Painful Truth: Foreign wars forgotten in Canada

Gill Rosenberg has caused a stir this week. The White Rock-born woman, a former Israeli Defense Forces soldier and former convicted phone-scammer, has become a fighter with Kurdish guerillas against ISIS.

She isn’t alone. Dillon Hillier, a Canadian Forces veteran who served in Afghanistan and who is the son of an Ontario MPP, is also overseas fighting the self-styled Caliphate that has overrun parts of Syria and Iraq. About half a dozen other Canadians are known to have also taken up arms for the Kurds, along with Americans and Brits and other westerners.

They might be shooting at fellow Canadians. The media has been equally captivated with tales of young men signing up with ISIS. Many of them are new converts. Canada’s established Muslim communities and associations have been pretty much horrified by these would-be jihadists.

All of this may seem new and strange, but Canadians have a history older than the country itself of fighting in the armies of other nations.

During the U.S. Civil War, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 Canadians joined the Union Army, as well as a few hundred who joined the Confederacy. One of the Union volunteers was Calixa Lavallée, who would later write the music for O Canada.

Since Confederation, Canadians have wandered far afield several times to fight for various causes.

In 1936, Spain was convulsed by its own civil war, and volunteers from around the world travelled to fight for both sides.

Somewhere around 1,500 Canadians, many of them communists and socialists hardened by the economic savagery of the Great Depression, formed the Mackenzie-Papineau Brigade. 

They were motivated to save Spain from the takeover by General Franco, who was backed by Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany. The Republican side, an unwieldy alliance of hardline communists backed by the Soviet Union, liberal democrats, and anarchists, was eventually crushed, and many Canadians were killed or wounded in the fight.

One of the Mac-Paps’ most famous members was Norman Bethune, a doctor who had already been wounded in the First World War. He organized a mobile blood transfusion service for the soldiers on the front lines.

He would continue that kind of work in his next overseas conflict, in China. Bethune volunteered his medical skills for Mao’s Communist Party army as they found the Japanese. He died in China in 1939 of blood poisoning, probably contracted after he cut himself during a surgery.

In the 1960s, around 30,000 Canadians joined the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.

The flow of soldiers had gone the other way, too. Thousands of Americans served for Canada and Britain during both world wars, before America entered the fight.

Right now, our laws ban fighting for known terrorist organizations, and that’s about it. It’s pretty much impossible to prevent every would-be foreign fighter from heading overseas. 

Would-be foreign fighters face a hard road, and that’s assuming they survive. 

They will have all the problems of Canadian Forces veterans – wounds, possible psychological trauma – without any of the already inadequate government supports to help them out. Those who survive face being labelled traitors at worst, largely forgotten at best. There’s no pension plan for mercenaries and adventurers in guerilla units.

We need to plan now for how to deal with Canadians fighting for other nations, because the world is getting smaller, and every war is close to home.

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