Peaceable Canadians. Who, nous?
April 9, 2007
A country's image and self-image are important determinants in international relations. Canada's image abroad is that of a successful sanctuary of peace and order in a dangerous world.
In the past, we had a reputation as warriors, maybe even hired toughs - we certainly punched above our weight in the two world wars - but today we are seen more as peaceable and helpful fixers, if not overly consequential.
Even though our principal international engagement at the moment is a risky military operation in Afghanistan, this contribution and our sacrifices there are less noticed around the world because of the propensity these days for each country's media to cover only its national contingents and ignore the activity of others.
Meanwhile, our self-image shares the view others have of us, especially concerning our core role as international "peacekeepers."
But where do reality and myth intersect?
Taking stock on the home front, urban violence from handguns is up. So, too, looks to be the perennial issue of hockey fights and retaliation. Then, there is the annual seal slaughter, which so shocks the international community because of its apparent cruelty and the fact that it doesn't seem to fit with our national character.
Do we need a reality check?
The myth of peacekeeping
When it comes to Afghanistan, the discussion I hear, especially in the university arena, suggests that many Canadians are very uneasy with the deployment of force, even to the point of having difficulty seeing force as a legitimate part of our repertoire of international tools.
The notion of Canada as peacekeeper or even peacemaker has become deeply ingrained in our psyche. But it has not caught up with the darker reality of today.
Classic peacemaking in the original sense of the UN emergency force in the Sinai in 1956 always relied on the parties to a conflict wanting peace, which the peacekeepers could then supervise. The moment one of them ceased to want peace, the lightly armed peacekeepers are out of there, as happened to UNEF in 1967.
After the tragedies of Rwanda and Srebrenica, many in the international community called for something more -- a UN-sanctioned force that can actually use force, especially to protect civilians in grave danger.
Winning international agreement for the authorization of such operations has been Canada's signature policy theme at the UN for several years now.
Objection to this came mainly from non-democratic countries that were alarmed at the prospect of national sovereignty being overridden by an international authority. When the Bush administration cited protection of civilians as a core reason for having invaded Iraq (once the concerns about weapons of mass destruction and connections to al-Qaeda were debunked), these suspicions became hardened.
But progress in reaching an international consensus on a responsibility to protect is gaining ground. Even countries that have been committed in the past to non-interference in the internal affairs of states -- like China, Algeria, Pakistan and several in Latin America -- now seem to recognize that there are special situations when the international community must confront "bad guys" out there in order to save lives. And to do this, there must be military credibility behind this stance.
This policy of intervention when necessary has been Canada's position at the UN for some time now. But it does seem to jar with the self-image Canadians often carry of our military's peacekeeping role.
We need to remember that we went to Afghanistan because al-Qaeda had launched a murderous global jihad from that failed state. What's more, we went there as part of a thorough international consensus to enable non-Taliban Afghans to rebuild their country and its governance.
Now that the Taliban is back fighting NATO forces and the international aid effort, seeing that as interfering in the sovereign affairs of a Muslim state, there are misgivings at home about our military engagement.
Apart from an emerging sense that the whole operation is in growing difficulty, I hear two main arguments for wanting Canadian forces out of Afghanistan.
One line is highly skeptical and maintains that we are only there to please the U.S. It is even said that our being in Afghanistan indirectly supports the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
The truth is actually the opposite: The Chrétien government opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq (unlike the Stephen Harper-led opposition at the time), because we didn't believe the WMD allegations.
I remember being asked by American officials in September 2002, "How would you Canadians know what's going on in Iraq?"
The answer was simple; we paid attention to the assessments of both the CIA and the UN inspectors under Hans Blix, which the Bush administration itself chose to ignore. (Some, like military historian Jack Granatstein, prefer to believe that Chrétien stayed out to placate Quebec "pacifism;" it's just not so.)
War is hockey
The other line of argument for wanting the Canadian military out of the line of fire is more idealistic. It holds that Canadians deliver aid, not deadly force. We do need to aid the Afghans. But the sad fact is that there won't be aid without security.
That many Canadians don't see the need or appropriateness of our using force at all is not in line with our history.
Poet and hockey scholar Douglas Beardsley reminds me that English poet Robert Graves admiringly described our soldiers in Europe during the world wars as the original crazy Canucks.
Canadians are no strangers to violence, it may even be part of our national psyche. Without stretching the point too far, look at the current flare-up over fighting in our national sport. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says fighting in hockey is "part of the game."
Of course other professional sports -- international rugby or big-league soccer for example -- can be just as tough but don't tolerate fighting. Their stars are protected by the rules, not so-called enforcers.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that the NHL and its trophy owners stage fights for their entertainment content because that is how they read our marketplace.
Beardsley suggests we are probably just divided on these issues, and that the divisions may live within each of us: The fighting on the ice is a harmless safety valve, which permits us to be the Quiet Canadians the rest of the time.
He may be right about this. On the other hand it may be that we are simply not as peaceable as we think we are.
How others see us
To have a coherent foreign policy a country ought to provide a coherent image to the world. We may be able to ignore the violent goings-on in our own makeup, but others won't and hypocrisy is not a trait that travels well on the international scene.
When I was ambassador to Italy, it seemed that every third grader in that country sent a card on the occasion of our annual seal slaughter, asking why Canadians had to club 300,000 little animals to death in front of their mothers.
Staged correspondence, of course. But the point is that on this one, our image abroad is going down the tubes.
Over the decades, there isn't an argument I haven't heard from Newfoundland and Quebec in favour of this "hunt." (The seals eat precious fish, the hunt is regulated and at least as humane as most abattoirs, the herd needs culling, it's an economic necessity and way of life, etc. etc.)
This is mostly evasion. As for economic necessity, is this what we're all about? I don't blame the sealers themselves any more than I blame the hockey enforcers who have trouble skating backwards.
But surely our modern economy can do better by them. Newfoundland today is much more about Hibernia and offshore expertise than whacking seals.
The economic benefits from the hunt total something like $30 million a year tops, a small part of a Newfoundland economy worth about $15 billion. What's more, we're about to get whacked ourselves with boycotts on West Coast salmon, promoted by the likes of the U.S. Humane Society, which are going to cost us considerably more than $30 million.
The only argument behind this damn "hunt" I've ever been able to make sense out of is that we live in a complicated federation that requires a whole bunch of trade-offs among people with different ideas, perhaps especially during minority governments.
To be conflicted is normal in a complex and changing environment.
But to function effectively, we need more candid and thorough debate, particularly, I would argue, of the role the so-called peaceful Canadian in a troubled and violent world.
This includes how we handle the serious international responsibilities that engage us in Afghanistan.
We are probably also going to have to debate how best we project Canada's modern image abroad in a competitive world, which means coming to terms with the costs to Canada of the very sad and outdated seal hunt.
We'll probably never resolve fighting in hockey. Maybe it is just who we are.