Media – History – War
Updated: date
Published: July 5, 2017

Prominent Canadian journalist does disservice to himself and to Canada

Writing from Montreal


The Washington Post's mobile app headline caught my attention: ‘Un-Happy Canada Day! Why America’s northern neighbor is so bad at celebrating itself’. The article, published in the June 30, 2017 edition of that newspaper’s Outlook-Perspective section, was written by well-known Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay.

(Note – the desktop version of the story carried the headline: ‘Happy Canada Day. Don't get carried away with the celebration, please.’ Other than the headlines, both the desktop and app versions of the story were identical, and negative.)

The gist of Kay’s analysis was summarized in a one-paragraph precede which ran under the headline and before Kay’s byline: ‘Our nation never faced a life-or-death test, which explains our introspection and self-doubt.’

What followed is a rambling 2,200-word farrago of flummery and fecklessness. Kay’s tendentious prose seems intended to undercut Canada’s national identity, which he describes as being in “crisis” and in “full display as we celebrate our 150th birthday”.

In these days of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, one would hope that an experienced and respected journalist, such as Kay, would take the time and care required to provide balance and context to an analysis of one of the great democracies in the world. It was obviously a piece which he wrote primarily to edify our American neighbors, who themselves should be – and are – justifiably proud to live in one of the most liberal democracies known to mankind.

Unfortunately, if left unanswered, Kay’s turbid, disjunctive essay appearing in a prestigious publication such as The Washington Post would leave a distorted view of both Canada and Canadians, who have a profound pride and love for their country.

With that in mind, what follows is a succinct critique of Kay’s essay, together with some insights I believe should have been included in order to give a more balanced view of where Canada stands as it celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.

Point # 1: Kay uses about one-third of his piece to glorify wars as “instruments of national bonding”, concluding that unlike other nations of the world – the United States, Israel, India, Pakistan, Taiwan and France – Canada has no distinguished military past around which its citizens can rally via collective memory.

Kay says: “The most consequential military battle in our history was fought on the Plains of Abraham more than a century before Canada even came into existence.” 

How can Kay cite the Battle of the Plains of Abraham fought outside the walls of Quebec City in September 1759 as being “the most consequential military battle” in Canadian history when it was primarily French and British soldiers – not Canadians – doing the fighting?

Now for some historical context: This North American conflict, called the French and Indian War, was itself part of the world’s first global conflict known as The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) pitting Britain, Prussia and Hanover against France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and, eventually, Spain. In addition to North America, they fought in Europe, India and on the high seas.

Ironically, George Washington, who would go on to become the first U.S. president, fired the shots which precipitated this first world war, which led to the British capture of North America and was the forerunner of the American Revolution.

It happened innocently enough when Washington, then a Virginia militia lieutenant colonel (Virginia was one of the 13 original British colonies), ambushed a small French detachment in the Ohio Valley in 1754 even though war had not yet been declared between Britain and France. His rash action led to more jockeying and skirmishes between British and French forces in North America. Finally, Britain declared war on France in May 1756.

(Gillian Brockell, a digital video editor with The Washington Post, wrote a detailed account of Washington's “ambush” incident in the July 4, 2017 issue of that newspaper.)

The war in Europe, India and North America ended with The Treaty of Paris in 1763, by which France ceded Canada to Britain in return for the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence islands of St-Pierre and Miquelon.

Of course, victory came at a financial cost. The British, staggering under a war debt of £150 million, tried to impose a series of taxes on their 13 American colonies even though such actions flew in the face of their own principles that only those with parliamentary representation could be taxed.

The American colonists, who had no voice in the British parliament, didn't take well to the tax measures. On December 16, 1773, they threw a party – the Boston Tea Party – where they dumped a shipment of British tea in Boston harbor. On April 19, 1775, the colonial militia known as "minutemen" fired the first shots of the American Revolution at Lexington, Mass.

