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Goodbye, Peaceable Kingdom—the Conservative government is re-spinning Canada as a Warrior Nation in which a muscular military is the ultimate expression of national identity.
An argument can be made that John Buchan is the Leonard Zelig of Canadian history. At least that is the impression one gets from reading the new book Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (Between the Lines). Zelig is the chameleon-like title character in the Woody Allen movie who keeps popping up at momentous historical events, and Buchan too seems to have a knack for ubiquity. As the co-authors of Warrior Nation, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, point out, Buchan supervised a British concentration camp in South Africa during the Boer War, Canada’s first foreign war; then he was a chief propagandist for the Allied efforts during World War I; then he served as governor general of Canada from 1935 to 1940 (when he founded the Governor General’s Literary Awards); and then, most recently, he appears in the Harper government’s revised citizenship guide, Discover Canada. In this latest incarnation, Buchan—or 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, as he was known—is shown in full Imaginary Indian getup wearing a First Nations feather headdress and robe. The guide includes a quote from a speech Buchan made in 1937 extolling the virtues of a multicultural society in which immigrant groups retain their “special loyalties and traditions” while at the same time contributing to “the national character.”
As McKay and Swift point out, however, Buchan is not the role model for a multicultural Canada that the government wishes he were. In his many works of popular fiction—Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps and Prester John, along with other swashbuckling potboilers—he reveals himself to be an advocate of the White Man’s Burden school of imperial outreach. In his view, Blacks and Asians were “lesser breeds without the law” who needed the wise governance of what he called “white man’s democracy” to deliver the benefits of civilization. Oops. It looks as though in its enthusiasm for re-emphasizing Canada’s historical ties to Great Britain, the Conservative government has elevated an apologist for racist imperialism to our pantheon of national heroes.
Discover Canada is a seminal document for McKay and Swift. They call it a beginner’s guide to the Warrior Nation in which the history of Canada has become essentially the story of wars, fought and won. “Of thirty images in the section on ‘Canada’s History’,” they write, “twenty depict plainly military events or figures.” What’s more, “the images of war are profoundly romantic, cleaned-up Victorian images of battle reminiscent of the Boy’s Own Annual. No blood, refugees, or bombed-out cities in sight. Going to war looks like a lot of fun.” Meanwhile, mention of peacekeeping, which used to define our role in the world, is reduced to a half sentence.
McKay and Swift are not the only historians who have taken exception to the contents of Discover Canada. The appearance of the guide sparked a bit of a “history war” in which many critics complained that the primer gives a distorted view of the country’s past, emphasizing its military and monarchical heritage while ignoring the various struggles for social justice. (“The Liberals had medicare and the Canadian Pension Plan,” explains one senior Conservative strategist quoted by McKay and Swift, “and we needed to have our brand on something. We chose the military and the RCMP…”) Last year two of these critics, the Manitoba historians Esyllt Jones and Adele Perry, even published their own alternative manual, People’s Citizenship Guide: A Response to Conservative Canada (Arbeiter Ring Publishing), a French-language edition of which is being published in fall 2012. Still, McKay and Swift are the first to mount a sustained critique of the Conservative government’s attempts to revise the country’s history and rebrand Canada as a “Warrior Nation.”
Until recently it may not have occurred to many Canadians that Warrior was one of the images we had of ourselves. Of course Canadian soldiers fought in two world wars and Korea and did themselves proud. But they were simply citizens who took up arms in moments of crisis and returned to their normal lives when the crisis was over. In common with other members of my boomer generation, whenever I thought of Canadian soldiers, which I didn’t very often, I thought of blue helmets and peacekeeping. It was the Americans who militarized their public events with martial displays of weapons and warfare; Canadians lived in the Peaceable Kingdom.
McKay and Swift believe that those days are over. Prime Minister Harper, they argue, wants to move the image of the soldier to the centre of the Canadian story. He, along with a select group of military leaders and right-wing scholars, wish us to understand that Canadians are warriors now and always have been. The Afghanistan adventure is not some break with the past, and possibly a horrible mistake, but a continuation of our heroic military traditions, traditions that must be rescued from the neglect and distortions of left-wing peaceniks. As part of this project, previous wars are memorialized as noble crusades in defence of civilization rather than the messy imperial conflicts that McKay and Swift believe them to have been. World War I, for example, in which more than sixty thousand Canadians died, along with fifteen million others around the world, “was never a war for democracy, freedom, or ‘Canada’, but a war fought between empires,” they write. The glorification of Vimy Ridge as the heroic battle where Canada found its nationhood is part of this militarization of the Canadian past. “Rather than remember the Great War as a complex historical event,” the authors complain, “we are enjoined to commemorate it as Canada’s finest hour.” And so it goes for all the other martial episodes in our history right down to our present intervention in Afghanistan.
Hand in hand with the glorification of war is the denigration of peace, or at least peacekeeping. During the Cold War, Canadian soldiers took part in more UN peacekeeping missions than any other country. We thought that peacekeeping was the best way for a middle power like Canada to make a contribution to stability in the world. But times have changed. For the new warriors, peacekeeping is wimp’s work, “a poor substitute for real wars in which real men could prove themselves against evil enemies.” They wish us to play a more muscular role internationally, and to this end they wish to inflate our past military accomplishments.
Revisioning Canada as “Warrior Nation” requires a fair bit of spin-doctoring. The Conservatives have lately been conscripting all sorts of public events into the campaign to revise the national narrative. We now see uniformed soldiers appearing at citizenship ceremonies, hockey games given over to supporting our troops, roadways renamed as “highways of heroes” and, most provocatively, history being rewritten as a series of battlefield successes, this year’s $28-million celebration of the War of 1812 being a case in point. McKay and Swift believe that when Canadians elected a Conservative government they got a lot more than a new tenant at 24 Sussex Drive. They also got a regime that is intent on reinterpreting Canadian history to reflect its own ideology. Many of the characteristics we used to think defined us—socialized medicine, bilingualism, the welfare state, public broadcasting, global citizenship—are being replaced by other notions of Canadianness, most notably, argue McKay and Swift, an inflated role for the military. “Nations are narrations,” the culture theorist Edward Said once wrote. The stories we tell ourselves form the national narrative—in the parlance of modern marketing, the national brand. What McKay and Swift see happening, under the guise of patriotism and a get-tough approach to security, is a major rebranding of what it means to be Canadian.