at Trent University, is particularly interesting because it speaks most directly to the current centennial commemorations.
(Let me add parenthetically that the Toronto publisher Between the Lines has made itself one of the most interesting book publishers in the country. BTL publishes non-fiction about a wide range of social and cultural issues, including Aboriginal affairs, labour, environmentalism and many aspects of Canadian history. Their books are timely, provocative and, unlike most of our academic presses, actually readable. Long may they prosper.)
World War I was supposed to be a war for freedom and democracy against the tyrannical Hun. That is the way it was sold to Canadians at the time and that is how it has come down to us in the historical record. “We were waging war on the very Prince of Darkness,” wrote the suffragist—and one-time pacifist—Nellie McClung. “No man could die better than in defending civilization from this ghastly thing which threatened her.” But in his essay “A Better Truth,” Tough stands this formulation on its head. He suggests that the “war for democracy” trope is a myth. “More than telling us about the war,” he writes, “it tells us what to feel about the war.” Whatever the soldiers were fighting for, it was not democracy, which, as Tough points out, did not exist in Canada in 1914, not yet. Women did not have the vote, new Canadians were discriminated against, Aboriginals and visible minorities did not share the same rights as other Canadians, labour was powerless in the workplace. Tough proposes that it was actually those who opposed the war, or at least objected to the unequal demands that the war placed on Canadian society, who were the real freedom fighters.
The crisis of war exacerbated social inequalities that had been taken for granted for years. Canadians were being asked to make all kinds of sacrifices for the war effort. That was fine, but as the war progressed it seemed evident that some people were asked to sacrifice more than others. Soldiers, of course, were paying the ultimate price. But on the home front, women, who were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, still could not participate in the political system. Working people were asked to labour for low pay while manufacturers seemed to be making a killing producing war matériel. Many people began to think that the war was no excuse for these inequalities to continue, and they began to work for their remediation. In the end, women got the vote, widespread job action brought attention to employment issues, politics were transformed by the emergence of third parties and a radicalized labour movement. All these forces delivered a jolt to the complacent ruling elite. After the war there could be no going back to business as usual. Ultimately, argues Tough, Canada emerged from the conflict a more democratic society not because of what occurred in Europe but because of what occurred at home.
I have focussed on David Tough’s contribution to the book, but Worth Fighting For covers a lot more territory than just World War I. It contains essays on conscientious objectors in the second war, anti-Vietnam War protesters, the peace movement in the Cold War, the activities of the “peace churches” and a variety of other manifestations of war resistance in Canada. The point the editors make is that along with our military tradition, Canada has an anti-military tradition that has not been adequately acknowledged. They are motivated by a dislike of Steven Harper’s recent militarization of our history, but their aims go further than present politics. “The chapters in this collection tell us, convincingly, that over-emphasizing military history while ignoring resistance to war is a simplification of our past.” There is an alternative to the “nation-forged-by-war narrative,” a counter-narrative to the one that sees war as the most important creator of Canadian identity. These essays identify an anti-war tradition going all the way back to the War of 1812 and extending right up to today’s War on Terror. They show that resistance is not marginal to Canadian history, rather it is central to the development of Canadian democracy.