Canadian governments on both sides of the political spectrum since the Second World War have been much less willing to invest in the country’s military (the world’s fourth-largest in 1945, but only the 56th today) than in the image of Canada as peace keeper (most notably through the invention of the UN Peacekeepers by Canadian diplomat and later Prime Minister Lester Pearson). Indeed, the Canadian Forces recruitment campaign ads on TV feature the forces rescuing explorers in the Arctic, and assisting at the sites of natural disasters. For many Canadians, this is our interaction with the Armed Forces: they bail us out of floods and, in Toronto, snow storms.
Recently, however, two occurrences have upset this traditional view of Canada and its military within the country. In June, the Winnipeg Jets hockey team was re-born. The Jets had been a member of the National Hockey League from 1979-95, when the team, plagued by a tiny arena and a sinking Canadian dollar, flew off to Phoenix to become the Coyotes. This spring, however, the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to Winnipeg businessmen and moved back to the capital of Manitoba. The problem of the small arena was solved by a new building downtown and that of the economic issues by a Canadian dollar that is at par with the American greenback. Never mind the fact that Winnipeg, with a population of just over 500,000, is the smallest city in the National Hockey League.
The name “Jets” has a long history with the city of Winnipeg, given the city’s involvement in the aerospace industry in the country, and the Royal Canadian Air Force, whose 17 Wing is based at CFB Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Jets 1.0, however, did not capitalise on this connection, beyond the team name. The Winnipeg Jets 2.0 have a different idea. The new team has patterned its logos on the classic Second World War symbols of the RCAF, complete with the roundels (themselves based on the British RAF) and maple leaves. The colours of the team, military blue, gun metal grey and maple leaf red, have a definite martial feel to them. The Jets’ chairman, Mark Chipman, stated, “We felt it was important to authenticate the name Jets and we believe the new logo does that through its connection to our country’s remarkable Air Force heritage, including the rich history and relationship that our city and provinces have enjoyed with the Canadian Forces.”
The timing of the Jets’ return and Chipman’s announcement were interesting. Last month, the Canadian government announced the restructuring of the Canadian military and the re-naming of the forces. In particular, the Canadian Navy and Air Force got their “Royal” monikers back, after losing them in 1968 during the last restructuring of the forces.
In 1968, the country was riding a high of (Anglo-Canadian) nationalism, coming off the success of Expo ’67 in Montréal. The nation’s literati extolled the virtues of the “True North, Strong and Free.” That same year, Canada got a sexy, young Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who inspired “Trudeaumania”, as women from coast to coast dreamed of the PM (I’m not making this up, my mother was obsessed with Mr. Trudeau after her crush on Paul McCartney wore off). The removal of the “Royal” from our military seemed an imperative, as did the rationalisation of the Canadian military.
In 2011, the Conservatives are back in power after a long walk in the wilderness and after a frustrating stint as the leaders of a minority government. The Conservatives, just like the Liberals in 1968, are bent on re-making Canada in their image, but the image is a rather different one. Stephen Harper’s government is focussing on allegedly “traditional” Canadian values: the military, the north, and hockey (they forgot beer and Tim Horton’s, but that’s another story). Canada’s government spends a lot of time extolling the virtues of the nation’s armed forces and is spending a lot of money on refurbishing the military’s hardware. At the same time, Canada is a belligerent in Afghanistan (though, to be fair, this campaign began under the previous Liberal government) and has provided support in Libya.
This has been somewhat of a shock to many Canadians; the Twittersphere and blogosphere have been chirping about the “un-Canadianess” of the focus on the military. But, as a friend of mine, a former member of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (once based in Winnipeg, no less) noted in a discussion about the re-naming of the military, a strong martial culture has long existed on the Prairies and the Maritimes, at odds with the peace-keeping trope that has dominated in the nation’s largest cities and the industrial cores in Eastern Canada and the West Coast. Having said that, Canada’s martial history is largely centred on the two world wars. Canada does not have a great military tradition outside of the periods from 1914-18 and 1939-45.
In short, what we have is a very blatant struggle for a usable past in Canada between the federal Conservative government and the opposition Liberal and New Democratic Party. Beyond that, it is a struggle for a usable past on the part of Canadians of different political stripes. And the Winnipeg Jets 2.0 have ventured, perhaps unwittingly, into a very loaded political minefield.
~ Matthew Barlow