COVER

In search of our role

We want more security, but don’t want to be warriors

JONATHON GATEHOUSE December 31 2001
COVER

In search of our role

We want more security, but don’t want to be warriors

JONATHON GATEHOUSE December 31 2001

In search of our role

We want more security, but don’t want to be warriors

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

In the dismal days after Sept. 11, Jean Chrétien pledged Canada would “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the United States in the global war on terrorism. But since then, the Canadian public seems to have decided we might be better positioned watching our neighbour’s broad back. Support for the U.S. campaign against Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network and its Taliban protectors runs deep—84 per cent of respondents to the Macleans/CBC News annual survey of national opinion give their approval. But only 23 per cent want to see Canadian troops directly involved in the fighting.

Like others who participated in the poll, Joyce Reid was horrified by what happened in New York City and Washington. The U.S. bombings and ground war are completely justified, says the retired seamstress from Maple Ridge, B.C. “I’m on the side of the Americans. I think they did the right thing.” But when it comes to direct Canadian participation in the war, she isn’t so sure we have the means, or the right, to help fix the problem by force. After all, asks Reid, who is really threatened? “I don’t think the terrorists mind so much about Canada,” she says. “Their grudges seem to be against the powerful Americans.” Reid’s sentiments are shared by a plurality of respondents, but the question of just who is under attack deeply divides Canadians: 49 per cent of those who answered the poll feel the U.S. was the sole target on Sept. 11, while 48 per cent said bin Laden and his followers declared war on all Western democracies.

A current of disagreement, doubt and caution meanders through many of the responses to questions about the war and terrorism. In many cases, the shock and horror of the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters seem to have run up against a national sense that our military might

not be up to the task at hand. Seventy-nine per cent of poll participants support the involvement of the Canadian Forces in the Afghan conflict—but mostly in a peacekeeping role. Sixty-eight per cent want to see Ottawa “substantially increase” the amount of money it spends on armed forces, yet 57 per cent believe that, despite the new global security threat, the main purpose of our military should continue to be peacekeeping.

“The government’s polls are telling them the same thing,” says Martin Shadwick, a defence analyst at York University’s Centre for International and Security Studies in Toronto. “There is a disconnect here.” Shadwick says the Dec. 10 federal budget shows Ottawa isn’t planning any radical shift in priorities—of the $7.7 billion in new security spending, only $1.2 billion is going to the military and, of that, just $300 million is earmarked for the tanks, guns and aircraft that are the tools of the trade. “Much of our military hardware has the word aging’ plopped in front of it,” says Shadwick. “But that $300 million wouldn’t buy you one big transport plane.” In the larger picture, few Canadians rate terrorism as the most important issue facing the country. Just 11 per cent of respondents cite the Sept. 11 attacks as their major concern, far behind the bread-andbutter issues of health care and a looming recession.

Still, while the threat of terrorism doesn’t dominate Canadians’ minds, the aftershocks of Sept. 11 do linger. Fully 58 per cent of respondents think a terrorist attack on Canada is likely. That feeling is lowest in Quebec at 39 per cent and highest in the Atlantic region at 67 per cent. “They could attack at anytime, anywhere,” is how respondent Gail McHugh of Marysvale, Nfld., sees it. McHugh, a 37-year-old housewife, says the terror attacks brought home the fact that no nation, no matter how rich or powerful, is invulnerable. “I never thought the States would be attacked before Sept. 11,” she says. “And think about it: in Canada were so close to them.” Poll respondents from the East Coast are also more likely to expect friture attacks on the U.S., 81 per cent deeming a serious chemical or biological attack likely, versus a national average of 68 per cent.

BATTLE STATIONS

Actions and reactions

Percentage thinking:

There is a basis for the feelings of grievance that some in the Middle East feel against the West: 68

Canada likely to become a terrorist target: 58

We should substantially increase the amount of money we spend on our armed forces: 68

A never-ending war?