Getting back to Kay, he writes: “Our whole history is so lacking in drama as to defy celebration.” As for his contention that Canada has never faced a life-or-death threat around which it could bond, it should be pointed out that after becoming part of the British Empire in 1763, Canada had a long and distinguished military history, whereby its troops have been recognized repeatedly for their competence and bravery. Kay dismisses such military feats with the following comment: “The big military battles in every modern war we’ve fought have been thousands of miles away. And so the usual narrative that binds nations together – our enemies came for us, but they could not defeat us – has no relevance.”

Well, here is a news flash for Kay: If Adolf Hitler’s forces had not been defeated in Europe during the Second World War, we in North America would all be speaking German now – that is, those of us whose forebears were not annihilated in Nazi death camps because of our religion or culture. And coming back to the current situation in the world, if Coalition Forces do not subdue the threat of ISIS in the Middle East in the coming months and years, there will be increasing terrorist attacks throughout the world, including in the U.S. and Canada.

So here is a partial list of prominent military actions fought by Canadians over two centuries, which Kay says is not relevant to Canada’s self-image, a point on which I respectfully disagree with him:

  • After the American colonies revolted against the British Crown in 1775, Canadian militiamen declined to join their revolution and instead fought off two American invasions – one in 1775 and the last one in 1812.
  • Canadian forces fought alongside Britain in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa.
  • Canada, as part of the British Empire, sent 424,000 soldiers overseas in the First World War to fight the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. Canada joined the war in 1914, compared with 1917 when the U.S. sent troops to fight on the Allied side.
  • At the Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9-12, 1917), Canadian troops won control of  heavily fortified German high ground in the Calais region of France at a price of 10,602 casualties.  It – not the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, as Kay contends – is considered Canada’s most significant military victory and is seen as a symbol of Canadian national pride.
  • Canada entered the Second World War on September 10, 1939 to fight alongside the Allied forces led by Britain and France against Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers. Between 1939 and 1945, more than 1 million Canadians joined the armed services out of a population of only 11 million people. Some 93,000 Canadian soldiers played a major role in the liberation of Italy, fighting against ensconced, crack German troops in difficult mountainous terrain for 20 months, starting on July 10, 1943.
  • It is interesting to note that whereas Canada entered the Second World War right at its start in 1939, an isolationist America entered the war only after the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The U.S. declared war on Japan (not Germany) on December 8, 1941. But on December 11, 1941, Nazi Germany, which was allied with Japan, declared war on the U.S., guaranteeing that American troops would end up joining the Allies in their campaign to liberate Europe.
  • Between 1939 and 1945, Canada developed a wartime munitions industry which produced more than 800,000 military transport vehicles, 50,000 tanks, 40,000 field, navel and anti-aircraft guns, and 1.7 million small arms. Some 348 merchants ships were built to transport supplies to Britain, and 16,000 military aircraft were assembled for use by the Allies. Without Canada’s contribution, it is unlikely that Britain could have survived the Nazi onslaught until the Americans entered the war and tilted it in favour of the Allies.
  • Canadian troops have participated in the Korean War (June 1950-July 1953); the Gulf War (August 1990-February 1991); the Kosovo War (March 1998-June 1999); the War in Afghanistan (2001-present) and the war in Iraq-Syria (ongoing) against ISIS.

How ironic is it that Kay makes an allusion to one of France’s “national bonding” events as being the liberation of Paris in August 1945 by the French Resistance. He does not mention that it was the approaching troops and military might of the U.S. Army that persuaded Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of the German garrison and military governor of Paris, to surrender, allowing General Charles de Gaulle to take control of the city as head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic.

And how about the role played by 156,000 Allied troops – including American, Canadian, British, Australian, Belgian, Czech, Greek, New Zealand, Dutch, Norwegian, and Polish – who took part in the D-Day invasion establishing a beachhead in Normandy that allowed the U.S. to send forward their tanks and infantry to liberate Paris? Does Kay not consider that a seminal bonding experience for troops of all the nations involved, including Canadians?

