originally published May 24, 2012
Cursing as I might (and indeed I might) at my hometown’s isolation, its weather, and its nauseating pride at being home base for conservatism and redneckery in Canada, I am proud of this country’s military record. We don’t often go to war, but when a genuine global threat prompts immediate action and voluntary offerings of service, we always step up.
Canada killed the draft after World War I. When our troops returned home, it was decided that Canadian youth needed to concentrate on important domestic activities like growing our economy, playing hockey, and having wild 1920’s-style sex to stave off the domineering arctic air. Military service was deemed voluntary.
In 1940, William Lyon Mackenzie King was elected as Prime Minister having run on a campaign of having more names than his opponent While the draft had recently been reinstated, Mackenzie King was firm that no draftees were to be sent to the front lines, despite the fact that we were entering the Great War’s much-anticipated sequel.
This was a huge issue in Quebec. French-Canadians were tremendously opposed to conscription, feeling no allegiance toward either Britain or France. The memory of the Easter Riots of 1918 were still fresh – Quebeckers had gotten violent when they’d been told they had to fight a war they didn’t want any part of.
Fast-forward to late 1944. A tiny town in northwestern British Columbia called Terrace – the cedar pole capital of the world. The morale was low; a lot of the troops were French-Canadian draftees, and they despised Terrace. It was cold, isolated, and so overcrowded you had to wait in line just to sneeze.
Terrace was a town of about 500 locals. The 15th Canadian Infantry Brigade of Pacific Command, one group of troops on the local base, were around 3000 in number. The collective foot odor alone was causing the surrounding treeline to recede. When word travelled to the base on November 23rd that the wheels were in motion to alter policy and send draftees to fight, things got ugly.
The troops of the 15th Brigade in Terrace had been comforted by the fact that, even though their living conditions were interminably frigid and claustrophobic, at least they wouldn’t be shot at. But by late 1944, the volunteer rate among Canadians was plummeting. More and more bodies were coming home under flags, and not a lot signatures were being scribbled on enlistment forms. The government needed to act.
On November 24, the 15th Brigade announced a sit-down strike in protest of the policy change. They did their best to enlist support from the other units on the base, even advising members of the 19th Canadian Field Ambulance that if they were to head out on parade the next day, they would be “made to suffer.”
By ‘parade’, of course I mean the daily military marches and drills required of servicemen. There were no floats, no grand marshals, no skateboarding bulldogs. I was confused about this at first too.
At 11:00 at night, the ammunition dump was broken into, and the strikers nabbed over 50,000 rounds of ammunition and weapons ‘for protection’. I’m not great at math, but this is roughly enough to kill everyone in Terrace, BC – military and civilian – at least a half dozen times each.
According to one report, about 1500 servicemen launched an organized protest march around the base on November 25. There was no violence, just a lot of shouting and singing as the protesters roamed past their fellow soldiers. They did their best to gather allies in their fight. That evening, the counter-conscription conscription continued. The strikers moved throughout the men on base and once again attempted to convert them to their cause. Allegedly, threats of reprisals were made for those who did not take part in the strike. The strikers set up radio communication between each other. They claimed a number of vehicles. They weren’t messing around.
Some men crossed over and joined the strikers. Whether they were fearful, whether they were convinced of the cause, or whether the strikers also happened to apprehend the base’s supply of good booze, I don’t know. But violence was just below the surface… so far the only casualty had been the Canadian Legion sign in the town of Terrace.
Military officials were concerned. It wasn’t so much that they feared these strikers would start shooting, but they worried they’d inspire similar revolts in bases around the country. Canada needed fingers to pull triggers overseas, and massive protests back home would not help the cause.
What followed was an immense media cover-up on the part of the Canadian government. Press censorship is a lot easier to manage during wartime, and easier still when there’s no internet to disagree with you. The mutiny was suppressed successfully, which is probably why neither you nor I had heard of it until now. Unless you had. Maybe I’m just way out of the loop.
On to November 26. More raids on weapons stashes, which means the strikers are better armed and they’ve even got grenades and explosives.
They swarmed a Sergeants’ Mess hall and stripped all soldiers of their stripes, declaring “You’re zombies just like us.” A ‘zombie,’ in addition to denoting a stumbling member of the undead or a key ingredient in quality Sunday night AMC programming, was at this time a slang term for French-Canadian soldiers who refused to participate in military combat.
The following day, an ultimatum was read to the men. “Turn in the weapons and cut the shit,” was the general gist. That night there was another demonstration, despite the announcement that the frazzled and disgruntled brigade was slated to be transferred to Valcartier camp in Quebec in a few days. There were rumors that the strikers’ next move was to blow up the Sergeants’ Mess or possibly the Skeena Bridge – the only bridge in town.
On November 27, the strike fell apart. Some of its leaders were still insisting on unity and solidarity, but it became clear that, short of trying to secede from Canada and stake a claim on a new nation on northwestern BC soil, this protest wasn’t going anywhere. They had weapons, but who were they going to shoot?
The protesters turned in their ill-gotten guns and returned to daily life. The French-Canadians were shipped out east, and Prime Minister Mackenzie King carried out his plan to send drafted troops to the front. Because the war was nearing the closing credits anyway, only 2463 drafted Canadian men were sent to the front lines, and only 79 lost their lives. The government got what it wanted, and the media never blabbed about the issue.
So add this tint to your perception of Canada – we are not always polite, and sometimes – even in the fiery squeeze of a just and righteous war – some of us don’t want to fight.