War and peace: Remembering what defines Canada as a nation

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Certain political and industrial interests are trying to redefine Canada as a nation shaped by war.

What defines Canada is our status as a nation state. Our status evolved over time, peacefully, as we shed colonial ties to Britain and progressively achieved a greater degree of independence. Our independence is not absolute -- the Queen is our sovereign.

Our gradual transition to nation state status stands in contrast to the path taken by our neighbour to the south. Rather than making a unilateral declaration of independence, we chose to work things out with the colonizing power. 

Arguably, this has been a good, albeit imperfect, path. It has been the one most often followed as new nation states have separated from their former colonial masters. While wars of independence can be glorified, they come at a cost in terms of bloodshed and disruption of life. 

Absolute independence is an absurdity, ever more so in this globalized world of rapid travel and communications. Responsible nation states recognize and value interdependence with each other. This is formalized in many ways -- Canada is a member of the Commonwealth, of La Francophonie, of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and so forth.

Canada -- as one of the first countries to make a peaceful transition to nationhood -- provided a model for others to follow. This defines us as a nation. We have also been fortunate not to have been invaded by another country seeking to expand its territorial control.

Canada also stands out for our recognition that as a member of a broader community of nations, we may need to help other nations when their own independence is at risk -- as in the First and Second World Wars. We should be proud that we joined these fights relatively early and resisted the temptation of isolationism. We rightly honour the memory of Canadians who gave their lives so others could be free. Our willingness to stand up for the rights of people -- both in Canada and in other nation states -- is another big part of what defines us as a nation state. We have been far from perfect in this regard and have much work left to do, particularly when it comes to our Aboriginal sisters and brothers.

It is disturbing and dangerous when not-so-subtle efforts are made to shift the narrative to define Canada as a nation shaped by war rather than a nation shaped primarily by peace. This distorts our approach to aiding others who find themselves in situations of conflict. In particular, it can create a trap of unilateral provision of military aid to those who seek to identify themselves as separate, as different, as worthy of unique and independent status. A different approach was proposed in November 1956 by Lester Pearson (then Minister of External Affairs) to address the Suez Canal conflict between Israel and Egypt. The resultant United Nations multinational peacekeeping force, led by Canadian general "Tommy" Burns, was the first of many in which Canadian troops have participated (including in Bosnia, Cyprus, East Timor, Haiti, Iraq and Sudan).

Decisions about military intervention and provision of military aid are complex. We should be cautioned by the history of our neighbour to the south. It has too often given weapons and aid to dangerous and irresponsible foreign parties -- sometimes causing more widespread harm.

History can indeed be viewed as a series of endless and repeated wars. After my country, my tribe, my religion has "won" a battle, we're attacked by the enemy; maybe they win, so we fight again -- and again -- and again. Following the horrors of two 20th-century world wars, the trend has been for nation states to split apart, rather than seeking to expand their territory through political or military conquest. But little comfort can be taken in the great number of internal conflicts that continue.

An alternative view of history -- a different narrative -- is that the gradual evolution of nation states is providing democratic and peaceful means for peoples to resolve their disputes. This includes recognition and celebration of the diversity of lifestyles, cultures, ethnicities, religions, and political views. While nation states and their boundaries are imperfect, this more hopeful view suggests that human values, freedom, and quality of life can be gradually enhanced over time. 

Neither war nor peace is inevitable. Canada has a responsibility to help others and make a contribution to the well-being of a globally interdependent collection of nation states. 

Let us remember those who fought and what they fought for. In honouring our fallen veterans, we should strengthen our resolve to work together with all nations for peace, freedom and democracy.

Ole Hendrickson is a forest ecologist and current president of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Tjololo Photo/flickr

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