Finest Hour 129, Winter 2005-06
A Tour de Force on Churchill and Canada
The Great Dominion: Winston Churchill in Canada, 1900-1954, by David Dilks. Foreword by The Lady Soames LG DBE. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 457 pp., illus., C$45. Member price $XX
By Barry Gough
Professor Gough, is a member of The Churchill Centre College of Fellows, historian of the Royal Navy and Canada, professor emeritus of Wilfrid Laurier University, Archives Fellow of Churchill College, and past President of The Organization for the History of Canada.
Churchill visited Canada nine times, travelled from coast to coast, and had a fair knowledge of its leaders—and people—in a way that few writers have appreciated. David Dilks, Neville Chamberlain’s official biographer, former Vice-Chancellor of Hull University, and the leader in Canadian Studies in the UK, provides a remarkable window on this aspect of Churchill’s life and travels. Equally valuable is the Canadian content of this book: inside comments from the likes of William Lyon Mackenzie King, longest serving Premier of Canada, or the British Commonwealth for that matter; of Prime Minister Lester Pearson; and of Brooke Claxton, Minister of Defence.
The Canadian commentary provides a wonderful counterpart to the Churchill documents and to journals and insights provided by those travelling with Churchill on his visits: John Colville, Lord Moran, military staff giants Ismay and Alanbrooke. Generally speaking American voices are kept out of this work, leaving it an Anglo-Canadian tryst or encounter.
The book begins with discussion of Churchill’s speaking tours. The first was in 1900-1901, with the young war correspondent recounting adventures in South Africa, including his escape from the Boers’ grasp. He received, and receiving warm applause from Canadian audiences in Ottawa, Montréal, Toronto and Winnipeg for Canada’s conspicuous part in the Boer War. He pointed out that Canada’s sacrifices on kopje and veldt had not been made in vain. In fact, opined Churchill, the war had added to Canada’s power and prestige, promoted the unity of the British Empire, and making possible the prospect of a united South Africa.
This was flattering, and confirming, and his audiences, often hearing the opposite about this messy imperial conflict, loved it. The editor of a Winnipeg paper gives an insight into Churchill before his address in that city, and this is typical of the jewels that Dilks has found for us:
Before the curtain went up the lecturer looked through the peephole in it, and speaking to the manager of the theatre, who stood at his elbow, asked him for his estimate of the sum of money ‘in the house.’ To the present writer, standing in the wings, a Winnipeg lawyer and leading citizen who was next to him expressed disappointment on hearing the lecturer thus openly show his interest in the yield of cash to be reaped from the lecturer….Churchill left Winnipeg by train dressed snugly in a coon-skin coat he purchased at the Hudson’s Bay Company…with warmest memories, enhanced reputation, and padded coffers.
Churchill came again on the eve of the Wall Street Crash, pondering international and imperial problems in Suez, Egypt and Singapore. Now his fame was assured by his World Crisis volumes and many cabinet positions. He was a person to be watched and to be described, by such as the Toronto Star : “… the most nearly universal genius in captivity….All that has come to him—of inspiration, experience, triumph, mastery—he has not sought. It has simply come, as breezes seek Aeolian wires.” Churchill made twelve speeches on that tour, writing to his wife of his regard for Canada’s future and independent mindset:
The immense size and progress of this country impresses itself upon one more and more every day….The sentimental feeling towards England is wonderful. The United States are is [is] stretching their [its] tentacles out in all directions, but the Canadian National spirit and personality is becoming so powerful and self-contained that I do not think we need fear the future….
Churchill renewed his friendship with Mackenzie King on this visit, and took the opportunity to inquire into the recent and celebrated constitutional difficulty involving the Governor General, Viscount Bing of Vimy, and two Canadian premiers, King and Meighen. King, always suspicious of Churchill, found he had more support from WSC than expected. As King was prime architect of the evolution of the Commonwealth he seems to have been an important influence on gaining Churchill’s appreciation of the Commonwealth ideal of autonomous dominions and governments within the British Empire. On wartime visits Churchill made much of Canada’s growth and economic power, so vital to the Allied victory. Three large chapters, one for each great meeting—Argentia, 1941 and the 1943-44 Quebec conferences (Quadrant and Octagon)—are full of documentary snippets offering insights into high-level diplomacy and strategy. The Argentia meeting, to establish the theme of a United Nations and to lay down principles for a postwar world, is worked out against a backdrop of personal discord between Churchill and King, with WSC attempting some fence mending. The second centred on discussions on nuclear energy, strategy, and future direction of war. The third shows closer bonds of Commonwealth, a meeting of the War Committee of the Canadian Cabinet, and a press conference with Churchill. Dilks provides lovely bridges to the materials, and identifies with editorial skill various prominent figures who grace these pages. This is a rich tapestry of Canadian political life.
The best most original scholarship is the post-1945 era. Churchill came to Canada in 1952 and 1954. He was bullish on the country, as he so said in Ottawa in 1952, in the presence of Prime Minister St. Laurent:
Upon the whole surface of the globe there is no more spacious and splendid domain open to the activity and genius of free men, with one hand clasping in enduring friendship with the United States, and the other spread across the ocean both to Britain and to France. You will have a sacred mission to discharge. That you will be worthy of it I do not doubt. God bless you all.
It was a wholesome, generous tribute, but Churchill was not in top form. Recently in Washington he had strenuously and unsuccessfully fought against Dean Acheson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the evolution of a Supreme Command, North Atlantic.
Churchill, older and weaker now, was energized by sentiment: he pushed upon the Canadians to retain “Rule Britannia” as the Royal Canadian Navy’s signature song, but Canadian statesmen had to point out that the more appropriate “Vive la Canadienne” had been officially adopted. Still, the hosts yielded agreeably to the appeals of the guest, and “Rule Britannia” was played by the RCAF band on all suitable occasions when Churchill was present.
Claxton, in a rare insight, tells us that Churchill was delighted with Canadian-built Sabre aircraft sent to Britain and used in RAF squadrons, because as Churchill said, the existing air capability of fighter aircraft of the Hunter and Swift type were no match for the Russian MIGs.
Canadian postwar loans to Britain, and similar debts written off from the World War II receive scant treatment here. These were years of mighty Canadian commitment to NATO and to European security, and before 1956, when Canada departed from British policy on the matter of Suez, 1956, the, the Anglo-Canadian alliance was fixed and inviolate.
This is a grand and handsome book, a superb companion to modern histories of Canada and the UK as seen through Churchill’s eyes and those who saw Churchill in Canada Bringing together so much vast information, some of it hitherto unavailable, makes it an imperishable book, a credit to author and publisher alike. It gives enhanced value to the Canadian side and insights into modern history, so often neglected. Of course it shows aspects of Canadian independent thought and muted paranoia, for having to grow up with John Bull as well as Uncle Sam was never, and could never, be easy.