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  • Armies of Peace: Canada and the UNRRA Years
  • Thomas Socknat (bio)
Susan Armstrong-Reid and David Murray. Armies of Peace: Canada and the UNRRA Years. University of Toronto Press. xiv, 482. $65.00

Today Canada enjoys an international reputation as a peacemaker and promoter of human rights, but when and why did that develop? At least part of the answer is provided by Susan Armstrong-Reid and David Murray in their book, Armies of Peace: Canada and the UNRRA Years, a history of Canadian involvement in the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) from 1943 to 1947 and the impact of that experience on future Canadian attitudes and policies.

In essence this is a triptych - three different but linked histories: diplomatic, institutional, and social. It begins with Canada's diplomatic efforts to test what it saw as the backbone of its new foreign policy as a 'middle power,' the functional principle - the idea that 'power should be a function of a nation's ability to contribute in a given area' - by securing a leading role in the first postwar international organization. Other nations, including the United States, were suspicious of that argument and, as the authors admit, Canada's participation in UNRRA owed less to [End Page 571] the 'functional principle' than to 'characters and circumstance.' The Canadian players included External Affairs stalwarts Lester Pearson and Hume Wrong as well as less well-known figures who pressed Canada's symbolic and real interests. Other than recognition, the main Canadian goal, somewhat self-serving, was to ensure that UNRRA purchased supplies from Canada. In fact, the issue of procurement preoccupied the Canadians and in the end, as one of the major suppliers of food items, Canada viewed the UNRRA years a success.

The second part of the book examines the tangled web of UNRRA bureaucratic politics as experienced by Canadian UNRRAIDS, as staff members were known. Special attention is given to a number of women determined to assert themselves in a male-dominated world: Mary McGeachy, head of the Welfare Division, 'the only woman appointed to the executive level of UNRRA,' Charity Grant, director of a displaced-persons camp, Ethel Ostry, a principal welfare officer in various camps, and two social workers named Brown: Mabel Geldard-Brown in Greece and Elizabeth Brown in Jerusalem. They all experienced first-hand the frustrations and heartbreak resulting from bureaucratic red tape and internal and external political bickering, especially as UNRRA policy regarding wartime refugees shifted from relief to repatriation. Nevertheless, their conviction that 'they were making a difference' is supported by examples.

The third section is devoted to UNRRA's medical mission and especially to the work of Canadian nurses in the Middle East, Greece, Italy, Occupied Germany, and China. Although they 'never expected to have to negotiate minefields of administrative rivalry, nationalist politics, gender, and professional authority while working on the front lines with UNRRA,' the authors argue that 'Canadian UNRRA nurses constituted a female educational elite who were professionally and temperamentally predisposed to seize the opportunity of pioneering new frontiers in international nursing.' In China, where the medical task was particularly challenging, UNRRA was assisted by voluntary agencies. Here Armstrong-Reid and Murray expand their research beyond UNRRA to include the colourful and thrilling story of the Canadian contingent to the Friends Ambulance Unit's China Convoy operating throughout the country hauling medical supplies, running hospitals, and combating epidemics.

While the book provides a solid, serviceable account of Canada's diplomatic manoeuvring and the sometimes tedious bureaucratic problems with UNRRA, it is in recovering the historical memories of the Canadian UNRRAIDS in the field where the book really shines. Certainly, the section on UNRRA nurses is an important addition to the historiography of nursing.

The concluding chapters focus on the long-range significance for Canada of the UNRRA experience. Many of the UNRRAIDS claimed that it had changed their lives and broadened their personal and professional [End Page 572] outlook, and the authors make a strong case that 'former UNRRAIDS shaped the contours of postwar Canada as educators and as advocates for improved health care and greater social justice' as well as for a more liberal immigration policy and...


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