The Other Golden Age: Rethinking Seasons of Canadian Diplomacy

By Antony Anderson |

It’s not surprising that contemporary commentators and historians would become so taken by what came to be called the Golden Age of Canadian Diplomacy. After all, that period from the 1940s into the late 1950s glittered with so much international creativity and unlike the dreary, quasi-isolationist 1920s and 1930s, Canadian diplomats were engaged on the front lines – present at the creation of the United Nations and NATO, there for the Korean War and Suez. But as historians dug into the documents, it’s perhaps equally unsurprising that they learned the world stage was not quite as golden for our masterful diplomats at External Affairs as it appeared from the outside. While there was clearly a great deal to applaud, it also became apparent that the middle power season on the world stage was suffused with  recurring frustration, discontent and indignation at being taken for granted, overlooked or snubbed by the more powerful allies who, as they have always done, wielded the greatest influence and defined all the final decisions – whether Canada liked it or not.

There is a sense that in so many if not all of the great diplomatic shoving matches, Canada’s principal path was to retreat to bare minimums. At the 1945 San Francisco Conference to finalise the UN’s Charter, the Canadian delegation, rather than risk getting no UN at all, reluctantly supported an undemocratic organization in which the self-chosen permanent members granted themselves a veto. During the negotiations to create NATO, Ottawa was determined to establish a social and economic federation. Facing unyielding US resistance, it had to settle for a purely military alliance. During the Korean War, even our most celebrated and connected diplomat Lester Pearson, lost every key diplomatic battle with his US counterparts. At one point, he was so enraged at being bypassed by American tactics that he walked out of the General Assembly – before he dutifully returned to support the American-led effort to rescue South Korea. It is fitting that the only time Pearson came close to swearing on record occurred as he was reminiscing about dealing with US officials during the Free French take over of St. Pierre and Miquelon in 1941. Anxious about maintaining relations with the Vichy regime in France, Jay P. Moffat, the American Ambassador to Ottawa issued apparently patronising orders to Pearson and his colleagues to remove the Free French. Appalled by the ambassador’s imperious tone, the typically amiable Pearson recalled: “In diplomatic language, we told him to go to hell… things were very very cold between Washington and Ottawa for a while. ”[1] Even that most golden moment of all, Pearson’s triumph at Suez, remains in many ways a blinding exception. As Prof. James Eayrs noted with prescience shortly afterwards: “The brilliance of [Pearson’s] performance on that occasion must not obscure the fact that it was a one-night stand, an exceptional turn in circumstances unlikely to recur.” [2]   Looking back from his retirement, Pearson summed up Canada’s final score with this subtle and brutally honest assessment: “I was not so naive as to think that we could decisively, or even importantly, influence the policies of the Great Powers but I hoped we could influence the environment in which they were pursued.” Those are the words of a wise middle power diplomat long experienced in having to cut back on expectations and objectives.

To behold a season of diplomacy when Canada truly and decisively influenced the policies of a Great Power and the trajectory of international relations, we need to turn to another world war and the period just beyond when Prime Ministers Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King remade their country and, in the process, refashioned the world’s most powerful empire into a more modest commonwealth.

Before the Great War, Canada and the other Dominions did not speak or act for themselves on the world stage. In 1914, Parliament didn’t even have the constitutional authority to declare war against Germany. Informed about the war’s progress by reading what he could in newspapers and given no role in its conduct, Borden finally got fed up with the Dominion’s secondary status as mere and largely mute supplier of cannon fodder. He forced the British to give Canada and all the other Dominions a say in how their troops were being used. From that burst of independence, he then insisted that the Dominions be treated as equals in all other aspects of policy. Relentless, Borden went even further and attained a separate seat for Canada in the League of Nations. His work helped take Canada and the other Dominions out from the shadows. The world’s largest empire was never the same.

Borden’s precedent was sustained and amplified by Mackenzie King at the 1923 Imperial Conference. Battered financially by the Great War, and yet still seizing more imperial turf in Africa and the Middle East, London fretted about overreach and embarked on a vague but potentially portentous drive for a coordinated imperial defence and foreign policy. It’s conceivable this could have turned into an earlier version of NATO, acting in some kind of parallel fashion to the League of Nations. It may have even kept the precarious Empire afloat for  longer. Australia and New Zealand expressed support in principle but King would have none of it. Such was his resistance at the conference that South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts said in admiration, “Mackenzie King, you are a very terrible person; you are giving an awful lot of trouble.”[3] The exasperated British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon complained to his wife: “The last two days have been a whirlwind of negotiation and trouble in order to get the Imperial Conference to agree to a report…on Foreign Affairs. The obstacle has been Mackenzie King, the Canadian, who is both obstinate, tiresome and stupid.” But ultimately, the Mother Country bowed to the wishes of the Dominion. There would be no imperial defence scheme operating on the world stage. At the end of the conference, Smuts noted to King, “You ought to be satisfied. Canada has had her way in everything.” The obstinate tiresome Canadian then went on to formalise Canada’s (nearly total) independence within and beyond the British Empire, enshrined in the 1931 Statute of Westminster. Again, Canada had reworked the definition and functioning of the world’s largest empire. Not to belittle what was came later after the Second World War but subsequent Canadian leaders and diplomats would never match the scope of those global changes unleashed between the 1917 and 1931 – Canada’s truly golden age of effective and influential diplomacy.

Antony Anderson is the author of The Diplomat: Lester Pearson and the Suez Crisis (Goose Lane Editions: 2015) and a senior fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History.


[1] Lester Pearson interview with the CBC for his television memoirs, “First Person Singular”, and the documentary series, “The Tenth Decade”, Library and Archives Canada, CBC fonds, accession 1985 – 0298, sound tape 11 film roll 49

[2] James Eayrs, Northern Approaches Canada and the Search for Peace (Toronto: Macmillan, 1961), 173-4

[3] William Lyon Mackenzie King diary, 7 November 1923, 217-8.

One thought on “The Other Golden Age: Rethinking Seasons of Canadian Diplomacy

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of August 12, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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