We Stand On Guard Wears its Canadian Flag Like a Patch on an American Backpack in Europe
I probably shouldn’t take We Stand On Guard by Brian K. Vaughan and Steve Skroce too seriously as a political commentary on Canadian-American relations or American military-industrial imperialism. On its face, as an action comic, it’s pretty paint-by-numbers, relying on standard set pieces and cardboard characters, which essentially serve to get us from one highly-detailed, impressively-rendered explosion to the next.
But I’m a Canadian. A Canadian who grew up an Army brat in 70’s French immersion schools, graduated high school on a Cold War base in Germany, opposed the 1987 Free Trade Accord, demonstrated against the 1990’s-era budget cuts, got tear-gassed by my own military protesting the 2001 Free Trade Area of the Americas, froze my ass off protesting the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and is writing this as Canada “celebrates” (if that’s the right word) the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge and lines up behind President Trump as he sets up another regime change.
I’d like to say that We Stand on Guard plays with a number of Canadian myths and symbols – we start, for instance, in the year 2112, two hundred years after the War of 1812. For certain Canadians, including one of the kids in the book, this represents the first, last, and only time that “Canada” (although as is rightly pointed out, we weren’t yet an actual country) beat the USA in a shooting war. The British burning of the White House in 1814 is one of those things that we pull out every now and again (usually over beers during a gold medal hockey game).
In the book, the White House has indeed been burned to the ground – and the American invasion begins with the bombing of Ottawa in retaliation (although it is never proven – nor disproven – that Canadians did it). Of course, it’s all a pretext for expropriating Canada’s fresh water. A simple enough idea – but one that rests on a fundamental mischaracterization of how Canada actually works.
We’ve had our differences with the USA, certainly, mostly due to our being a British colony. My current home of Montreal was captured during the Revolutiionary War in 1775; in 1812, the US and UK went to war; in the 1860’s a group of Irish-Americans called the Fenians conducted a series of raids against British North America. You could say that one of the chief purposes of creating the Dominion of Canada was to defend British subjects against America. But at the same time, we have always relied on the size and proximity of the American marketplace as a customer for our abundant and cheap natural resources.
Seminal economic historian Harold Innis famously wrote of the Canadian economy as essentially being “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” From our beginnings as Nouvelle-France and Rupert’s Land to the present day, Canada’s value has fundamentally been as a supplier of natural resources – cod, coal, fur and felt, timber, nickel, wheat, potash, oil and gas, etc. As we evolved politically, we have remained pretty much the same economically.
Which brings me to the point where We Stand On Guard is pure fantasy: America would never have to invade Canada to get our water.
First, American or multinational companies would simply buy pumping rights, one lake at a time. And we would happily sell it to them. After all, as the chairman of Nestlé put it recently, “water is not a human right.” It’s a natural resource, as marketable as any oil, wheat, or timber, and we’ve never put up too much of a fight to think of it any other way.
Second, if Canada or any of the Canadian provinces put up any resistance, they would be sued under NAFTA’s infamous Chapter 11 Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism. Private corporations are allowed to sue public government against expectations of potential profit, and decisions are made by a secret and binding tribunal. Canada is the most-sued nation under NAFTA, most often for environmental laws. The US has never lost a NAFTA Chapter 11 case.
Third, if the White House ever did give us the stinkeye and ask us to dance, there’s no way we’d drop the gloves on them. Justin Trudeau, having dreamily campaigned on being the progressive option after a decade of Conservative reign, promptly approved the Kinder Morgan and Keystone XL pipelines, over the objections of the First Nations he promised to respect. Trudeau, while in opposition, voted for an anti-terrorist bill which gives the government unlimited rights to spy on citizens, and also created the term “economic terrorist” in order to dispose of pesky anti-pipeline treehuggers. Much the same way the Harper government jailed – er, detained, sorry – hundreds of G20 protestors in Toronto, the way Chrétien pepper-sprayed his G20 protestors, the way Trudeau the First rounded up hundreds of Québécois under the War Measures Act, the way that Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis padlocked the doors of anyone he suspected of being a Communist, the way that Japanese Canadians were jailed – sorry, interned – during World War Two, the way that Ukrainian Canadians were similarly interned as “seditious aliens” during World War One, the way that First Nations children were rounded up to have the “Indian-ness” beaten out of them in residential schools. Canada is not now, nor ever has been, a nation of saints.
True, we do occasionally put up some resistance: I’m thinking of how Lyndon Johnson grabbed Nobel Peace Prize winner PM Lester B. Pearson by his lapels for not following the US into Viet Nam, growling, “You pissed on my rug!” Trudeau and Nixon were not exactly best buddies: Nixon once called Trudeau an asshole. Trudeau replied, “I’ve been called worse things by better people.” And, thanks in part to a protest in Montreal in 30-below zero (Celsius – that’s minus 20 degrees F), Canada didn’t follow the US into Iraq. But I can guarantee you that, had the Prime Minister been a Conservative from Alberta and not a Liberal from Quebec, a Montreal protest would have meant about as much as Quebec anti-conscription protests meant in 1917 and 1944: rien pantoute, nothing at all. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” for both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
Now, I understand that We Stand On Guard is meant to be a fun action book. But surely there could be more creative and subversive ways of portraying an entirely fictional Canadian resistance to an American military invasion. As I was reading, the missed opportunities piled up like timber. For instance: while I was happy to see my family’s hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan get a shoutout from the captured resistance leader (complete with ladypart joke about the Queen City’s pronounciation), Vaughan could have just as easily made her an actual Mountie (Regina is the HQ of the RCMP and its Academy). “The American” counter-terrorism commander is revealed to be from Canada – but where she could have made a very simple argument about shocking and aweing her own countrymen (the Canadian military being under American command in NORAD, for instance), she’s given a story about having moved to New York as a kid. The resistance cell calls itself the Two-Four (after a 24-bottle case of beer): why not the May Two-Four, in celebration of the most Canadian of holidays, Victoria Day? It’s even something else in Quebec, where the third Monday in May is the Journée des Patriotes, in honour of the 1830’s rebels from what would become Ontario and Quebec fighting for representative democracy. And never once are we actually treated to a rendition of “O Canada”, in either official language (the French version, by the way, is the original).
Speaking of which: to use Vaughan’s own line, the French in this book sucks. They couldn’t have asked someone to check it? I’ve had the same issue with Chapterhouse’s Captain Canuck and Northguard comics. Language is the linchpin of the Québécois identity – the ability to speak not only French, but the local joual vernacular, is what, in the ears of many, makes you a “real” Quebecker or not. At any rate, to my ear, a Québécois who doesn’t utter a single “criss de câlice de Saint-Ciboire de tabarnak” under fire is just as wrong as a Jewish character who doesn’t speak a word of Yiddish. It’s absolutely essential to character. Never mind the straight-up grammatical and spelling errors that a French proofreader should have caught.
So We Stand On Guard is a comic full of lazy shortcuts by an otherwise good writer who has access to Canadian culture (as he’s married to a Canuck, and his artist is also from the Great White North). Why he couldn’t have, or just didn’t, take the time to invest in something more genuinely interesting, is maddening to me. Not only does this book not dig into a certain set of Canadian myths and symbols, it doesn’t even present them accurately. It’s neither subversive nor playful; neither serious enough nor fun enough. This comic wears its Canadian flag like a patch on an American backpack in Europe.
I must say this, though: I would buy a comic called The Littlest Robo in a heartbeat.