March 2013 Commentary

Once a Colony

by J. L. Granatstein

We all know that Canada lives in a dangerous world--famines, climate change, war and slaughter, intractable problems in the Middle East, and dangerous tensions in the South China Sea. And yet we have no national strategy to help us determine where we gather our resources and how and when to use them. We surely need something better than adhockery to plan our responses to the challenges  we face.

That something ought to be a national security strategy, an effort to take the government's policy, the "what", and then apply the "how", the high-level plan to defend Canadian National Interests, acknowledge our values, assign strategic objectives that support achieving our policy goals, set priorities, allocate resources, and assign strategic responsibilities. I accept this definition which was presented by Hudson on the Hill, a columnist  in the magazine Frontline Defence. The difficulty is that the Harper government, cutting defence budgets and delaying promised equipment purchases, clearly has no intention of committing itself to anything on paper for the foreseeable future.

But there are deeper reasons too, reasons that explain why all Canadian governments are leery of thinking strategically. Despite evidence to the contrary, most Canadians still believe that they live in a fireproof house with the inflammable materials continents away. If trouble threatens, moreover, the Americans will protect us because, we think, their interests are really the same as ours. Even anti-American Canadians believe this.

Then there is the Mike Pearson syndrome. As the inventor of peacekeeping, the Nobel Prize-winning Pearson gave Canada its self-image as the honest broker par excellence, the impartial middleman born with a blue beret fixed on its curly hair. This was never true, but that is almost immaterial. Canadians believe it, and if you think that Canada's "traditional" role is as a peacekeeper, then there is no need for a national security strategy. Simply wait for the United Nations to request troops.

But the real reason why Canada lacks a security strategy goes deeper into history. Canada began its existence as a colony--of France, then Britain, and since 1940 strategically of the United States. We have always adjusted to the strategy followed by the metropole, and we deployed our troops and our resources to serve the interests of the great powers to which we owed allegiance. Of course, British or American national interests were close to ours. If Hitler had won the Second World War, if Stalin had conquered the democracies, Canada's very existence would have been in doubt. That we worked in a coalition and that our side prevailed was critical to our survival as a nation.

In effect, Canada was a contributor to the strategy of others, never an independent agent. We did not fight wars on our own, but only as a (junior) member of an alliance. We had very little say in shaping the Allied strategy in the world wars, and little say, for example, in determining over the last decade how the war in Afghanistan would be conducted.

There is no point in bemoaning this. Canada is not a great power shaping its independent grand strategy and it never will be. Our geography, our location  on the northern route to the American heartland, has determined our fate. The best to hope for, as someone said in 1971 on Peter Gzowski's long gone  morning radio show on the CBC, is that we can be "as Canadian as possible in the circumstances."

But this does not mean that we should not consider what we can do. Our planning must affirm that Canada is a Western nation with core Western values. We need to recognize that we will and must depend on the United States for our security for the foreseeable future. We must protect our seaborne commerce in cooperation with our allies, and we must look increasingly to the Pacific. We need to watch over our territory as climate change and natural disasters increase the pressures on us. Our first aim must always be to protect our own people and their welfare; the next is to be prepared to meet non-military challenges with the resources of the state. And we must be able to offer aid to the world when disasters such as tsunamis strike.

This no grand strategy, but it would be a realistic step toward a national plan. And to achieve such goals demands that government consider with a very clear eye how much of a military force and what kinds of equipment Canada needs. A stock of blue berets will not be enough for the rest of the 21st Century.

J.L. Granatstein is a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

No events are scheduled at this time.


Global Times: BRICS summit displays the potential of a new future

by Editorial Staff (feat. Swaran Singh), WSFA 12, June 24, 2022

Oil's Dive Won't Bring Any Immediate Relief on Inflation

by Alex Longley, Elizabeth low, and Barbara Powell (feat. Amrita Sen), BNNBloomberg, June 24, 2022

China To Tout Its Governance Model At BRICS Summit

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), The Asean Post, June 23, 2022

Soutien aux victimes d’inconduites sexuelles dans l’armée

by Rude Dejardins (feat. Charlotte Duval-Lantoine), ICI Radio Canada, June 23, 2022

Defence: $4.9 billion for radars against Russian bombs

by Editorial Staff (feat. Rob Huebert), Archynews, June 23, 2022

The Hans Island “Peace” Agreement between Canada, Denmark, and Greenland

by Elin Hofverberg (feat. Natalie Loukavecha), Library of Congress, June 22, 2022

What the future holds for western Canadian oil producers

by Gabriel Friedman (feat. Kevin Birn), Beaumont News, June 22, 2022

At BRICS summit, China sets stage to tout its governance model

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), Aljazeera, June 22, 2022

Crude oil price: there are no changes to the fundamentals

by Faith Maina (feat. Amrita Sen), Invezz, June 22, 2022

Few details as Liberals promise billions to upgrade North American defences

by Lee Berthiaume (feat. Andrea Charron), National Newswatch, June 20, 2022

Defence Minister Anita Anand to make announcement on continental defence

by Steven Chase (feat. Rob Huebert), The Globe and Mail, June 19, 2022

Table pancanadienne des politiques

by Alain Gravel (feat. Jean-Christophe Boucher), ICI Radio Canada, June 18, 2022

Russia Ukraine conflict

by Gloria Macarenko (feat. Colin Robertson), CBC Radio One, June 17, 2022

New privacy Bill to introduce rules for personal data, AI use

by Shaye Ganam (feat. Tom Keenan), 680 CHED, June 17, 2022


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 1800, 150–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3H9


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


© 2002-2022 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email