Canada Steps Out of Peacekeeper Role and into the Unknown

CF-18-2, cc Flickr Perry Quan, modified

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), intelligence, and border surveillance agencies have drawn hundreds of millions of dollars to “combat terrorism” in a federal budget that made special reference to the murder of two Canadian soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa last October. While there is the impression that the current Canadian government has devoted a greater portion of its budgets to defense spending to expand the role of the Canadian military, in reality, the Conservatives have devoted far more relative attention and dollars to internal security. What is clearer is that Canada’s military has become a tool for the government’s self-promotion and for electoral grandstanding, as demonstrated by the way its recent deployments to the Middle East, in concert with Bill C-51, have been exploited.

An additional C$292.6 million over five years has been allocated to the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and the Canada Border Agency services to fight terrorism and intercept the financing of terrorist groups. This new funding is a response to criticism from the opposition, which argued that the Canadian law enforcement team was being ignored. As expected, the Conservatives have used the budget to give Canadians the impression of caring for their safety, while Finance Minister Joe Oliver reinforced the need for additional security measures, warning citizens that jihadists had “declared war on Canada and Canadians.”

The budget also includes C$12.5 million over five years to oversee intelligence services in order to address concerns from the NDP and the Liberals about the lack supervision measures in Bill C-51 – so called anti-terrorism legislation that was recently passed in the House. An additional C$94.4 million over the next five years was allotted to protect Canada’s infrastructure from cyber-attacks. Despite the grandstanding, some analysts suggest that the additional funds account for a mere five percent increase in Canada’s public security budget. Nonetheless, the Conservative government has framed the budget to appeal to people’s anxieties emanating from lingering international crises.

“Our Government understands the presence of danger and is determined to respond in a responsible manner, without ambiguity or moral ambiguity,” said Mr. Oliver during his speech. He specifically cited ISIS or Islamic State, noting that the new funding gave the RCMP and CSIS new resources to investigate and prevent terrorist attacks against Canada, as well as hampering Islamic State’s ability to draw vulnerable young Canadians to its cause. As for border security, the budget allows for additional use of biometrics to identify travelers who require a visa to come to Canada. For some countries like Brazil, NAFTA partner Mexico, or EU members Bulgaria and Romania, cumbersome procedures could have economic consequences against the Harper government. Mexicans were enraged by the visa requirement imposed by Canada a few years ago, while imposing visas on travelers from Romania and Bulgaria is an obstacle to the ratification of an important free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.


The military as a reflection of a changing foreign policy

Harper’s Canada has taken on military missions that have increased the country’s exposure to the very risks that the additional security measures are intended to address. Canada wisely managed to stay out of Iraq, but the current government has sent Special Forces to fight against Islamic State alongside Kurdish forces in northern Iraq with provisions to attack ISIS posts in Syria as well. In an even more ‘ambitious,’ or imprudent, move depending on perspective, the Harper government has sent special troops to train Ukrainian soldiers confronting pro-Russian rebels. The Canadian Armed Forces had until recently acted in concert with other national forces in peacekeeping roles under UN auspices; after all, even the mission in Afghanistan had a UN, as well as a NATO, component. The new and more aggressive stance suggest that the Canadian military will have to evolve in a direction that reflects the current government’s policy. The 2015 election may have an outcome that precludes significant changes, but it will not be easy to stay the momentum.

So far, the Harper Government has promised to spend more to keep the military afloat, but by less than the minimum estimated by the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The current budget has not seen any increases, which would not be effective until two years from now. It stressed benefits to veterans but capped the total at about C$1.6 billion. In recent weeks, the new Minister of Veterans Affairs, Erin O’Toole, announced various measures for veterans, including a pension benefit for soldiers who are not eligible for the army’s own pension plan, a financial support program for caregivers of wounded soldiers, and hiring staff to handle cases and claims.

Minister Joe Oliver said the government planned allocations of C$11.8 billion over 10 years for military supplies starting in the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Yearly increases of C$184 million will eventually increase the military budget by C$2.3 billion in 2026-2027 compared to the current one. This is not a great number, considering many military leaders believe that the government should spend up to C$3 billion per year just to keep the armed forces at their current level. The government has made special provisions for the special missions of 2015, allocating an extraordinary amount of C$360.3 million this year to fight Islamic state, and an additional sum of C$7.1 million for the military training mission in Ukraine.

