«Paper presented at the Canada and the End of Empire conference Institute of Commonwealth Studies London, UK 27 April 2001 José E. Igartua ...»
"Ready, Aye, Ready" No More?
Canada, Britain, and the Suez Crisis in the Canadian Press*
Paper presented at the "Canada and the End of Empire" conference
Institute of Commonwealth Studies
27 April 2001
José E. Igartua email@example.com
Université du Québec à Montréal
The author wishes to thank Pacale Ryan, Manon Leroux, and Julie Landreville for their exemplary work in
gathering newspaper material. Research for this paper has received the financial support of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and travel assistance was provided by the Faculté des sciences humaines, Université du Québec à Montréal.
Introduction: Pearson in the House of Commons "The United States would have far more admiration for Canada, Mr. Speaker, if this government stopped being the United States chore boy.... Now this government, by its actions in the Suez crisis, has made this month of November, 1956, the most disgraceful period for Canada in the history of this nation."
Howard C. Green, House of Commons, 27 November 1956 "The hon. Gentleman who has just taken his seat talked about Canada being the chore boy of the United States. Our record over the last years, Mr. Speaker, gives us the right to say we have performed and will perform no such role. It is bad to be a chore boy of the United States. It is equally bad to be a colonial chore boy running around shouting "Ready, aye, ready"."
Lester B. Pearson, House of Commons, a few minutes later "Ready, Aye, Ready" no more, Pearson was saying. He had reason not to want to be a "colonial chore boy." Since July 1956, he had grown increasingly disillusioned, discouraged, and even distraught at the United Kingdom government's reaction to Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company. Pearson was a firm believer in collective security through the United Nations, and he wanted the Suez issue resolved in that forum through peaceful international agreement.1 The St. Laurent government agreed with its Secretary of State for External Affairs.2 Its position had been communicated to the British government in the summer of 1956. At the same time, Pearson was in touch with other Commonwealth governments, notably that of India, which offered to mediate between Nasser and the United Kingdom, and was hoping to suggest a peaceful resolution of the Suez issue. The British had led the Canadians to believe that they too would rely on the United Nations and seek there a resolution of the issue.
Yet at the end of October 1956, the Eden government, together with that of France, colluded with Israel in creating a reason for military intervention in the Canal zone. Israel invaded Egypt on 29October. The next day, Britain and France issued an "ultimatum" enjoining Israel and Egypt to stop fighting, or they would take "such military action as may See John A. Munro and Alex. I. Inglis, Mike: The Memoirs of the Right Honorable Lester B. Pearson, PC, CC, OM, 1 OBE, MA, LLD, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973, ch. 10 and 11 for Pearson's account of his role in the Suez crisis.
The Cabinet had its pro-British advocates, according to Dale Thomson: "Opinion among members of the 2 Canadian cabinet was divided concerning the call for a conference of users of the canal [in August 1956].
Several members shared the Progressive Conservative view that they should stand by the mother country, if only to avoid giving the official opposition an opportunity to accuse them of making Canada, in Diefenbaker's words, 'a mere tail on the American kike' [sic]." Walter Harris and Bob Winters both expected that an independent Canadian stand at the UN would cost the Liberals seats at the next election. Dale Thomson, Louis St. Laurent: Canadian, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1967, p. 460, 465.
2 be necessary to compel the offender to conform,"3 as Eden wrote St. Laurent. Twenty-four hours later, British and French armed forces began air attacks against Egypt, even while the United Nations Security Council was grasping with the Israeli invasion. Canada had not been apprised of the impending Anglo-French intervention and the Canadian Prime Minister was quite upset at Eden that "he first intimation I had of your government's intention to take certain grave steps in Egypt was from the press reports of your statements in the House of Commons."4 The Canadian government's policy was to "shape our course in conformity with what we regard as our obligations under the Charter of and our membership in the United Nations," as St. Laurent indicated to Eden.5 It would not be "a chore boy running around shouting 'Ready, aye, ready'."
Yet there were Canadians who wanted it to. On the day after Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company in late July 1956, Progressive Conservative Opposition MP John G.
Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons to ask whether the Canadian government "ought not to join with Britain in condemnation of what has taken place there in a perversion of international contracts, and also indicate to Britian [sic] and the other nations Canada's agreement with the stand which they are taking to meet this situation?"6 Diefenbaker never intimated whether Canada's agreement with Britain should involve more than moral support, but he was not alone in believing that Canada should stand firmly with Britain. Perhaps the most forceful expression of this sentiment came when the Suez crisis took a military turn. The day after Canada refrained from voting on the UN resolution condemning the Anglo-French aggression in Egypt, the Calgary Herald issued a vociferous
condemnation of the Canadian position:
Tuesday, October 30, will go down in Canada's history as a day of shock and shame.
On that day the government of Canada chose to run out on Britain at a time when Britain was asserting the kind of leadership the world has missed, and needed, in these ominous times....
What degradation is this?....
The Liberals have been carefully preparing the way for years, discarding the ties of ancestry and Commonwealth one by one, selling out our natural resources and our industry to the highest U.S. bidder.
And now we have the ultimate sell-out.
They have sold out our decency and our honor.7 The Suez incident became a litmus test of Canadian's sense of place on the international scene, of Canadian values, and of national unity. It provoked both defenders and opponents of the Canadian position at the United Nations into arguments based on varying conceptions of what Canada was as a country and what it should be. It quickly became the object of partisan debate in the press. Newspaper editors, and their readers, were sharply ANC MG 26 N5 vol. 40, Memoirs, volume 2, chapters 11 and 12. Suez. External Affairs Documents. NovDec 1956,Eden to St. Laurent, 1/11/1956.
ANC MG 26 N1 VOL. 37, Pre-1958 Series Middle East - General Correspondence Jan-Oct. 1956, St.
4 Laurent to Eden, 31/10/1956; on St. Laurent's reaction, see also Mike, p. 238: Pearson "had never before seen him in such a state of controlled anger," ANC MG 26 N1 VOL. 37, Pre-1958 Series Middle East - General Correspondence Jan-Oct. 1956, St.
5 Laurent to Eden, 31/10/1956.
Ibid., Extract from Hansard, Saturday, July 28, 1956, p. 6607.
divided on the issue.8 And interest in the issue went much beyond the editorial offices of newspapers or the pronouncements of habitual writers of letters to the editor. The Canadian public was generally well aware of the Middle East situation. A Canadian Institute of Public Opinion [Gallup] poll, in September 1956, indicated that 87% of the 1970 respondents had "heard of the Suez canal dispute." Regionally, this awareness ranged from a low of 72% in Newfoundland to a high of 97% in British Columbia. More than two thirds of the survey's French-speaking Quebec respondents had also heard of the issue.9 At that time, Canadians did not however feel very exercised by the Suez issue. Gallup asked whether it was better to "risk war or give Egypt control of Suez." Less than a quarter were ready to risk war, a third were explicitly ready to allow Egypt to control the canal, and 40% could not express a clear opinion on the question. The regional variation was pronounced, with only 14% of Quebec respondents willing to wage war (76 respondents out of 543 – the rate for French-speaking respondents was only 9%), and up to 45% in British Columbia, where only 26% were willing to let Egypt control the canal.10 The Gallup poll taken the following month showed that Canadians on the whole remained favourably disposed towards Great Britain's foreign policy, more so, in fact, than towards U.S. foreign policy. The October 1956 poll asked whether U.S. foreign policy was losing America friends. Of those who offered an opinion, 42% agreed with the statement, while only 39% agreed to a similar question about U.K. foreign policy. Only in Alberta was there a larger number of respondents agreeing with the statement about U.K. foreign policy than disagreeing with it, though the small number of Alberta respondents makes this a dubious measure. Opinion was even divided among Quebec francophone respondents, but, surprisingly, so was it among British Columbia respondents. Ontarians had a more positive opinion of Great Britain's foreign policy, with two thirds of those expressing an opinion believing that the U.K. was not losing friends because of its foreign policy. Overall, only 150 of the 2040 Gallup respondents specifically alluded to the Middle East crisis as a negative factor of U.K. foreign policy.11 The Suez crisis forced Canadians to reassess Canada's role in international affairs. While the Middle East situation did not directly involve Canada, it raised issues of foreign policy that affected the country's relationship with Great Britain, with France, and with the United States, the three most influential countries in Canada's development. Traditionally, these three countries had taken similar positions on international affairs, and Canada had fought alongside all three in two world wars. The Suez crisis disrupted this pattern and forced the Canadian government out of its self-satisfied definition as "bridge" between the two great English-speaking countries, as the shores of the "river" grew farther and farther apart. The Helen Patricia Adam, "Canada and the Suez Crisis 1956: The Evolution of Policy and Public Debate," M.A.
