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12 Military Events That Shaped Canada

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Everyone likes lists. Everyone makes lists. They are always self-selected, incomplete, and eminently arguable, but they sometimes can focus our minds on significant points that otherwise might escape notice.

This listing of 12 military events and issues does not concentrate on significant battles, though some are included. It does not look at great leaders, although a few will be noted. Instead, what it does is to pick out a dozen key occurrences that had long-term military ramifications and that helped shape Canada and the Canadian military in the years after Confederation.

Readers will disagree with a few of my choices, I know, and some will object strenuously that one event or another has been omitted. Where is the Battle of Vimy Ridge? How could Ortona be left out? And why is the list so heavily weighted to the Army? Good questions all, some of which will be answered in our list.

Métis leader Louis Riel takes the stand while on trial for treason in 1885 at Regina. [PHOTO: O.B. Buell, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C001879]

Métis leader Louis Riel takes the stand while on trial for treason in 1885 at Regina.
PHOTO: O.B. Buell, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C001879

1. The Northwest Rebellion, 1885

Canada’s expansion into the Prairies was less brutal than the American expansion in the south, but the Métis and First Nations nonetheless had legitimate fears for their survival in the face of railways and settlement. Louis Riel had led a rebellion at the Red River in 1869-70, and the Métis leader returned to Canada in 1884-85 to lead a second uprising, this time in the Northwest Territories (i.e., Saskatchewan). The Métis sharpshooters fought from rifle pits, and they more than held their own initially against the Dominion’s small numbers of North West Mounted Police and militia on site. But Ottawa raised the Northwest Field Force from eastern Canada under Major-General Frederick Middleton, the General Officer Commanding the Canadian Militia, and sent it westwards. The raw Canadian troops had their difficulties with Riel’s men and the Indians in a number of skirmishes, but sheer weight of numbers and firepower eventually told, and at Batoche in May 1885, the rebellion was effectively crushed. Mad though he certainly was, Riel was tried and hanged, along with eight native leaders. Riel’s execution stirred great anger in Quebec and created a lasting political division.

The Canadian Mounted Rifles prepare for war in South Africa, 1900. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA028895]

The Canadian Mounted Rifles prepare for war in South Africa, 1900.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA028895

2. The South African War, 1899-1902

English Canada found itself caught up in the British imperialism of the late Victorian era, public opinion literally forcing Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government to raise troops for the Dominion’s first real overseas military mission. The Boers of South Africa went to war to protect their Afrikaans-speaking Transvaal and Orange Free State from being swallowed by British commercial interests. It was not Canada’s war, most especially not in the opinion of French Canadians, but the Royal Canadian Regiment, hurriedly manned by Canada’s tiny regular force and by recruits off the street, found itself fighting on the veldt. The RCR distinguished itself at Paardeberg in February 1900 and participated in the taking of Bloemfontein and Pretoria. But as the war turned into guerrilla skirmishes, the RCR departed for home and new infantry, artillery and cavalry contingents arrived from Canada. The conflict dragged on into 1902, the Canadians suffering approximately 500 dead and wounded of the 7,368 who served. The Boer War demonstrated that Canadians could give a good account of themselves on the field, but it also proved to the Québécois population that even a francophone prime minister could not resist the clamour of anglophones to support Britain.

An anti-conscription parade passes through downtown Montreal, 1917. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C006859]

An anti-conscription parade passes through downtown Montreal, 1917.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C006859

3. Conscription, 1917

French Canada had provided ample evidence that it was unsympathetic to British “imperialism” and for many Québécois the Great War of 1914-18 was Britain’s war, not Canada’s. The Canadian Expeditionary Force operated in English, and francophone enlistments were low and slow; so too by 1917 were enlistments in the English-speaking provinces. The difficulty was that the heavy casualties in the Canadian Corps could no longer be replaced by voluntary enlistment, and Sir Robert Borden’s Conservative government, knowing full well the difficulties it would face, seized the nettle and introduced a conscription bill in May which was passed into law in August. The bill split the nation, led to the creation of a Union Government, and a bitter election won by Borden. Conscription came into force at the beginning of 1918, its aim to produce 100,000 reinforcements. By the time of the armistice, some 24,000 conscripts had reached the CEF, keeping its ranks up to strength in the final months of the war. Had the war gone on into 1919, as expected, the Canadian Corps could have maintained its strength. But compulsory service reinforced French Canada’s anti-military attitudes.

