July 3, 2017
Many of the
earliest Muslims in Canada were immigrants from the Ottoman Empire, but the two
states are not known have any significant diplomatic relations between them.
The Ottoman dynasty had already ruled for more than 500 years before Canada was
created in 1867, and they preferred to deal directly with Britain, Canada’s
“mother country”. This continued through the First World War—but with an
interesting plot twist at the end.
In 1922, the
dust of the First World War was still settling down. British, French, and Greek
troops still held Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the defeated
Ottoman Empire, and virtually held Sultan Mehmed VI hostage. They were keen on
holding this strategic city as a bargaining chip for the complex negotiations
that they were involved in with different empires and minority groups in the
aftermath of the war.
in Anatolia, Ottoman soldiers were uniting under the leadership of the
soon-to-be-famous Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, eager to reclaim their country from
its foreign occupiers. The Kemalists, as they were called, had declared a
government that was independent of the sultan, recognizing that Mehmed VI was
powerless in Constantinople. Kemal and his followers were determined to reunite
the Anatolia (i.e. the Turkish peninsula) on the basis of Turkish nationalism,
and they were able to exert enough military pressure on the Allies for them to
be invited to the London Conference in 1921 in hopes that the two sides could
come to some sort of an agreement. It didn’t happen.
captured town after town, slowly bringing all of Greek-occupied Anatolia under
their control. By September of 1922, the Greeks were evacuating and Kemal was
closing in on his ultimate goal: Constantinople. The famous writer Ernest
Hemingway was The Toronto Star’s war correspondent on the ground at the time,
covering these developments; he stood in awe at the retreat of 1.5 million
Greek soldiers and settlers and was reminded by his Croatian landlady of the
Turkish proverb that “it is not only the fault of the axe but of the tree as
were going off in London, Paris, and elsewhere—including Ottawa. Atatürk said
that he preferred to negotiate with the occupying forces rather than fight
them, but also insisted that he could not wait forever. The British government
pointed fingers at their Allies for being absent in the crisis that they had
all helped to create, but ultimately they decided to ignore Ataturk’s warning.
They believed they could rely on the dominions of the British Empire, such as
Canada, to fight on their behalf, as Canada had enthusiastically done during
the First World War. They were wrong.
years after the end of the deadliest war in human history (up until that
point), the public in Britain, Canada, and elsewhere in the empire was
horrified to learn through the newspapers that they may be asked to go to war
again to defend the British position in faraway Constantinople. The British
government, led by arch-imperialists like Winston Churchill, was unaware of
just how deeply this feeling was running throughout their empire. Shortly
before midnight on September 15, 1922, a telegram was sent to Ottawa and the
capitals of the other dominions, informing them of Britain’s decision to defend
Constantinople and demanding military support.
Some of the
dominions responded favourably, including Australia, New Zealand, and
Newfoundland (which at the time had not yet joined the rest of Canada). South
Africa was undecided. But it was Canada’s hesitation that hurt the British the
most. On September 16, Churchill and another senior British politician sent out
a press release warning the people of Britain—and dominions such as Canada—of
the inspiration Muslims across the world might gain if Kemal’s efforts to
reunite Turkey and oust the Allied occupiers were successful. The release was
published in Canada’s major newspapers and elsewhere across the empire.
backfired. The horrors of the First World War were still fresh in the minds of
the British and the Canadians. Even worse, the press release was published
before Canada’s PM William Lyon Mackenzie King and other leaders had a chance
to think of the implications of the telegram they had just received, and they
were offended by the thought that leaders in Britain were trying to rush them
into another war.
King had only
become prime minister in 1921 (and would eventually be the longest-serving PM
in Canada’s history) but the Chanak Crisis, as this came to be known, served as
his first foreign policy test and he immediately indicated that it was time for
things to change. Instead of immediately pledging to send troops, as was
expected of him in London, King decided to not make any promises but insist
that this was a question that parliament (i.e. the elected representatives of
the Canadian people) had to decide. He faced quite a bit of criticism for this
act of disloyalty to Britain, but he remained firm; by the time parliament was
able to discuss the issue, the crisis had ended, as Britain and the Allies
decided to agree to Kemal’s terms and evacuate themselves from Constantinople.
Ottoman Empire, Canada’s assertiveness in the Chanak Crisis was the nail in the
coffin for a century that had rule Anatolia and much of Eastern Europe and the
Middle East for the better part of six centuries. Kemal was not a leader of the
Ottoman Empire, but of the Republic of Turkey. On November 11, 1922, the empire
was officially abolished, and Sultan Mehmed VI was sent into exile six days
later. He may have found some comfort in the fact that, after a very long
struggle to save the doomed empire of his ancestors, it was abolished by its
own people and relatively peacefully.
For Canada, a
much younger nation, the Chanak Crisis had a completely different meaning. It
had been Canada’s first instance of asserting an independent foreign policy,
and a signal to Britain that the old days of pulling the strings on its
dominions were gone. Historians suggest that Canada’s role in the Chanak Crisis
contributed significantly to the Balfour Report of 1926, which declared that
the dominions of the British Empire should be independent of direct control
from London; the Statute of Westminster in 1931 famously codified this into
law, thus giving (almost) complete autonomy to Ottawa.
Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the
Creation of the Modern Middle East (Holt Paperbacks, 2009), pp. 540-557 (“A
Greek Tragedy”); see also, thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chanak-affair/