As we recall from school, lessons can be taught but not always learned. Such was the case with Canada’s involvement in the slow-motion tragedy that was the Vietnam War. Canada was taught four lessons.
The Canadian government claimed neutrality in the war, but we were not. We sold an average of $370 million a year in war material to the United States for use in Vietnam – over $2 billion annually in today’s money. We manufactured and sold ammunition, guidance systems, armoured vehicles, napalm, agent orange, and more. Over 130,000 Canadians complained about the war while watching it on television each night but then went back to jobs the next morning that were linked to supporting it. We learned that we were quite willing to swap principle for profit.
Canadian soldiers and diplomats were in Vietnam nine years before the Americans came in great numbers and they remained there two years after that iconic helicopter pushed down the ladder and lifted off from the American embassy roof in Saigon. We were traffic cops trying to get sworn enemies to play nice. We were the stereotypical Canadians trying to punch above our weight and persuade those killing each other to see the immorality of their actions and be more like us. We were right and both sides were wrong but it didn’t matter. We learned that we were big enough to be independent but small enough to be ignored.
Canada welcomed about 30,000 young Americans who opted to run rather than fight and over 60,000 Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian families who saved their lives by suffering the indignity and danger of boats and camps to escape. Polls at the time indicated that the majority of us did not want either. But we changed. When we dusted off the principles and procedures we had invented for the Vietnam War to welcome Syrian War refugees in 2015, the majority of us supported the effort. We also finally acknowledged and helped those 20,000 Canadians who enlisted with the Americans to fight in Vietnam. It took a long while but we learned that despite race, religion, nationality and other ways we artificially divide ourselves that we are all, in the final analysis, human.
Along with assassinations and race riots, the Vietnam War came into Canadian living rooms every night with the evening news. It was ugly. At the same time, stories about us were being offered by a new generation of Canadian authors and songwriters – we didn’t want no war machines and ghetto scenes or tin soldiers and Nixon coming. Universities created more Canadian-based courses taught by Canadians. The growing patriotism was deeper than just celebrating Expo ’67. Pro-Canadianism became about more than anti-Americanism. It was as journalist Peter C. Newman observed: the Vietnamization of the United States brought about the Canadianization of Canada. We learned to be not British, not American, but finally, and proudly, Canadian.
Treaties are signed and memorials are built but wars never truly end. Canada is still being shaped and tested by the lessons offered by the Vietnam War.
(If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy my eighth book The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War. It’s available at bookstores across Canada, Amazon, or at the Chapters link below.)
He wasn’t a movie star. He wasn’t a famous athlete or the latest singer whose catchy ditty momentarily captured a spot in the charts and teens’ hearts. And yet, there it was. At Lakefield College School, tucked in the woods by the lake about halfway between Toronto and Ottawa and, in the 1940s, also halfway between 19th century British elitism and 20th century Canadian ruggedness, a boy took a knife in hand. In the windowsill of the little library he carved the name Percy Nelles.
The other boys, and at that point the school was all boys, understood. Nelles awed. He inspired. Nelles had been one of them but now belonged to the world. Teachers turned a blind eye to the vandalism for they understood too. And so as they passed the window each day the boys glanced down, some whispered the name, and in silent reverence many drew fingers over the defiant tribute.
Nelles had been a Lakefield student when the school was young but the values upon which it would thrive were already firmly established. He was a skilled cricket player and an enthusiastic member of its army cadet corps. Upon graduation in 1908, he joined the Fisheries Protection Service. With the creation of the Canadian Navy in 1910, Nelles became a midshipman in HMCS Niobe. Promotions came quickly. He enjoyed service in many ships and during the First World War at the navy’s Nova Scotia Head Quarters as flag lieutenant and director of the Naval Service.
Peacetime saw the navy shrink but his career flourish. Nelles was captain or commander in a number of ships and served at the Imperial Defence College. In 1934 he became Canada’s chief of naval staff – the first Canadian-born and trained to do so. Four years later, with Hitler’s mad ambitions about to plunge the world back into war, Nelles was promoted to rear admiral.
