By NORMAN HILLMER
Late on an August evening in 1939, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was contemplating a peaceful night’s sleep. Before going to bed, he turned on the radio. The international news had been worrying, and King knew that it had profound implications for a country so closely linked to Great Britain and its empire.
What the prime minister heard was surprising. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, natural adversaries, had signed an agreement not to go to war against one another. The infamous Nazi-Soviet pact cleared the way for Hitler’s attack on Poland a week later.
Responding to Hitler’s aggression against Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and the Second World War in Europe began. Canada entered the conflict on September 10, after King received the nearly unanimous approval of Parliament.
Canadians made their own choice in September 1939, but they would not have gone to war if Great Britain had not done so first. Three quarters of a century after the colonies of British North America had become the nation of Canada, the affection for and ties to the mother country remained strong. Fully half of the Canadian people were of British stock; English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish immigrants populated Canada’s vast lands in the millions. Anglo-Canadian cultural and economic links were a vital part of Canadian society and prosperity. The Canadian military patterned itself on the British forces.
Canadians also knew, instinctively, that their British world offset the potent influences coming from the United States, Canada’s close neighbour and friend, but also its rival. King proudly called Canada the Britain of the West. If Canada ever lost its trans-Atlantic associations, he worried, the country would amount to little more than another state of the United States.
The importance of the British connection to Canadians was vividly demonstrated by the rapturous welcome given King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when they visited Canada in the late spring of 1939.
The royal tour began in Quebec City where 60,000 people assembled on the Plains of Abraham overlooking the St. Lawrence River, and thousands of children sang Dieu sauve le roi and O Canada. The King and Queen’s distinctive silver and blue train took them on from there to Trois-Rivières. They stayed only 15 minutes, but a crowd of 80,000 applauded in wave after wave.
Then they came to Montreal. A million spectators lined the route into the city. Children dressed in the red, white and blue of the British flag, and chants of Vive le roi and Vive la reine rose up. After a lavish dinner, presided over by Mayor Camillien Houde, the royal couple stepped out onto a floodlit balcony over Dominion Square, where 100,000 people waited. There were loud cheers, and a sudden silence before the multitude broke out in song with an emotional God Save the King.
The reverence shown the King and Queen in Quebec was good news to Prime Minister King. He kept a close watch on the province, the home of a substantial French-speaking population that was traditionally suspicious of allegiances and commitments outside of Canada’s shores. A good part of King’s parliamentary support was from Quebec, and his closest political ally was Ernest Lapointe, the francophone minister of justice.
From the time when he first became prime minister in 1921, King set out to assure Canadians and Quebecers that the country’s future would be determined by them alone. King’s Canada signed its own treaties, built a professional foreign affairs department, and established diplomatic relations with the United States, France and Japan.
Yet King had also promised the British privately that Canada would be at their side if they were again threatened, as they had been in the First World War. When that moment came, it was Lapointe who told Parliament and Canadians that the ties to Britain were too powerful to ignore.
From 1939 to 1945, Canada contributed an armed force of over a million men and women to the allied cause in the Second World War, accompanied by impressive contributions of money, munitions and food. Yet the war that took hundreds of thousands of Canadians overseas to protect Britain increased the distance between the two countries.
Although Canadians did not always realize it, they had been building an independent Canada and an independent foreign policy. The country emerged from the conflict confident, unified, economically strong and prepared to take on international responsibility. The British were, meanwhile, weaker, and noticeably so.
After the Second World War, Canada’s British world slowly faded away. Canadians acquired their own citizenship, flag and constitution, and began to think of themselves as a modern and progressive people far from their historic roots.
Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University. Readers can find an account of Canada’s ties to Britain in Norman Hillmer and J. L. Granatstein, Empire to Umpire: Canada and the World into the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2007).
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