Can Canada Ever Be Great Again?

Rebranding the military of the Great White North from soldiers of peace to soldiers of empire.

Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download

Standing shoulder to shoulder with a 50 cal, Stephen Harper and his defense minister, Peter MacKay, share a macho moment in a pillbox in Afghanistan. They are each draped in ill-fitting combat gear, visibly pink from the heat. Above them, imported Canadian two-by-fours and green army mesh repel the Kandahar sun. The prime minister’s glasses squish tightly under the brow of his helmet. The resemblance between him and the wise-cracking Joker from Full Metal Jacket, who wears a peace sign while on patrol in Vietnam expressing his belief in the duality of man, is uncanny. A photo is snapped as the PM points casually to the distance. Wearing a keffiyeh and squinting earnestly, MacKay to the PM’s left is as puzzling to local mujahadin as Harper is to Canadian Globe and Mail readers – Harper is the first modern Canadian leader to visit a forward combat zone. Despite cause for a national double take, this projection of power is the type of cultural sideshow that has led Harper to his first ever majority this past May. Today’s Canada is not the one you think you know.

Rather than humbly going about the duties of a perceived benevolent donor state, Canada now uses its peace-loving progressive reputation to do anything but. Harper’s recent comments at the G8, striking the reference to 1967 boundaries on Palestinian statehood, are part of a much larger dismantling of soft power Canadian identities – humanitarianism, public healthcare, restorative justice and environmental protection – underway since the Conservatives’ first minority government in 2006. Establishing the army as the primary metaphor of his government has been key to this incremental takeover of values. With a heavy dose of gung-ho recruitment ads and strategic military photo ops, Harper has sold a narrative that Canadian ideals are under attack by weak-minded socialist environmental ideologues and that only he can stem the tide. More shocking than the shift to this Republican-styled ideology is how quickly citizens have accepted it. In only five years Canadians have been surprisingly easy to convince that more prisons are needed when crime rates are going down, that global warming is a scientific conspiracy, that petty oil dictators are an urgent threat to Canadian families, that environmentalism is bad for the economy and that peacekeeping, the concept Canada invented, is, well, for pussies.

“If you want to be taken seriously in the world, you need the capacity to act - it’s that simple,” Harper said in 2008, ushering in a new phase of arms spending. “The Canada First Defense Strategy will strengthen our sovereignty and security at home and bolster our ability to defend our values and interests abroad.”

To be taken seriously in Harper’s view is to wield hard power: guns, tanks, missiles and the balls to use them. It is the type of power he admires in others and the kind that he believes, since Canada was denied a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2010, will get Canada the respect it deserves. Accordingly, his party’s expressed goal of destroying the Liberal brand – the Liberals are Canada’s former ruling party – has coalesced into an outright assault on the soft power reputation those same Liberals had nurtured internationally since confederation, a reputation signified by a strong committment to the United Nations.

In a 2010 Toronto Star report, authors Dominic Leger and Nicolas Lemay-Hébert revealed that far from being a leader in international peacekeeping, Canada ranked a dismal 58th on the scale of manpower for UN missions – around 160 personnel on the ground – a handful more than Zimbabwe. (Afghanistan and Libya are NATO wars, not UN sorties.) Despite Canada having once been the world’s leading contributor to UN peacekeeping in the 1990s, there is little concern on Parliament Hill. On the party trail back in 2003, Harper told supporters that “we will never subordinate the sovereignty of this country to the United Nations,” and that Canada lacked “the courage to stand with the United States,” in what was of course an illegal war and occupation – according to the UN charter. For those paying attention, the recent trends toward law and order at home and militarism abroad comes as no surprise. Those hiding behind some naïve notion of Canada’s soldier-of-humanity peacekeeping identity are in for a wake-up call. Canada, like the USA, is a country at permanent war and its people apparently like it.

Darren Fleet