A Canadian platoon enters the town of Valenciennes in early November 1918. [PHOTO: WILLIAM RIDER-RIDER, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA003377]

A Canadian platoon enters the town of Valenciennes in early November 1918.
PHOTO: WILLIAM RIDER-RIDER, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA003377

4. The Hundred Days, 1918

The Canadian Corps’ victory at Vimy Ridge in April 1917 commands the attention of Canadians still. The success of the set-piece Easter attack at Vimy gave the Corps its élan and its nationalistic pride, but it did little to alter the course of the war. What did lead the Allies to victory was The Hundred Days. In March 1918, the Germans launched the first of a succession of massive offensives on the Western Front. The Allies reeled backwards, but ultimately held, and on Aug. 8 the British, French and Americans were ready to attack. Led by the Canadian and Australian Corps, Sir Douglas Haig’s attack at Amiens on Aug. 8 was “the black day” of the German army. General Sir Arthur Currie’s Canadians pressed eastward in a three-month-long succession of battles, smashing the enemy’s heavily fortified Drocourt-Quéant Line, crossing the Canal du Nord, taking Valenciennes, and ending the war on Nov. 11 at Mons, Belgium, where British troops had first faced the German army in 1914. Despite suffering 45,000 casualties since August, the Corps had made huge territorial gains, defeated enemy divisions in wholesale, cemented its reputation as a corps d’élite, and played the greatest and most decisive ever battlefield role by Canadian troops.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King casts his ballot during the 1942 conscription plebiscite. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C022001]

Prime Minister Mackenzie King casts his ballot during the 1942 conscription plebiscite.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C022001

5. The Conscription Plebiscite, 1942

The conscription crisis of the Great War had bitterly divided French and English Canadians. Now with the Second World War underway and with Germany and Japan winning as 1942 began, many in Canada began demanding that compulsory overseas service be implemented, although both Liberals and Conservatives had promised the nation before the war that there would be no conscription. The army had not yet been committed to action, other than in the disastrous Hong Kong affair in 1941, but that didn’t matter to conscription’s proponents. Instead of yielding, Prime Minister Mackenzie King called a (non-binding) plebiscite, but the pro-conscription campaign in Quebec, the one place the vote truly mattered, was desultory. The result was predictable: English Canadians strongly in favour, francophones massively opposed to overseas conscription. The Liberal government teetered, but the wily King escaped with his famous phrase, “not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary.” Not until late 1944 was it finally deemed necessary and even then only 16,000 conscripts went overseas.

In Italy, a Canadian soldier uses binoculars to scan the battlefield while others wait behind a partial wall, December 1943. [PHOTO: FREDERICK G. WHITCOMBE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA136332]

In Italy, a Canadian soldier uses binoculars to scan the battlefield while others wait behind a partial wall, December 1943.
PHOTO: FREDERICK G. WHITCOMBE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA136332

6. First Canadian Army, 1942

Created in April 1942, the First Canadian Army, commanded by General Andrew G.L. McNaughton, was the largest Canadian field formation of all time. Encompassing I and II Canadian Corps, comprising three infantry and two armoured divisions, as well as two additional armoured brigades, the Army was a powerful force. But it did not fight together until late in the war, initially 1st Canadian Infantry Division and 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade and later 5th Canadian Armoured Div. and the I Canadian Corps headquarters, deploying to the Italian campaign and a succession of costly, wearing battles at Ortona and the Hitler and Gothic Lines. II Canadian Corps fought in Normandy and on the Scheldt, suffering heavy casualties as it pressed eastward on the long left flank of the Allied advance. The two corps reunited in the Netherlands in April 1945 and, now led by Gen. Harry Crerar, First Canadian Army played a major role in overcoming the stubborn resistance of the Nazis. Described by some as “the best little army ever,” the Canadian formation weathered reinforcement problems and difficulties with Ottawa and with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to earn its high reputation.

