The Constitution Day of Norway May 17 is celebrated widely every year in Norway, and everywhere across the world Norwegians gather. As will be the case in Canada, where celebrations are hosted in Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg, and all across the prairies as well as on the Atlantic coast.
On May 8, Norway celebrated 70 years since the Second World War ended, and five years occupation of Norway ended.
The war was not only a wake-up call for the then neutral Norway, but a change in our foreign policy that has endured until this day. Our commitment to international cooperation, to binding international frameworks, to the Rule of Law and to contributing to peace and reconciliation worldwide has indeed been the strong backbone of Norway's internationalism. Peace, and peace negotiations, and supporting peace mechanisms, has developed to be the identity of the widely consensus-based Norwegian foreign policy since then.
In November 1918, people said "never again." But just 21 years later, the unthinkable happened. Europe has seen two world wars that virtually tore the continent to shreds. In the words of Stefan Zweig, who was writing at the time the Second World War was raging through Europe, "Every hour of our years was linked to the fate of the world. (...) Every one of us, therefore, even the least of the human race, knows a thousand times more about reality today than the wisest of our forebears. But nothing was given to us freely; we paid the price in full."
Norway was committed to the allied cause from the first moment. Our merchant fleet, at that time the 4th largest in the world, signed up in allied harbours and was soon organized under NORTRASHIP as a war force, mainly to sail the Atlantic with provisions for England. One thousand and seventy-one merchant ships from Norway participated, and 570 of those were lost. More than 3000 Norwegian seamen lost their lives. The British politician Baron Noel-Baker commented after the war "The first great defeat for Hitler was the battle of Britain. It was a turning point in history. If we had not had the Norwegian fleet of tankers on our side, we should not have had the aviation spirit to put our Hawker Hurricanes and our Spitfires into the sky. Without the Norwegian merchant fleet, Britain and the allies would have lost the war."
At the same time, resistance against the German occupation continued for the full five years, in form of guerrilla fighting, terror attacks against the Germans, and rescue of people across the border to neutral Sweden. The Norwegian government in exile held house in London, and a Norwegian Brigade was built up in Scotland to assist the freedom fight.
Cooperation with Canada
The cooperation with Canada was intense. In Halifax, NORTRASHIP established an office as well as the Norwegian Seamen's Church. Camp Norway in Lunenburg was a training center for Norwegian seamen during all the war years.
Norwegian pilots were trained in Toronto in Little Norway, later to be moved to a second training centre in Muskoka established in 1942. In total, some 3,300 officers and other personnel of the air force were trained at the bases in Toronto and Muskoka.
The combat planes used in Little Norway comprised of Fairchild PT-19 elementary trainers, Curtiss fighters, Douglas attack bombers and Northrop patrol seaplanes. In the spirit of Norwegian-Canadian cooperation they were later joined by Harvard trainers purchased with some $400,000 received under the "Wings for Norway" fundraising campaign which received contributions from various Nordic associations, including $100,000 from Swedish-Americans, Norwegian expatriates and Canadians. We are forever grateful to Canada, and the veterans, for standing by during the dark years.
After the war, there was a general feeling of optimism in Europe. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a book entitled The End of History and the Last Man in which he claimed that there were no longer any serious competitors to liberal democracy.
Challenges to European security
Today we know better. On the contrary, the history we now see unfolding in Europe is one of conflict and division, notably in the eastern parts of our continent. The historian Robert Kagan has even suggested that we are witnessing the "return of history." Yet again, armies are crossing internationally-recognized borders in Europe.
NATO has confirmed its crucial role, combining deterrence with reassurance. But the predominant response has not been and should not be military. In this situation, we have seen the EU, acting with remarkable resolve. And rightly so. When part of a sovereign country in the heart of the European continent is annexed by its neighbour, Europe must react. The restrictive measures imposed on Russia by the EU, Norway and other countries give a clear signal that Russia's actions are unacceptable.
We can see that both the restrictive measures and the retaliatory import restrictions introduced by Russia pose challenges, and are at times painful for Norway's and the EU's business sectors. However, we have no alternative; doing nothing would lead to far more dismal prospects for Europe and European security.
Within Europe too, we are experiencing setbacks. This shows that the fight for freedom and respect for human rights must be fought every day, in every country, by every generation. Another challenge is the belt of instability in Europe's neighbourhood to the south that is home to failed states, conflict and terrorism. Many of today's Europeans originate from this region. Among them are young people who see their region of origin excluded from the opportunities of Europe, but also find themselves excluded from opportunities in their new home countries. This is an explosive combination.
Celebration of shared values
To celebrate the ideas of the constitution made more 200 years back might seem irrelevant and outdated. However, for Norwegians everywhere May 17 is a reminder of freedom fight, of identity, and of gratefulness for shared values. In Canada, we find a close ally that share these ideas.
photo: Asgeir Helgestad / Artic Light AS - Innovation Norway
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