Manitoba History: Book Review: Lara Campbell, Michael Dawson, and Catherine Gidney, eds., Worth Fighting For: Canada’s Tradition of War Resistance from 1812 to the War on Terror.

by John Derksen
Menno Simons College

Number 82, Fall 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Lara Campbell, Michael Dawson, and Catherine Gidney, eds., Worth Fighting For: Canada’s Tradition of War Resistance from 1812 to the War on Terror. Toronto: Between the Lines Books, 2015, 313 pages. ISBN 978-1-77113-179-7, $34.95 (paperback)

This is a valuable book. In light of the recent Canadian government’s emphasis on Canada’s military accomplishments since the War of 1812, this edited book offers another perspective. Spanning 200 years, from the War of 1812 to the current War on Terror, the book contains 17 chapters that tell of war resistance in Canada. According to the editors, a wide ranging, multi-faceted, and complex anti-war tradition has persisted in Canada from the late 1700s to today. Besides pacifist church groups and anti-conscription protests in the First and Second World Wars, this tradition includes women, workers, farmers, teachers, students, politicians, and others who have challenged wars both on North American soil and overseas. The editors’ purpose is to “recalibrate our understanding of Canadian history by documenting Canada’s long tradition of war resistance,” for how we understand our history has “real consequences” for what we teach and how we behave (p. 2).

The first two chapters discuss pacifists in Upper Canada before Confederation. Jonathan Seiling, and Ross Fair after him, argue that from 1793 to 1867, religious groups (mainly Quakers, Mennonites, and Tunkers [Brethren in Christ]) successfully argued their objection to war despite a hostile colonial militia environment, stalemated governments, decades of exemption penalties, and great social and financial cost. Their advocacy gained lasting rights and “shaped the legal foundations of modern recognition of conscientious objection” in Canada (p. 15).

Chapters 3 to 6 analyze Canada’s overseas wars in South Africa’s Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and in the First World War, and their legacies. Amy Shaw argues that in the Anglo-Boer War, the peace movement was almost paralyzed. War resisters included French-Canadians, western farmers, Maritime Catholics, and church ministers. But with differing views of nationalism, imperialism, and English-French relations, “almost no group, religious or political, maintained a united front” (p. 47). According to Geoff Keelan, Canada’s “most vocal, influential, and consistent” war dissenter during the First World War was the French-Canadian journalist, politician, and nationalist, Henri Bourassa (p. 52). His dissent was both political and religious. Politically, Bourassa criticized British imperialism and the war’s economic and social costs. At a deeper level, his Ultramontane Catholic loyalty infused his writing with moral certainty and undergirded his defence of Catholic Quebec. David Tough challenges the traditional notion that the legacy of the war was democracy in Canada. Rather, it was the war resistance whose legacy was democracy. The mobilization of women, farmers, workers, and French Canadians against conscription led to women’s right to vote; to the birth of third political parties, strikes and other forms of agitation; and to the introduction of income taxes. Cynthia Commachio analyzes “the controversy over [compulsory] school-based cadet training for English-Canadian boys” in Ontario after the First World War (p. 79). Cadet campaigns rose in the 1920s, declined in the 1930s, rose again during the Second World War, and then ended in 1947. While the debate raised issues of gender and what it meant to be a male in the modern world, peace organizations denounced “‘the education of children for war’ as the basis of militarism, the root cause of all conflict” (p. 81).

Chapters 7 and 8 discuss religious conscientious objection during the Second World War. Conrad Stoesz notes that while all conscientious objectors (COs) faced a degree of hostility from government officials, mobilization boards, and mainstream society, those from the historic peace churches found it easier to register as COs than those from other groups. Most accepted alternative service for the government such as agriculture and reforestation. This benefitted Canada’s essential industries and, in the end, broadened the COs’ world views. Linda Ambrose recounts the case of J. E. Purdie, a non-pacifist Pentecostal minister who worked tirelessly to win military exemption for his Bible College students. His insistence that church ministry was more important, that military chaplaincy could replace combat, and that Pentecostals deserved treatment equal to other denominations, illustrates that the motivations of religious war resisters were often complex.

Chapters 9 to 15 discuss Canadian Cold War resistance to nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War. Ian McKay follows the life of Margaret Ells Russell, a Canadian who led the “Women Strike for Peace” (WSP) movement in Washington, D.C. from 1961 to 1965. In communication with international women’s organizations, WSP embodied the activism of women against war, nuclear weapons, and the communist scare. The 1963 World Congress of Women in Moscow brought Russell beyond liberal internationalism to “critical, compassionate identification with the women of Vietnam,” and convinced her that the United States needed to get out of Vietnam (p. 129). Marie Hammond-Callaghan discusses Canada’s Voice of Women (VOW). The VOW was born among women concerned about nuclear weapons, and by 1961 its membership reached 5000.Global alliances and the more radical Quebec wing (La Voix des femmes) led VOW in 1962 to embrace progressive, feminist, and New Left positions. VOW challenged the government on nuclear weapons and the Cold War binary paradigm, and in the process challenged gender roles in Canada. Braden Hutchinson examines another anti-war front that involved VOW and others: war toy activism during the 1960s and 1970s. Although figures are unavailable on how much the campaign affected the sale of war toys, the anti-war toy campaign sparked debate not only on nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and peace; but also on definitions of masculinity, and perspectives in child development and psychology.

