Last week, a CBC reporter asked Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly why taxpayers were paying to send them to Europe — along with the prime minister and minister of defence — when there are plenty of problems at home.
According to the journalist, many Canadians are wondering.
I don’t have the numbers to directly prove or disprove that claim, but as a Canadian recently installed in Paris, it is striking how differently this conflict is being perceived in Canada.
This question would not be asked of a European leader in this context — not even by the ultra-nationalist right or the pacifist left.
What numbers we do have show French President Emmanuel Macron running for re-election while the country rallies around him and the flag, and the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau treading water in Canadian opinion polling.
Yet, both have taken on leadership roles in the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Macron as the president of the Council of the European Union and one of the few leaders regularly in contact with Vladimir Putin, and Trudeau with his government seemingly leading on a number of the most severe financial sanctions imposed on Russia.
Is this stark difference in their respective domestic audiences’ responses because Macron is in the middle of an election campaign and Trudeau is not?
It’s unlikely. Rather, in Canada, we see the public rally around the flag when conflicts hit closer to home: most recently, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in 2014 when radicalized Canadians killed two soldiers on Canadian soil and one of them proceeded to storm Parliament.
However, Jean Chrétien benefited from no such bump in his government’s favour when Canada joined the UN-sanctioned invasion of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, nor did Brian Mulroney when Canadian Forces participated in the largely successful rebuke of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War.
Opinion: It is striking how differently the Russian invasion of Ukraine is being perceived in Canada, writes Jean-Luc Marcil Ferland @jeanlucmf. #Ukraine #RussianInvasion #Kyiv
The simple difference is that war in Europe is perceived as much closer in time and space, while Canadians haven’t been confronted by war on their doorsteps in over 200 years.
Canada has enjoyed a uniquely privileged position since the U.S. has evolved from its greatest threat to its closest friend and ally.
This isn’t to eschew Canada’s proud and feisty military history: For my generation, stories abound of grandfathers who stormed the beaches or helped liberate Italy, and grandmothers working in munitions factories and tending to the wounded. For many, the Korean War, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and a number of peacekeeping missions breathed new life into this military tradition.
But in France, those stories are of grandparents who were killed by Nazis, who fought to defend the very streets they walk on, or less valiantly, made do with Nazi occupation.
Countless street names serve as historical reminders. Short bios are included to help jog the memory.
But perhaps, times they are a-changin’.
A lot was written after Donald Trump’s election about the need for Canada to diversify its trade relationships to alleviate its vulnerability to American protectionism. But what about his isolationist tendencies and admiration for autocratic strongmen, along with the party he appears to hold hostage?
As it stands, many consider Trump to be not only the ex- but also the next president of the United States.
He’s left no one guessing what he thinks of Trudeau: a “far-left lunatic destroying Canada.” Trump Jr chooses his preposterous comparisons on the far-right of the spectrum: “Mooselini,” he calls him. For the Fox News talking heads guiding public opinion on America’s right, he’s a “dictator.”
In contrast, Putin is “smart” and “savvy.”
With this inflammatory rhetoric, Trump and company play right into Putin’s hand, fertilizing the ground for Putin’s future foreign ambitions should he look to the Canadian Arctic.
What would Trump as president — or any of his stooges — do if the “smart and “savvy” Putin laid claim to these regions? Would they really come to the defence of Canada’s Mooselini? It shouldn’t be forgotten that Trump’s first impeachment was for attempting to blackmail Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, currently doing his best version of Winston Churchill.
Defence experts, especially, have criticized Canada’s overreliance on its American neighbour and general sense of complacency for a long time.
But Trump’s election and his reinvention of the Republican Party have shaken the ground our defence strategy was built on.
It’s time for Canada to take responsibility for its own defence.
Canadians are marvelling at the courage and capability of Ukrainian forces, and too few are aware that Canada played a significant part in getting them ready for this moment.
But we must also wonder: Would we be able to do the same?
Now that’s a question begging for an answer.