If Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire hadn’t been so screwed up from the UNAMIR mission in Rwanda, he could have run for Prime Minister of Canada and won. In 1994, as Canada’s UN peacekeeping mandate entered its twilight, he was the poster boy for what was still possible within the politics of humanitarian altruism, and by extension what was possible in Canada.
He was the archetypal soldier of conscience. Heading a small band of renegade blue berets in Kigali, he defied orders and stayed in Rwanda, saving who he could, pleading for global intervention, witnessing the most efficient genocide in known history – 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus murdered in 100 days. Returning home to Montreal he struggled to reintegrate into Canadian society. He attempted suicide. Was gripped by post-traumatic stress disorder. Spent drunken nights distraught wandering the streets. Guzzled anti-depressants only to find he was wholly unable to process the nightmare he’d been sent to fight.
In 2003 he finally penned one of Canada’s most celebrated memoirs, Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. The title came from a sublime spiritual revelation. Dallaire said he knew God existed because he had met the devil, strolling nonchalantly door-to-door with a machete blade in Kigali. The government honored him with the highest state recognition possible, the Order of Canada, and made him a Senator – a lifetime position. In 2004, Nick Nolte portrayed him in the acclaimed Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda, one of Canada’s first on-screen heroes.
A short decade ago, Dallaire still represented everything Canadians imagined they wanted to be. The embodiment of a maturing 400-year continental identity striving to achieve something unique from its over-powering and culturally suffocating southern neighbor. A soldier. A patriot. A humanist. An adventurer. And a French-Canadian to boot, helping soothe the narrative of French and English unity. Sitting above all this, Dallaire’s greatest appeal was his tragic fallibility – an honest and emotional nature that touched us all. His faults. His questioning of direct orders. His struggles. His feeling embodied how we liked to think of ourselves.
As citizens of a powerful Western capitalist democracy, pride in our identity can sometimes be hard. It comes with an acknowledgment, conscious or not, that freedom has an existential cost. Our greatest achievements come with an asterisk. And that asterisk contains everything from colonialism, pillage and exploitation, to consumerism, war-mongering and apathy in the face of genocide. But on better days we can also look upon our greater selves with unqualified pride, our Romeo Dallaires, those who showed that it’s possible to wield power altruistically.
Heroes like Dallaire were in short supply in the 90s and early 2000s. This was a time when a macho group of Canadian soldiers were convicted of torturing, killing and mutilating a teenager in Somalia. It was also a time when Canadian officers were accused of turning the other cheek a little too often in war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina. And if national role models were hard to find then, they’re even tougher now.
Today, the closest thing to a national hero is a guy who was beaten by a mob in Vancouver when he attempted to protect a Hudson Bay Company storefront during a drunken hockey riot in 2011. Not to demean his courage – which came from a true place – but the chivalry was notably misplaced: protecting a company that usurped millions of acres of native land and was the primary tool of imperial expansion in early Canada. Canadians across the country scorned his attackers and praised his valor, but few recognized the cultural shift at the riot’s core.
In Dallaire’s time, channeling heroic impulse was our foreign policy. It was called peacekeeping. Today it’s no longer. Canada has almost completely withdrawn from the global peacekeeping experiment in altruism. According to the latest UN numbers in The Globe and Mail, 33 Canadians are on the ground in blue berets, a far cry from being the world leader two decades ago. Today’s citizen of purpose has the impulse of the rioter. Libya. Iran. Syria. Afghanistan. Tar sands. Arctic sovereignty. Northern development. Economic expansion. Canadians are chomping at the bit to do some damage, to reap the bounty of strength. Today the heroic impulse is growth, oil and war.
Old school frontier toughness is the face of the changing shape of Canada. And it is this changing shape that makes it difficult for those who didn’t vote for Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to hear him speak. Composed. Confident. Intelligent. Sure. Smart. Calculated. Cold. And though the opposition tries desperately to believe this man is duping Canadians, as more election victories pile up for his Conservative party they’re faced with a dark and discomforting truth, a truth that is becoming harder to ignore. Maybe Harper is the true voice of Canada? Maybe his detractors have given his leadership qualities too much credit? Maybe Canada has changed.
To his distraught opposition, Harper speaks about a Canada they don’t recognize, a country running on an emptiness that can only be filled with blood-thirsty consumption and growth, a country cherry-picking history, without values, without a culture beyond the dogma of allies and economic power. A country that now believes it’s destined for the petroleum stardom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. A country that believes its true calling is to be an arbiter of global destiny and violence, a harbinger of environmental doom.
Canadians have been slow to catch the drift. But the rest of the world hasn’t. A recent article in The Guardian said it all: “Maple Leaf Ragged. What Ails?” The feature touched on the key points of the new Canada – war, energy, immigration reform, deregulation, climate change denial. Al-Jazeera tells a similar story in its coverage. What happened to the peace loving, socially progressive, environmentalist Canada?
It’s taken a few years, but Harper’s Canada has finally reached the shores of Europe and the world beyond. The old Canada, the Canada that organized the Montreal Protocol in 1987 banning CFC’s (the key agent in ozone layer depletion), the Canada that spearheaded the 1995 Kyoto Protocol, the Canada that brought peacekeeping to the world in 1957, winning its then-PM Lester B. Pearson the Nobel Peace Prize (ushering the idea of soft power into the global diplomatic lexicon), the Canada that preferred diplomacy to war, is gone. In its place is a new regime. One that gags ecological researchers, labels any organization that dares to question tar sands development as “foreign funded radicals,” including Greenpeace (founded in Vancouver in 1971) and puts in an order for ten billion dollars worth of fighter jets in an era of austerity.
