- Maple Leaf Empire: Canada, Britain, and Two World Wars by Jonathan Vance
Jonathan Vance’s Maple Leaf Empire has received praise in Canadian newspapers and made Maclean’s top-ten bestsellers list for non-fiction. The cultural and social turn in Canadian history in the last quarter-century sought in part to distance Canadian history and identity from Britain and its empire in favour of a more multicultural and independent heritage. Vance’s book re-engages with Canada’s undeniable link with the British Empire and Commonwealth. Welcomed no doubt by those who lament the “killing of Canadian history,” this is the empire strikes back.
Vance’s major points are not controversial: Canada and Britain have a shared history of military endeavour based on familial and cultural links, as well as shared commitment to democratic ideals. His argument that Canadian national pride and loyalty to the British Empire were not mutually exclusive but often symbiotic is also well founded. The temporal frame of the book, 1871 to 1946, from the last British garrisons leaving Canada to the last Canadian ones leaving Britain, is appropriate. The first chapter examines how, in Vance’s estimation, the British army created Canada. Chapters 2 and 3 are divided by the two phases of Canadian participation in the First World War, Ypres and after. The fourth chapter examines how Canada remained “a British nation” during the change from empire to Commonwealth in the interwar years, while the last two chapters cover Canadians in Britain as part of the Allied war effort before and after the entrance of the Americans in the Second World War. The appendix, “A Guide for Guys like You,” a 1943 Royal Canadian Artillery publication about British manners and customs, is a welcome and amusing inclusion.
Vance makes good use the Canadian Letters and Images Project (www.canadianletters.ca), which documents the wartime experiences of Canadians from the late Victorian period through to the Korean War, along with other accounts from Canadian soldiers, civilians, and politicians, to create an accessible and well-paced narrative. Indeed, the book is a fine example of a popular history synthesis of social, political, and military history. There is good use of anecdotes, not least of which is the one about the Aldershot woman who was not fussed by the Canadian soldier who impregnated her and her daughter, but did ask for her daughter’s bike back as the girl needed it to get to work in the mornings. Also beneficial to this very “human” history is the inclusion of prose fiction, poetry, and a selection of propaganda posters and other historical images. [End Page 616]
In a book about the Anglo-Canadian enterprise, there is scant acknowledgement of dissenting voices from Quebec, and selected excerpts from La Presse are employed as evidence of support for Britain and its concerns. For Vance, Britain is almost wholly England; Scotland, Newfoundland, and Ireland before and after the Free State hardly receive mention and, tellingly, are not included in the index. Surely, the Scottish contribution to the development of Canada and that of Scottish-Canadians to the war efforts deserve some mention. Vance does acknowledge that Canadians of different ethnic backgrounds flocked to the cause of empire and that Canada’s British identity evolved separately from Britain’s. However, the British experience in Canada is incomplete without a more nuanced view of all migrants from the home countries who settled in Canada.
It may have been beyond the remit of the project, but the book is light on British sources, especially newspapers. This seems odd given the Times, from the late eighteenth century on, is accessible electronically. Some may tire of the Hockey Night in Canada–like folksy identification of what obscure town was home to which particular soldier, or the grand historical tourism describing sites in Britain from ancient times to the twentieth-century arrival of Canadians as the new barbarian invasion. Some may also take issue with Vance’s repeated overstating of the Canadian presence in England during the wars as a...