The federal government of Canada, led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, has officially refused to join the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Canada’s position in international matters is generally to respect and comply with multilateral institutions. It tries to live by the principle that unilateral aggression only leads to more aggression.
In the current American assault on Iraq, the federal government has argued that, instead of fighting terrorism, the war only risks fostering more of the same. It threatens the relative stability of the entire Middle East region and its effects on the world economy are already dire. This is to say nothing of the price it will cost the US taxpayer and in- or out-going direct foreign investment for generations to come. As the US is the main teller of the globalized world economy, economic projections for the near future are bleak, indeed.
Despite the principled items the Canadian government has introduced as reasons for its opposition, its decision has been respected neither by the United States nor by Canada’s minority of archconservatives. While the Canadian population as a whole, our ‘silent majority’, tipped their heads in agreement with Ottawa’s arguments, few imagined the nature of the backlash to come. First Paul Cellucci, ambassador to Canada. Now Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Board Policy, freshly resigned over allegations of conflict of interest, and one of the war’s draftsmen.
When push comes to shove, Canadians need not look across the border for trouble–even were we to consider the rather elastic conception of diplomacy as voiced by the US ambassador, or Perle’s mauvais gout. Crushing condemnation of Ottawa’s position has come from the most rightwing politician voted into Canada’s establishment: Mike Harris.
FROM WALKERTON TO FRASER
The rightwing’s stance–some would say double-crossing–came in Mr. Harris’ address to the Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank based in British Columbia. “[Prime Minister Jean] Chrétien’s decision to keep Canada out of the effort to disarm Iraq is a betrayal of Canadian values, of our national interest and of our closest allies,” declared Harris on April 3. He was only reiterating what the opposition Canadian Alliance party has uttered in Parliament, which is that Canada should have joined the coalition out of duty.
Mike Harris is the former premier of Canada’s wealthiest province, Ontario. His two terms in office, stretching from 1995 to 2002, were marked by a forceful imposition of neoliberal economic principles–harsh even by Canadian standards. Their effect was to polarize one of the country’s most homogenous provinces.
His legacy has been marked by a public healthcare system on the verge of collapse, disemboweled public education and unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty. In the wake of his policies, he oversaw the most violent state repression in response to protest that Canada has seen in decades. Canadians had to rub their eyes as a reality check when watching the brutal mounted police offensive on activists of the Ontario Coalition against Poverty in 2000. Blood splattered and bones cracked as pepper spray percolated on the front lawn of the provincial legislature at Queen’s Park, Toronto.
Harris, who is a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, is most remembered outside of Ontario and Canada for the ‘Walkerton’ scandal. Seven Ontarians died and hundreds fell sick in the small rural town after its water supply had been contaminated with E-coli in 2000. The ensuing inquiry revealed that the provincial government had been imposing its pro-business deregulation agenda at the cost of public welfare. You’ve no doubt heard of the triumphalist and fateful proclamation of the death of the Welfare State? Its ‘natural’ plight was felt in Canada in measures such as slashing the provincial environment department budget by two-thirds. Unskilled workers were then hired to test water against contaminants, which was meant for drinking.
Speculation has it that Harris plans to unite the Canadian right and run for office at the federal level. The Canadian media has given his Fraser Institute speech the hallow of a campaign bid. In the speech, Harris asserted that “instead of a genuine foreign policy, Ottawa has substituted a misguided deference to multilateral institutions, especially the United Nations.” As is now typical among conservative, he went on to impress how “the UN … is badly in need of repair. The UN could not deal with the threat to international security posed by Iraq–just as it could not deal with Somalia, Rwanda and Yugoslavia.”
A conservative Anglo-Ontarian, nor did he miss a chance at slamming Canada’s bi-national politics on the international scale. “There should never be a French veto over Canada’s values.” And lest anyone be confused: “Canada’s foreign policy must stem from the very essence of what we stand for. Advancing freedom and democracy is in our national interest.”