The Conservative government was under pressure to increase military budgets – especially from its NATO allies – but the announced measures will have a minimal impact. NATO recommends member governments to devote at least 2% of their budgets to military spending. The military also suffered because of the government’s drive to balance the budget. The next government, he said, will have to make painful choices and possibly even make cuts – either actual or to the planned supply. The Conservative government canceled C$3 billion in expenditures for the purchase of ships, aircraft and military vehicles, promising to make these acquisitions later and there are no specific dispositions on the subject. As the general elections loom closer, the Conservatives would have liked to present themselves as the champions of the military, but their budget suggests a mixed record at best. The recent budget balancing cuts – which allow the Conservatives to avoid having to raise corporate taxes – actually come after a period of relative growth under the Chretien-Martin Liberals, who increased military spending to the point that by 2011, in real terms, it reached the their highest level since the end of World War II.

Nevertheless, the future of Canada’s defense remains uncertain. Surely, major hardware rearmament programs remain, including the purchase of a new generation fighter, likely Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and a whole fleet of new warships. The election in October has forced the government to dig itself into a pigeonhole since the economic situation is rapidly deteriorating, forcing it to use a series of exceptional measures and accounting tricks to keep the promise of eliminating the deficit. Nevertheless, while the Kurdistan and Ukraine missions are especially appealing to Harper supporters, all parties appear to agree with the more interventionist shift in Canadian foreign policy since the beginning of the 21st century, less about peacekeeping and more about following US-led coalitions in a series of wars and military interventions around the world. These include NATO’s war against Yugoslavia in 1999, the invasion and the occupation of Afghanistan, the expulsion in 2004 of Jean-Bertrand Aristide (Haiti’s elected president), and NATO’s war in 2011 for a “regime change” in Libya.

Yet, rather than a ‘peacekeeper,’ throughout the Cold War, Canada has been a staunch ally of the United States army, a NATO member and a founding partner in NORAD. For nearly half a century, Canada’s military resources were dedicated to the planning of a Third World War against the Soviet Union. Indeed, most of Canada’s UN peacekeeping operations all enjoyed Washington’s tacit approval and support. Nevertheless, Canada served an important diplomatic role as a bridge. It held relations with Moscow, and Havana, in the darkest days of the Cold War; it kept an embassy in Tehran until just a few years ago and avoided aggressive stances and policies. As part of Canada’s new and more aggressive foreign policy, which is what has really changed rather than military capabilities, the government appears to be leading an effort to distort the notion that Canada is a “peacekeeper.” The media have abutted this by celebrating the achievements of the Canadian army in the past and present struggles, and PM Harper likes to remind his voters that Canada is a “warrior nation” and that WW1 was an “honorable war.” Canadian Forces have been almost constantly at war since the turn of the century: Afghanistan (2001-2011), Libya (2011), Iraq since last fall and now in Syria. In addition, Canada is deeply involved in three major US-led strategic and military offensives on the world stage. The war against Islamic state – a war that has emerged from a series of wars that the United States has undertaken in the Middle East, and one which has the ostensible goal of ensuring US hegemony in the largest oil-exporting region in the world.

Canada has long supported the United States in its attempt to transform Ukraine into a satellite of the West and to extend NATO to Russia’s borders. The Harper government, with the full support of the opposition parties, deployed Canadian aircraft in Eastern Europe and warships in the Black Sea to intensify NATO threats against Russia. Canada signed a secret military agreement with the United States to include Canada in the “pivot to Asia” policy to encircle and strategically isolate China. Canada also participates in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), through which Washington seeks to establish a larger regional economic bloc led by the United States. Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE), it should be noted, is one of the key partners of the US National Security Agency (NSA), spying on governments and citizens around the world in order to eliminate “threats to security.”

There is global pressure on Canada to respond to the United States’ relative decline in economic power and the rise of new powers. Canada calculates that the best way to defend and assert its own economic and strategic interests is to support American interventions. The military is the only aspect where the United States enjoys supremacy over its rivals.