Percentage saying:

The U.S. and its allies will completely eliminate the threat of terrorism from Islamic fundamentalists: 4

The terrorist threat directed at the U.S. and the West from Islamic fundamentalists will end with the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden and his network: 9

What we have to do

Percentage approving possible ways of combating terrorism:

Introduce personal-identity cards: 75

Limit refugee claimants’ contact with Canadian society: 59

Restrict immigration from Muslim countries: 49

Peter M. Butler, a professor who tracks and studies public opinion at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says he is not surprised to find higher anxiety in the Atlantic region. “Were used to feeling vulnerable,” he says. “The economy creates that sensation.” Atlantic Canadians have long felt they are at the mercy of outside forces— corporations, governments, the environment—that they have limited capacity to resist, says Butler. “Control over your life is easy in a big urban area where you have options,” he adds. “Its not so easy here.” The traditional north-south links on the East Coast and the economic importance of the Canadian Forces in the region might also heighten sensitivity, Butler says.

When it comes to the war on terrorism, Canadians and Americans appear to be on the same page. Sixty-four per cent of Canadians admit to being worried hostilities could expand into a broader conflict pitting the U.S. and its allies against the Arab and Muslim world—as were 63 per cent of Americans in an October ABC News I Washington Eh# survey. Still, Canadians, like their southern neighbours, are resolute—84 per cent approve of the U.S. military campaign, just four percentage points shy of the Americans taking part in a Nov. 15 Newsweek poll.

That desire to defeat terrorism is so strong that many Canadians seem ready to embrace drastic security measures on the home front. Almost 60 per cent of respondents say they are prepared to give up some personal freedoms to counter the terrorists. “If you don’t think they’re here, then you’re a fool,” says Gerry Wenus, 49, of Toronto. “Read the papers.” Like 53 per cent of respondents, Wenus likes the idea of everyone carrying a personal-identity card. He’s with the 56 per cent who supported the federal government’s anti-terrorism laws, which provide police and intelligence agencies with broad new powers. Wenus also endorses the notion of clamping down on immigration from Muslim countries, and keeping refugee claimants in secure locations while their cases are being processed

(proposals that 26 per cent and 31 per cent of respondents, respectively, say they strongly support). Forty-four per cent of those polled say they feel strongly that Canada should return refugee claimants who arrive without valid ID. “I think they let too many people into this country,” says Wenus. “The immigration laws in this country are horrible.”

What’s more, poll respondents broadly endorse the government’s anti-terrorism legislation even though 65 per cent think it likely that police will abuse the powers they are about to receive. An overwhelming majority of 82 per cent, however, say critics of the war effort must be free to speak out. “I think Canadians are, in some respects, being quite realistic about this,” says John Thompson, director of the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto-based think tank for violence and security issues. There is a new recognition that international terrorism does touch this country, he says, something that hasn’t always been present in Canada.

At the same time, Thompson calls it reassuring that people “still have enough common sense to understand that the police are not perfect.” Support for such a radical policy option as allowing governmentauthorized assassinations of political figures known to support terrorist groups is less clear-cut, with 48-per-cent opposition versus 47-per-cent approval.

Orval Altwasser, a grain farmer from Yellow Grass, Sask., says he has grappled with many of those issues since Sept. 11. He is among the 68 per cent who believe there is a basis for the grievances some in the Middle East feel towards the Western world. “It’s good to be patriotic and proud of your country,” he says of U.S. foreign policy, “but when you are constantly waving your flag in the faces of the have-nots, it creates problems.” Given the severity of the threat, and the nature of the people who carried out the attacks, Altwasser says Canada’s only option is to toughen up its immigration laws and impose stiff security measures. But he’s reluctant to embrace a more militaristic society, saying Canadian troops should be used only for peacekeeping, not war.

Altwasser, whose family has been farming in Yellow Grass for three generations, says he understands the American military reaction, but like many Canadians, he wishes the conflict could have been avoided. War and violence seems unlikely to bring an end to the long-simmering hatreds and grudges that have helped create a welcoming climate in the Middle East for people like bin Laden, says the farmer. “Let’s sit down and ask these people what we can do to become friends again,” says Altwasser. “That’s what I’ve done in my life and I’ve got some very good friends now who used to be my enemies.” E¡3