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Canada and Gas Warfare

Poison gas was used throughout the First World War by almost all armies. The various types of gas, delivered by canisters, projectors, or shell, killed, maimed, denied ground and wore down morale. By 1918, soldiers of all armies encountered gas frequently while serving at the front. Canadian soldiers were among the first to face the death clouds, at the Second Battle of Ypres, and they would have a fraught relationship with gas throughout the war. This article will examine the interaction of Canadian armed forces with poison gas, with a focus on its use in attack, the development of a defence doctrine to protect against it, and its impact on individual Canadians. It will also look at how gassed veterans fared in the war’s aftermath and the creation of chemical weapons in Canada during the Second World War.

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American Civil War and Canada

The American Civil War (1861–65) was fought between the northern (Union) states and the southern (Confederate) states, which withdrew from the United States in 1860–61. The war left cities in ruins, shattered families and took the lives of an estimated 750,000 Americans. The war also involved those living in what is now Canada, including roughly 40,000 who joined the fight. The war played a significant role in how and when Canada became an independent country.

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Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from Public Service

Between the 1950s and the 1990s, the Canadian government responded to national security concerns generated by Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union by spying on, exposing and removing suspected LGBTQ individuals from the federal public service and the Canadian Armed Forces. They were cast as social and political subversives and seen as targets for blackmail by communist regimes seeking classified information. These characterizations were justified by arguments that people who engaged in same-sex relations suffered from a “character weakness” and had something to hide because their sexuality was considered a taboo and, under certain circumstances, was illegal. As a result, the RCMP investigated large numbers of people. Many of them were fired, demoted or forced to resign — even if they had no access to security information. These measures were kept out of public view to prevent scandal and to keep counter-espionage operations under wraps. In 2017, the federal government issued an official apology for its discriminatory actions and policies, along with a $145-million compensation package.

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Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic, from 1939 to 1945, was the longest continuous battle of the Second World War. Canada played a key role in the Allied struggle for control of the North Atlantic, as German submarines worked furiously to cripple the convoys shipping crucial supplies to Europe. Victory was costly: more than 70,000 Allied seamen, merchant mariners and airmen lost their lives, including approximately 4,400 from Canada and Newfoundland. Many civilians also lost their lives, including 136 passengers of the ferry SS Caribou.

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Documenting the Second World War

When Canada declared war on Germany on 10 September 1939, tens of thousands of Canadians enlisted to serve in the armynavyair force and supporting services. The military scrambled to buy equipment, train recruits and prepare for war. Little thought was given, at first, to documenting the war effort. By 1940, however, the military was recruiting historians, most notably Charles Stacey, to collect records and write accounts of Canadian operations. In the following years, artists, photographers and filmmakers also served with the various branches of the armed forces. Today, their diligent work provides a rich visual and written catalogue of Canada’s history in the Second World War.

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Canada and the Battle of Passchendaele

The Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, was fought during the First World War from 31 July to 10 November 1917. The battle took place on the Ypres salient on the Western Front, in Belgium, where German and Allied armies had been deadlocked for three years. On 31 July, the British began a new offensive, attempting to break through German lines by capturing a ridge near the ruined village of Passchendaele. After British, Australian and New Zealand troops launched failed assaults, the Canadian Corps joined the battle on 26 October. The Canadians captured the ridge on 6 November, despite heavy rain and shelling that turned the battlefield into a quagmire. Nearly 16,000 Canadians were killed or wounded. The Battle of Passchendaele did nothing to help the Allied effort and became a symbol of the senseless slaughter of the First World War.

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Liberation of the Netherlands

In the final months of the Second World War, Canadian forces were given the important and deadly task of liberating the Netherlands from Nazi occupation. From September 1944 to April 1945, the First Canadian Army fought German forces on the Scheldt estuary — opening the port of Antwerp for Allied use — and then cleared northern and western Netherlands of Germans, allowing food and other relief to reach millions of desperate people. More than 7,600 Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen died fighting in the Netherlands. Today, Canada is fondly remembered by the Dutch for ending their oppression under the Nazis.

