Shattering Canada's Collective Myths

By Sandro Contenta

TORONTO, Canada - There are moments in a country's history when collective myths become so divorced from reality that almost everyone can hear them burst with a pop.

It happened last week in Canada, when stories in the media proclaimed the end of a national identity as peacekeepers, and the birth of one as warriors. This is no small change.

Canada practically invented the notion of international peacekeeping. In 1956, a Canadian diplomat named Lester B. Pearson - who later became prime minister - was instrumental in setting up the United Nations' first peacekeeping force, which helped end the Suez Canal crisis. Pearson won the Noble Peace Prize for his efforts.

That action solidified Canada's international role as a middle power mediator, respected by both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, and opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 because it wasn't approved by the U.N.

This collective self-image - and the foreign policy that flowed from it - began to change when the Canadian government sent troops to Afghanistan in 2002. There was much talk about rebuilding the war-ravaged country. But when Canadian forces took command of operations in violent Kandahar province, it became clear that killing the Taliban was the main goal.

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In 2006, staunch conservative Stephen Harper became prime minister. Almost overnight, Canada became more hawkish than the U.S. in its support for the Israeli government and its revulsion for Iran.

Domestically, the shift was evident in the way the government lashed out at a high-ranking diplomat who testified before a parliamentary committee last week.

Richard Colvin finished an 18-month posting in Afghanistan in October 2007. During his stay, he repeatedly warned Canada's political and military brass that prisoners handed over to Afghan authorities by Canadian soldiers faced torture. This constitutes a war crime. Yet the Canadian government did nothing until 2008, after a newspaper broke the story.

Harper's cabinet ministers reacted to Colvin's testimony by attacking him as a Taliban lackey. Warrior cultures, it seems, are more concerned with power than truth.

As Canadians say goodbye to the peacekeeping myth, they live with others that for years have been mere illusions, but have yet to explode.

That's the case with one that perhaps defines the nation like no other - the idea of a country opened to immigration.

It seems a strange thing to say of a country where people born elsewhere make up 20 percent of its almost 34 million residents. Many more are the Canadian-born sons or daughters of immigrants. Yet Canada has been closing its doors for years.

Its immigration criteria is elitist. Canada accepts only applicants deemed to have high labor skills, such as doctors and engineers. The fact that many of them end up driving cabs once here, their foreign credentials rejected by the bodies that govern their professions, seems not to concern the government.

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Sandro Contenta writes a weekly column on Canada for GlobalPost. Contenta has been a staff reporter with the Toronto Star, Canada’s biggest circulation daily since 1981.

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