On the final day before Canada went to war, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had just left his office on Parliament Hill when a call arrived from President George Bush. A parliamentary telephone operator transferred Bush’s call to Mulroney’s cellular phone in his limousine. But the Prime Minister, guessing correctly the reason for the call and fearing a security leak, told the White House operator that he would call Bush back quickly. The car sped to 24 Sussex Drive, where he called Bush on a secure phone. Then, the President told him that forces from the United States and other countries were about to begin an air assault on Iraq. By the time Mulroney returned to Parliament Hill later that night for an emergency cabinet meeting, television was carrying the first reports of the bombings. Inside the cabinet room, the atmosphere was sombre but almost serene. Throughout weeks of tension over the Persian Gulf crisis, said one participant,
“it had been hard waiting.
But'once the whistle went, there was a little less nervousness and a lot more calm.”
Critical: The hour-long meeting dealt with only one critical piece of government business—war. When it ended, Mulroney announced to the Commons that Canada had taken on an expanded and potentially more deadly role with the coalition of forces massed against Iraq. In response to a request from Gen. John de Chastelain, the Canadian Forces’ chief of defence staff, the government gave permission for Canada’s 24 CF-18 fighter jets on duty in the Gulf to escort other coalition planes in attack missions over Iraq and Kuwait. And at midday Saturday, a forces’ spokesman said that Canadian flyers would go into combat for the first time in that role within 24 hours.
The new mandate had the potential to involve Canada even more deeply in the war. But in the moments after the first bombs began to fall on Baghdad, the opposition parties muted their vigorous criticisms of the use of force to
drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien, who had earlier called for Canadian troops to withdraw from the Gulf if fighting began, said after the bombing started: “Now, we must support our brothers and sisters fighting for peace.”
But that consensus may prove to be fragile. For one thing, Chrétien’s late-arriving pledge of support was at least partly overshadowed by former party leader and prime minister John
Turner’s decision on the eve of war to break Liberal ranks and support the government. For her part, New Democratic Party Leader Audrey McLaughlin said after the initial attacks that “our hearts are with the troops.” But she added that her party would continue to oppose Canada’s participation in the war. And on Friday, NDP defence critic John Brewin called for a ceasefire in the Gulf, to allow an opening for negotations with Iraq.
But as the Gulf conflict deepened, Mulroney’s determination appeared only to increase. “Canada will not sit idly by,” he declared after Iraqi Scud missiles exploded in Israel Friday
morning local time. “The unprovoked attack on Israel constitutes a very evil act by a diabolical man.”
At the same time, Tory advisers said that they were worried that a protracted war would create additional antipathy towards the already unpopular Mulroney government. The challenge for the Prime Minister, his advisers noted, was to demonstrate that Canadian interests are genuinely at stake in the distant conflict. Chrétien pressed that issue repeatedly as the leaders debated the crisis during the hours leading up to war. Demanded Chrétien: “What are our national interests in this war?” Mulroney argued that Canada’s security is inexorably tied to the strength of the United Nations. He added that UN authority would suffer irreparable damage if the alliance allowed Hussein to flout UN resolutions demanding Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
Mulroney received unexpected support when Turner dramatically and surprisingly broke from the party’s position. Turner, who has not attended a Liberal party caucus meeting since June and who is seldom in the Commons, clearly stunned his colleagues with his impassioned speech in support of the government’s apparent willingness—even before war erupted—to commit Canadian forces to an assault on Iraq. Declared Turner: “The whole history and tradition and commitment of the party to which I belonged for 35 years has been in support of the United Nations.” He added, “This is a crucial test for the United Nations, and Canada must support it.”
'Euphoric’: The speech earned Turner a standing ovation from Tories, led by Mulroney—and a reaction ranging from incredulity to outrage among Liberals. Said Toronto MP John Nunziata: “If he had any respect and support left in the Liberal party, it went out the window.” But the speech clearly did not represent a spontaneous conversion to the Tory viewpoint. Turner had rehearsed his statement earlier in the week and confided his intentions to several close Liberal colleagues, including House leader Herbert Gray. After the speech, one longtime friend described Turner as “euphoric.”
But, for the most part, the tone of the war debate was heartfelt and largely free of partisanship. It created deep anguish among MPs of
all parties. Mulroney, addressing his caucus for the first time after the phone call from Bush, climbed onto a table in order to be seen and heard more easily, then spoke in low, muted tones for about eight minutes. Said one participant: “There was no other sound in the room.” And on both sides of the Commons, MPs faced their moral quandary squarely. Two of them— Quebec New Democrat Philip Edmonston and New Brunswick Tory Greg Thompson—have sons who are members of U.S. forces stationed
in the Gulf. In the end, Edmonston condemned military intervention, while Thompson supported the government. For his part, British Columbia MP Robert Wenman was the lone Tory to challenge his party publicly. Declared the MP: “Would you be prepared to send your son or daughter to die a sandy death in the windblown deserts?”
That question was all the more pointed at week’s end, as Canadian fighters in the Gulf prepared to join the battle in earnest. Still,
although some military analysts predicted that the conflict would be settled swiftly, others speculated that the end of the fighting war might not mean the end of Canada’s presence in the Gulf. Many strategists said that the coalition against Iraq will have to maintain a military presence in the area for some time. One senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office told Maclean ’s that option is “actively under discussion.” If that happens, critics claim, Canada’s foreign policy could increasingly be tied to that of the United States.
Sober: But in the first critical hours of conflict last week, Ottawa’s concerns were clearly more immediate. The emotions of the moment were evident during an informal meeting at department of national defence headquarters. There, senior officers gathered to hear a report sent by Lt.-Col. Ralph Coleman from the Canadian base at Bahrain. At the end of the dispatch, the room remained silent after an officer read Coleman’s final sentence: “Our mood here is reflective and serious as we prepare for the ultimate challenge.” It was a sober postscript to a debate that touched the souls of millions of Canadians at home—and the fives of the country’s troops abroad.
ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH and BRUCE WALLACE with E. KAYE FULTON, NANCY WOOD and GLEN ALLEN in Ottawa
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