Joyful Dutch citizens reach out for a Canadian soldier during liberation celebrations, May 1945. [PHOTO:  ALEXANDER STIRTON, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA134376]

Joyful Dutch citizens reach out for a Canadian soldier during liberation celebrations, May 1945.
PHOTO: ALEXANDER STIRTON, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA134376

7. Liberation of the Netherlands, 1945

It is a great privilege to liberate a nation from cruel tyranny, and Canada may justly claim credit for freeing the Netherlands in 1945. Canadian troops, along with British and American forces, had been on Dutch territory from the autumn of 1944, but the great cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and smaller centres like Groningen and Apeldoorn had remained under Nazi control. The Dutch had been deliberately starved during the terrible “hunger winter” of 1944-45, their people brutalized by the Gestapo, while the Allies concentrated on battling Hitler’s still-fierce legions in the Rhineland. But by the beginning of April, First Canadian Army turned its attention north, and took Arnhem, Apeldoorn and Groningen, the fighting frequently hard. On April 28, the Germans—fearing that their leaders would be executed as war criminals—agreed to permit food convoys to cross the front lines and bombers to airdrop supplies to the Dutch. On May 5, with Hitler a suicide in his Berlin bunker, the Wehrmacht surrendered to Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes, commanding I Canadian Corps. For the Dutch, the sight of Canadian columns moving down their roads and Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft overhead was like a gift from God. Food, freedom and peace at last.

Following a night patrol in Korea, Private Heath Matthews of 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment awaits medical attention outside a regimental aid post, June 1952. Authorized by Moscow with Communist China concurrence, the Korean War led to rearmament in the West. [PHOTO: PAUL TOMELIN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA128850]

Following a night patrol in Korea, Private Heath Matthews of 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment awaits medical attention outside a regimental aid post, June 1952. Authorized by Moscow with Communist China concurrence, the Korean War led to rearmament in the West.
PHOTO: PAUL TOMELIN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA128850

8. The Cold War, Mid- to late-20th century

It started with the defection of a cipher clerk from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa in September 1945 and ended with the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War lasted more than 45 years and brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the tension caused by the Soviets’ downing of a Korean airliner in 1983. For Canada, the Cold War obliged the nation to deepen its military and economic ties with the United States; to join NATO and station troops and fighter jets abroad in “peacetime” and to devote the Royal Canadian Navy’s resources to anti-submarine warfare; to dispatch soldiers, sailors and airmen to the Korean War; and to create a military that reached 120,000 regulars and cost an astonishing seven per cent of GDP in the peak rearmament years of the 1950s. Canada and the Western democracies won the Cold War, and the world would surely have been a very different place if they had not triumphed.

Lester B. Pearson displays his Nobel Peace Prize, December 1956. [PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS]

Lester B. Pearson displays his Nobel Peace Prize, December 1956.
PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

9. Suez Crisis, 1956

Canada had participated in a small way in United Nations peacekeeping operations before the Suez Crisis of 1956; after it, in the public’s mind, UN peacekeeping became the Canadian specialty. The crisis began with a surprise Israeli assault on Egyptian forces in the Sinai desert, and a pre-arranged intervention by Britain and France to “protect” the Suez Canal, just nationalized by Cairo. London and Paris had not counted on the global outrage that greeted their attempt to topple Egypt’s President Nasser, not least from Moscow that threatened nuclear war, and from Washington, in the midst of an election, that turned off the financial taps. Even official Canada was horrified, but Lester B. Pearson, the External Affairs minister, tried to rescue Canada’s mother countries from their folly. His suggestion of a United Nations Emergency Force to be interposed between the combatants—and to allow the Anglo-French invaders to depart Egypt—was quickly seized on in New York. But to Pearson’s shock, Cairo saw Canada as too British and tried to block its participation in UNEF. It took extraordinary efforts to secure Canadian logistics troops a place, but the public enthusiasm for peacekeeping blossomed when Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. It remains undimmed to this day.