Bruce Douville analyzes two Canadian peace protests at La Macaza, Quebec in June and September 1964 “to protest Canada’s decision to allow American nuclear weapons on Canadian soil” (p. 161). Although the nuclear weapons remained until 1972, the protests were significant for several reasons: for the first time Canadian peace activists used large-scale civil disobedience; the protests brought together a broad cross-section of activists; activist strategy became more assertive; awareness moved beyond single issues to interconnected social concerns; and youth “critique of state power” became more radical (p. 170). Jessica Squires shows how, from 1966 to 1973, the scattered anti-draft movement developed into a robust, efficient movement with expertise in immigration issues, the media, public opinion, job and housing information, and “legal consequences of resisting the draft or deserting the military” (p. 184). It influenced government immigration policy and “Canada’s self-image as a peacekeeping nation” (p. 184). Tarah Brookfield tells of Claire Culhane, a grandmother who, while serving in a Vietnamese clinic, learned that Canada, as “the butcher’s helper,” was selling military hardware to the United States while CIDA struck a “humanitarian posture.” For years she pressed government ministers “to reclaim Canada’s neutrality and help end the war.” Speeches, letters to government, protests in Parliament, and hunger fasts on Parliament Hill made Culhane “the most recognizable anti-war figure of the era” (p. 188). Rose Fine-Meyer analyzes the anti-war influence of Toronto teachers. The 1960s “peace movements, protests against the Vietnam War, ... women’s movement, labour union activism,” and the influence of social history all shaped the teaching content of many teachers into the 1980s (p. 201). Those influenced by the Vietnam War challenged traditional war narratives, as teachers must still do, for “a good teacher is a revolutionary” (p.201).

The last two chapters concern the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike what happened to Vietnam War resisters, not one Iraq War resister received refugee status. Luke Stewart seeks to correct the “inaccurate arguments” articulated by government ministers (p. 217). The refugee applicants’ major argument was that according to the UN Charter, the Iraq War was illegal. Further, the punishment of war deserters, when the global community considers the war illegal, amounts to persecution, and soldiers who enlisted in a war may later object as their knowledge about the war’s legality evolves. Therefore, Stewart says, “the war resisters are legitimate refugees and conscientious objectors” (p. 226). Michael Dawson and Catherine Gidney analyze the 2009 controversy over Canada’s national anthem. One New Brunswick school principal, known for his peace activism, played the anthem once a month rather than daily. A wave of patriotic indignation led to his resignation, revision of the New Brunswick Education Act, heated rhetoric in Parliament, and a flurry of media debate. For many, “singing of the anthem” was linked to “support and respect for the troops” in Afghanistan (p. 239). The authors conclude that those who challenge popular “notions of Canadian patriotism” face very real consequences, such as public shaming and physical intimidation (p. 229).

A major strength of this book is its coverage of 200 years of anti-war sentiments, which makes clear that war resistance in Canada has a long history and deep roots. The many angles from which the authors write — with analysis from religious, gender, political, economic, social, and personal perspectives — demonstrate that war-resistance was also multi-faceted.

All the chapters are brief and readable, useful for both scholars and lay readers. Many chapters helpfully locate their story or analysis in historical and political context. Some chapters, such as that on the national anthem controversy, need more historical context. All the chapters end with a helpful, structured conclusion that explains why their subject matter is significant. Sometimes the historical contexts that appear in these conclusions could have appeared earlier in the chapter. There is some unevenness in that some chapters argue a strong thesis while others offer mainly a summary with little argument. In some chapters the authors try to write objectively, while in others the authors’ biases and passion emerge clearly.

Unfortunately, statistics are in short supply. Only four chapters provide statistics on the number of COs in the Second World War, the number of members in VOW, the number of protesters at La Macaza, and the number of American draft dodgers in Canada. It would be good to have an idea of the number of war resisters in pre-Confederation Upper Canada, in the Anglo-Boer War, the First World War, the inter-war years, the Cadet training controversy, the war-toy campaign, the anti-nuclear movement, and against the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars. Further, it would be desirable to place these statistics in context, relative to the larger Canadian population. This would help readers gauge the relative strength of the anti-war movement in each chapter and throughout Canadian society over the years.

The subtitle, “Canada’s Tradition of War Resistance from 1812 to the War on Terror,” is perhaps not quite true to the nature of the book, for the articles, written by separate authors, offer episodes and individual cases of war resistance, rather than a tradition. Thus, continuity is missing; the book is a collection of case studies rather than a study of a tradition or stream. Stronger links from the beginning in 1812 to the end in 2012 would offer a valuable sense of historical continuity. This is important because war resistance is more profound when it is continuous, even in times of peace, than when it is episodic. We need a book with an ongoing narrative to highlight what the title calls a “tradition.”

But no book can do everything, and this one does a lot. It has a broad scope and offers an often overlooked but important perspective. It is well worth reading.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 8 November 2020