The Canadian Monarchy

By Evans, James Allan | Contemporary Review, October 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Canadian Monarchy

Evans, James Allan, Contemporary Review

A month after 9/11, as the September 11th, 2001, destruction of the New York World Trade Center is now called, I was in the stacks of the University of Toronto library and found myself face-to-face with a wall of cloth-bound Hansards, the minutes of the Canadian parliament. I pulled out the volume for September 9, 1939. On that day, the House of Commons debated whether or not Canada should enter World War II. Canada had followed Britain into the First World War (or the 'Great War' as it was still called) without any formal declaration, but the Canadians who followed Britain's lead in 1914 thought that the troops would be home for Christmas. They were soon undeceived. Before the armistice on November 11, 1918, Canada, with a population of not quite nine million, would suffer about the same number of casualties as the Americans did in Vietnam. But since the Great War, the Statute of Westminster had intervened, and in 1939, the dominions could exercise the same right as Britain herself to declare war or not.

Memories of the 1914-1918 carnage were still fresh. But the Munich Agreement, which was the last chance for peace, had been a debacle. Hitler had broken its terms a few months after it was signed. Munich is now demonized, and Chamberlain has gone down in history as the Great Appeaser; yet Munich allowed Canada the necessary space to ready its psyche for war. Without Munich's failure, I cannot see how anyone could have roused Canada out of neutralism. Canadians may not have foreseen the death camps or the Holocaust in 1939, but once Hitler shattered the Munich pact they had few illusions about Nazi intentions. Yet Canadian newsstands were full of American publications and almost unanimously they preached neutralism. Some predicted confidently that Canada would opt for neutrality too.

The resolution to declare war was put forward in the House of Commons by the Hon. Ernest Lapointe, the Minister of Justice. The debate was lively, and as I read it more than sixty years later, it seemed to me that the 'nays' had the better of it. If Canada were looking simply at its own advantage, neutrality was the profitable course. The example of the great republic to the south hung in the background. No one dwelt on it, but it was an unvoiced refutation of all Lapointe's arguments. A Gallup poll taken in the United States in September, 1939, showed that 94 per cent of Americans supported neutralism. Lapointe, speaking in English which was not his native tongue, asked the House to imagine what would happen if all the ports in North America were neutral. How would the Atlantic sea lanes stay open? Yet most members must have reflected that the United States was unconcerned. Why, then, should Canada assume the burden of war?

In the end Lapointe made an appeal to pure monarchist sentiment. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had toured Canada a few months before, and as the royal pair left on the Canadian Pacific liner, Empress of Britain, the Queen had said farewell with a blessing. 'Que Dieu benisse le Canada'. Lapointe repeated her words as he closed his speech.

The House rallied. The declaration of war was passed with only one dissenting vote.

The 'Might-Have-Been' school of history is not quite respectable, but it enjoys some underground popularity among serious historians who like to give their imaginations free rein. What would have happened if Alexander the Great had died aged seventy and not before his thirty-fourth birthday? Or if a storm on the English Channel had wrecked William the Conqueror's invasion fleet? Or if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo? Yet no one, as far as I know, has speculated what might have happened if the vote in the Canadian Parliament on 9 September, 1939, had gone the other way. But in the week that followed the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, the course of history hung in the balance, If Britain had made peace with Germany then, the face of Europe would be different now.

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