The American Legion Magazine, July 2006                           
SIRS Knowledge Source,  January 2007
By Alan W. Dowd

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls his election victory a “change of government, not a change of country.” But it portends a dramatic change of direction in world affairs. “You can’t lead from the bleachers,” he says. “I want Canada to be a leader.” Toward that end, Harper has vowed to set up new military bases along Canada’s northern frontier, deploy a new airborne unit, acquire new long-range lift capabilities, and revitalize Canada’s military by reinvesting in it.

Although Canada’s more realistic and arguably more nationalistic view of security issues promises to impact a range of U.S. foreign-policy priorities, it poses more opportunities than challenges for Washington.

Previous Canadian governments “pandered to people who defined nationalism as not being American,” says Martin Collacott, a longtime Canadian diplomat who now serves as a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute in Vancouver. But if the tenor and outcome of Canada’s 2006 elections are any indication, Canada’s strange strand of “non-nationalism” may be giving way to a more traditional nationalism.

Just consider the anger our genteel northern neighbors expressed over reports that the USS Charlotte had navigated Canada’s icy waters without Ottawa’s permission. The submarine apparently slipped through Canadian waters in November 2005, igniting stern words from then-Prime Minster Paul Martin. “Arctic waters are Canadian waters, and Canadian waters are sovereign waters,” Martin warned last December. “Canada will defend its sovereignty.”

But according to Gordon O’Connor, who serves as Canada’s new defense minister, the USS Charlotte was just the tip of the iceberg. As O’Connor angrily concluded prior to the elections, there are indications that submarines from the United States, Russia, France, Britain and even China “have traversed throughout our Arctic waters.”

Then there’s the strange case of Hans Island, the uninhabited chunk of land sandwiched between Danish-controlled Greenland and Canadian-controlled Ellessmere Island. As the Canadian Broadcasting Company reported, both countries have claimed it for more than 30 years. Denmark has sent ships and/or troops to the island at least five times in the past 17 years, planting its colors on a few occasions. Canadian forces raised their flag over the tiny island in mid-2005. O’Connor predecessor Bill Graham even visited the island in July 2005, to make “sure the Danes know that this is part of Canadian territory.” Denmark responded by sending another ship to Hans – and planting another Danish flag. Canada then sent a three-ship task force to the island, displaying what the British newspaper The Independent called “a new and almost bellicose determination to protect the sovereignty of its northernmost boundaries.”

However, as O’Connor, a retired brigadier general, bluntly concluded, “In international law, sovereignty must be enforced to be recognized.” And sovereignty could become a major issue for Ottawa in the coming decade: as Martin’s Liberal Party noted ahead of the elections, the shrinking ice cover around the North Pole could open up a Northwest Passage and generate vast new trade and transport opportunities for Canada. It also will invite territorial challenges from Russia, Denmark, Norway and even the United States.

Harper and O’Connor realize it’s virtually impossible to enforce or defend sovereignty with a military as emaciated as Canada’s. Prior to Harper’s election, Canada’s defense budget was just over $12.2 billion in U.S. dollars. That equates to a paltry 1.1 percent of gross domestic product, ranking Canada 128th in the world in defense spending as a share of GDP.

As a consequence, Ottawa has been forced to conduct a toothless foreign policy by default. In fact, as the CBC has reported, the Canadian military was so malnourished in 2002 that a Senate committee recommended the government call all of its forces back to Canada for a two-year rebuilding period.

“The Harper government is strengthening the military because it has been reduced in size and effectiveness for so many years,” says Collacott, whose career in public service included a stint as Canada’s coordinator for counter-terrorism policy in the Department of Foreign Affairs, as well as tours as ambassador to Sri Lanka, Syria, Lebanon and Cambodia.

According to the Canadian Defense Ministry, Canada has a deployable force of just 25,000 troops today. Canada’s contribution to allied security has dwindled so much in recent years that the Canadian Embassy is buying space on billboards in Washington to publicize Canada’s contributions in Afghanistan. “Boots on the Ground,” reads one subway ad. “Security Is Our Business.”

