Trudeau “unveils most diverse Cabinet in Canada’s history”, was how one media outlet described the new Liberal cabinet. It includes a Muslim woman, four Sikhs, an indigenous woman, two differently abled individuals and an equal number of women and men. Half even refused any reference to God at Wednesday’s swearing in ceremony.
But in one respect there was no diversity at all. Every single person wore a Remembrance Day poppy. Even Justin Trudeau’s young children were made to publicly commemorate Canadians (and allies) who died at war.
As we approach the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month expect politicians of every stripe to praise Canadian military valour. At last year’s Remembrance Day commemoration Stephen Harper suggested that Canada was “forged in the fires of First World War”. The former Prime Minister described “the values for which they fought … Justice and freedom; democracy and the rule of law; human rights and human dignity.”
On Remembrance Day what is it we are supposed to remember? The valour, sacrifice and glory of soldiers — and no more?
What about the victims of Canadian troops? Should we abandon the search for truth and learning from our past on this day that is supposedly devoted to remembering?
Why not a diversity of recollection? An honest accounting of what really happened and why — isn’t that the best way to remember?
For example, World War I had no clear and compelling purpose other than rivalry between up-and-coming Germany and the lead imperial powers of the day, Britain and France. In fact, support for the British Empire was Ottawa’s primary motive in joining the war. As Canada’s Prime Minister Robert Borden saw it, the fight was “to put forth every effort and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure the integrity and maintain the honour of our empire.”
To honour Canada’s diversity, how about this year we remember some of the victims of that empire?
For Africans World War I represented the final chapter in the violent European scramble for their territory. Since the 1880s the European powers had competed to carve up the continent.
Canada was modestly involved in two African theatres of World War I. A handful of Canadian airmen fought in East Africa, including naval air serviceman H. J. Arnold who helped destroy a major German naval vessel, the Königsberg, during the British/Belgian/South African conquest of German East Africa. Commandant of Canada’s Royal Military College from 1909 to 1913, Colonel J.H.V. Crowe commanded an artillery division for famed South African General Jan Christiaan Smuts and later published General Smuts’ Campaign in East Africa.
About one million people died as a direct result of the war in East Africa. Fighting raged for four years with many dying from direct violence and others from the widespread disease and misery it caused. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were conscripted by the colonial authorities to fight both in Africa and Europe.
J.H.V. Crowe was English born, but an individual with deeper roots in Canada, commanded the force that extended Britain’s control over the other side of the continent.
The son of a Québec City MP and grandson of a senator, Sir Charles MacPherson Dobell, commanded an 18,000 man Anglo-French force that captured the Cameroons and Togoland. Gazetted as Inspector General of the West African Frontier Force in 1913, the Royal Military College grad’s force defeated the Germans in fighting that destroyed many villages and left thousands of West Africans dead. Early in the two-year campaign Dobell’s force captured the main centres of Lomé and Douala and he became de factogovernor over large parts of today’s Togo and Cameroon. A telegram from London said “General Dobell should assume Government with full powers in all matters military and civil.”
British officials justified seizing the German colony as a response to the war in Europe, but to a large extent World War I was the outgrowth of intra-imperial competition in Africa and elsewhere. In The Anglo-French “Condominium” in Cameroon, 1914-1916 Lovett Elango points to “the imperialist motives of the campaign”, which saw the two allies clash over their territorial ambition. Elango concludes, “the war merely provided Britain and France a pretext for further colonial conquest and annexation.” After the German defeat the colony was partitioned between the two European colonial powers.
Canada’s massive contribution to World War I propped up British (as well as French, Belgian and South African) rule in Africa. It also added to it. Similar to the Berlin Conference of 1885, which effectively divided Africa among the European powers, after World War I European leaders gathered to redraw Africa’s borders. But this time the Canadian prime minister attended.
World War I reshaped colonial borders in Africa. Germany lost what is now Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and part of Mozambique (German East Africa) as well as Namibia (German West Africa), Cameroon and Togoland. South Africa gained Namibia, Britain gained Tanzania and part of Cameroon, France gained Togo and part of Cameroon while Belgium took Burundi and Rwanda.
The other British Dominions (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) that fought alongside London were compensated with German properties. With no German colonies nearby Ottawa asked the Imperial War Cabinet if it could take possession of the British West Indies as compensation for Canada’s defence of the Empire. London balked.
Ottawa was unsuccessful in securing the British Caribbean partly because the request did not find unanimous domestic support. Prime Minister Borden was of two minds on the issue. From London he dispatched a cable noting, “the responsibilities of governing subject races would probably exercise a broadening influence upon our people as the dominion thus constituted would closely resemble in its problems and its duties the empire as a whole.” But, on the other hand, Borden feared that the Caribbean’s black population might want to vote. He remarked upon “the difficulty of dealing with the coloured population, who would probably be more restless under Canadian law than under British control and would desire and perhaps insist upon representation in Parliament.”
Our racist and colonial past, as well as Canada’s role in exploiting people of colour all over the world, must also be included in our remembrance if we are to build a nation of respect for all people — the essence of real diversity.