Canada and the Rule of Law
Lessons from History and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Canada and the World invites prominent scholars from across the country to discuss Canada’s relationship to the wider world, and the ways in which history has shaped its international relationships. Series editor: Kyle Pritchard.

An arrowhead shaped patch with the Ukrainian trident and Canadian maple leaf is seen on the sleeve of a Canadian soldier's combat uniform. In the background, Ukrainian soldiers lift their rifles to their shoulders as part of a training exercise.

Members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine receive urban operations training on movement and searches under the supervision of Canadian Armed Forces personnel during Operation UNIFIER on May 14, 2023, in the United Kingdom. Master Sailor Valerie LeClair, Canadian Armed Forces photo [SOURCE]

In this article, Roger Sarty examines Canada’s responsibility to defend Ukraine against the Russian invasion, and contextualizes this responsibility within Canada’s historic role of supporting internationalism and its need for stability and close partnerships to secure the country’s defence and growth. Sarty explains how Canada has inherited an important legacy of preserving democracy, as well as protecting the rule of international law, and how that legacy should be honoured by committing to historic alliances today.

CANADA has an enormous amount at stake in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s recent aggression is the most serious challenge in seventy years or more to the international order upon which the Canadian economy and security – the very foundations of our way of life – depend.  Canada is the most international of nations, because we are a small population in a very large land. We cannot defend ourselves, and never have been able to defend ourselves, without the support of strong allies.  Our prosperity has always relied on foreign trade, the great economic multiplier for a small population, which can only flourish with international stability.

For these reasons Canada played an important role in creating the United Nations and other institutions for a rules-based international order at the end of the Second World War. In 1949, Canada was also a founder of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), created to defend the international order against threats by authoritarian nations led by the Soviet Union.  The preservation of the rules-based order has for over seventy-five years been the foundation of Canadian international policy. It is a matter of self-interest, learned at a frightening cost. The terrible bloodshed in the First World War produced tentative efforts at international order that disintegrated as nations – not least Canada – retreated into isolationism in the Great Depression of the 1930s that precipitated the Second World War.

Canada entered the First World War in 1914 as a colony of Great Britain, then the guarantor of Canadian security. However, Robert Borden, the prime minister, immediately declared that Canada was fighting in its own right to defeat German militarism and support the rule of law. Canada’s large effort won the country a place at the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles in 1919, and membership in the League of Nations.  Horrified at the loss of life in the war – some 66,000 dead – Canada, like the United States, retreated from international affairs. With aggression by militarist Japan in China, and then by fascist Italy in North Africa, and Nazi Germany against its neighbours in the 1930s, Canada fully supported Britain and France, the leading democratic powers, in appeasement of the dictator states.

In August 1939, Hitler and Stalin, the German and Soviet dictators, entered into a non-aggression pact, and the two countries invaded Poland. In the spring of 1940, the Soviets also took over the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.  Although Canada joined Britain and France in a declaration of war against Germany, the country mobilized on only a limited basis.  It took the shock of the collapse of France, and the beginning of heavy German bombing attacks on London in the spring and summer of 1940 to trigger an all-out Canadian effort.  The US was still isolationist, but President Franklin Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King agreed on a North American defence alliance in August 1940 (which continues to the present day) so that Canada could send the bulk of its armed forces overseas to reinforce Britain. In the spring of 1941 – seven months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US into the war – King and Roosevelt agreed to integrate the defence economies of the two nations in order to provide munitions to the Allies. Canada, as much as the US, became an “arsenal of democracy.” The country put 1.1 million men and women in uniform, a tenth of the population, for air, land, and sea combat, which climaxed in the bloody campaigns to liberate Europe between 1943 and 1945. The costs were heavy, more than 45,000 dead. This second horror in a generation, however, inspired Canadian engagement in the world to prevent another disaster.

With the continued Soviet occupation of eastern Europe in the late 40s, and the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, with Soviet and Communist Chinese support, in 1950, Canada undertook large scale peacetime rearmament for the first time in its history, expressly to support the western alliance.  While sending combat forces to Korea, Canada dispatched an army brigade and air force fighter division to Europe under NATO command.  These combat forces remained in garrison, ultimately in southern Germany, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992.  These, it should be noted, were only the forward rapid reaction forces; the ultimate purpose of the whole of the Canadian Forces, approximately 100,000 regular and reserve personnel today, has always been to reinforce the western alliance in the event of a crisis in Europe or elsewhere.

The result of the rise of Putin as the Russian leader has been to turn the clock back to the dark days of the 1950s to 1980s. The western alliance had to maintain a constant armed vigil in Europe, in which the commitment of North American forces, from Canada as well as the United States, was vital to European security and resolve. The nightmare that the long vigil had prevented, alas, seems now to be upon us. Canada’s way of life, no less than through the grim twentieth century, depends on the country’s determined support for democracy and the rule of law.

Headshot of Roger Sarty.

Roger Sarty is professor emeritus at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he taught in the history department between 2004 and 2022. He received his PhD from the University of Toronto in 1983. Sarty was formerly deputy director of the Canadian War Museum, as well as the head of exhibition development and the historical research division, and a historian at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.