World’s wallflower

 sA British newspaper has summed up Canada’s present standing on the world stage by calling our country “the perpetual wallflower that stands on the edge of the hall, waiting for someone to come and ask her for a dance.”

Actually, the article by Kevin Myers that appeared recently in the Sunday Telegraph wasn’t meant to disparage Canada and Canadians. Quite the contrary. The article is entitled Salute to a Brave and Modest Nation.

What Myers pointed out was that it took the deaths of Canadian soldiers to alert the world that this nation was fighting in Afghanistan. As of the beginning of March, there had been 45 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat killed — the majority in combat and while on patrol, some in friendly-fire incidents and others in accidents.

Keeping with the wallflower theme, Myers wrote: “A fire breaks out, she risks life and limb to rescue her fellow dance-goers, and suffers serious injury. But when the hall is repaired and the dancing resumes, there is Canada, the wallflower still, while those she once helped glamorously cavort across the floor, blithely neglecting her yet again.”

It’s true. When the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre were attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001, Canadians immediately came to the aid of their neighbours. Flights of commercial aircraft were diverted to Canadian airfields and volunteers came to the aid of stranded air travellers. In Gander, the airport was overwhelmed by the number of flights forced to land there when American airspace was declared a no-fly zone. The civilian populace mobilized itself and commandeered school buses to shuttle passengers to shelters that included people’s homes where they received a hot meal, a bed and condolences for what had happened to their nation.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack, the Canadian government immediately sent troops to Afghanistan to help root out Osama bin Laden and his cadre of al-Queda terrorists. Yet, Canada was quickly forgotten as a helpful neighbour when President George W. Bush arrived at the foolhardy decision to invade Iraq. Canada couldn’t see any wisdom in this move and so the nation was relegated by Bush to the “coalition of the unwilling.”

Myers also said that the U.S. is not alone in ignoring the contributions made by Canada. This nation also paid a heavy price “for being a selfless friend to Great Britain in two global conflicts.”

“For much of the 20th century, Canada was torn in two different directions: it seemed to be part of the Old World, yet had an address in the new one, and that divided identity ensured that it never fully got the gratitude it deserved,” he wrote. “Yet its purely voluntary contribution to the cause of freedom in two world wars was perhaps the greatest of any democracy.”

Indeed. During the First World War, 10 per cent of Canada’s population of seven million served in the armed forces and 60,000 died. Myers then tells what is mostly forgotten — Canadian soldiers spearheaded the final push against the German army, referred to in history books as the Last Hundred Days, that resulted in Allied victory.

Outside Canada, few would know of our nation’s contribution to victory. In fact, Canadian victories during both world wars have been frequently lumped together under the category “British.” When four Canadian divisions stormed and took Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, the English press called it a “British” victory. Hardly a fitting tribute to the 10,000 Canadian casualties suffered during the battle.

In history books and on TV programs, Britain is said to have stood alone when Europe fell to the Nazis. Alone? Hardly. Canada was supplying the British with food, arms, troops, airmen for the Battle of Britain, sailors and merchant seamen. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King was also a key figure in obtaining American supplies and material from President Franklin Roosevelt at a time when the U.S. wasn’t in the war.

And what about the Australians, New Zealanders and other Commonwealth countries? They also came to the aid of Britain.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, and America entered the war, all that King and Canada had done to aid Britain was quickly forgotten.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Canada contributed 15,000 troops, aircraft and 120 ships to the invasion force, but today’s Hollywood films, such as The Longest Day, make no mention of them. Was Juno Beach, where 800 Canadians died and scores of others wounded, a figment of our imagination?

“The Canadian navy began the war with a half dozen vessels,” wrote Myers, “ended up policing nearly half the Atlantic against U-boat attack ...

“The world thanked Canada with the same sublime indifference as it had the previous time. Canadian participation in the war was acknowledged in film only if it was necessary to give an American actor a part in a campaign in which the U.S. had clearly not participated ...

“Moreover, Canada is every bit as querulously alert to the achievements of its sons and daughters as the rest of the world is completely unaware of them,” added Myers. “The Canadians proudly say of themselves — and are unheard by anyone else — that one per cent of the world’s population has provided 10 per cent of the world’s peacekeeping forces.”

Myers pointed out that Canadians have served on 39 United Nations-mandated peacekeeping missions and six non-UN peacekeeping missions to such places as Vietnam, East Timor and Bosnia.

“So who today in the United States knows about the stoic and selfless friendship its northern neighbour has given in Afghanistan?”

I can answer that one. From talking to Americans when I visit their country, they are totally surprised that our men and women are giving them a hand in Afghanistan.

“Rather like Cyrano de Bergerac, Canada repeatedly does honourable things for honourable motives, but instead of being thanked for it, it remains something of a figure of fun,” added Myers.

It’s disconcerting that we’re seen as wallflowers, but that shouldn’t prevent Canadians from continuing to answer the world’s call for help. In the meantime, our fate is to expect the world to yawn in indifference.