From Cold War to Present Day


The Military’s Role in Canada

Boeing Vertol CH-113 Labrador helicopter, 103 Search and Rescue Squadron, Canadian Forces, 1982

Caption: Boeing Vertol CH-113 Labrador helicopter, 103 Search and Rescue Squadron, Canadian Forces, 1982

There have been constants in military life over the years we have been examining. The Canadian military has always been subject to the country's political authority. It is a civilian-military relationship that requires much of both parties and has seen both high and low points. Some soldiers have attempted to disregard the will of the politicians - this was especially the case throughout the 19th century. This has not served their military careers well, and it has harmed the military itself, causing politicians to distrust it. On the other hand, some defence ministers have interfered excessively with the functioning of the military - during the First World War, for example - and damaged their credibility among the troops who were spilling their blood on the battlefields. It must be recognized that the end result of a decision can be a matter of life or death for Canadians serving their country. Errors of judgement remain all too human a reality, unfortunately. They should be acknowledged and corrected, but not thrown needlessly in the faces of those who have made them.

The navy, army and air force of today are, like the forces of 1871, instruments of war, always ready to adapt. One 20-mm M61A1 Vulcan machine gun at the end of the 20th century can provide as much firepower as four battalions of 750 men each in the early 19th century. In fact it is more accurate and has a much longer range and far more impact than the battalions of 1815. The warrior has had to evolve along with the technology, which today ranges from the surgical air strike to the nuclear submarine. We have seen how tactics were modified during the First World War to survive assaults on defensive positions thought to be impregnable. To serve overall strategy, the constantly evolving technology-tactics partnership remains the basis of the warrior's survival.

Nineteenth-century Canadians were eager to go off to fight in foreign lands. By the turn of the 20th century this trend had become irreversible. Anyone wishing to visit a Canadian military cemetery today will have to travel outside the country. The resting places of military heroes, with their monuments of various styles and sizes, are to be found in South Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe. The Canadian commitment to the world under the general and evolving concept of peacekeeping is a contemporary extension of a trend that existed under French rule, when young Canadians would enlist in the royal armies. Since 1945 this peacekeeping concept has become an international institution, whose purpose is to make a modest contribution to conflict resolution by peaceful means and thus also to world stability and security. However, the two great wars of the 20th century remain the high points of Canada's military presence outside its borders.

Additional Images

HMCS Labrador, Modified Wind-class Arctic patrol vessel, Royal Canadian Navy, 1954
Troops in Montreal during the October Crisis of 1970
The Oka Crisis, 1990