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Debating Canada's role in the world

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Kim Campbell, once prime minister of Canada for five minutes, got herself pilloried by all right-thinking hypocrites for revealing the dirty secret of democratic politics everywhere: Election campaigns are no time for issues to be seriously discussed. Yet even she didn't have it exactly right. It's really worse than that. In Canadian politics these days, no time is a good time for thoroughly and vigorously debating the daunting critical issues that confront this country.

An election only intensifies the habit of our always-on-message political class to use a word or a slogan in place of any actual discussion -- stability, hard-working middle class families, no more taxes, deficit, coalition, cut-and-run. These empty words now substitute for anything remotely like a serious debate. Like his American Republican idols, Stephen Harper has transformed this longstanding tendency into an art form. At the same time, the mainstream media largely restricts in-depth coverage to the horse race and intermittent "reality checks."

Amazingly enough, Canada in 2011 suddenly finds itself fighting in two wars in far-off countries that few Canadians (including our politicians) know anything about. You'd think that after Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, we'd learn that it's madness to go to war in places whose culture, social structure and history we have no clue about. You'd be wrong.

You'd think in light of the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan our political masters would want to explain our purpose in remaining in Afghanistan. You'd be wrong. Last week, on the second day of the election campaign Corporal Yannik Scherrer became the 155th Canadian soldier to be killed there. His death received only cursory attention by the media. You'd think that tragedy would have spurred our campaigning leaders to discuss Canada's presence in that country. Wrong again.

There are no accidents. Ponder these two curious facts: One, if either Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff had been Prime Minister in 2003, Canada would have joined George Bush's illegal, disastrous invasion of Iraq. Two, both men agree about keeping a Canadian mission in Afghanistan for several more years, although neither explain what we realistically might accomplish there. Tell me, Doctor. Do you agree with Jeffrey Simpson that their agreement on these critical foreign policy issues might explain the absence of any public debate on this subject?

Nor, except for a perfunctory few hours in Parliament's dying days, has Canada's puzzling role in Libya ever been debated. Libya's population is seven million, smaller than that of Quebec. The anti- Gaddafi coalition -- oops, let's call it the alliance -- includes the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Italy and eight other countries with a combined population of about half a billion people and commensurate armed might. The U.S. alone spends as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. NATO is now in command of military operations in Libya, representing 28 countries, some of which are also in the original "alliance."

What in the world are we all doing in Libya? Are we still carrying out our responsibility to protect? What value-added do Canadian jets bring to this mission, aside from giving Mr. Harper the excuse to pretend that our role demonstrates the need for new fighter jets? But we don't know what that role is or should be. In a week that marks the 17th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, these questions have an unusual poignancy.

In the meantime, the fog of war continues, as alliance countries attack Moammar Gaddafi's forces who are using weapons supplied by the same countries to attack Libyan citizens, whom the alliance is ostensibly protecting. Small factoid: In 2009 alone, according to a European Union arms control report, EU nations approved weapons sales of $470 million for Colonel Gaddafi's military.

Shouldn't these questions ever be part of a real "adult conversation"? Will the mysterious and un-democratic cabal who are running the leaders' debate next week include these life-and-death issues? Don't count on it.

Canada is drowning in critical public policy issues that never get seriously discussed. If raised by the opposition, they are Bairded: mocked, scorned, humiliated, ridiculed, insulted, if lucky ignored, at best treated to abusive slogans like "Taliban Jack" and "no cut-and-run." Our entire foreign policy is a case in point, or more precisely, our lack of any apparent foreign policy at all. It was hardly a fluke that Mr. Harper's Canada was defeated for a seat on the Security Council. Our disappearance as a player that exercised soft power thoughtfully and productively, that punched well over its weight (however much that reputation was overblown) has been criticized by a series of foreign friends who expect more of this country, the latest being Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Of course you can be sure the Harper gang is crowing that if Amnesty and HRW attack them they must be doing something right.

What is our Africa policy? What is our Latin American or Caribbean policy? How about India, Pakistan, China, India, Indonesia, Burma? The only known Harper policy in fact is a blind fealty to the Israeli government. That's why for 18 glorious days of protest in Tahrir Square, Mr. Harper stood almost alone with Benjamin Netanyahu praying that Israel's great ally, Hosni Mubarak, could hang on in Egypt. Of course, whether this is Mr. Harper's foreign policy or a domestic one, for electoral advantage, is a moot point. But shouldn't we be talking about these matters?

Here's my own reality check: Lots of Canadians happen to be doing just that, even if the mainstream media largely ignores them. Large numbers of Canadians are talking to each other, having had it up to here with the emptiness, the glib messaging, the endless nauseating spinning, of the formal election campaign. Many of these folk have come together in an important virtual network called Voices-Voix.ca, a coalition -- sorry, alliance -- of more than 200 civil society organizations and thousands of concerned citizens who are horrified about what's been happening to democracy, free speech and transparency in Canada and are speaking out. Among their many passions is Canada's baffling role in the world. Forget about the dreary, contrived formal election campaign. Real issues are being discussed among real people.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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