Harris’ statement comes on the heels of a speech made by US Ambassador to Canada, the Bush-appointed Paul Cellucci. Speaking to the Economic Club of Toronto on March 25, 2003, Cellucci bemoaned the Chretien government’s opposition to the war on Iraq as “letting down an old friend”.
Cellucci went on to reassure his audience that “there is no security threat to Canada that the United States would not be ready, willing and able to help with. There would be no debate. There would be no hesitation. We would be there for Canada, part of our family. That is why so many in the United States are disappointed and upset that Canada is not fully supporting us now.”
A LONG OPEN BORDER AND SHORT COMMON HISTORY
Through its own political will, Canada may only rank 153rd worldwide in defense spending, but fate and history have made the country neighbor to an empire. In the past the countries clashed due to the US’ expansionist dreams, though peace has reigned since the 1812-1814 war. Due to their common language and formative history, the two countries became the strongest of allies. Both countries are lands of immigrants, and they have filled each other’s ranks with their own émigrés. Nor are two nations more alike on the commercial front.
But Canadians don’t like to be told what to do by Americans. At 30 million they might be tiny in size, but big in ego. That’s exactly what happened on March 25 when US Ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci reminded Canadians of what they owe the US for its unequivocal military support.
“We also are disappointed”, wrote Yves Boisvert a columnist in Quebec’s largest French daily, La Presse. In his view, Mr. Cellucci’s annoyance is unprecedented. “The very fact that even a member of the family such as Canada is not part of the coalition is a major setback for American diplomacy”, hammered in Boisvert.
Most Canadians have taken these words with a grain of salt, typical militarist talk of its beloved ally. The historically conscious have no illusions. As part of the Commonwealth, Canada fought hardily alongside England in both world wars–from their very outset. It might be recalled that it took the US military some time to join both wars, while businessmen were making a bundle in two opposed markets. When the US did join, Canada was pleased, even relieved, that it did so on the side of its former enemies. The twentieth-century turned into
the century of Anglo-American-Canadian friendship over the “longest unprotected border” in the world. Two billion dollars (Canadian) in goods and services crosses it daily.
Yet much more for Canada than its neighbour, the US is also one of its daily matters. For most Canadians, the border stands within a hundred kilometer’s distance, when it isn’t found on Canadian territory itself, as at Montreal and Toronto international airports. From various studies, Canadians learn that many Americans, to not have to say most, know little about their country. In the eyes of many of us, reception to the US’ offer for protection rings hollow with indifference as in the reception reserved to services rendered without having been requested.
OF UNLIKE MINDS
The Canadian mind is multiple. To get a sense of it, one need only glance at the province of oil-rich Alberta. Alberta is home to the rightwing Canadian Alliance party, a recently formed federal organization with undeniable regionalist leanings, now the official opposition to Chrétien’s cabinet. Alberta has also been host to pro-war demonstrations. On Monday, March 31, The Globe and Mail reported Albertans as claiming the archetypical reason for supporting the US was reparation for always “wanting the shade from the tree [without being] willing to do anything to keep that tree strong.” When a large mobile edifice blocks your view from light, some prefer the sun.
No Canadian entrepreneur would deny that the shade has brought much into the country. Many would retort that it has brought a lot to the country. Canada clearly benefited from the Internet boom of the nineties, and under the North American Free-Trade Agreement, the Central Bank managed to move the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar low enough to transform it into a devastating competitor for their southern partner. Last year, as the US confronted its double-dip of a recession, the Chrétien government beamed loudly at another year of 5 percent-plus GDP. Over the last fifteen ensuing years, Canadians have seen the cost of traveling south increase two to threefold due to their relatively worthless currency.
It’s undeniable that Canadians like to pride themselves with the ideas and culture they have exported south. From Oscar Peterson to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, they stand as refined, and often gifted, contributions to the American standard. On the flipside, Canada has been drowned in American pop culture. Its bubbles weren’t only bursting in your Coke. Companies like Nortel could have taught Enron a few accounting tricks prior to evaporating on the Toronto Stock Exchange meltdown in the fall of 2000. Financial bubbles to the right of them, acid rain to the left, most American imports tend to leave the Canadian environment fizzing.
