May 2014 Commentary

Other Peoples’ Wars 

by J. L. Granatstein

Canadians seem to be shocked that Canadian citizens are fighting for al-Qaeda and its more radical rival offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. All are Muslims, some converts, but all were apparently radicalized in Calgary or Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal or other Canadian cities and towns. How could this be? How could good Canadians end up serving groups that terrorize civilians and lop the heads off prisoners?

Some historical perspective might suggest that Canadians serving in foreign armies is not new to our times. Many Canadians served in the United States Army during the Civil War, fighting for the Union and against slavery. Estimates are that upwards of 50,000 Canadians enlisted in the Union forces and a few hundreds wore  Confederate gray. Union recruiters operated openly in the Canadas during the war, and many Canadians went south to join up. Even Calixa Lavallee, the composer of ‘O Canada’ served as a Union officer. No one objected strenuously.

A few years later, Bishop Ignace Bourget and the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec raised troops to help defend the Papal States in Rome against Guiseppe Garibaldi’s army that sought the unification of Italy. Some 507 well educated francophones enlisted in the Papal Zouaves, ready to sail to Italy to defend the Vatican’s territory. Not all the Zouaves made it to Rome by the time the struggle ended in 1870, but eight died. Once again there were few complaints, though Protestants were surely annoyed at this ultramontane Catholic fervor.

Then in the ‘dirty thirties’ the Spanish Civil War pitted General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists against the Republican government of Spain. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy supported the Nationalists, and the Soviet Union backed the Republicans. But so did at least 1300 Canadians who volunteered to fight against fascism and went to Spain to serve in what became the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion while another three hundred fought in the Americans’ Abraham Lincoln Battalion.

The government of Mackenzie King tried to stop Canadians from going to Spain, and it passed the Foreign Enlistment Act in April, 1937 to prevent men from signing up for foreign wars. The volunteers went to Spain nonetheless while countless others donated money to the cause. Most of those who went to fight—76 percent, says Michael Petrou’s fine study of the Mac-Paps—were Communist Party of Canada members, and most of those were recent immigrants to the Dominion. The Mac-Paps earned a reputation for political unreliability and combat effectiveness, and at least four hundred of them did not return home. These “premature anti-Fascists” suffered for their political sins in the Second World War and Cold War years.

The Foreign Enlistment Act remained on the books, but it did not stop Canadian Jews from fighting for Israel or raising millions of dollars for its support.  Ben Dunkelman, who had served with distinction with the Queen’s Own Rifles in Northwest Europe, went to Israel in 1948 and led a brigade with great success in the War of Israel’s Independence. Many others did so, including George “Buzz” Beurling, a Royal Canadian Air Force fighter ace and a non-Jew, who joined the Israeli Air Force as a well-paid mercenary. Beurling died in an air crash in Rome en route to the Middle East. Many other Canadian Jews served in the three major Arab-Israeli wars in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Others are believed to serve in the Israeli military to this day, all presumably in violation of Canadian law.

Then there was the Vietnam War. While hard numbers are unavailable, estimates are that as many as 50,000 Canadians served in the American military during that long, bloody struggle. Some enlisted out of the conviction that North Vietnam was an aggressor state, others presumably because of an adventurous spirit that could not be satisfied in the Canadian Forces because of Ottawa’s preference for United Nations peacekeeping. Once again, the law was not applied against those Canadians who fought for the United States.

None of the Civil War, Papal Zouave, Mac-Paps, Israeli wars, or Vietnam war veterans brought jihad home to Canada, a legitimate concern we live with today, although some communists who fought in Spain might have had attitudes inimical to the Canadian capitalist state. Most of the Islamist volunteers, if they survive to return to Canada, will likely settle down to a “normal” life. But so long as ideology, religion, adventurism, and sometimes money still matter, Canadians will likely continue to go off to fight in other peoples’ wars.

Historian J.L. Granatstein is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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