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Polarity, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914–1919 by Brock Millman (review)
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Polarity, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914–1919. Brock Millman. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. Pp. 358, $80.00 cloth, $34.95 paper

This awkwardly titled book adds much detail to our understanding of the Great War’s corrosive effects on Canada’s home front. Berlin, Ontario–renamed Kitchener (after the ardent imperialist and concentration camp administrator)–provides many of Millman’s best stories. A gang of soldiers kidnaps a Lutheran pastor, the cleric having attempted to explain German Canadians’ complicated attitudes toward the war. The crowd threatens him with violence if he fails to leave town. The ringleaders receive suspended sentences. In 1919, another group of British patriots drags a Kitchener member of parliament through the streets and beats him when he refuses to kiss the flag. Another crowd kidnaps a city councillor and throws him into a lake. The tales that Millman unearths are legion. Across Canada, thousands of innocent Canadians are interned, jailed, and vilified in the spasm of patriotic zealotry that accompanied the war.

Millman offers us a detailed narrative of resistance to conscription across Canada that emphasizes the violence of the “mob” and the generally “remarkably restrained” (145) approach of the federal authorities, all in a tone that would not displease Arthur Meighen. The killing of four protestors in Quebec City’s Easter 1917 anti-conscription protest is disposed of with remarkable brevity (185) within a narrative that dwells lovingly upon every excess, rhetorical or otherwise, of the anti-conscriptionists and generally steers clear of the ample French language analyses of the controversy.

It is good to have these stories that show clearly the ways that the war fractured Canadian society. Yet they are all placed within an overarching narrative of a hard-pressed Canadian state doing what was necessary in the “management of dissent.” After all, “revolutions are not killed with kindness” (5–6). Meanwhile, “British Canada” (8–9) inevitably and necessarily had the whip hand over Quebec and those Millman calls the “New Canadians.” (Imagining the long-settled German Canadians of Berlin to be “new” and the many newly arrived British Canadians rallying to the colours to be “old” speaks volumes about the author’s tacit assumptions.)

In this way and in many others, this book reminds one of Roland Barthes’s famous “OperationMargarine” (Mythologies, Éditions du Seuil, 1957). Barthes dissected the ways that this bourgeois culture can be vaccinated against the germs of fundamental critique by incorporating critiques of its shortcomings, thus buttressing the status quo. He [End Page 153] described a mode of thought that involves the depiction of the drawbacks and injustices of what he called the “Established Order” while simultaneously “exalting” it. In Millman’s case, the operation acknowledges and illustrates the extreme measures taken against so many Canadians guilty of dissent or lack of Britishness, while he argues that all such enormities were both inevitable and justifiable: “Canada might have been destroyed as communities turned on one another,” the victim of the “unfortunate mathematics of total war in Great War Canada” (7). And who can argue with the laws of mathematics?

Margarine aside, the book contains some disquieting errors. Readers encounter the “International” Workers of the World and Big Bill “Heywood” instead of the Industrial Workers of the World and Big Bill Haywood (43), and they meet contemporary Canadian sociologist Wallace “Clements” instead of Wallace Clement (36). Then there is poet Duncan Campbell Scott who was “friendly to Native issues” (187). In our age of truth and reconciliation, this is a jarring twenty-first century appraisal of an Ottawa civil servant who played a key role in residential school development. Overall, for all of its stories, the book suffers, on both empirical and analytical grounds, in comparison to Reg Whitaker, Gregory Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby’s Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America (University of Toronto Press, 2012), whose chapter “A War on Two Fronts” covers similar territory more critically and credibly.

Jamie Swift
Queen’s University
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