Maybe what we’re seeing right now is the endgame of American cultural imperialism in Canada. Who were we to think that our nation, a tenth the population of America, could assert its identity when faced with the economic might of the world’s largest economy and the influence of its massive cultural industries? Perhaps it was always just a matter of time before the elephant in the bed, as Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau once described America, suffocated us for good. In 2008, more Canadians would have rather voted in the American elections than the Canadian one. Perhaps that’s why Americans ended up with (the US version of) a progressive and Canadians ended up with a right-wing conservative.
9/11 fused our cultures closer than any event in our parallel history. Canada got swept up in a storm of security rhetoric, inspired along the way by America’s Patriot Act, Department of Homeland Security initiatives and the revitalized clash of civilizations myth. While our leaders kept Canada out of Iraq in 2003, it came at the backroom cost of taking a greater role in Afghanistan. Canada’s PM at that time, Liberal Jean Chretien, couldn’t sell an imperialist war in “liberal” minded Canada. He could, however, sell an ongoing war with a humanitarian premise: Afghanistan.
Throughout the 2000s Canadians were fed a steady drip of a burqah-clad Afghan woman executed on a soccer field by the Taliban, the falling Twin Towers and government promises that our soldiers would build schools for little girls. Progressives shook their heads and wept with pride that Canada wasn’t part of America’s Coalition of the Willing in Iraq, but deep down in the heart of our national identity, people were getting agitated. The culture was shifting. Harper sensed it. He gave a speech in 2003 saying Canada “lacks the courage” to put boots on the ground in Baghdad. It seems that underneath its veneer of civility, the majority of Canada wanted to go to war, they just didn’t have the power to express it yet.
In 2010, Lt.-Gen Romeo Dallaire published a second book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, only this time, unlike his national fête in 2003, his words didn’t have the same cultural force. The book was an impassioned plea to bring an end to international child soldiering. But since Canada was allowing the US to detain and torture an accused child soldier of its own, Omar Khadr, the book came at an awkward time. Khadr was 15 years old when captured by American forces in Kabul in 2002, severely wounded with two bullet holes in his back. He would spend almost a decade in Guantanamo, without so much as a peep from his government other than to aid the Americans with the interrogations. In 2010, Khadr pled guilty to five charges in a US military tribunal and was sentenced to an additional eight years of confinement. He is now serving out his term in a Canadian maximum security prison. Many Canadians were, and still are, outraged that Canada is the first Western nation since World War II to take part in the trying of a child soldier for war crimes. A precedent made all the more embarrassing by the fact that Canada is signatory to UN conventions on the elimination of child soldiering. Even more Canadians, however, are satisfied that the government did the right thing, that Harper’s Conservatives and the Liberals before him took a terrorist threat off the streets.
The lasting effect of 9/11 in North America may just be the near total alignment of American and Canadian foreign policy. Now there isn’t a war out there that seems unappealing to Canada – unless of course there’s no oil or strategic interest. When Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard took the helm in the NATO air campaign to oust Gaddafi in Libya, Canadians didn’t even bat an eye. Our government awarded Bouchard the Order of Canada for “strengthening Canadian-American ties.” The same award they gave to Dallaire for his heroics in the face of insurmountable odds in Rwanda – a mission the current Canada wouldn’t remotely consider.
The event that signified the formal transition of Canadian political culture occurred in 2011. That year a lingering philosopher of the old Canada, Michael Ignatieff, made a run for Prime Minister. Lt.-Gen. Dallaire put his star power behind “Iggy.” It was an ill-fated choice. Few political pundits really understood just how doomed Ignatieff and his philosopher-king soldier-of-conscience coalition was. A historian, professor and former director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, Ignatieff led the Liberal party, which until then had ruled Canada for nearly two thirds of our history, to its worst showing at the polls … ever. An ass-kicking from which they may never recover.
A national depression with spikes of Conservative exuberance followed. Even the winners couldn’t contain their shock. Top Conservatives celebrated the “death of the Liberal brand” and with it the passing of what was once Canada. The cultural message in the fallout was profound. The days of a deep-thinking philosophical nation were over. And this leaves Canadians with a stark choice. The culture has moved and with it the historic political division of the center and left have dissolved. Defined by a return to a resource extraction economy, hard power in international politics and the rise of a neo-frontier myth, the stakes have never been higher.
The bittersweet lining of Canada’s newfound machismo is the unprecedented electoral gains of the mainstream left wing New Democratic Party and the election of North America’s first ever national Green Party representative. All is not lost for stalwarts of a heroic humanism.
Solving the Conservative riddle and the rise of Canada’s own “silent majority” will begin with a new paradigm of electoral resistance, the amalgamation of the greater side of Canadian character.
It will begin when Canadians stand up for who they really are, if they can remember.
Now plaster this poster across the country, and tweet @justinptrudeau, @ThomasMulclair & @Elizabeth May demanding them to merge the Liberals, NDP and Green Party to create a New Canada Party!