Nelles had not forgotten his old school. He played an instrumental role in an initiative that in 1939 saw the Canadian Navy officially recognize the newly formed Lakefield Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps (RCSCC) St. George – Canada’s only school-based sea cadet corps. Boys were divided into four platoons and a band. In crisp blue uniforms they trained for a half hour or more each day, learning skills needed to become naval officers. For five years they also enjoyed sessions on Georgian Bay’s Beausoleil Island. They knew that Nelles had helped establish the Sea Cadet Camp facilities and its fun but rigorous program.
Meanwhile, Nelles was reassigned to Britain where, as the senior Canadian flag officer overseas and head of the Canadian Naval Mission, he oversaw the Canadian Navy’s preparations for the June 1944 D-Day invasion of France. He coordinated 110 ships, 10,000 sailors, and 15 air force squadrons for the successful landing of 14,000 Canadians on the heavily fortified Juno beach. D-Day was the turning point in the war that reminded all that evil is sometimes incarnate in a man or movement. Evil’s enemy can sometimes be a kid from a Saskatchewan farm, or Calgary street corner, or even a little school in Lakefield.
The library is gone now. The space became a classroom, then staff room, and is now a slick new Admissions office. But the windowsill is still there and so may also be the boy’s carving that was so simple and yet represented so much.
It is the same simplicity represented by the little poppies we wear each November. They express our devotion to those who offered their full measure of devotion for causes perhaps forgotten but in support of values that endure. They proclaim our insistence that the sacrifice and service of those who died, of those who returned whole or broken, and of those still in uniform, shall not be forgotten. Our remembering is as simple as the little felt poppy, or the windowsill carving, but as complex as citizenship itself.
For a few days each year we are asked to transcend our lives’ minutia and the exhortations of some politicians and all corporations and become more than voters, taxpayers, and consumers. We become citizens. And as citizens we bear the burden of remembrance.
To remember all who served is overwhelming and so this year I will offer respect for all by remembering one. This year I will remember Percy Nelles. In my moment of silence on the 11th at 11, I will curse war but revere the warrior. I will hate the hypocrisy, greed, and stupidity of wars of choice but honour the value of service-above-self.
But even this is too easy. Perhaps his memory is better honoured not by a forgotten carving or soon discarded poppy. Maybe this year we can summon the courage to act as Nelles did, as they all did, and let the values that inspired their service more fully inform our lives. These are the values, the essence of informed, engaged citizenship, that we saw on vivid display in Canada’s recent election. We see it every day in the acts of selfless volunteers. We see it in those whose courage and convictions broaden the circle of community. We see it through actions that demonstrate not just tolerance but acceptance and by acts and attitudes that show a willingness to trust a little more and take a little less.
Engaged citizenship is hard. It is a hell of a lot harder than wearing a poppy for a few days or standing silent for a minute a year. But let us compare the challenges of engaged, values-based citizenship to the difficulties and sacrifices of those for whom we don poppies.
Rear Admiral Nelles, this year, I pledge to do my best.
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A young soldier had died and was coming home. It was cold. Standing in the kind of wind that mocks wool hats and down coats, our pant legs flapped and eyes narrowed as we affected the Canadian hunch; shoulders up, chins down, and arms crossed. And we waited. Some had flags and the school kids held a small banner. There were more of us atop every highway 401 overpass from Trenton to Toronto; more flags, more kids, and firefighters at attention on their trucks and police officers beside their cars.
And then he came. We saw the line of vehicles wavering like black teardrops in the distance. As the motorcade neared, we saw vehicles in front and even some approaching in the other lanes, way over the wide median, pull over and stop. It was there but gone so quickly, like the life we had gathered to honour. We turned to see the cars disappear down the Highway of Heroes. Some cried, some waved, and some saluted, but there were no cheers. Nobody clapped. It was solemn. There was nothing said. There was nothing to say. Finally, the teacher mumbled something and the silent teenagers were shuffled away. The rest of us went home.
That day, like every day, millions of us went home. Parents came home from workplaces that were as much a mystery to the kids as how the refrigerator magically filled itself with food or their dresser drawers with warm socks. And from Nanaimo to Bonavista, parents sat at dinner tables and asked, as they are obliged to, what the kids did in school that day. And they all received the same one word response; the answer every parent knows: “Nothing”.
