If it can be said that any nation has a conscience, it is effectively expressed by its government in the ways it deals with its own citizens and its relations with other sovereign states. Conscience and conflict go hand in hand. Conflict within a state is rebellion. Conflict with another state is war.
By strict definition, Canada never had what could be called an “Indian war.” What it had, in the beginning, was a conflict between Britain and France that contributed to the virtual starving of the Beothuk tribe of Newfoundland and to the enslavement and killing of those who survived. The Beothuk were never at war. Nor were the British officials ever intent on exterminating them. Nevertheless, they were exterminated. This was the first shameful chapter in the Canadian history of the European relationship with an aboriginal people.
From the end of the War for Independence, the conscience of the newly formed United States was marred by almost constant internal and external warfare. Depending upon which sources are used, the federal and/or state governments of the United States were involved until 2017 in at least 43 wars, 24 of which are characterized as “Indian wars.” There were indigenous peoples involved in the War of 1812, but the combatants were the United States and the British Empire. Canadians, then, had no independent voice in the affairs of nations.
The so-called Indian wars in the United States were never really defensive. They were intended to seize land and resources that had been part of the living spaces of indigenous peoples. During the same period there were no Indian wars, as such, in Canada.
The most brutal conflict ever fought in North America was the American Civil War. Canada, at that time, was a part of a British Empire in which slavery had been abolished. Escaped slaves were brought by what was called the underground railway to Canada where, although not universally accepted, they became free citizens entitled to own property. The conscience of North America had shifted to Canada. Ironically, sentiment in Britain favoured the South where slaves still laboured on the cotton plantations. British mills needed raw cotton. British shipyards built the blockade-running ships and British factories produced the armaments that the embattled Confederacy needed.
The United States was involved in wars of aggression. The Spanish-American War was one, the Mexican-American War was another and so was the conquest of the Philippines. Canada was not an ally of the United States in any of these conflicts.
Canada’s single involvement in a war of aggression was as a component of the British Empire in the Second Boer War. The United States, at this time, was a haven for oppressed peoples from Europe. Canada, with its colder climate and association with the British Empire, was less favoured by immigrants.
The First World War, considered by some critics to have been unjustifiable, began for Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Tsarist Russia and smaller allied nations in August of 1914. It began for the United States in 1917. By that time the Australia-New Zealand Army Corps had suffered almost 80,000 battle deaths, more than 8,000 in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign alone. The United Kingdom numbered 744,000 war dead, France, more than a million, Canada, more than 60,000 and Tsarist Russia a staggering total of 1,700,000 battle deaths. The U.S. tally of battlefield deaths was 53,402.
The Second World War was a justifiable war. It began for Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium and Britain and its possessions and self-governing dominions in August of 1939. The United States entered the war against Nazi Germany and Japan in December of 1941. When all theatres of the war are included, there were 12,300,000 combat deaths. Of these, 400,000 were American. Like many allied countries in which no battles were fought, the strategic contribution in both world wars made by the United States was more important in supplies and armaments than it was in blood.
After the end of the Second World War, the Cold War, the contest between the United States and communist Russia began. During this period, Canada’s involvement in foreign wars was limited to actions at the direction of the United Nations and North Atlantic Organization. Canada did not ally itself with the United States in the Vietnam War. Other irritants in the relationship between the two countries were Canada’s refusal to accept nuclear warheads on its soil, and its decisions to maintain diplomatic relations with communist Cuba and to initiate trade in agricultural products with communist China. Throughout the years of the Vietnam War, anti-war sentiment was high in the United States and many Americans crossed the border to seek Canadian citizenship. Canada was then the conscience of North America.
Canada has a blemished record in its relationship with the indigenous peoples and their mixed blood cousins, the Métis. The Métis were the descendants of white traders and native women. They became the orphaned children of the fur trade, no longer of economic use as traders, hunters, trappers and freighters. They fought, and lost, in the Riel and North West Rebellions, in both of which they failed to gain a secure and respected place in the new Dominion of Canada,
More shameful than the rebellions were the residential schools in which the government virtually incarcerated native children to turn them into little white Christians and incidentally exposed them to horrifying incidents of physical, sexual and psychological abuse
The present government of Canada is not without flaws. Its comic opera military procurement program will limit its ability to meet its obligations to the Unite Nations and NATO. Its approaches to making amends to Canada’s disadvantaged people are sometimes questionable, but it has made a hopeful beginning. Improving relationships with First Nations and Métis alike is becoming a cornerstone of government policy. Outside of government actions, strong alliances are being formed between First Nations and the growing environmental movement.
Canada takes in 40,000 refugees from war-torn countries, whereas the new U.S. president turns them away. People from the United States, fearful that Trump and his clumsy crew will deport them to the countries from which they have escaped, are struggling through the cold and snow to reach Canadian soil. Here, at least temporarily, they are taken in and given the care they need.
In 2017, Canada is the conscience of North America. Whether or not this continues will depend on the economic pressures the Alice in Wonderland Trump Administration will bring to bear when the North American Free Trade Agreement is rewritten.