Like The Hub?
Join our community.

J.L. Granatstein: HMCS Uganda: The Royal Canadian Navy ship that voted itself out of a war


Conscription was the most divisive issue in Canada during the Second World War. In 1942, the Mackenzie King governmentWilliam Lyon Mackenzie King held a plebiscite asking Canadians to release it from its promises not to impose conscription for overseas service.Canadian conscription plebiscite, 1942,_1942 The nation agreed although an angry Quebec voted 72.9 percent no. In November 1944, shortages of infantry reinforcements overseas forced King to order 16,000 conscripted home defence soldiers to Europe; again Quebec was furious. Five months later with the war in Europe clearly drawing to an end and with a federal election to be held in June, the King Cabinet again considered conscription.

This time, the subject was whether to send conscripts to fight against Japan. The Progressive Conservative leader in the House of Commons, Gordon Graydon, had said in December 1944 that this was his party’s policy, and many Tories wanted this to be a major plank in the coming election. Aware of this, the prime minister and his ministers thrashed through the question, some ministers favouring compulsory service for the Pacific War.

But Mackenzie King would have none of this: “I took strongly the position that to create a conscription issue over Japan before a general election would be just suicidal and absolutely wrong…. It was finally decided… in light of the discussion, [to make] clear that whatever was done for the Japanese war would be on a voluntary basis….” This decision was communicated to the House of Commons on April 4, and King added this: “The men to make up whatever military force is to be employed against Japan will be chosen from those who elect to serve in the Pacific theatre.” In addition, volunteers were to get 30 days leave in Canada. 

The difficulty was soon evident. The Royal Navy had transferred HMCS Uganda to the Royal Canadian Navy in October 1944Transfer to Canada and, without its name Canadianized, the ship was soon despatched to serve in the British Pacific Fleet in the war against Japan. All members of the Royal Canadian Navy were volunteers, including the 907 officers and ratings serving aboard the 8700-ton cruiser. Did Uganda’s crew now need to elect to continue to serve in the Pacific theatre? In Parliament, the Navy minister, Angus L. Macdonald, responded to a query by saying “I should think very sympathetic consideration would be given [to] any man on the Uganda who, having put in a year of service on that ship, and the European war being over, wished to return to civilian life. I think such a request would be very carefully and sympathetically dealt with.” Naval Headquarters in Ottawa soon directed the ship’s commander to ask its officers and ratings to sign an undertaking that “I hereby volunteer for service in the war against Japan and agree to serve in the Pacific Theatre and/or any other theatre for the duration of hostilities should my services be so required.” 

Uganda’s Captain, Rollo Mainguy, was puzzled by all this. As he said years later, “we got this signal. We couldn’t understand what it meant. And after great exchange of signals, we were given orders finally that we had to vote. Everybody on board votes secretly as to whether or not they volunteered to fight against the Japanese. If they said yes, they’d get 30 days leave. Well, that sounded a bit improbable as we were already fighting. So the way this signal and exchange of the signal was received annoyed everybody, every single soul on board.” 

Some sailors, at sea without pause for seven months, were unhappy because Uganda had not been designed for service in a tropical climate and was infested with rats and cockroaches, short of drinking water, and ordinarily only had rations of canned meat and dehydrated vegetables. Others had been away from home for years and wanted to see their families and find a civvy job. Nor were matters helped when Mainguy in effect called those who might vote against volunteering again “quitters.” That comment did it, and the vote was decisive, with 576 sailors and 29 officers declining to volunteer. As one sailor recalled, “I was one of the ones who did not volunteer. I was prepared to stay there, but if they were going through this nonsense of volunteering (which was all it was) I wasn’t going to volunteer again.” 

Now the problem became clear. Without returning to Canada, it was impossible to get more than 600 men onto the cruiser to replace those who refused to volunteer. Even then it would take weeks to make the ship fit to fight as a team. On July 27, Uganda left the Royal Navy flotilla, the best estimates being that it could return with an all-volunteer crew sometime in September. In fact, Uganda did not return to Japanese waters. The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had forced Japan to capitulate, five days after the cruiser made it to port in Esquimalt on August 10. 

The federal election on June 11 had returned the Liberals to power with the barest of majorities.1945 Canadian federal election Unfortunately for Conservative election hopes, the media did not learn of the Uganda affair until six weeks after the election, and the newspapers were furious. The Globe and Mail was outraged: “When was there ever a more shameful slander on so splendid a career?” while the Liberal-leaning Halifax Chronicle acidly editorialized that “The Government’s policy regarding conscription for the Army has aroused enough ribaldry at home and abroad for any reasonable people to bear. Now, it appears that indecision and weak-kneed policy has created another demarche which threatens to hold the Canadian Navy up to unparalleled ridicule.” 

The criticism was wholly justified. The government’s decision had led to Uganda voting itself out of the war. This was shameful policy, as the media said, but it was also appalling that Canadian servicemen had decided to withdraw from combat operations in the final stages of a war. Their absence mattered little militarily, but without doubt it was also shameful.

