In Baghdad, every encounter we had was a bit like going through customs.
“American?” was the inevitable first question.
“No, no, Canadian,” our over-eager reply.
Sometimes our word wasn’t good enough and our interrogators wanted proof.
We’d pull out our passports for inspection.
On their faces, you could often see a cloud of rage pass over. Women would sometimes let themselves smile. Kids would stop acting like mini-commandos and run off and play.
Don’t get me wrong: Canadians aren’t loved in Iraq; we just aren’t, so far as I could tell, actively loathed.
So it’s wrenching being back in Canada confronting the prospect of Stephen Harper as our next prime minister. This is a man who so longed to join George W. Bush’s coalition of the willing that he called former defence minister John McCallum an “idiot” in the House of Commons, declaring we should be in Iraq with the United States, “doing everything necessary to win.” This is a man who was so eager to “support the war effort” that he went on Fox and claimed that “the silent majority of Canadians is strongly supportive” of the invasion, defying the findings of every credible opinion poll.
If the Conservatives are given the chance to turn Canada into more of a card-carrying combatant in Bush’s disastrous war on terrorism than we are already, the little bit of grace I encountered in Iraq will quickly disappear. When I go back, showing my passport to the ad hoc inspectors could well have a very different effect.
I was in Iraq in April, at a pivotal moment when the United States decided to wage two pre-emptive wars within a pre-emptive war, one against the resistance in Fallujah, the other against Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf and Sadr City. The Los Angeles Times estimates that 800 Iraqis have been killed in the past nine weeks of U.S. attacks on Sadr City, even more than the 600 estimated to have died in the siege on Fallujah.
As mosques were desecrated, prisoners tortured and children killed, I witnessed George Bush’s awesome enemy-manufacturing machine up close. Hatred of Americans soared, not just in Iraq but also in neighbouring countries.
The retaliation began immediately: a wave of kidnappings of foreigners, now so common they barely make the news. The change in mood was palpable.
Anti-Americanism was no longer a sentiment; it was an uncontrollable force of nature. Being Canadian didn’t let us off the hook; we were still part of an ugly invasion of foreign soldiers, contractors and journalists traipsing through the country and taking what wasn’t ours: lives, jobs, oil, stories, photographs. The kidnappers didn’t usually discriminate based on nationality.
But being Canadian, or more specifically, not being American, did sometimes open up a little window. It gave people who were suffering permission to glimpse the humanity behind our nationality. And the overwhelming majority of Iraqis I met — even, miraculously, those who had just lost children and spouses to U.S. weapons — were profoundly grateful for that reprieve, relieved not to have to hate. I, of course, was even more grateful, since being not-American kept me out of serious danger more than once.
It is a privilege not to be hated for your nationality, and we should not relinquish it lightly. George Bush has denied that privilege to his own people, and Stephen Harper would cavalierly strip it from Canadians by erasing what few small but important differences remain between Canadian and U.S. foreign policy. The danger posed by this act is not just about whether Canadians are safe when we travel to the Middle East. The hatred that Bush is manufacturing there, for the United States and its coalition partners, is already following the soldiers home.
I have felt that hatred in Iraq, and trust me: We don’t want to experience it here in Canada. Or don’t trust me, trust the citizens of Spain, who decided in their March elections that they are not willing to accept the blowback from George Bush’s wars, that they don’t want these multiplying enemies to be their enemies too. Or the citizens of the United Kingdom, who just battered Tony Blair’s Labour Party in the recent local elections, furious at being dragged into a war that has made them less safe. Or the citizens of Australia, who are about to send the same message to John Howard. Or even the citizens of the United States, 55 per cent of whom now disapprove of Bush’s performance in Iraq, according to a recent Los Angles Times poll.
Yet just as the rest of the world is finally saying “no more,” Canadians are poised to elect a party that is saying “me too.”
The hawks in Washington like to paint Canada as a freeloader, mooching off their expensive military protection, the continent’s weak link on terrorism. The truth is that around the world, it is blind government complicity with U.S. foreign policy, precisely the kind of complicity advocated by Harper, that is putting civilians in the line of terror. It is the United States that is the weak link.
Before I went to Iraq, a seasoned war correspondent who had spent a year reporting from Baghdad gave me his best piece of security advice. “Stay away from Americans, they’re bad for your health.” He wasn’t being anti-American (he’s an American citizen and supported the war); he was just being practical. In Iraq, that advice means you don’t want to ride in the U.S. convoys or embed with U.S. troops. You keep your distance and stay independent. At this perilous moment in history, the same principle applies at home: Canadian security depends on our ability to maintain meaningful sovereignty from the United States. Being inside the U.S. security fortress isn’t a missile shield, it’s a missile magnet.
As long as the United States continues to act as a global aggressor, the best way for us to stay healthy is to stay as far away as from Americans as possible.
With 8,890 kilometres of shared border, geographical distance is not an option. Fortunately, political distance still is. Let’s not surrender it.