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For King And Empire - 06 Shadows Of The Great War

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For King And Empire

Episode Six

Shadows Of The Great War

The impact of the First World War on the evolution of Canada’s identity is debated by historians. There is general agreement that in the early twentieth century, most English-speaking Canadians saw no conflict between their identity as British subjects and their identities as Canadians. In fact, the British World or British Empire identity was a key part of the Canadian identity. Many Canadians defined their country as the part of North America that owed allegiance to the British Crown. Historian Carl Berger showed that there were relatively few dissenters from this view in English-speaking Canada. In 1914, most English-speaking Canadians had a hybrid imperial-national identity.

Other historians add that Canadian nationalism and belief in independence from the British Empire was strongest in French Canada, whereas imperialism was strongest in English-speaking Canada. These historians focus on Henri Bourassa, who resigned from Wilfred Laurier’s cabinet to protest the decision to send Canadian troops to fight in the South African War. Bourassa’s resignation is widely regarded as involving a clash between imperialism and Canadian nationalism.

Some historians suggest that Canada was already beginning to move toward greater autonomy from Britain well before 1914. They note that Canada’s government established a Department of External Affairs, or de facto foreign ministry, in 1909. However, these historians also stress that the Department worked closely with British diplomats. Historian Oscar Skelton noted that Alexander Galt, a Canadian government official, negotiated treaties with foreign countries such as Spain and France in the 1880s with only the token participation of British diplomats. These negotiations were precedents followed by Canadian diplomats after 1919, when Canada began to conduct its foreign relations without the involvement of British officials. In other words, Canada's gradual move towards independence was already underway before 1914, although this process may have been accelerated by World War I.

While there is a consensus that on the eve of World War I, most English-speaking Canadians had a hybrid imperial-national identity, the effects of the war on Canada’s emergence as a nation are contested. The Canadian media often refer to World War I and, in particular, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, as marking “the birth of a nation.” Some historians consider the First World War to be Canada’s “war of independence.” They argue that the war decreased the extent to which Canadians identified with the British Empire and intensified their sense of being Canadians first and British subjects second. These historians posit two possible mechanisms whereby World War I intensified Canadian nationalism: 1) They suggest that pride in Canada’s accomplishments on the battlefield promoted Canadian patriotism, and, 2) they suggest that the war distanced Canada from Britain in that Canadians reacted to the sheer slaughter on the Western Front by adopting an increasingly anti-British attitude.

Other historians robustly dispute the view that World War I undermined the hybrid imperial-national identity of English-speaking Canada. Phillip Buckner writes that: “The First World War shook but did not destroy this Britannic vision of Canada. It is a myth that Canadians emerged from the war alienated from, and disillusioned with, the imperial connection." He argues that most English-speaking Canadians "continued to believe that Canada was, and should continue to be, a “British” nation and that it should cooperate with the other members of the British family in the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

Still other historians point out that the war’s impact on Canadians’ perception of their place in the world was limited by the simple fact that so many of the Canadian Expeditionary Force soldiers were British-born rather than Canadians. Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci, and Mike Bechthold point out that about half of the CEF members who fought at the famous battle of Vimy Ridge were British immigrants. Moreover, their victory at the ridge involved close cooperation with artillery and other units recruited in the British Isles. Seventy percent of the men who enlisted in the CEF were British immigrants, even though British immigrants were just eleven percent of Canada’s population. Anglo-Saxon Canadians whose ancestors had lived in North America for generations had low enlistment rates similar to those seen in French Canadian communities.

Historian José Igartua argues that the hybrid imperialist-nationalist identity in English Canada collapsed in the 1950s and 1960s, not during or immediately after the First World War. It was in this period that Canada adopted its current flag flag of Canada and began to oppose Britain on substantive foreign policy issues, as it did during the 1956 Suez Crisis.

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Military history of Canada:
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First World War
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