CANADA GOES TO WAR
The country pitches in with the largest fighting flotilla it has sent to sea since the Korean War
Maclean’s SPECIAL REPORT
Welding torches hissed, hammers clanged and cranes hoisted cargo high overhead at Halifax’s naval dockyard, home to Canada’s East Coast fleet. Three ships were being readied to sail as the core of the largest fighting flotilla Canada has sent to sea since the Korean War. The order to prepare to join U.S. and British vessels, likely in the Persian Gulf, broke the tension that had prevailed at the base since Sept. 11, and sailors in uniform and civilian workers in coveralls joked easily and stepped smartly on the jetty. But aboard HMCS Charlottetown, the stern faces of crew members on the decks and in the narrow passageways left no doubt they feel the uncertainty of what may be in store. “Let me be brutally honest,” an officer of the frigate, who cannot be identified for security reasons, told Macleans. “I am going to be very worried about my wife and two children while I’m away. But when I walk down the jetty, I feel
a great deal of pride in what our guys are already accomplishing.”
What they were accomplishing was the rapid outfitting of a surprisingly large Canadian contribution to the war against terrorism. As Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley declared in a speech marking one month since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, Canada ranks third, behind the United States and Britain, in its military commitment to the U.S.led anti-terrorist coalition. That came as a surprise to the many outside critics who had questioned Canadas capacity to mount much of a show of force. In all, about 2,000 men and women in uniform—from sailors to pilots to special-forces commandos— will be involved.
The tally of troops and the dockside bustle in Halifax began to give this unconventional campaign more of the feel of an old-fashioned war. But this remains a fight unlike any Canada has joined. For one thing, it has no plainly stated aim. Asked about what strategic goals Ottawa has in mind—capturing or killing terrorist satrap Osama bin Laden, say, or ousting Afghanistan’s Taliban regime—Manley was vague. “I don’t think there’s a day when we can have a ticker tape parade and say that we’ve won the war against terrorism,” he said. “Every day that we carry on our lives and that people live in freedom in our society is another day of victory for us.”
Steps to safeguard that home-front freedom began in earnest last week. Ottawa announced $250 million in security measures, including $55.7 million to buy bomb-detection equipment for airports, and $8 million for fingerprint scanners to give police at airports, border crossings and ports the ability to in-
standy check if the prints of suspicious travellers are on file with the RCMP or the FBI. About $49 million will be spent tightening up the immigration and refugee system. A new, harder-toforge permanent resident card for new immigrants will be in use by next June, and up to 100 new immigration officers will be hired to improve scrutiny of new arrivals at points of entry.
This week, federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan is slated to unveil a major package of laws to back up those new security measures. Liberal sources said her omnibus bill will outlaw membership in terrorist organizations, and define terrorism for the first time in Canadian law. As well, McLellan is expected to make it illegal to raise money for terrorism—a big step forward from widely criticized legislation tabled earlier this year that would merely have stripped charitable status from groups that not only finance terror, but also issue tax receipts to their donors. More potentially controversial will be any new surveillance powers McLellan’s package gives police. The civil liberties implications of such measures were debated last week behind closed doors by a special cabinet committee on terrorism, chaired by Manley, but the details were kept tighdy under wraps.
The new airport security measures and McLellan’s legislation may change the way Canadians view the Liberal government’s response to Sept. 11. Prime Minister Jean Chrétiens early reaction was widely regarded as halting and uninspiring—especially compared to the flair for crisis leadership in the age of 24-hour TV news displayed by Britain’s Tony Blair. But the Chrétien government is now making a concerted push to change that perception. Manley went so far as to boast that Canada is now ahead of the U.S. in beefing up security.
Coming from Manley—who has been a fount of pro-U.S rhetoric, and eager to reassure Washington of Ottawa’s full cooperation in any anti-terrorist campaign—that bold claim had some credibility. “I’m very conscious of the fact that there have been some U.S. legislators and journalists who have, somehow or other, tried to implicate Canada in what had happened, or suggest that somehow we are a risk to the United States,” he told reporters in Montreal. “It is not necessary for them to define the necessary security measures for us.”
