After creating United Nations peacekeepers, Canada is leaving its legacy behind to support the most lethal military machine in history.
When a Canadian soldier killed an unarmed Afghan youth and wounded his 12-year-old brother in Kandahar in October, the Canadian media struggled not to sound negative.
Typical was a report on CBC TV – Canada’s national broadcaster – which stressed that this was an unfortunate accident, and lamented that it would make it harder for Canadian troops to win “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan.
No question about that. But why doesn’t the shooting of Afghan civilians – an increasingly common occurrence – prompt our national broadcaster to ask more pointed questions about what Canada is doing in Afghanistan and whether our actions can be justified?
This failure to question the legitimacy of Canada’s Afghan involvement has created the conditions for a dramatic transformation of Canada and its role in the world. Four years after the former Liberal government of Jean Chrétien won wide support among Canadians for refusing to participate in George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Canada has emerged as an enthusiastic junior partner fighting Bush’s “war on terror” in Afghanistan.
This certainly pleases Washington, which is delighted to have a well-regarded country like Canada as an active ally as it ramps up its confrontation with the Islamic world. And pleasing Washington appears to be the main reason – perhaps the only real reason – that Canada is fighting in Afghanistan, despite occasional suggestions by Ottawa that it’s concerned about promoting democracy or helping Afghan women.
The positioning of Canada as a team player in the US “war on terror” has been part of a larger campaign orchestrated by the Harper government and the Canadian military to wean Canadians off their longstanding attachment to peacekeeping, and get them excited instead about a more combat-oriented military.
This would involve a significant change in the Canadian psyche. Canadians have strongly identified with the notion of Canada as a leading peacekeeping nation, ever since former foreign affairs minister (and future prime minister) Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in averting war in the Middle East by helping establish the first real UN peacekeeping intervention in the 1956 Suez Crisis.
The Harper government has downplayed peacekeeping and hyped the country’s war-fighting past, making elaborate celebrations of war anniversaries while ignoring the 50th anniversary of Pearson’s Suez achievement. An active troop-recruiting campaign on national TV emphasizes combat and adventure, not the more traditional appeal of the Canadian military as a route to a free education. No one better captures the mood of a more combative Canadian military than its tough-talking top general, Rick Hillier, who famously referred to Afghan insurgents as “scumbags.”
On some levels, the campaign to sell a more combative military seems to have been effective. Although polls suggest a majority of Canadians oppose the combat mission in Afghanistan, Ottawa has managed to mute that opposition, largely by confusing the issue of support for the war with support for the troops.
Ironically, the high death toll among Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan – now more than 70 – may have helped Ottawa make the case for war. Each death has been used to justify the continuation of the war, on the grounds that the fallen soldier would have otherwise died in vain. It’s a circular argument: the more fighting, the more deaths. On and on it goes.
On a deeper level, though, there are signs that Canadians reject attempts to turn Canada into a junior partner in the “war on terror.” Certainly, Canadians react strongly against Canada’s involvement in the lawlessness of Bush’s anti-terror campaign. There was palpable outrage across the country, for instance, when reports surfaced in 2004 that Canada had played a role in sending Canadian engineer Maher Arar to Syria, where he was tortured and imprisoned as a terrorist suspect.
Ongoing public anger finally forced the Liberal government to call a public inquiry, which ended up documenting Canada’s complicity in the torture of an innocent man, and unequivocally condemned torture “for any purpose.”
Canadians also reacted strongly last spring to revelations that Canada – unlike some European allies in NATO – was handing over Afghan detainees to the Afghan government without ensuring they wouldn’t be tortured. For weeks, the issue rocked the Canadian parliament, until the Harper government was obliged to draw up a much tighter set of rules governing the treatment of detainees.
In both this and the Arar case, Canadian reaction forced Ottawa to abandon its free-wheeling Bush-style approach to fighting “terrorism,” and reinstate policies in keeping with international law.
There’s a deep Canadian attachment to the notion of Canada as a law-abiding, peacekeeping nation. The Harper government seems to be hoping that, by confusing the issue with “supporting our troops,” Canadians will be lulled into accepting a new role for their country as a cog in the most potentially lethal military machine in history.
_Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author, most recently of ‘Holding the Bully’s Coat: Canada and the US Empire.’