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Korean War

The Korean War began 25 June 1950, when North Korean armed forces invaded South Korea. The war’s combat phase lasted until an armistice was signed 27 July 1953. As part of a United Nations (UN) force consisting of 16 countries, 26,791 Canadian military personnel served in the Korean War, during both the combat phase and as peacekeepers afterward. The last Canadian soldiers left Korea in 1957. After the two world wars, Korea remains Canada’s third-bloodiest overseas conflict, taking the lives of 516 Canadians and wounding more than 1,000. In total, an estimated three million people died during the war. More than half were civilians. The two Koreas remain technically at war today.

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Rebellion in Upper Canada

The 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada was a less violent, more limited affair than the uprising earlier that year in Lower Canada. However, its leaders, including William Lyon Mackenzie, were equally serious in their demands. They wanted democratic reform and an end to the rule of a privileged oligarchy. The rebellion itself failed, but its very failure helped pave the way for moderate and careful political change in British North America. This included the union of Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada and the eventual introduction of responsible government.

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D-Day and the Battle of Normandy

The 1944 Battle of Normandy — from the D-Day landings on 6 June through to the encirclement of the German army at Falaise on 21 August — was one of the pivotal events of the Second World War and the scene of some of Canada's greatest feats of arms. Canadian sailors, soldiers and airmen played a critical role in the Allied invasion of Normandy, also called Operation Overlord, beginning the bloody campaign to liberate Western Europe from Nazi occupation. Nearly 150,000 Allied troops landed or parachuted into the invasion area on D-Day, including 14,000 Canadians at Juno Beach. The Royal Canadian Navy contributed 110 ships and 10,000 sailors and the RCAF contributed 15 fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons to the assault. Total Allied casualties on D-Day reached more than 10,000, including 1,074 Canadians, of whom 359 were killed. By the end of the Battle of Normandy, the Allies had suffered 209,000 casualties, including more than 18,700 Canadians. Over 5,000 Canadian soldiers died.

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Canada and the Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was fought during the First World War from 1 July to 18 November 1916. In the summer of 1916 the British launched the largest battle of the war on the Western Front, against German lines. The offensive was one of the bloodiest in human history. Over the course of five months, approximately 1.2 million men were killed or wounded at the Somme. The Canadian Corps (see Canadian Expeditionary Force) was involved in the final three months of fighting. On the first day of the offensive, the First Newfoundland Regiment, which was not part of the Canadian forces, was nearly annihilated at Beaumont-Hamel. The Battle of the Somme produced little gains and has long been an example of senseless slaughter and the futility of trench warfare (see also The Somme).

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Canada and the Manhattan Project

Canada helped develop the world’s first nuclear reactors and nuclear arms. During the Second World War, Canada participated in British research to create an atomic weapon. In 1943, the British nuclear weapons program merged with its American equivalent, the Manhattan Project. Canada’s main contribution was the Montreal Laboratory, which later became the Chalk River Laboratory. (See Nuclear Research Establishments). This Allied war effort produced the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It also led to the development of Canada’s nuclear energy industry.

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Battle of Ortona

In December 1943, as part of the Allied advance through Italy during the Second World War, Canadian forces fought one of their toughest battles of the war in a bid to capture the town of Ortona. The month-long campaign — first at the Moro River outside Ortona, then with vicious street fighting in the town itself — cost more than 2,300 Canadian casualties, but eventually won Ortona for the Allies.

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Rebellions of 1837–38

In 1837 and 1838, insurgents in Upper and Lower Canada led rebellions against the Crown and the political status quo. The revolt in Lower Canada was more serious and violent than the rebellion in Upper Canada. However, both events inspired the pivotal Durham Report. It led to the Act of Union, which merged the two colonies into the Province of Canada. It also resulted in the introduction of responsible government. These were critical events on the road to Canadian nationhood.