The new Canadian flag is raised in 1965 at a naval establishment. The same decade saw the unification of the forces which introduced a common uniform and common rank structure. [PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE]

The new Canadian flag is raised in 1965 at a naval establishment. The same decade saw the unification of the forces which introduced a common uniform and common rank structure.
PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE

10. Unification of the Forces, 1968

Paul Hellyer became defence minister in 1963, determined to rationalize the Canadian military which, with three services, had an unwieldy structure and no war plans in common. The ambitious minister’s first stage was integration, the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff to manage new functional commands that operated across service lines and reduced triplication. There were difficulties aplenty, but integration was a much needed forward step. Emboldened, Hellyer pressed ahead, in November 1966 introducing a measure to unify the services by doing away with the Army, the RCN, and the RCAF and replacing them with the Canadian Forces—wearing a common uniform and with a common rank structure. The uproar was intense, senior officers resigning in wholesale. Hellyer persisted, his bill becoming law on Feb. 1, 1968, but his hope of becoming prime minister disappeared in the clamour. Many of Hellyer’s changes were gradually accepted, but the CF soon began a slow progress back towards the status quo ante.

A newsboy hits the streets in Ottawa, October 1970. [PHOTO: PETER BREGG, THE CANADIAN PRESS]

A newsboy hits the streets in Ottawa, October 1970.
PHOTO: PETER BREGG, THE CANADIAN PRESS

11. The October Crisis, 1970

Separatist elements in Quebec had engaged in sporadic terrorist acts against federal installations through the 1960s. In October 1970, however, cells of Le Front de Libération du Québec kidnapped James Cross, the British trade commissioner in Montreal, and Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s minister of labour. Ottawa responded by putting thousands of troops on the streets of Ottawa and across Quebec in an attempt to calm public tension. Patrolling, manning checkpoints, using their intelligence resources, the troops did their job extremely well in a growing atmosphere of revolutionary fervour, but on Oct. 16, by agreement between Ottawa and Quebec City, a grim-faced Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act to stop “an apprehended insurrection.” Hundreds of arrests followed, as did the brutal murder of Laporte. Not until the beginning of December was Cross found and freed, the FLQ members who had kidnapped him inexplicably permitted safe passage to Cuba. Laporte’s murderers were tried and jailed. Trudeau initially was hailed for his tough response; over time, however, much of the public concluded he had overreacted.

Canadian soldiers on patrol in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, 2006. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY, LEGION MAGAZINE]

Canadian soldiers on patrol in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, 2006.
PHOTO: ADAM DAY, LEGION MAGAZINE

12. Kandahar, 2006

After the 9-11 al-Qaida attacks on the United States, Canada deployed a naval task group, special forces, and infantry to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan against the Islamist Taliban regime. Beginning in 2003, the Canadian Forces took on a major role in the NATO-based International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), initially in Kabul but from early 2006 in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. Not expecting heavy combat, the Canadian battle groups found themselves fighting a succession of critical battles against insurgent forces in the countryside around Kandahar, the CF’s first extensive combat since the Korean War. The fighting in operations like Medusa in the second half of 2006 led to the deployment of artillery, tanks, and helicopters, and ISAF and U.S. air resources. Most of the Canadian Forces’ 158 fatalities in Afghanistan were suffered in the gruelling fighting between 2006 and 2010 with 37 of them, including a Canadian diplomat, in 2006. Although the battle groups were undermanned, they defeated the enemy in major confrontations and almost alone held Kandahar until ISAF and the U.S. finally provided more troops for the province in 2009.

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