To counter that offensive, Mike Harris spiced his speech with talk of culture and tradition. Canada, proudly, sports a lot of it. In addition to its innumerable immigrant populations, and dozens of indigenous nations, it is dominated by two solid heritages: the English and the French. But the question of independence from Canada is no longer on the agenda in French-Canada. Neoliberalism made inroads to a ‘province’ that in the late seventies had the most socialist government in the Americas after Cuba and Nicaragua, but little of its soul has been rendered over to the type of “laissez-faire” political economy advocated by Harris and his drinking buddies from Alberta and BC, premiers Ralph Klein and Gordon Campbell.
And how the “Anglos” did fight to restrain Quebec from living out its destiny of independence as a sovereign state. Never ones to hold back on raising the specter of armed conflict to keep French-Canada within “confederation”, Harris, Klein and their mentor, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney barely blink an eye when compelling Canada to march in US steps.
Chrétien, as his name suggests, is French-Canadian. And it can be argued that much of the social-democratic element in Canadian politics is the legacy of Quebec. Characteristically, Montreal has been host to the largest and greatest number of demonstrations in North America against the war. Perhaps the only place in the world where poverty has been drafted into law as “illegal”, the province has held demonstrations in even the smallest towns.
The message is that new-market economic principles and war are one of a kind. It’s one that Jean Chretien knows full well as being the driving spirit for the conservative orphans of Mother England. Stripping away Canada’s excellent social services they promote tax cuts that, like in the US, benefit only the richest in the end. And when the population claims to have not known of the hidden agenda, — how more of their collective wealth keeps seeping through the loopholes of modern accounting and taxation — they’ll be able to thank their loyal private media. When they do, they can give special mention to the newspapers owned by archconservative pro-Sharon tyrant, David “Dizzy” Asper. Hovering over the country’s free press, this prime controller is known for first overruling, then firing, columnists who speak out in favor of a Palestinian state.
REALISM: DOES IT EXIST?
Raise the military budget for what reason? Isn’t this the point that Richard Perle was asked to contemplate just a few days before slamming Chretien as a “lame duck” for his opposition to US foreign policy? And, getting back to ambassador Cellucci: defend Canada from what invading nation? Would any country be so stupid as to invade or attack Canada while leaving the US alone, as if Canada were not part of NORAD, a treaty allowing the US to retaliate to an attack against Canada as if it were part of itself? Who are these politicians trying to fool apart from themselves?
Harris himself is calling for a continental security perimeter. Even without such slips to sovereignty, geography overrules treaties here. During the cold war, Canadians could often picture themselves during Armageddon as somehow saved by the grace of the almighty–if only they would look at the globe while tipping the Arctic from top to center. In the event of a US-Soviet conflict, cruise missiles would have been flying up above to and fro. Canadians would wind up with pinched neck nerves and whiplash in their incessant scanning of missiles whisking by overhead.
Back in 1983, when the US was testing cruise missiles in northern Alberta, our neighbors made it sound like it had something to do with similar landscape patterns to the northern Soviet Union. It was quite obvious that tests were conducted over the very territory the missiles would fly in the event of war.
So why raise the military budget when you’re fated to stick in the middle? Obviously to deal with the poor and disgruntled, whose ranks are ever-growing in a country having convinced its population that the “welfare state” is passé, and that now it’s the time to dip back into the jungle where there’s a rule for everyone and him/herself.
In that jungle, even Canadians ministers lose their legendary diplomatic cool and call Americans ‘bastards’. So the memo reads that Bush is irate at Canada. The content is that Canada’s bid to dialogue is worth nothing faced with the Empire’s might. More than a forest in which felled trees fall silent, this is a world in which dialogue is pulverized into communication: a world in which Kant is mercilessly crushed by Hobbes.
NORMAN MADARASZ, originally from Montreal, teaches and writes on philosophy and international relations in Rio de Janeiro. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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