‘Warrior nation’ or ‘peacekeeper’: Canada’s dilemmas

Two Canadian soldiers during a 2011 NATO exercise in Ukraine. U.S. Army Europe/Flickr

Since Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister in 2015, he has been striving to bring Canada back to its traditional identity of peacekeeper, following a decade of Conservative rule. In the debates surrounding foreign affairs, two myths are being confronted: Canada as a ‘fair-minded and determined peace builder’ versus a ‘warrior nation’. Canada has been built through war and through the memory of its wars, and its meaning is prone to bitter debates. Canada’s past and present military interventions throughout the world can be seen as battlefields in a struggle to define Canada.

Canada as ‘citizen of the world’

Conflicting perceptions of war are at the core of the constant process of reconstruction of Canadian nationalism. Canada’s role in the world and its choice to intervene or not in military conflicts depend on this reconstruction.

For nine years the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, prime minister from 2006 to 2015, strove to turn Canada into a ‘warrior nation’, made out of manifest military heroism, all through the 20th century, in support of its allies (British, then Americans) and in the fight for freedom. The Conservatives see Canada as a North American nation, but as far as they are concerned it is vitally important to rekindle the meaning of the Canadian nation as a distinct political community.

For their part, the Liberals have traditionally defined Canada as a member of the international community and, moreover, as a flag-bearer for universalism, which reaches beyond the nation-state.

Since Trudeau came to power in 2015, he has worked to redefine Canadian nationalism. Following the very core of the Liberal party’s tradition, Trudeau is thus reasserting a vision of the international identity of Canada that turns this country into a ‘a fair-minded and determined peace builder’. Wishing to appear in the role of peacekeeper and of mediator, the Canada of the Liberals has been described as a ‘citizen of the world’, or even a ‘post-modern’ nation that cares more about world peace than about its national sovereignty.

The Iraq War as revealer

This ideological opposition between Liberals and Conservatives has been manifest in conflicting positions concerning the international conflicts of recent years. In 2003, Jean Chrétien, the Liberal Prime Minister, refused to back the American intervention against the regime of Saddam Hussein, citing the Canadian duty to work within UN-style multilateralism. Stephen Harper, then leader of the opposition, criticised that choice: ‘his’ Canada ought to support its allies against terrorism.

Above all, Harper attacked the Liberals for their ‘moral relativism’ and their inability to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘evil’: this is the first expression of a typically Canadian neo-conservatism that guided Harper during his years in power, as shown notably in the Canadian participation in the bombings led by the coalition against the Islamic State in November 2014.

Once returned to power, the Liberals put an end to it in 2016, opting for training missions and humanitarian aid, which they asserted were more in tune with the Canadian identity.

Two visions of history

Two visions of Canadian history and identity are thus in conflict. The Conservatives have invested time and money promoting their version of Canadian history, in particular during the bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812, which was remade into a symbol of Canadian unity – between the French-speaking, English-speaking and Amerindian communities – and martial virtues, in a battle for national sovereignty. This new myth of the military birth of Canada was meant to repudiate liberal nationalism, which also found its first expression in the creation of a myth of 1812, this one constructed for the centenary of that war.

Between 1911 and 1914, an organization led by William Lyon Mackenzie King, the future prime minister and founder of modern Canadian liberalism, endeavoured to rewrite the history of the War of 1812, not as a conflict between Americans and British (the Canadians included) but as the beginning of a century of peace between peoples sharing a common identity. According to King, that peace was due to the application of reason to international relations, by means of arbitration.

Its commemoration would serve as an example for peoples throughout the world: it was possible to maintain peace beyond diversity and above national frontiers by the institutionalization of international law. In the mind of King and the Liberals of the time, Canada itself was an example of peace within diversity, for it united two populations – English and French – into one and the same nation-state.

A mediator role

Four decades later, one of King’s heirs, future Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson, was to give international liberalism its most powerful symbol by contributing to the creation of the United Nations’ security forces, known as the Blue Helmets. In 1956, Pearson wanted above all to preserve the Atlantic Alliance, essential for the fight against communism and put under heavy stress by the Suez crisis, but he was also striving to strengthen the authority of the UN by emphasizing the ‘international interest’ above the national interests at stake.

Pearson’s action (and the myth that followed) was part of a strong ‘antinationalist’ current typical of Canadian liberalism: peace among nations required, at the very least, rising above national divisions. Pearson won the Nobel price in 1957, thus establishing the meaning of his actions for generations of Canadians: they accepted the myth of impartial intervention aimed at fending off imperialist aggression.

Henceforth, Canadians would link their identity with this mediator role, distinguishing themselves from the United States and its militaristic image. The myth of the peacekeeper still keeps its hold over the Canadian psyche, as witness the Liberals’ discourse under Justin Trudeau.

This article was originally published in French