Historian Jonathan Vance would like to examine a little-known part of Canada’s past: our British roots. This may seem a bit strange at first, but our ties to the “Mother Country” can be considered uninteresting when compared to our rich multicultural history. Vance, however, believes that our national identity is intertwined with that of Britain, and his new book is an examination of just how deeply these roots reached in the first half of the 20th century.
The book begins in 1871, with the departure from Canada of the last British regiment, and follows the development of the Canadian military. Canadian nationalism, Vance argues, grew along with the significance of the country’s soldiers, and the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who went overseas during the two World Wars therefore had a strong sense of what their country represented. While the first wave of recruits in 1914 were British born, those that followed were mostly Canadian, and Vance’s descriptions of their reactions to their British counterparts are fascinating. The cultures of the two countries were so closely linked that the soldiers often found things eerily familiar, a conception that was only confirmed when compared with the very different American soldiers.
Vance mines newspaper stories, letters, and official reports from both World Wars to trace the development of Canadian experiences of wartime in Britain. The book does contain a fair bit of military history, but Vance does a good job relating the military successes to how British civilians perceived Canadians, as well as how Canadians perceived themselves.
That being said, Vance’s thesis – that Canadians, in addition to being influenced by British culture and society, also established significant outposts in England – doesn’t really stand up to the evidence. While confirming that British roots are an important part of who we are today, the author does not really offer proof that the influence flowed in both directions. Canadians certainly proved their mettle, but it is a stretch to declare that “they built a Canadian empire that left its mark on Britain.”
Despite this flaw, the book is a fascinating portrait of soldiers who, at the same time as they were fighting a war, discovered both the land of their ancestors and the definition of themselves as Canadians.