Mike Phipps reviews Stand on Guard for Whom? A people’s History of the Canadian Military, by Yves Engler, published by Black Rose
As Yves Engler explains in the Introduction to this thoughtful book, he has been investigating the question ‘Is Canada a force for good in the world?’ for many years. Given that Canada spends four times as much on its military budget as on other areas of international policy, it logically follows that if Canada is a force for good in the world, then Canada’s armed forces must also be a force for good. Alternatively, if Canadian Forces “have acted to advance the interests of the rich and powerful to the detriment of ordinary people then that premise does not hold.”
History points to the second conclusion. The Canadian Forces’ roots are in a British force that brutally dispossessed and suppressed Canada’s First Nations. Another central function of the militia was to quell labour unrest, for example in 1912, when the militia was called out for over a year during a coal miners’ strike in British Columbia.
Overseas, Canada was involved in wars in Sudan, South Africa, World War I, World War II, Korea, Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq/Syria, as well as UN deployments that ousted elected governments in Haiti and the Congo. These interventions were true to the origins of the Canadian military, which were rooted in colonial exploitation.
During World War II, the military also oversaw internment camps. Over 20,000 Japanese-Canadians were held alongside tens of thousands of others, including hundreds of Communists and Jewish refugees from the Nazis. Abroad, Canadian Forces committed major humanitarian crimes during the war, particularly in the bombing of German civilian infrastructure. Post-war, they fought to protect British rule in Asia.
But it was the Korean War which saw the Canadian Forces transformed from a pre-WW II force of 10,000 to an organisation ten times larger. NATO membership led to a huge hike in military spending: between 1950 and 1958, Canada donated a $1.5 billion ($8 bn today) in military aid to Europe.
Canadian Forces were also used to suppress nationalist dissent in Québec. “The Pierre Trudeau government invoked the War Measures Act, which gave 85,000 regular servicemen special constables powers and allowed the security forces to detain individuals without charge,” notes Engler. “More than 450 people were jailed and a handful of media outlets censored.”
The Canadian military also provided back-up to some of the US’s more dubious military interventions. When 23,000 US troops invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965, a Canadian warship was sent to Santo Domingo, in the words of the Defence Minister, “to stand by in case it is required.”
Canadian Special forces were deployed in Afghanistan in 2001. In 2002, they were part of a raid that killed several civilians, including children, west of Kandahar. A member of the Joint Task Force 2 said he felt his commanders “encouraged” them to commit war crimes in Afghanistan.
Overall, more than 40,000 Canadian troops fought in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014 and Canada spent $20 billion on the military operations and related aid mission there. “Canadian soldiers have repeatedly killed and wounded civilians while on patrol in civilian areas,” reported the New York Times in May 2007.
Special forces were also active in Iraq and Libya. In 2004, it was Canadian special forces that secured the main airport in Haiti from which the elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was kidnapped onto a plane by US Marines and deposited in the Central African Republic.
Chemical and biological weapons were tested in Canada and the government also aided nuclear weapons testing and proliferation. Civilians were often unwitting guinea pigs: in July 1953 US Army planes secretly sprayed 6 kg of zinc calcium sulphide, a carcinogen, on Winnipeg. Eleven years later they dropped the same substance on Medicine Hat, Alberta.
After World War II, the US and Canada exploded more than 30,000 chemical arms on an island off Panama. “In 2001 Ottawa refused Panama’s request for help to clean up 3,000 unexploded Canadian-made mustard-gas shells and at least eight unexploded 500 and 1,000-pound bombs containing phosgene and cyanogen chloride.” Canada itself has more than 100 chemical and biological munitions dumps across the country.
Like all militaries, the ecological footprint of the Canadian Forces is huge, but is not included in the global climate COP negotiations. The government freely admits that the Department of National Defence “represents more than half of the Government of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.” Canada is also the world’s top exporter of uranium, contributing to the many serious health problems associated with depleted uranium munitions.
Despite choosing to emphasise its independence from its far more powerful southern neighbour, the Canadian Forces are in fact profoundly influenced by the US military. Much of its policy is determined by “interoperability” with the US, all while the government talks up the peace-loving nature of Canada. The brutal sanctions enforced against Iraq from the late 1990s on were justified on grounds of “interoperability”, as was the invasion in 2003. This doctrine has led to secret discussions to “fully integrate” the US and Canadian militaries.
The Canadian military is also “a patriarchal, homophobic social force and has been a hot bed of white supremacy.” In 2016 over a quarter of women members reported having been victims of sexual assault at least once since joining the Canadian Forces. The Forces have also failed to recognise a long history of racist enlistment policies – and right wing extremism in its ranks.
The Canadian Forces spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on outreach to children, have a cosy relationship with the press and are uncomfortably close to corporate lobbyists and the arms industry, which itself is heavily subsidised. The Defence Department is Canada’s largest and in 2020 the country ranked 13th in the world’s highest military budgets. Engler argues that the military has a predilection for war, in part to justify its bloated expenditure.
The word “comprehensive” doesn’t begin to describe this book, which contains a colossal amount of information. There’s also material about some of the successes of the anti-war movement. Since the early 1980s, over 100 Canadian cities have endorsed the global Mayors for Peace call to abolish nuclear weapons.
A number of city councils have also agreed to become nuclear weapons-free zones, including Vancouver and Victoria, forcing some US Navy ships to dock outside the city limits. And in Ottawa, the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade, which campaigned against Canada’s largest arms trade show, convinced the city in 1989 to stop hosting weapons fairs on city property.
Reading this book reinforces the sense that anti-war campaigning is not an isolated activity but part of a global movement to demilitarise the planet and find a better way forward for humanity. Yves Engler has done a brilliant job of bringing that vision into focus.
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
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