From personal experience, I can tell you that my father, Abe Perley, volunteered to fight with other Canadians in the Second World War and served in the European theatre of conflict for three long years, separated from his newly-wed wife, because he believed in the cause of ending Nazi tyranny. He did not speak often of his wartime experiences, but it was clear to me that his participation was based on doing what was right for our country…and for the world.

So let’s put a stake through Kay’s canard that Canada has no historical feats of military bravery and daring, which we as Canadians retain as part of our “collective memory” binding us together as a nation which places supreme value on liberty and human rights.

Point No. 2: Kay spends the balance of his piece decrying the treatment of Canada’s indigenous peoples, adding that “the dominant mood within our own borders is guilt.” He writes with seeming authority that “you cannot dispute that the past four centuries of history have been for them [indigenous peoples], largely a long series of slaughters, forced migrations, botched efforts at assimilation and, in some cases, complete eradication.”

Well, if Kay has information about “a long series of [indigenous] slaughters” in Canada,  it is incumbent upon him as a journalist to back that contention with authoritative citations, such as was done by journalist Calla Wahlquist, writing in the July 5, 2017 edition of The Guardian about repeated massacres of Australia’s indigenous population, numbering in the tens of thousands of victims and stretching back more than two centuries.

Experts who have studied the question in Canada are unanimous in their conclusion that there was “cultural genocide” committed against the indigenous population, but are not willing to say that there was physical and biological genocide. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by the Government of Canada in 2008, heard from 6,000 witnesses over six years. In their Executive Summary (2015), they concluded that “the state pursued a policy of cultural genocide through forced assimilation.” However, that conclusion left open the debate as to whether the Government of Canada also committed physical and biological genocide.

Certainly, there has not been – to my knowledge – mention by leaders of indigenous peoples or historians about “a long series of slaughters” within Canada. If Kay is aware of facts which indicate otherwise, he should have included that information in his “think piece”.

Contrary to Kay’s gloomy assessment of current relations with Canada’s indigenous population, Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee (James Bay, Quebec) and former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says impressive strides have been made in recent years to right the wrongs done by governments to the indigenous peoples of Canada.

Writing in the July 2, 2017 issue of The Globe and Mail, he said:

Good news stories rarely make the headlines. Yet there are examples in Indian country that point the way forward…. I have had the privilege of serving as Grand Chief of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee in Northern Quebec for a total of 20 years. Since the signing of our Treaty, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, we have made enormous strides in improving the living conditions of our First Nations, in setting our relationship with both Canada and Quebec on a “nation-to-nation” basis; we have taken control over the delivery of health and social services, of education, of policing and justice. We have extracted ourselves from the Indian Act and developed our own robust forms of local and regional self-government. We have established the principle of “Cree consent” requiring all development projects within our traditional territory to obtain our approval and they must involve our First Nations in meaningful ways, including environmental protection measures, employment, training, preferential contracting and financial benefits.

In short, we have achieved all of the elements that have been key recommendations in a number of national and international declarations, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. All this has been achieved through difficult struggles, media campaigns, legal challenges and hard negotiations.

So unlike Kay’s dour assessment of Canada’s “national soul”, Coon Come sees a light shining through what has been a dark history between native peoples and national/provincial governments.


In fact, the only positive points Kay has to make about Canada come in the last paragraph of his story where he lauds Canada’s national political discourse, its successful immigration policies, as well as its health-care and education systems. Considering the magnitude of such issues in the composition of a country’s social fabric, a discerning reader might have expected Kay to develop those points as part of his analysis, had he approached the subject with an open mind rather than with foregone conclusions.

So let’s leave it to a more objective and realistic individual to have the last word about what it means for him to be a Canadian on this, the sesquicentennial of Canada’s birth. In the words of Chief Matthew Come Coon as expressed in The Globe and Mail article of July 2, 2017: “Please pass the birthday cake in honour of Canada – our home and Natives’ land – and I’ll have a nice slice. Please make it a big one.”

© Warren Perley. All Rights Reserved. Publication by 2012-2024.
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