While shoring up border and airport security will help, military participation could do even more to give Canada credibility with George W Bush’s administration. The Charlottetown, along with a destroyer and a supply ship, will set out, likely this week, from Halifax, while HMCS Vancouver, another frigate, is being sent from the West Coast. A third frigate, HMCS Halifax, was already serving in NATO’s Standing Naval Force Atlantic, and was directed immediately to the Persian Gulf. The air force is sending three Hercules transport planes, one Airbus, and two Aurora maritime patrol planes. A small group of perhaps 100 soldiers from the secretive commando-style unit called Joint Task Force 2 have also been assigned, and might even see action on the ground in Afghanistan.
While the precise role of Canadas sea, air and small special-forces contribution has not been spelled out publicly, senior Canadian Forces officers are confident it will be more than symbolic. Rear Admiral Bruce McLean, commander of Canadas East Coast forces, said the five ships will play a “workhorse” role supporting U.S. and British vessels. “There will be an opportunity in this operation to do a wide range of tasks,” he told Macleans. “We won’t be launching Tomahawks. But we will provide the kind of presence and support and help with defence and depth in that region.” And McLean noted that Canada’s navy has worked with the U.S. navy in the Persian Gulf enforcing the economic sanctions against Iraq. “I am very comfortable with our level of preparedness to operate in a familiar piece of water.”
SAILING AS TO WAR
Canada is sending five ships, six planes and about 2,000 service personnel to join the military campaign against terrorism. The day after American and British forces launched their
missile and bomb assault on Afghanistan on Sunday, Oct. 7, Canada announced its biggest military commitment since the Gulf War against Iraq in 1990. Elements of Operation Apollo:
A contingent of the Joint Task Force 2 special operations unit is joining the antiterrorist force for unspecified duties. Other forces could be committed later.
In fact, the Charlottetown returned from the Persian Gulf in June, after six months of duty helping the United States monitor shipping to and from Iraq. The task included boarding vessels to make sure they weren’t smuggling crude oil or other cargoes. Under normal circumstances, the ship’s crew would have spent last week in Halifax preparing for a series of relatively routine combat readiness trials planned for November off Puerto Rico. Instead, they were getting ready for a mission of indefinite duration— Operation Apollo, the Canadian code Q name for supporting the U.S. mission Z Operation Enduring Freedom—one that | could take them into harm’s way.
Below decks, during a guided tour of the vessel conducted exclusively for Macleans, all seemed eerily calm. The bridge was immaculate and silent. The crew’s quarters—built for 220, but which may have to accommodate more sailors § and air crew during this mission—sat | mostly empty. Deep in the bowels of the | ship, a few monitors flickered in the op| erations room where weapons technicians f will, if necessary, fire the Charlottetown’s | missiles, torpedoes, machine-guns and g anti-missile guns. The ship also carries one of Canadas aging Sea King helicopters. “The team has risen to the occasion magnificendy,” said one of the ships officers as he surveyed the systems. “We’re going to be ready.”
Commissioned in 1995, the frigate is as long as a football field, but doesn’t feel roomy. When the “battle stations” alert is sounded, sailors scoot down metal stairs with just inches of space to spare. The executive officer’s cabin is less than six feet by six feet. But the Charlottetown boasts a few homey touches. The passageways carry street names like “North River Road” from the Prince Edward Island capital, and the walls are decorated with memorabilia from the ship’s namesake city. There are also exercise bicycles so the crew can work the flab off, important aboard a ship where the cooks turn out four meals a day—breakfast, lunch, supper and midnight snack. For other recreation, the vessel features three lounges equipped with TVs, VCRs, stereos and card tables. Crew members can keep in touch with their families with free e-mail accounts and on-ship telephones.
For now, though, the frigate’s officers are focusing on the ship’s fighting capabilities, not its amenities. “This is not training,” said one officer. “For many sailors, there is a great deal of satisfaction in finally being able to do what they were trained for.” Family members about to be left behind in Halifax were more ambivalent. “I never dreamed that after six months away he would be home for 3V2 months and then gone again,” said Susan, 34, wife of one of the Charlottetown’s operations room officers. “But I never dreamed of something like Sept. 11 either.” Susan, who asked that her last name not be used, will be doubly concerned for the Charlottetown’s safety this mission: her brother, also an officer, is a navigator on the Sea King helicopter the frigate will carry.
