After Vimy: Did Canada really find its independence in 1922 battle it refused to fight?

After sending thousands of young Canadians to die for the British Empire in the Boer War and First World War, the Chanak Affair in 1922 marked the first time Canada said "no" to participating in a British war.

The Chanak Affair: 4 years after WWI, Canada finally said no to participating in one of Britain's wars

Canadian soldiers leave after the sunset ceremony April 8 at Vimy Canadian National Memorial, on the eve of the ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

In one way, Canada's mythologizing of the battle of Vimy Ridge as the birth of a nation is pretty typical.

Most countries of the Americas mark battles as the moments when their countries asserted nationhood and claimed independence. The United States has Yorktown and Lexington, Mexico has the Battle of Puebla, Chile remembers the battle of Chacabuco and Colombia the battle of Boyaca.

A common thread connects those battles: All were fought on home soil against the European colonial powers that claimed dominion over the Americas. In other words, they were actual battles for independence.

Only Canada claims to have achieved independence from its colonial master by fighting for that colonial power on European soil.

Unlike the Bostonian rebels who famously said "no" to Britain's impositions (and threw their tea in the harbour), one of this country's founding stories would have us believe that Canada achieved independence from Britain by saying "yes, sir." 

The valour of Canadian soldiers is not in question and is a legitimate source of pride. 

But few of those who fought at Vimy Ridge were motivated by a desire for Canadian independence. Most would have said they were fighting for the British Empire. 

The strength to say 'no'

Curiously enough, only five years after Vimy there was an important international event that marked a genuine step forward for Canadian independence, yet today few Canadians are aware of it.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, pictured in 1923, led Turkey to independence. (Wikipedia)

It was a crisis centred on the same Dardenelles beaches in Turkey where so many subjects of the British Empire had died a few years before, in the Battle of Gallipoli.

Following Turkey's defeat in the First World War, Britain and other European powers divided the country into "mandates" and settled in to administer it on the same lines as their other colonies. But the Turks, led by an energetic army officer called Mustafa Kemal, had other ideas.

Kemal, known to history as Ataturk, organized Turkey's defeated army into a strong fighting force and drove the French and Greek armies out of Anatolia.

The British Army found itself huddled on the beaches of Chanak (today Canakkale), and Prime Minister David Lloyd George did what British prime ministers always did in such situations: He called on Britain's loyal colonies to immediately send men to help, just as they had in the Boer War and the Great War.

In 1922, the British Army was pushed back by Turkish forces near the coastal city now known by its Turkish name, Çanakkale. (Google Maps)

The British were so certain that this call would be answered, that Lloyd George took the liberty of issuing a communiqué threatening Turkey with an immediate declaration of war by Britain and its dominions … without actually consulting the dominions.

It was the kind of behaviour that Canada had always accepted in the past.

But in a country still staggering from its losses in World War One, Canada's new prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wasn't keen to send more young men to die in the Dardenelles for Mother England. And so he did something no Canadian leader had ever done — he said "no" to Britain.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, newly elected prime minister in 1921, resisted Great Britain's call the next year for military support in what came to be known as the Chanak Affair. (Canadian Press)

In fact, it was more like a "not right now" than a real "no," but Mackenzie King established a vital precedent by insisting that Canada's Parliament, not Westminster, would decide whether young Canadians should be sent to die in a foreign land.

He then stalled on the issue, and by the time Canada's Parliament was ready to discuss it, the crisis had passed and Britain had given up.

The events at Chanak marked the end of Lloyd George's political career, and paved the way for the birth of the Turkish Republic.

It was also a formative event in the history of Canada (and of Australia, which also said "no"), but you wouldn't know it attending many Canadian schools, or listening to the official propaganda of Canadian Heritage.

While Canada pulls out all the stops to mark the bloody losses at Vimy Ridge, there is no "Heritage Minute" dedicated to the lives not lost at Chanak, and no monument marks the first assertion of Canada's right to make its own choices.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.


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