A Canadian Conundrum

When putting together my “Stories You May Have Missed in 09” post, I was surprised to see that two of the six news stories I highlighted involved Canada.  I suppose that I share the same conceit as many of my fellow Americans, we tend to view our neighbors to the north as just too familiar to really consider them a “foreign” country.  Our two lands share the longest de-militarized border in the world, we’ve been at peace for nearly two full centuries since the end of the War of 1812 – save for a little mid-19th century unpleasantness over the settling of the border in the Pacific Northwest.  Canada is the United States’ largest trading partner and a key supplier of oil, all factors that bind our two nations together.  That said, we really should be paying more attention to Canada, especially now with the country in the midst of a constitutional crisis thanks to the actions of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper has employed a little-used parliamentary tactic known as “proroguing” to shut down the Canadian legislature until March, and this has some Canadians, especially members of the opposition Liberal Party, incensed.  Proroguing sends a parliament home while still officially keeping them in session.  Typically a parliament is prorogued when most or all of the business before them is finished, though their term in office is not.  But the current Canadian Parliament has only passed about half of their pending legislation.  And one particularly hot topic the Parliament was dealing with at the end of 2009 were hearings into allegations that the Canadian military aided and abetted the torture of prisoners in Afghanistan.

According to testimony given at the hearings, Canadian troops turned insurgents captured on the battlefield over to Afghan officials with the knowledge (or at least the strong suspicion) that they would then be tortured – a violation of at least the spirit of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as a possible war crime.  Making matters worse were allegations that when some Canadian officers informed their superiors of their torture concerns, rather than stopping the turnovers, the officers were told to just stop writing reports.

The whole incident was proving to be a major embarrassment for the Harper government, but thanks to the prorogation of Parliament, the hearings have stopped and will essentially have to start again from scratch if they are even relaunched in March.  This has some liberal Canadians outraged, they point out that proroguing has never been used in Canada to simply avoid political embarrassment – except for 2008 when Harper used the same procedure at almost the same time of year to forestall a “no confidence” vote against his government.  Parallels are now being drawn between Harper and that most unpopular of politicians in Canada, George W. Bush.  Harper’s critics say that like Bush, Harper is trying to bully the legislature into ramming through a conservative agenda that is not supported by a majority of the nation.

But the proroguing of Parliament and the situation it is designed to avoid are feeding into an existential conflict in the minds of some Canadians.  Unlike the “hard power” foreign policy of the United States, where global influence is rooted in wielding a superior military force, Canada has long seen itself as one of the world’s top proponents of “soft power,” basing their foreign policy influence on their strong support of the concepts of universal human rights and social justice.  Canadians themselves even take a certain pleasure of offering up their soft power approach as counterpoint to their gung-ho American cousins, a skit from the TV comedy program The Kids In The Hall once contained this line: “I’m a Canadian…It’s like an American but without the gun.”

The torture allegations, though, cut to the heart of position as human rights champions around the world.  Canada was also singled out last month by environmentalists in Denmark as one of the chief villains in the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit talks.  One group of activists even poured oil over a Canadian flag to symbolize the country’s expansion of petroleum production from Alberta’s tar sands – in addition to being highly polluting and devastating to the environment, oil production in the tar sands region is also suspected of causing a spike in cancer among members of Canada’s First Nation Cree tribes.  The environmentalists also noted that Canada was the only nation to first ratify the Kyoto Accords and then reject them.  Add to this questions about Canada’s near decade-long military involvement in Afghanistan and Harper’s tough talk about the need to build up Canada’s armed forces to protect Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic and you have the makings of a crisis of conscience in regards to foreign policy.

So which way forward, a return to the promotion of soft power, or a more muscular, military-force based foreign policy, an “America Lite” if you will, that PM Harper seems to prefer?  Perhaps opinion polls from earlier this week will give an indication – Harper’s Conservative Party, which held a 15-point lead over the opposition Liberals just three months ago, have seen that dwindle to less than two points.  Anger over Harper’s tactics was cited as the driving force in the change. 

Torture, Stephen Harper, Soft Power, Canada, Afghanistan