Lorie Hall, 28, a B.C. provincial government employee whose husband is a crew member of HMCS Vancouver, felt the impact of the attack on New York’s World Trade Center more personally than most: her father had helped erect the first of the twin towers as a young steelworker. And the Vancouver, Hall knew, was the designated high readiness ship for the West Coast. “For me, it was not a matter of if they went, but when,” she said. But there was no opportunity on Sept. 11 to speak with her husband about her emotions. He slept aboard that night, as the ship went on high alert, ready to leave on one hour’s notice.
The Vancouver didn’t depart immediately. But its crew and their families were advised to get their financial affairs in order, and to seek counselling if needed. The Vancouver sailed on Oct. 6 for a longplanned military exercise off San Diego, its status still unclear. That Sunday, the first strikes hit Afghanistan, and the next day Lorie learned, while listening to CBC Newsworld, that her husband’s ship would join a U.S. carrier group. The news hit some spouses hard, but Hall has a stoic streak. “It’s not a secret—ships go to sea,” she says. “This is their job, what they’ve been training to do.” Her husband will likely miss his son’s third birthday while the frigate is on the mission. Lorie will probably spend Christmas with her family in Newfoundland.
TARGET: THE TALIBAN AND BIN LADEN Where bombs and missiles landed (some are multiple hits) since Oct. 7
Stories of men and women in uniform and the loved ones they leave behind inevitably stir patriotic feeling. That leaves critics of federal defence policy in a delicate position: how to go on slamming military spending as too low without seeming to deride Canadian units heading into danger as not up to the task? Opposition parties are expected to tread lightly when the war against terrorism is debated Monday in the House of Commons when MPs return from a week-long Thanksgiving break. Only the NDP is opposed to attacks on Afghanistan, on the grounds that any military action should be taken only under the auspices of the United Nations. But even the NDP plans to take pains to voice support for Canadian forces heading for the Middle East and Central Asia. “That frees us up to be more critical,” said NDP House Leader Bill Blaikie, but he added his party plans to be “careful about what we say.”
Critics outside the political arena are less constrained. Clive Addy, a retired army major-general, scoffed at the term “punching above our weight,” which was repeatedly used by cabinet ministers last week to describe Canadas contribution to the war. “That’s classic spin,” said Addy, who just ended his term as chairman of the Federation of Military and United Services Institutes of Canada, an organization of former military and RCMP officers. “What we have done is offer up a tremendous proportion of what little we have.” He estimated that the five ships committed amount to about one-third of Canada’s navy, and questioned the Canadian Forces’ ability to sustain such a large contribution beyond about six months. As for the shadowy Joint Task Force 2, Addy called the anti-terrorist unit a “world-class, highly skilled organization.” But he added that the task force’s main mandate is to be ready to respond to terrorist threats at home— making this a particularly bad time to have a large portion of the unit abroad for long.
Exactly what role the secretive JTF2 might play is a matter for speculation. As for the ships, helicopters and planes, the likelihood of them seeing much action appeared remote. After all, the main war effort, so far, revolves around U.S. and British air strikes, launched against a landlocked country from aircraft carriers and land bases. Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network have no real ability to mount conventional military assaults on ships or warplanes. That has Canadian naval officers contemplating other kinds of threats. “For our last deployment, everyone onboard had a refresher course in how to defend against biological and chemical warfare,” said one aboard the Charlottetown. “So they are ready if it comes to that.”
That sort of nebulous danger— not bombs and bullets but the prospect of stealthy terrorist attack—preys on the minds of the sailors’ families. “It’s scary,” saidTer2 rilynn Regimbai, 39, wife of a seaÏ man aboard the Preserver, the sup2 ply ship in the naval task group. “I f try not to think about it. ” The strain 5 of dealing with a covert enemy also showed in the extraordinary security measures the department of national defence took last week. Security around bases was unusually tight and access for media to officers serving in Operation Apollo was very limited. The department first issued, then rescinded, an instruction to Canadian Forces personnel to not wear their uniforms on their way to and from work. Apparendy, the order was made out of concern that rank and file members might be the targets of attacks after Canada announced its participation in the anti-terrorist coalition.
If the edict against wearing uniforms off bases initially sounded like wild overreaction, it started to look more prudent when the FBI issued a warning a few days later that terrorists could strike soon again in the United States. On some days, in this strange new war, it seemed the uncertain dangers faced by Canadian Forces members heading towards the action were shared, at least a little, by everyone staying behind.