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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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Governor General of Canada

Canada is a constitutional monarchy. As such, there is a clear division between the head of state and the head of government. The head of government is the prime minister, an elected political leader. The head of state is the Canadian monarch. Their duties are carried out by the governor general, who acts as the representative of the Crown — currently Elizabeth II — in Canada. (Lieutenant-Governors fulfill the same role in provincial governments.) The governor general performs a wide array of ceremonial duties. They also fulfill an important role in upholding the traditions of Parliament and other democratic institutions. Inuk leader Mary Simon was formally installed as Canada’s 30th Governor General on 26 July 2021. She is the first Indigenous person to hold Canada’s vice-regal position.

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Canada and the Second Battle of Ypres

The Second Battle of Ypres was fought during the First World War from 22 April to 25 May 1915. It was the first major battle fought by Canadian troops in the Great War. The battle took place on the Ypres salient on the Western Front, in Belgium, outside the city of Ypres (now known by its Flemish name, Ieper). The untested Canadians distinguished themselves as a determined fighting force, resisting the horror of the first large-scale poison gas attack in modern history. Canadian troops held a strategically critical section of the frontline until reinforcements could be brought in. More than 6,500 Canadians were killed, wounded or captured in the Second Battle of Ypres.

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Avro CF-100 Canuck

The CF-100 Canuck, manufactured by A.V. Roe Canada (Avro), was the first jet fighter designed and built entirely in Canada. It flew in front-line air defence from 1953 until the early 1960s.

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Canada and the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted from 16 to 28 October 1962. The Soviet Union stationed nuclear missiles in Cuba, which posed a threat to the United States and Canada. It brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. Canadian armed forces were placed on heightened alert. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s hesitant response to the crisis soured already tense relations between Canada and the US and led to the downfall of his government in 1963.   

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Military Service Act

The Military Service Act became law on 29 August 1917. It was a politically explosive and controversial law that bitterly divided the country along French-English lines. It made all male citizens aged 20 to 45 subject to conscription for military service, through the end of the First World War. The Act’s military value was questionable, but its political consequences were clear. It led to the creation of Prime Minister Borden’s Union Government and drove most of his French-Canadian supporters into opposition.

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Exercise Tocsin B

Exercise Tocsin B was a nationwide nuclear preparedness drill that lasted 24 hours between 13 and 14 November 1961. It was the last of three national survival exercises named Tocsin in 1960–61. It was also the largest and most widely publicized civil defence drill ever held in Canada. This Cold War exercise run by the Canadian Army simulated the impact of thermonuclear warfare in Canada. Its goals were to show how the state would warn Canadians of such an attack and how government would continue during the crisis. By raising popular awareness of the potential for a devastating nuclear attack, Tocsin B showed Canadians what was at stake in the Cold War.

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The Wars

Timothy Findley’s 1977 novel about the mental and physical destruction of a young Canadian soldier in the First World War won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English Language Fiction. It is widely regarded as one of the country’s definitive historical war novels. It has been called “one of the most remarkable novels of war ever published” and “the finest historical novel ever written by a Canadian.” The Globe and Mail referred to The Wars as “the great Canadian novel about the First World War.”

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Dieppe Raid

During the Second World War, on 19 August 1942, the Allies launched a major raid on the French coastal port of Dieppe. Operation Jubilee was the first Canadian Army engagement in the European theatre of the war, designed to test the Allies' ability to launch amphibious assaults against Adolf Hitler's "Fortress Europe." The raid was a disaster: More than 900 Canadian soldiers were killed, and thousands more were wounded and taken prisoner. Despite the bloodshed, the raid provided valuable lessons for subsequent Allied amphibious assaults on Africa, Italy and Normandy.

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Battle of Vimy Ridge

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was fought during the First World War from 9 to 12 April 1917. It is Canada’s most celebrated military victory — an often mythologized symbol of the birth of Canadian national pride and awareness. The battle took place on the Western Front, in northern France. The four divisions of the Canadian Corps, fighting together for the first time, attacked the ridge from 9 to 12 April 1917 and captured it from the German army. It was the largest territorial advance of any Allied force to that point in the war — but it would mean little to the outcome of the conflict. More than 10,600 Canadians were killed and wounded in the assault. Today an iconic memorial atop the ridge honours the 11,285 Canadians killed in France throughout the war who have no known graves.

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Seven Years’ War (Plain-Language Summary)

The Seven Years’ War (1756–63) was the first global war. In North America, Britain and France fought each other with the help of Indigenous allies. At the end of the war, France gave Canada (Quebec) and Ile Royale (Cape Breton) to Britain, among other territories. This is the reason that Canada has a British monarch but three founding peoples — French, British and Indigenous.

(This article is a plain-language summary of the Seven Years’ War. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry Seven Years’ War.)

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Conscription in Canada

Conscription is the compulsory enlistment or “call up” of citizens for military service. It is sometimes known as “the draft.” The federal government enacted conscription in both the First World War and the Second World War. Both instances created sharp divisions between English Canadians, who tended to support the practice, and French Canadians, who generally did not. Canada does not currently have mandatory military service. The Canadian Armed Forces are voluntary services.

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NORAD

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was a pact made in 1957, at the height of the Cold War. It placed under joint command the air forces of Canada and the United States. Its name was later changed to the North American Aerospace Defense Command; but it kept the NORAD acronym. Canada and the US renewed NORAD in 2006, making the arrangement permanent. It is subject to review every four years, or at the request of either country. NORAD’s mission was also expanded into maritime warnings. The naval forces of the two countries remain under separate commands.

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Fenians

Fenians were members of a mid-19th century movement to secure Ireland’s independence from Britain. They were a secret, outlawed organization in the British Empire, where they were known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. They operated freely and openly in the United States as the Fenian Brotherhood. Eventually, both wings became known as the Fenians. They launched a series of armed raids into Canadian territory between 1866 and 1871. The movement was primarily based in the United States, but it had a significant presence in Canada.

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Battle of Ridgeway

The Battle of Ridgeway is also known as the Battle of Lime Ridge or Limestone Ridge. It was fought on the morning of 2 June 1866, near the village of Ridgeway and the town of Fort Erie in Canada West (present-day Ontario). Around 850 Canadian soldiers clashed with 750 to 800 Fenians — Irish American insurgents who had crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York. It was the first industrial-era battle to be fought exclusively by Canadian troops and led entirely by Canadian officers. It was the last battle fought in Ontario against a foreign invasion force. The battlefield was designated a National Historic Site in 1921.