Brian Bird: The humanity of judges is an asset, not a workplace hazard


When judges strike down laws or actions of the state on constitutional grounds, citizens who disagree with these judges might label them “activist”. Their complaint, in other words, is that these judges have wandered out of their lane and are engaging in legislative rather than judicial decision-making.

This topic came to mind after I recently stumbled upon the remarks delivered by Justice Michael Moldaver of the Supreme Court of Canada at his last hearing before he retires from the Court later this year.The Hon. Michael J. Moldaver bids farewell to the Supreme Court Justice Moldaver does not specifically address “judicial activism” in his remarks, but his words reminded me of a truth often lost in debates over how judges ought to do their work.

That truth is that the overwhelming majority of judges in Canada do their job with utmost professionalism and integrity. Yes, there are certain differences among certain judges on matters such as how to go about interpreting the law. But there is essential unity in terms of appreciating what is at stake in this line of work and the basic principles that ought to guide a person who holds judicial office. 

I had the privilege to witness firsthand the dedication that judges in this country bring to their work. As a former law clerk at two Canadian courts, I provided research and writing assistance to judges and conversed with them about their work. Across the board, the judges for whom I worked consistently strived to reach what they believed to be the correct legal outcome in the cases before them.

The seriousness brought by judges to their work is especially apparent in the realm of criminal law. The gravity of convicting a person of a crime weighs on judges and they take great pains to ensure that the sentence they impose is just and proportionate. Justice Moldaver’s reference in his remarks to sleepless nights is not the first time I have heard a judge speak this way. The administration of justice is serious business for individuals who appear before the court. It is also serious business for judges.

Unlike elected officials, judges are far less familiar to citizens. In general, judges speak only through their rulings. They do not hold press conferences or have constituency offices. There are sound reasons for maintaining some distance between judges and the public, but the principle of judicial independence makes it harder for citizens to recognize the humanity of judges. Judges are human beings with formative experiences and perspectives that predate their judicial careers. They are not robots, and that is for the better. Their humanity is an asset in their work, not a workplace hazard. 

In addition to legal knowledge and acumen, we look for certain virtues and character traits in prospective judges: fairmindedness, impartiality, diligence, and honesty come quickly to mind. While judges must faithfully apply the law and keep their personal opinions out of the courtroom, recourse to normative considerations and the exercise of discretion are not foreign to their role. Sentencing in criminal cases, determining the amount of compensation in civil cases, and deciding what is a reasonable limit on a Charter right in a free and democratic society are just a few instances in which it will be hard to find consensus among judges on what the correct answer should be.

It is certainly legitimate to criticize rulings by judges when we think the outcomes or the interpretive approaches that inform them are legally flawed. A society’s commitment to the rule of law contemplates criticism of this sort, which aims to protect that commitment. Owing to the fallibility that forms part of their humanity, judges make mistakes now and then. Citizens are free to speak out when they believe those mistakes have been made, but they should also respect how our system of government deals with claims of judicial error. After all avenues of appeal have been exhausted in a case, we accept the outcome. This acceptance is another aspect of upholding the rule of law.

What we must avoid, however, are attacks on the character and motives of judges when we disagree with their decisions—and some of the best role models in this regard happen to be judges. In the United States, Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg often disagreed in their judicial opinions but were true friends.What we can learn from Ginsburg’s friendship with my father, Antonin Scalia Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently spoke of her admiration for the kindness and professionalism of Justice Clarence Thomas without making light of their divergent judicial philosophies.Justice Sotomayor gives pep talk to progressives while praising Clarence Thomas

These are not simply heartwarming stories of friendship and goodwill. They also shore up public confidence in the courts by conveying to the public that these institutions are functioning as they should. If judges who often part ways in the results of cases do not view each other as unjudicial, it seems odd for us to think otherwise. Telegraphing institutional and individual integrity wherever it is sensible to do so only serves to shield courts and judges from the powerful and at times damaging political winds that surge when they rule on matters that are profoundly contested and controversial.

In Canada, the judges of our Supreme Court appear to have enjoyed a strong degree of camaraderie over the years. The remarks of Justice Moldaver prior to his last hearing lend credence to this notion: the esteem in which he holds his colleagues comes through loud and clear. For his part, Justice Moldaver has honoured the oath he took when he joined the Court to “duly and faithfully, and to the best of my skill and knowledge, execute the powers and trusts reposed in me”.Supreme Court Act…..,the%20Supreme%20Court%20of%20Canada. Justice Moldaver has served Canada with distinction, dedication, and humility. We are blessed that the same can be said of the lion’s share of others who have taken a judicial oath in this country.

It is easy to fire shots and say that judges are behaving like legislators when they render a decision that departs from our view of what the law or justice requires. At times, there will be valid reasons for saying that a judge has erred in a particular case. But the reality is that, by and large, judges in Canada take their jobs very seriously and they do their jobs very well. They keep an open mind, they do not arrive at their decisions lightly, and they sincerely believe their decisions are correct.

It is helpful when judges recognize these traits in their colleagues, especially when they disagree with them on how certain cases ought to be decided. The administration of justice, rule of law, and social cohesion only stand to benefit from the rest of us doing the same.