Book Review — Polarity, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919

Polarity, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919 by Brock Millman

Polarity, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919 by Brock Millman is an account of Canada’s politics, support, and resistance to the first world war. Millman was a Western undergraduate prior to going on to the University of London and McGill. Before arriving at Western to teach, he taught at the University of Windsor, the University of British Columbia and the Royal Military College. He is the author of a number of articles and books on international relations and its domestic connections 1917-1940.

As an outsider from the south, I find Canadian history interesting and very much lacking in my education. Perhaps with the exception of the War of 1812 and much later the commissioning phase array radar, Canada rarely appears in most history studies in the United States. Later reading about WWI, Canada is given high praise for its efforts in the war. Often thought of as still part of the empire, Canada did become autonomous in 1867. Slightly less than 50 years after its independence Canada is called upon to support the war effort. This too is largely seen as supporting Britain, but Canada was its own entity. Woodrow Wilson was, perhaps, one of the first to internationally recognize this by allowing for a Canadian delegation at Versailles and a separate seat for Canada in the League of Nations. WWI was Canada’s introduction to the world stage as an equal.

Millman examines the internal conflict and politics during the Great War. Just because the American history student hears little about Canada in the period does not mean it was a smooth or necessarily peaceful. Canada had three main groups British Canadians, French Canadians, and New Canadians. Each group had its own feelings towards the war. Unlike the US and the UK where resistance was thinly spread through the population, Canada had concentrated pockets of resistance to the war. Quebec and working class immigrants generally opposed the war.

Canada was strict on enforcement of restricting speech and later enforcing conscription. Compared to the US and the UK, Canada was extremely strict in punishing offenders. There was also the fear of communism working its way into the country with New Canadians (immigrants) taking most of the abuse in that scare. Labor activists and Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W. or wobblies) were seen as the enemy by many. German immigrants and other minorities such as Jews and Catholics were viewed with suspicion. Among the British Canadians, Britain remained mother country although it no longer controlled Canadian politics. Millman examines the many internal conflicts and documents his work extremely well. His examination of internal struggle is an important piece in the forming modern Canada.

I found it interesting that, first, Canada felt the duty to fight even though it was in no real danger from the Central Powers. The US in a similar position resisted fighting the war and was finally dragged into the war to turn the balance of an exhausting war. Secondly, that Canada at the time did not have the nationalist sentiment that others countries had developed. There was a much more regionalization of the country even beyond French Canada. There is an interesting dichotomy in the works. A country that is struggling for its own identity on the world stage and a country that wants to remain loyal to its past. It is interesting that Canada managed both. It fought with the Empire and afterward it earned its place as a country on the world stage.

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