Historian J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
Canadians seem to be shocked that Canadian citizens are fighting for al-Qaeda and its more radical rival offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. All are Muslims, some are converts, but all were apparently radicalized in Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal or another Canadian community. How could this be? How could good Canadians end up serving groups that terrorize civilians and lop off prisoners’ heads?
Some historical perspective might suggest that Canadians serving in foreign armies is not new to our times. Many Canadians served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, fighting for the Union and against slavery. Upward of 50,000 Canadians are estimated to have enlisted in the Union forces, and a few hundred wore Confederate grey. Union recruiters operated openly in the Canadas during the war, and many Canadians went south to join up. Even Calixa Lavallée, the composer of O Canada, served as a Union officer. No one objected strenuously.
A few years later, Bishop Ignace Bourget and the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec raised troops to help defend the Papal States against the forces seeking unification of Italy. More than 500 well-educated francophones enlisted in the Papal Zouaves, ready to sail to Italy to defend the Vatican’s territory. Not all the Zouaves made it to Rome by the time the struggle ended in 1870, but eight died. Once again there were few complaints, although Protestants were surely annoyed at this ultramontane Catholic fervour.
In the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War pitted General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists against the Republican government of Spain. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy supported the Nationalists. The Soviet Union backed the Republicans; so did at least 1,300 Canadians who volunteered to fight against fascism and went to Spain to serve in what went on to become the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, while another 300 fought in the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
The government of Mackenzie King tried to stop Canadians from going to Spain, and it passed the Foreign Enlistment Act in April, 1937, to prevent men from signing up for foreign wars. The volunteers went to Spain anyway, while countless others donated money to the cause. Most of the Canadians who went to fight – 76 per cent, according to Michael Petrou’s fine study of the Mac-Paps – were Communist Party members, most recent immigrants to the Dominion. The Mac-Paps earned a reputation for political unreliability and combat effectiveness, and at least 400 never returned home. These “premature anti-fascists” suffered for their political sins in the Second World War and Cold War years.
The Foreign Enlistment Act remained on the books, but it didn’t stop Canadian Jews from fighting for Israel or raising millions of dollars for its support. Ben Dunkelman, who had served with distinction with the Queen’s Own Rifles in Europe, went to Israel in 1948 and led a brigade with great success in Israel’s independence war. Many others did so, including George (Buzz) Beurling, a Royal Canadian Air Force fighter ace and a gentile, who joined the Israeli Air Force as a well-paid mercenary. Beurling died in an air crash in Rome on his way to the Middle East. Many other Canadian Jews served in the major Arab-Israeli wars of the following decades. Others serve in the Israeli military to this day, all presumably in violation of Canadian law.
Then there was the Vietnam War. While hard numbers are unavailable, estimates are that as many as 50,000 Canadians served in the U.S. military during that long, bloody struggle. Some enlisted out of the conviction that North Vietnam was an aggressor state, others presumably because of an adventurous spirit that could not be satisfied in the Canadian Forces because of Ottawa’s preference for United Nations peacekeeping. Once again, the law was not applied against Canadians who fought abroad.
None of those war veterans brought jihad home to Canada, a legitimate concern we live with today, although some communists who fought in Spain might have had attitudes inimical to the Canadian capitalist state. Most of the Islamist volunteers, if they survive to return to Canada, will likely settle down to a “normal” life. But so long as ideology, religion, adventurism and a soldier’s pay still matter, Canadians will likely continue going off to fight in other people’s wars.