With friends like these, Canada is sure to make enemies

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BY: Joan Baxter

Stephen Harper with his friend & fellow hardline conservative, former Australian PM, John Howard

Stephen Harper with his friend & fellow hardline conservative, former Australian PM, John Howard

(I’ve decided to republish this Op-ed now because I believe it traces the early warnings and the beginning of the end of Canada as we knew it. It was first published in The Chronicle Herald in May 2006, a few months after Stephen Harper became prime minister.)

For the last few years, the spring peepers have been my cue to climb halfway out the window of my second-storey office, humming Oh Canada while I put up the Canadian flag. After a long winter, it warms my heart to see the maple leaf out there on the end of that pole, waving strong and free in the warm breezes. Last year, when I noticed the flag was showing its age and fading, I happily went to Canadian Tire for a new one. I wanted all my visitors, no matter what nationality, to know how glad I was to be part of a country that at least tried to sound like a force for good on this troubled planet.

For twenty-five years when I lived abroad, first in Central America and then in Africa, I had been proud to tell people – often before they asked – that I was Canadian. And people would often reply – without any prompting – that Canada was “different” and “good”. When I asked why, they would say Canada encouraged genuine democratic reform. Canada had no covert agents disguised as aid workers or deniable operatives toppling regimes, arming rebels and starting wars. Some Africans did complain about our restrictive immigration policies and the impossibility of obtaining even a visitor’s visa for Canada if you were not wealthy or highly educated. And a few noted that Canadian companies were involved in the new scramble for Africa’s oil and natural resources.

But generally, I found people in Africa thought highly of Canada and welcomed Canadians with open arms. Even in remote villages of mud huts and thatched roofs, I would meet people who could rattle off the names of our major cities, and who sang the praises of Canadian champions of peace-keeping and -making, such as Roméo Dallaire, and even long-gone Canadian statesmen Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau.

Just how much of this praise we actually deserved, I can’t say. But the fact that we had a good reputation spoke volumes about our moderate and relatively benign Made-in-Canada foreign policy over the previous four decades. Even if we didn’t always follow through on promises, at least we championed the cause of Africa at the G8 summit in Kananaskis. We drew up treaties to ban landmines, forging ahead even when the US refused to sign. Same with the Kyoto Protocol. We had a tradition of contributing generously to UN peace-keeping efforts. We generally stayed on the sidelines of the violent geo-political arena while the world’s heavy-weights, the permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, France, the UK, China and Russia – slugged it out behind closed doors and on the battlefield to retain their spheres of influence.

Just how much of this praise we actually deserved, I can’t say. But the fact that we had a good reputation spoke volumes about our moderate and relatively benign Made-in-Canada foreign policy over the previous four decades.

Because of Canada’s generally soft-spoken and polite approach on the international stage, Canadians could feel good festooning their t-shirts, caps and luggage with the maple leaf. Some of my American friends liked to wrap themselves in the Canadian flag when travelling, for safety’s sake.

But the other day as I stuck my neck out the window to attach the flag to its pole, I started wondering what the maple leaf will symbolize to the people of the world in years to come. The changes in Canada’s national brand haven’t happened overnight. But they have happened and they are dramatic. We now have a top secret commando unit with a license to kill, while we ordinary citizens have no way of knowing whom or where or why. Earlier this year, Canada promoted the interests of giant multinationals trying to overturn a ban on Terminator seeds against the interests of impoverished farmers around the world who fought to maintain it. Now our government says Canada cannot contribute troops to a UN peace-keeping mission for Darfur to help end the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But we can cut the GST by one percent.

All this makes me wonder where this new and not-very-nice Canada is coming from. It may have something to do advice we have been getting from our friends, apparently eager to remake Canada in their own image. In early May, there was a private gathering in an Ottawa hotel of the Civitas Society, a low-profile but influential conservative group. Civitas was founded by Stephen Harper’s advisor, mentor and former campaign manager, University of Calgary political scientist, Tom Flanagan, originally of Ottawa – the one in Illinois, USA. Special guest speaker was US pollster and power-broker extraordinaire, Frank Luntz, who is credited with inserting into the American psyche the false link between Baghdad and 9/11 that helped President George W. Bush sell the US-led war on Iraq. Luntz, who also credits himself with the Republican landslide in 1994, had some tips for the Conservatives in Ottawa (the Canadian one), about how they could “massage” their message to convince Canadians to give them a majority. This influential American who specializes in duping the public posed for a photograph with our Prime Minister, his friend “Stephen”.

A few days later, Stephen Harper’s office rudely cancelled a visit by Senegal’s elder statesman, former head of state and now Secretary General of la Francophonie, Abdou Diouff, who was body-searched when he arrived in Canada for an official visit. African media were justifiably outraged, and more of the shine came off Canada’s international reputation.

A few days after that, Mr. Harper rolled out the red carpet for hardliner, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, one of President Bush’s loudest cheerleaders. Mr. Howard can also claim credit for helping shape Canadian politics; one of his party’s senior advisors, Brian Loughnane, helped the Conservatives design their election campaign. While in the Canadian capital, Mr. Howard delivered a typically hawkish speech about fighting terrorism. “Terrorism will not be defeated by rolling ourselves into a small ball, going into a corner and imagining that somehow or other we will escape notice,” he declared.

Tough talk, combined with Mr. Howard’s tough military hard line in Iraq, have certainly not done much to defeat terrorism. By joining the illegal US-led attack on Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks – contrary to the massaged “truths” of Mr. Frank Luntz – the Australian PM helped fuel the anger, resentment and anger that feeds terrorist networks with new recruits.

So why is the Canadian government under Stephen Harper so intent on importing and adopting this belligerence, to reshape our maple leaf in the shape of a hawk? Unlike Mr. Howard, I don’t think that Canada ever avoided its international responsibilities, or rolled itself into a ball pretending international problems would go away. Rather, we built our reputation on being a fair-player, on efforts to make peace rather than war.

If we start to believe the lies massaged into “messages” by friends such as Mr. Frank Luntz and allow the fighting words of Mr. Howard to shape our foreign policies, we may indeed find ourselves painted into a “corner” – a corner reserved for nasty nations than prefer to bully rather than befriend the rest of the world.

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