I was fascinated to learn last week just how close the Second World War came to Smithers.
I had no idea Canadian troops had fought battles in the Aleutian Islands just off the coast of Alaska. Of course, the Japanese occupation of two small, remote islands in June 1942 on American territory in the North Pacific was never going to compete with the legendary bombing of Pearl Harbour, but it’s still pretty interesting.
The Japanese believed controlling the Aleutian Islands was key to preventing an American attack across the North Pacific. The Americans feared Japan would use the islands to launch an attack on U.S. west coast cities such as Anchorage, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
So, on May 11, 1943, American and Canadian forces launched a campaign to take back the island of Attu. The allies sustained heavy casualties, but recaptured the island. In August, they launched a similar campaign on the island of Kiska, but found the Japanese had already abandoned the position.
The reason this came up was a survey published ahead of Remembrance Day indicating only one per cent of British Columbians knew about this aspect of the Second World War. Being a Thommy-come-lately to the province, I don’t feel so bad I didn’t.
It made me consider, however, how much geography shapes our perceptions.
Growing up in Ottawa, less than an hour from the St. Lawrence River and a only few hours from the Atlantic Ocean, Canada always felt like an Atlantic nation and the Second World War seemed like a European war.
We are, of course, both an Atlantic and a Pacific nation, and the war was truly global in scope. It is remarkable to think that while German U-boats plied the the waters off our east coast, Japanese soldiers were occupying land not too far from our west coast.
Granted, the Aleutian islands at stake were still around 2,200 kilometres from Smithers, but that’s only about half the distance Smithers is from Ottawa.
London, UK is not much further from Ottawa than Smithers is. And Japan is about the same distance from Prince Rupert as the east coast of Nova Scotia is.
I wonder how much different my perceptions of the world would be if I had grown up out here rather than out there.
It has often been posited that the Second World War was the coming of age for Canada, the great unifier, and on Nov. 11 it sure feels that way.
Of course, we aren’t really all that unified.
There is the constant threat of a rekindling of constantly smouldering Quebec separatism.
In the recent Saskatchewan provincial election, the newly minted, separatist Buffalo Party garnered 2.91 per cent of the popular vote — despite only running candidates in 17 of the 61 ridings — to come in third behind the Saskatchewan Party and the NDP.
Prior to B.C., I lived in Newfoundland — which was not even part of Canada during the Second World War joining four years later. You would be amazed how many people there still refer to travelling outside the province as “going to Canada.” And they still lump other Canadians in with other foreigners as “coming from away.”
And, of course, there are the numerous Indigenous Nations that have never felt like they belong, and rightfully so.
Nevertheless, Canada is a country that punches above its weight and remains a country of untapped potential.
I really hope we can resolve our differences and hold it together to realize that potential.