March 2013 Commentary

Once a Colony

by J. L. Granatstein

We all know that Canada lives in a dangerous world--famines, climate change, war and slaughter, intractable problems in the Middle East, and dangerous tensions in the South China Sea. And yet we have no national strategy to help us determine where we gather our resources and how and when to use them. We surely need something better than adhockery to plan our responses to the challenges  we face.

That something ought to be a national security strategy, an effort to take the government's policy, the "what", and then apply the "how", the high-level plan to defend Canadian National Interests, acknowledge our values, assign strategic objectives that support achieving our policy goals, set priorities, allocate resources, and assign strategic responsibilities. I accept this definition which was presented by Hudson on the Hill, a columnist  in the magazine Frontline Defence. The difficulty is that the Harper government, cutting defence budgets and delaying promised equipment purchases, clearly has no intention of committing itself to anything on paper for the foreseeable future.

But there are deeper reasons too, reasons that explain why all Canadian governments are leery of thinking strategically. Despite evidence to the contrary, most Canadians still believe that they live in a fireproof house with the inflammable materials continents away. If trouble threatens, moreover, the Americans will protect us because, we think, their interests are really the same as ours. Even anti-American Canadians believe this.

Then there is the Mike Pearson syndrome. As the inventor of peacekeeping, the Nobel Prize-winning Pearson gave Canada its self-image as the honest broker par excellence, the impartial middleman born with a blue beret fixed on its curly hair. This was never true, but that is almost immaterial. Canadians believe it, and if you think that Canada's "traditional" role is as a peacekeeper, then there is no need for a national security strategy. Simply wait for the United Nations to request troops.

But the real reason why Canada lacks a security strategy goes deeper into history. Canada began its existence as a colony--of France, then Britain, and since 1940 strategically of the United States. We have always adjusted to the strategy followed by the metropole, and we deployed our troops and our resources to serve the interests of the great powers to which we owed allegiance. Of course, British or American national interests were close to ours. If Hitler had won the Second World War, if Stalin had conquered the democracies, Canada's very existence would have been in doubt. That we worked in a coalition and that our side prevailed was critical to our survival as a nation.

In effect, Canada was a contributor to the strategy of others, never an independent agent. We did not fight wars on our own, but only as a (junior) member of an alliance. We had very little say in shaping the Allied strategy in the world wars, and little say, for example, in determining over the last decade how the war in Afghanistan would be conducted.

There is no point in bemoaning this. Canada is not a great power shaping its independent grand strategy and it never will be. Our geography, our location  on the northern route to the American heartland, has determined our fate. The best to hope for, as someone said in 1971 on Peter Gzowski's long gone  morning radio show on the CBC, is that we can be "as Canadian as possible in the circumstances."

But this does not mean that we should not consider what we can do. Our planning must affirm that Canada is a Western nation with core Western values. We need to recognize that we will and must depend on the United States for our security for the foreseeable future. We must protect our seaborne commerce in cooperation with our allies, and we must look increasingly to the Pacific. We need to watch over our territory as climate change and natural disasters increase the pressures on us. Our first aim must always be to protect our own people and their welfare; the next is to be prepared to meet non-military challenges with the resources of the state. And we must be able to offer aid to the world when disasters such as tsunamis strike.

This no grand strategy, but it would be a realistic step toward a national plan. And to achieve such goals demands that government consider with a very clear eye how much of a military force and what kinds of equipment Canada needs. A stock of blue berets will not be enough for the rest of the 21st Century.

J.L. Granatstein is a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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