Monday, January 28, 2013

Getting into Sight and in Mind.

Two years ago this appeared in a UK newspaper:-

"Until the deaths of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, probably almost no-one outside their home country had been aware that Canadian troops are deployed in the region.

And as always, Canada will bury its dead, just as the rest of the world, as always will forget its sacrifice, just as it always forgets nearly everything Canada ever does. It seems that Canada's historic mission is to come to the selfless aid both of its friends and of complete strangers, and then, once the crisis is over, to be well and truly ignored.

Canada is the perpetual wallflower that stands on the edge of the hall, waiting for someone to come and ask her for a dance. A fire breaks out, she risks life and limb to rescue her fellow dance-goers, and suffers serious injuries. 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.

That is the price Canada pays for sharing the North American continent with the United States, and for being a selfless friend of Britain in two global conflicts.

For much of the 20th century, Canada was torn in two different directions: It seemed to be a 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.

Yet its purely voluntary contribution to the cause of freedom in two world wars was perhaps the greatest of any democracy.

Almost 10% of Canada's entire population of seven million people served in the armed forces during the First World War, and nearly 60,000 died. The great Allied victories of 1918 were spearheaded by Canadian troops, perhaps the most capable soldiers in the entire British order of battle.

Canada was repaid for its enormous sacrifice by downright neglect, it's unique contribution to victory being absorbed into the popular memory as somehow or other the work of the 'British.'


The Second World War provided a re-run. The Canadian navy began the war with a half dozen vessels, and ended up policing nearly half of the Atlantic against U-boat attack. More than 120 Canadian warships participated in the Normandy landings, during which 15,000 Canadian soldiers went ashore on D-Day alone.

Canada finished the war with the third-largest navy and the fourth largest air force in the world. 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 United States had clearly not participated - a touching scrupulousness which, of course, Hollywood has since abandoned, as it has any notion of a separate Canadian identity.

So it is a general rule that actors and filmmakers arriving in Hollywood keep their nationality - unless, that is, they are Canadian. Thus Mary Pickford, Walter Huston, Donald Sutherland, Michael J. Fox, William Shatner, Norman Jewison, David Cronenberg, Alex Trebek, Art Linkletter, Mike Weir and Dan Aykroyd have in the popular perception become American, and Christopher Plummer, British.

It is as if, in the very act of becoming famous, a Canadian ceases to be Canadian, unless she is Margaret Atwood, who is as unshakably Canadian as a moose, or Celine Dion, for whom Canada has proved quite unable to find any takers.

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. The Canadians proudly say of themselves - and are unheard by anyone else - that 1% of the world's population has provided 10% of the world's peacekeeping forces. 

Canadian soldiers in the past half century have been the greatest peacekeepers on Earth - in 39 missions on UN mandates, and six on non-UN peacekeeping duties, from Vietnam to East Timor, from Sinai to Bosnia. 

Yet the only foreign engagement that has entered the popular non-Canadian imagination was the sorry affair in Somalia , in which out-of-control paratroopers murdered two Somali infiltrators. Their regiment was then disbanded in disgrace - a uniquely Canadian act of self-abasement for which, naturally, the Canadians received no international credit. 

So who today in the United States knows about the stoic and selfless friendship its northern neighbour has given it 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. It is the Canadian way, for which Canadians should be proud, yet such honour comes at a high cost. This past year more grieving Canadian families knew that cost all too tragically well."
'Salute to a Brave and Modest Nation' - Kevin Myers, The Sunday Telegraph, London

I sent this along to an old school pal, who, like me, has spent most of his adult life living in a country without much profile. His response:

"There are a number of celebrities who originate from Zambia who have adopted other nationalities. These include 2 International Rugby players, one a former captain of the South African side and another who played for Australia. Then a female pop singer now British and in UK, and a swimmer who is now in USA and will probably take US citizenship as soon as she can. Of my grandsons, one wants to bat for the South African cricket team and the other bowl for England. Certainly the elder is eligible for South African citizenship as he was born there. So whether they will ever achieve these ambitions remains to be seen, but, if they do, they could well be playing opposite each other in an England vs. South Africa Test match in about 12 years time!

Zambia is probably one of the most peaceful countries in Africa but its contribution to UN peace-keeping forces in conflict areas is rarely published...and if it is, it is usually for negative reasons. Life goes on as normal here, which is why Zambia is seldom mentioned in the international media. We have presidential and general elections towards the end of 2011 and while there is a lot of 'mud slinging' between the politicians, we do not anticipate the unrest that has characterized so many other parts of Africa."

Two nations, both exemplars of civilized living within their respective regions but both largely ignored throughout the world. 

The current Tory Government gets much internal flack for narrowing military policy towards our Arctic backyard and other regions where our own interests are directly threatened. Many in a nation that still basks in the Nobel Prize won by Lester Pearson for our global good-guy peacekeeping efforts find this shift distasteful. Yet this Government is still smarting from its recent failure to get a seat on the UN Security Council.  We were out of sight, and so out of mind. 

We're presently providing logistic support to the French military in Mali because Mali, as part of the worldwide Francophonie, has been an important focus for our aid.  That's enlightened self-interest for us as a key player in the French-speaking international community. Small nations need to choose carefully how to insert themselves into world affairs. Without an Alfred Nobel or a Hollywood of our own, we have few good ways to get our perspective across to the wider world.

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