When Major General Lewis MacKenzie spoke in Barrie earlier this week, he yanked our collective chains about who and what Canadians are. He calls Canada the world’s reluctant hero, and points out that we’re the only people when voted as the number one country in the world in which to live, respond with apology… “oh, yah, but you should see it at 5 pm on the Don Valley Parkway!…”
In his career in the Canadian Armed Forces, Lewis MacKenzie (who retired in 1993) made notable contributions to Canada’s work. A career “soldier,” MacKenzie’s take on things is as in depth, analytical, appreciative and angry as any of us would express as experts in our own career areas.
Because Canada is a nation that is not a super power, because we will likely never be the country under seige, our peacekeeping contributions occur not because we feel threatened, but because it’s the “right” thing to do. While Canadian peacekeepers serve in United Nations peacekeeping missions all over the world, it’s often because we recognize what’s right and wrong. We have little to gain politically. And yet we have become involved in helping reduce tensions between United States and Russia not because we’re altruistic, but because we’re in the middle of the line of fire between these two super-powers, he points out.
MacKenzie zeroed in on his role in the last peacekeeping mission of his career, as the guy who headed up the Blue Berets (a common name for armed forces from all United Nations countries who wear the blue beret as a symbol of their peacekeeping role) during the Croatia / Bosnia crisis of the early 90’s. In fact, once retired, Major General Lewis MacKenzie used 52 leads in a Bic pencil that he picked up at a local Mike’s Mart to hand-write his book, Peacekeeper… The Road to Sarajevo. It’s a gripping account of harrowing experiences, horrible shortages, and impossible political efforts fought under the glare of television coverage… a war played out in the media with MacKenzie as its sometime star and its often villain. [You have to read the book to understand why.]
Talking to members of Barrie’s Kiwanis Club, and civil servants from the city and surrounding townships, MacKenzie simplified the core of his work by saying that peacekeeping missions keep warring nations apart, but the political factor often continues with its disagreements.
He describes Canadians and their value internationally… we have no territorial ambitions; we’re even-handed; we have industrial strength compassion, tolerance and generosity; we’re modest…we don’t make a big deal about things.
MacKenzie told two stories Monday night that struck my heart and I want to share them with you. One is the story of Izzy Isfield, a Canadian soldier who was one of 16 Canadians who died in Yugoslavia trying to help keep peace in this war-torn country. Izzy was from British Columbia. Regularly, he received packages from his mother who cut and sewed little dolls which her son distributed to children, any children from any side of the conflict. She sent the dolls with love and her son cheered little people with her gifts.
When Izzy was killed dismantling a minefield for the safety of others, his mother reacted with what MacKenzie calls a Canadian attitude: she continued to create dozens of dolls and ship them to UN Peacekeeping Headquarters in Sarajevo. Imagine! Suffering the ultimate loss a parent can suffer and still caring enough for children you’ve never met to connect with them in such a generous way.
MacKenzie’s other story centres around a group of teenagers who were herded into the back of a truck to be returned across the border to their own home. It was an agreement of sorts between the Bosnians and the Croats and these kids… aged 12, 13, 14, 15 were excited to be reunited with their families. They were waiting near the tarmac where MacKenzie peacekeepers were headquartered. And from one side of the conflict, a few hundred feet off one side of the airport headquarters came a bomb which blew the truck and the kids to bits. Peacekeepers worked in agonizing conditions to rescue the few living children, conducting amputations in the basement of the airport, to collect and dispose of body parts of youngsters the same ages as their own children back home.
Just weeks later, MacKenzie returned to Canada, and walked to his familiar corner store on Bank Street in Ottawa to pick up a copy of the Ottawa Citizen. It was early morning. He glanced at the headlines as he strolled back to his home. And he began to sob. Long, hard sobs which were embarassing for their intensity from a man who’s supposed to represent the tough soldier.
What caused the tears? Two headlines… “To GST or not to GST, that is the question” and “Weather forecast good for RoughRiders weekend game.”
Why tears? Because he had come home to a country whose biggest challenges were a tax and the weather. Because the enormous good luck of our position in the world was just too great an antithesis to where he had been.
“The absolute luxury of living in a peaceful country, with good government… we don’t have a lot to complain about,” he said quietly.
“The next time somebody says this country’s #1–don’t apologize. Your sons and daughters have earned it.”
You’re right. Thanks, Lewis.