8 thesis, Acadia University, 1988, takes a careful look at editorial opinion and letters to the editor of 29 Canadian dailies (26 English-language and 3 French-language) during the months of October through December 1956, in an attempt to gauge public opinion. She used the letters to the editor because she did not find any reliable public opinion polls.
Carleton University Library Data Centre, Canadian Institute of Public Opinion [Gallup] poll #251k, 9 September 1956, file cipo251k.por, portable SPSS file.
10 Carleton University Library Data Centre, Canadian Institute of Public Opinion [Gallup] poll #252, October 11
Suez crisis constituted a significant juncture in the process I call "the other Quiet Revolution," the dissolution of English-speaking Canada's self-representation as a "British" nation. In reassessing Canadian foreign policy during the Suez crisis, English-speaking Canadians drew on their explicit or on their unspoken definitions of what Canada was and what Canada was about. It is these definitions which I want to draw out in this paper.
I. The framework of the paper
Like Quebec's Quiet Revolution, the "other Quiet Revolution" in English-speaking Canada did not appear abruptly without warning. It was the culmination of a process that began during the Second World War12 and continued through the 1950s. It was viewed as an insidious Liberal plot by the Globe and Mail, by members of the Progressive Conservative party, and among part of the Canadian intelligentsia.13 For the Globe and other Conservativeleaning newspapers, St. Laurent's administration was bent on dismantling the symbols of Canada's attachment to Great Britain. The creation of a Canadian citizenship in 1946,14 the promise of a 'distinctive' Canadian flag in the 1948 federal election campaign, the abolition of appeals to the British Privy Council in December 1949, the nomination of a Canadian as Governor General in 1951, the transformation of Victoria Day into a moveable holiday in 1953 were all manifestations of this insidious plot, hatched by what the Ottawa Citizen called in 1946 the 'ultra-nationalists,'15 a phrase left undefined but that obviously pointed to, in the code of the day, the French-speaking members of the Liberal party.16 On the celebration of Victoria Day in 1956, the Globe and Mail, for its part, reiterated caustically: "Disrespect for Canada's past (especially that part of it which related in any way to Britain) is endemic in Ottawa. As the late Herman Goering reached for his pistol whenever he heard the word culture, so Ottawa reaches for the eraser whenever it sees words like Victoria and Royal and Empire and Dominion."17 The defenders of a "British" definition of Canada conceived of the country as blessed with the wisdom and greatness of British tradition embodied in its political and judicial system, in its educational and literary traditions, and in its manly18 defence of democracy and decency on the world stage. British immigration had sustained this noble heritage. This definition of The Bureau of Public Information, a propaganda agency created during World War II, worked at this with 12 uneven success, according to William R. Young, "Making the Truth Graphic: The Canadian Government's Home Front Information Structure and Programmes during World War II," Ph.D. thesis, University of British Columbia, 1978.
Among the Tories, George Drew was probably the most rabid defender of British tradition in Canada.
13 Among the intellectuals, W.L. Morton and John Farthing, not to mention Donald Creigthon.
On the representations of Canadian identiy during the debate surrounding the Canadian Citizenship Act of 14 1946, see José E. Igartua, "L'autre révolution tranquille: l'évolution du nationalisme canadien-anglais, 1945in Gérard Bouchard andYvan Lamonde, ed., La nation dans tous ses États. Le Québec en comparaison, Montréal: l’Harmattan, 1997, 271-296.
"Young Men in a Hurry," Ottawa Citizen, 16 April 1946, p. 8.