We Canadians like to think of ourselves as more than friendly neighbours, as global citizens with a penchant for peacekeeping. Since former prime minister Lester Pearson won a Nobel Peace prize in 1957, we have opposed U.S. international aggression, for example in Vietnam, albeit while our armament manufacturers continued to profit mightily. Business dealings, hypocritically, were separate, but our political leadership, from John Diefenbaker to Pierre Trudeau and even Jean Chretien, usually took care, publicly, to distance the Canadian mouse, from its neighbour, the American elephant.
In 1965 Lester Pearson advocated a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam War, in a speech at Temple University in Philadelphia. When he visited the U.S. president the next day, Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly grabbed Pearson by the lapels, shook him, and shouted “Dammit, Les, I don’t piss on your rug, so don’t you piss on my rug!”
For decades, Canadian travelers have basked in relative approval in countries around the worldâ€”carefully decked out in our flags, to distinguish ourselves from ugly American foreign policy.
Until the Mulroney years of the 1980s, when Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney courted Ronald Reagan and signed a free trade pact, successful politicians in Canada have tended to follow popular opinion and kept their distance from U.S. policies. But one free trade pact led to another, and as our economies became more entwined, our politics and foreign trade followed suit. Relatively close relations with Fidel Castro and Cuba have cooled considerably. In the 1990s, Canadian troops participated in three US-led military expeditionsâ€”in the Persian Gulf, Somalia and the Balkans. These were tactical supporting roles, involving equipment, supplies and armaments. Then, when the World Trade Centre in New York was struck in 2001, Liberal PM Jean Chretien rashly committed Canada to help defend the U.S. against terrorism, leading to our partnership in the illegal invasion of Afghanistan.
Much has been written, at least in alternative media, about how the horror of 9/11 enabled George Bush’s administration to extend its international and domestic campaigns of repression. Much less has been written, even in the alternative media, about how these and other events have altered Canadian foreign policy, bringing it more closely in line with that of the U.S .
Strong public opposition contributed to Canada’s refusal to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But successive Canadian governments under Liberals Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, and now Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, have taken leading roles in the occupations of Afghanistan and Haiti. Canada helped to oust former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 2004, and supported the repressive and murderous client dictatorship of Gerard LaTortue, a former Miami talk show host. Then-PM Paul Martin traveled to Haiti in a state visit in fall 2005, to bestow his blessings and hundreds of millions of dollars, on the LaTortue government.
By January, 2006, newly-elected Conservative PM Stephen Harper was glad-handing the Canadian troops in Afghanistan, decked out in military fatigues, mimicking George Bush.
Recently, Harper’s Minister of Defense Gordon O’Connor explained that the Canadian “mission” in Afghanistan was undertaken to deprive “Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda of its base,” following the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban government gave shelter to Al-Qaeda, he said. Secondly, O’Connor said the Taliban forced women to wear Burkas, and kept them from working outside the home. Finally, he said Canada’s focus in Afghanistan is on “reconstruction and development.” (Dougherty, 2006).
The Canadian media have not simply reported O’Connor’s stated rationale, but have adopted it as their own from the outset. Afghanistan, as the mainstream media proudly tell us, is “War, Canadian Style.” That is, when they are not disguising the war by calling it a ‘conflict’ or a ‘mission.’ It is the first war with Canadian troops officially involved, since Korea.
In journalism circles in the 1970s, the term ‘Afghanistanism’ meant that you could write anything about far-away places, because so few people know anything to begin with. (There is some debate over the meaning of the term: some feel that it meant ignoring your own backyard). In any case, the term is no longer used since the Soviet invasion, and American government support for Osama bin Laden and the Mujahideen.
Although the expression has disappeared, the old assumptions still apply. Today’s mainstream coverage of Afghanistan almost entirely assumes that Canada’s war efforts are noble and purely motivated. In this, we have adopted what American media critic Norman Solomon calls ‘American exceptionalism,’ or ‘the belief that unlike other great powers, the United States is motivated not by the self-interest of some set of elites but by benevolence — which allows policymakers to sell wars that are designed to extend and deepen U.S. power as a kind of international community service.’ (Solomon, 2005).
On the far left wing of Canadian politics, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton has called for the immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan, but more because the war is unwinnable than because it is immoral and illegal. Layton wrote in the Toronto Star that the mission is ‘ill-defined, unbalanced’ and with ‘no exit strategy.’ (Layton, 2006). As Canadian alternative journalist Linda McQuaig wrote recently, in the context of the Iraq war, the problem is not the incompetence of the invading forces. ‘The real problem is that it is illegal for one country to invade another country.’ (McQuaig, 2006). McQuaig’s lone voice aside, this perspective is beyond the pale of Canadian journalism, and even Jack Layton’s protests were met with scorn by the press. The Vancouver Sun, for example, editorialized that when ‘Layton calls for Canada to pull out of Afghanistan, he is handing victory to these [drug] criminals and the Taliban.’
Because of the huge stakes, and because truth is the first casualty, in a time of war the news media must be most skeptical, most adversarial: accept nothing and question everything. Instead, like their American counterparts, the mainstream Canadian media have adopted the role of stenographers to power, and cheerleaders for the war team. Although this performance has served the establishment well, it is a disservice to the public, the troops, and to the victims in Afghanistan.
Canadian media, like our political leadership, have shamed us. By joining the U.S. Administration in its century-long campaign of privileging empire and profits over human rights and lives, this nexus of politics and propaganda has left us with the blood of innocent victims on our hands. What’s more, despite their contention that they are saving the world from terrorism, they have further endangered our lives in Canada, by inevitably exposing us to retaliatory terrorist attacks.
James Winter is an author and Professor at the University of Windsor, Ontario Canada. This commentary was first published in the British journal of radical media criticism, The Fifth-Estate-Online ( www.fifth-estate-online.co.uk)
Dougherty, Kevin. “PR Boost Sought for Afghan Mission,” The Edmonton Journal, November 18, 2006.
Editorial. “Freeing Afghans from fanatics is a long-term, but necessary mission,” The Vancouver Sun, September 27, 2006.
Layton, Jack. “Why Canada Must Review Mission,” The Toronto Star, September 26, 2006.
McQuaig, Linda. “The Real Problem is that it is Illegal for One Country to Invade Another Country,” The Toronto Star , October 29, 2006.
Potter, Mitch. “War Canadian Style,” The Toronto Star, (8-part series), March 12, 2006.
Solomon, Norman. War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death , John Wiley & Sons, N.Y., 2005. Cited in a review by Robert Jensen, “It’s the Empire, Stupid,” ZNet Commentary, July 29, 2005.