Lessons of War

Like most Canadians born after the victory in Europe in 1945, Marc Garneau knows nothing of war. Yet he does know, from his three journeys into space, what it's like to learn something valuable that only first-hand experience can teach.

"It is very much a question of perspective," he says. "When you see the planet from space, and you see the very, very thin membrane of our atmosphere that allows life to flourish down on Earth, you are affected by that in a very profound way."

In the same way, says Garneau, Canadians who fought and lived through the First and Second World Wars learned lessons that are difficult for many to grasp today about the fragility of peace and the wonders of a free society not threatened by fear or violence.

Sixty years of such good fortune, he says, have obscured these insights and turned the country's wartime past, and its present military responsibilities, into mere "abstractions" for many Canadians.

"I think it stems from the fact that since the end of the Second World War, Canadians have never felt threatened," he said in a 2005 interview from Montreal, where Garneau was then president of the Canadian Space Agency.

"When I was in military college, the history book I read had a subtitle 'The Military History of a Non-Military People.'

"I think it's part of the Canadian fabric … we don't like to think about war, we never really felt threatened with a few minor exceptions, and let's face it, it's no fun thinking about those kinds of things."

Naval Officer

Before Garneau was born in 1949, however, war had long been part of his own family's existence. His grandfather, Colonel Gérard Garneau, was wounded twice during the First World War at Passchendaele and Lens. His father, Brigadier General André Garneau, was a career infantry soldier who fought during the Second World War across France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.

"My father and grandfather were both typical of military officers in that time, having a very strong sense of duty, a very strong allegiance to their country, a sense of patriotism without being jingoistic, and a sense that they had been called to a noble profession," he says.

Inspired by their example of national service, Garneau joined the Navy in 1965. In contrast to his father's time in the military the heyday of the Canadian Forces Garneau enlisted at the beginning of a long period of decline. In 1967, the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau government unified the Canadian Army, Air Force and Navy into one organization, setting it on a decades-long track of ever-diminishing resources.

Garneau served as a naval engineer through the 1970s and 1980s, including a three-year posting on the destroyer HMCS Algonquin. He recalls it as a tough time for everyone in uniform.

"The support provided by the country, especially after the Second World War, was very different from the kind of support that my father and his father enjoyed in the prime of their military careers," he says. "In my time the feeling was one of benign indifference from the public, certainly reflected in the fact that the budgets were reduced successively. And there was just a feeling of, 'Well, does anybody care, the way I care, about serving my country?'

"I'm not embittered by any of this [but] there was the sadness of feeling that indifference."

When Garneau joined the military, the Canadian Forces boasted 110,000 serving regulars.

"Today there are 55,000 half as many," he says. "There is some truth to saying that we're a little bit on life-support in certain areas, despite the very fine people who work and try very hard in the Forces. It's a real pity from that point of view." Garneau says such neglect is reflected in the way Canada remembers its veterans.

"I think we demonstrate respect and care for our veterans on Remembrance Day," he says. "But you know, if you ask people about the fact that we lost 60,000 Canadians in the First World War, and that we made similar contributions in the Second World War, it's abstract to a lot of them. They don't realize just how much effort and sacrifice went into that."

Sense of Duty

Yet despite his deep regret at the lack of pride and prestige Canadians attach to their military, Garneau's faith in the fundamental goodness of his fellow citizens remains strong. If another crisis ever demanded a national sacrifice, he believes the same values that prompted a million Canadians to volunteer for service in the Second World War would motivate the country again.

"Canadians have a sense of what's right and wrong," he says. "They're highly motivated by their sense of justice. If we ever get into any future conflicts, people would rally once again to that kind of cause."