The only two prime ministers of Canada who have had overseas military experience were John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson. Neither had what would be called distinguished military careers.
Diefenbaker suffered what was most likely a nervous breakdown in England and was discharged before seeing action. Pearson served two years as an orderly in a military hospital in Greece. After transferring to the Royal Flying Corps, he survived a crash during his first flight. Two months later, by his own admission, his career ended “ingloriously” when a bus struck him during a London blackout. The accident did not disable him, but he had an emotional breakdown in the hospital and was invalided home in 1918.
Of the four Canadian prime ministers with just militia experience – John A. Macdonald, Mackenzie Bowell, Alexander Mackenzie and John Abbott – only Macdonald and Bowell were actually posted anywhere. Macdonald saw action during the Rebellions of 1837, and Bowell served in Upper Canada at Amherstburg during the American Civil War and at Prescott amid the Fenian incursions of 1866.
Contrast this with the United States, where 31 of 43 presidents have served. Perhaps the U.S. is not a good comparison, for its size and different political system. Instead, consider Australia, where eight of 27 prime ministers have had some kind of military service.
The time is right for Canada’s military to cultivate its best to run for office, as MPs and for party leadership positions. I can think of some excellent candidates. From the retired pool, former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier and lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie. From the active pool, Lieutenant-General Stuart Beare, Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison and Major-General Mike Day.
Some of these men are still at the top of their game. But if they were to put out feelers in advance with whatever party they were most comfortable with, their eventual retirement could yield a political renaissance.
Perhaps the men and women in uniform have little interest in such a career move. Perhaps there is lingering disappointment at the run by retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie, one of Canada’s most famous modern soldiers. He ran for a seat in Parry Sound-Muskoka in 1997 for the Progressive Conservatives but was bested by incumbent Liberal Andy Mitchell. In politics, everything is timing – the PCs were still tremendously weakened after the devastation of the 1993 election.
Having former military leaders in office isn’t just about ensuring that the military is looked after. Successful men and women in uniform have unique skills that would benefit any party or country. A soldier’s work ethic is unparallelled, a soldier’s sense of social justice is usually finely honed, and a soldier’s ability to weigh important decisions with due gravitas is ingrained. Most officers at this level tend to have advanced degrees in history, political science or other applicable subjects. Add international experience in complex situations and de facto diplomacy to get a blend of leader and statesman.
There are relatively few areas of federal jurisdiction in our decentralized country, but a credible military is one of them. The recent experiences of Afghanistan, Libya, Haiti and beyond have given Canada a moment to leverage its credible military leaders into potential political leaders. The only question is whether they will consider the challenge.
Roderick Benns is co-founder of Fireside Publishing House, which brings early stories of Canada’s prime ministers to young people.