But that evening not everyone came home. There are Labrador men in northern Alberta driving trucks bigger than the boats they left high and dry under big gray tarps. The women now run the town. The young men left first. Then it was their fathers who found more money offered for a six-month stint out there than they could make here in five years. The men with less hair and more belly who had earned their wise eyes and sore backs were soon heading west with the rest.
There is a Fredericton nurse in a ramshackle African hospital where medical supplies are currency. The money flows in from the well-meaning West but the young men with guns and old men with Mercedes decide where it goes and it’s mostly to them. And so the young woman with blonde hair tucked under the old blue kerchief, barters for bandages and penicillin. She gets a little bit tougher each time a new grave finds a child who could have been saved.
There is a Saskatoon teacher opening a big box in Haiti. Her parents ran the collection and packed it with love and concern and a long, aching letter. The pencils and notebooks are cheap and common back home, but here they move barely adequate to good. And good is measured in smiles that transcend race, gender, religion, and class and all the other phony lines that divide. The kids are like all kids and hungry to learn. Most here, though, are also just hungry.
Tonight, the nurse and the teacher and men in the fields are not the only ones not coming home. There are also those with no homes. How many bad decisions in a row did it take to put that man in the holey coat and Rough Riders cap on the Regina sidewalk? How many of the bad decisions were his? How many were made by parents who should not have been parents and social workers with hearts gone cold? How many were made by bosses with eyes on bottom lines urging emasculated men to avoid taking it personally. How many of the bad decisions were made by politicians, whose focus groups smiled at “balance the budget”, “tighten our belts”, and “cut the fat”. And now we scurry by and try not to make eye contact. We try not to think that he has a mother somewhere, and that one night was the first night and first time that he sat on the sidewalk and cried.
You are a country of love. Love is easy to find. Go to the park in mid-morning and watch parents watch kids. Go to any airport and see families say bye. Walk down a ways and watch welcomes. There is love.
You are a country of hope. It’s hope that sends teachers and nurses abroad. It’s hope that sends fishermen to oilfields and has grandmothers pursing their lips and stepping up. And there is hope in the baby, powdered and new and safe in her mother’s arms, coming home for the first time to a young family doing its best and doing all right.
You are a country of redemption. There is no shame in trying and failing. Opportunity knocks over and over again for those who see stumbles as lessons well learned. Like a five year old’s band-aids that steal pain and dry tears, “I’m Sorry” hugs and faith from the loved are the power of salvation and the strength to get up and try again.
As it is for us, it is for you. Like you we have scars and memories of bad choices but like you we’re still here and still trying. We understood as we stood on that over pass, shivering but not leaving, and waiting to deliver our silent salute. We understood that you are the home to which we return and that love, hope, and redemption are the gifts you have ready and wrapped and there by the door.
Home From The Forest by Gordon Lightfoot
Oh the neon lights were flashin’
And the icy wind did blow
The water seeped into his shoes
And the drizzle turned to snow
His eyes were red, his hopes were dead
And the wine was runnin’ low
And the old man came home
From the forest
His tears fell on the sidewalk
As he stumbled in the street
A dozen faces stopped to stare
But no one stopped to speak
For his castle was a hallway
And the bottle was his friend
And the old man stumbled in
From the forest
Up a dark and dingy staircase
The old man made his way
His ragged coat around him
As upon his cot he lay
And he wondered how it happened
That he ended up this way
Getting lost like a fool
In the forest
And as he lay there sleeping
A vision did appear
Upon his mantle shining
A face of one so dear
Who had loved him in the springtime
Of a long-forgotten year
When the wildflowers did bloom
In the forest
She touched his grizzled fingers
And she called him by his name
And then he heard the joyful sound
Of children at their games
In an old house on a hillside
In some forgotten town
Where the river runs down
From the forest
With a mighty roar the big jets soar
Above the canyon streets
And the con men con but life goes on
For the city never sleeps
And to an old forgotten soldier
The dawn will come no more
For the old man has come home
From the forest
This is the latest in a series entitled Dear Canada: Love Letters to a Nation, inspired by the song of Gordon Lightfoot. If you like it, please share through your social media of choice and check out the others at johnboyko.com