This policy is reflected in last week’s surprise visit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Canada’s Special Forces stationed in northern Iraq and Kuwait. Harper used this trip to promote Canada’s growing role in the newest Middle East war as well as the thrust of his government’s policy to expand the powers of the national security apparatus – portraying these measures as required responses to Islamic terrorism. In a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the president of the autonomous Kurdish region Masoud Barzani, Harper reaffirmed the commitment of the Conservative government to continue its ongoing military operations in the country and in neighboring Syria. Harper seeks to present this military intervention as a humanitarian mission to protect the civilian population against Islamic State. He announced modest sums totaling some C$160 million to help rebuild Iraq and to support other countries in the Middle East facing a massive influx of Syrian refugees. In fact, there are Canadian oil companies operating in Kurdistan, producing and shipping oil. In recent years, Iraq has become a major trading partner for Canada, with bilateral trade in 2012 totaling more than $4 billion, making the country one of the most important trading partners for Canada in the Middle East.

In addition, Iraq is seen as offering significant growth opportunities for oil companies and Canadian infrastructure. The Conservative government named Iraq as one of Canada’s “development partners”, which allows Baghdad to receive additional financial assistance and other forms of support from the Canadian government. The Kurdish region is one of the most lucrative parts of the country for Canadian investment. Several oil companies and other companies have operations there and the Harper government last year opened a sales office in Erbil, the regional capital. This office is responsible for the expansion of Canadian investment in Iraq and was promoted at the time by the government as necessary because the Iraqi economy was one of the fastest growing in the world – notwithstanding the fact that Kurdish authorities are being challenged by Baghdad over their handling of oil contracts with foreign companies. In Erbil, Harper took time to visit the office of Melwood Geometrix, a Montreal company specializing in precast concrete. Media commentators have noted the electoral nature of this visit, as in many other Harper appearances in Iraq and Kuwait. His meeting with the local manager Melwood Geometrix took place before the cameras and after the greetings, Harper received a Montreal Canadiens hockey jersey.

Canada has deployed 69 military Special Forces to train and advise Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, six combat aircraft CF-18, two surveillance aircraft and an aircraft refueller, all supported by some 600 members of the CAF, to help the coalition bombing missions. In late March, the government extended Canada’s military mission in the Middle East until April 2016 and authorized the FCC to take part in the bombing campaign in Syria, making Canada the only Western ally of the United States to attack Syria. Bombing Syria is a violation of international law and tantamount to a declaration of war against the government of that country. Moreover, it would make more sense for Canada to attack Islamic State in Syria if it had friendly relations with Iran and Russia, which are Syria’s de-facto regional protectors. Rather, the government treats the governments of both those countries with contempt. At first it was said that ground troops in Iraq would not engaged in a combat and be limited to training and advising the Kurdish militia behind the front line. However, within months, it was revealed that Canadian troops have regularly gone to the front to directing attacks against Islamic State, asking for air strikes by coalition aircraft. In January, the Canadian army admitted that Special Forces troops were at the front almost 20% of the time.

During his visit to Kuwait, Harper has cultivated the image of a prime minister at war with appeals to nationalism and Canadian militarism, even if the military itself has not been the recipient of significant additional funding. Although it remains unclear whether the Conservatives will call for an early election, it is clear that whether the vote takes place this spring or next October, they will mount a bellicose campaign, stoking Canadian nationalism and appealing to anti-Muslim sentiment – in no small way heightened by Bill C-51. Harper has already indicated his intention to portray the opposition parties as being “soft” on the issue of terrorism because they have not fully endorsed the combat mission in the Middle East. He also said that if they were elected they would amend Bill C-51, which, it is reminded, allows CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) to violate virtually any law to disrupt whatever it deems a threat to Canada’s national and economic security or its territorial integrity. In his tour of the Middle East, Harper took the opportunity to promote Bill C-51, saying: “We are working to give our security agencies all the modern tools needed to identify terrorists and foil their plans, including a greater capacity to stem the recruitment and flow of fighters in the country.”


The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the authors are theirs alone and don’t reflect any official position of

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