Canada First. There was a time when Ottawa didn’t have to remind Washington of its contributions to the common defense.

Some 60,000 Canadian troops died in World War I (out of a population of less than 8 million). Canada entered World War II more than two years before the United States. “By the end of the war,” as O’Connor observes, “we had the world’s third-largest navy, fifth-largest air force and an army large enough to fight on two fronts.” Some 42,000 Canadians died liberating Europe in World War II (out of a population of 11 million). As former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney once observed, “If people want to know how Canada paid for its seat in Europe, they should check out the graves in Belgium and France.”

Canada dispatched troops to defend Korea at the beginning of the Cold War and to liberate Kuwait at the end. In between, as historian Derek Leebaert writes, some 25,000 Canadians volunteered for duty in Vietnam while the rest of NATO averted its gaze from America’s agony.

Today, Canada has fewer than 3,000 troops deployed overseas – and most of them had to be delivered by the U.S. military. Worse, Canada has even had to turn to Russia and the United States for airlift assistance in responding to problems inside the country, such as flooding and ice storms.

“To be truly sovereign, we must be able to deploy our forces and equipment where they are needed, when they are needed,” Harper argued during the campaign. “Hitchhikers may get to their destination, but they don’t get to pick the route or timing.”

This may help explain Harper’s eagerness to rebuild the Canadian military. Even after the previous government pledged the largest defense increase in almost two decades, Harper trumped that by calling for an extra $4.6 billion in defense spending over five years. Among his priorities are:

• Standing up a 650-man airborne battalion for rapid deployment;
• Acquiring new strategic-lift aircraft;
• Recruiting and deploying 23,000 additional troops (including regulars and reserves);
• Building an Arctic National Sensor System and deploying new naval assets to detect and deter incursions into Canadian waters;
• Deploying new unmanned surveillance drones to monitor the vast, uninhabited reaches of northern Canada; and
• Deploying an army training center astride the Northwest Passage to exercise control over Canada’s claims in the Arctic region.

“The single most important duty of the federal government is to protect and defend our national sovereignty,” Harper says. “You don’t defend national sovereignty with flags, cheap election rhetoric and advertising campaigns. You need forces on the ground, ships in the sea and proper surveillance.”

To punctuate his commitment to Canadian sovereignty, Harper has dubbed his plan for defense revitalization “Canada First.” To American ears, that may sound like an isolationist policy, but Collacott says it’s precisely the opposite. “It’s about cooperating with allies,” he explains. “It’s about building a sensible and active engagement with the world. In creating a stronger military, the government wants to ensure it can play a more meaningful role in international affairs.”

Taking a Stand. Once in office, Harper moved quickly to reinforce his rhetoric with action. For instance, his first overseas trip was to Afghanistan, where some 2,300 Canadian troops are fighting terrorists and rebuilding a country. But the operative word here is “fighting.” “The Canadian troops in Afghanistan are now in a combat role,” Collacott says. “They were initially sent as peacekeepers.”

While in Afghanistan, Harper reminded the troops that “Canada is not an island,” noting that dozens of Canadians died when the World Trade Center was attacked. “Your work is about more than just defending Canada’s interests,” he explained, using the moment to send a message back to the people of Canada. “It’s also about demonstrating an international leadership role for our country – not carping from the sidelines, but taking a stand on the big issues that matter.”

Today, Canada is taking a stand by leading a multinational force in and around Kandahar, which was once the very seat of Taliban rule.

In March 2006, a Canadian special-forces unit known as JTF-2 participated in a U.S.-U.K. operation to free Canadian and British hostages in Baghdad. Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said the operation proved that Canada “is not passive when it comes to its own citizens and the protection of their lives.”

Later that same month, when the Hamas-dominated government of proto-Palestine refused to renounce terror, Canada became the second country after Israel to cut aid and diplomatic ties to the Palestinian Authority. Again, MacKay was blunt in explaining Ottawa’s policy. “Hamas is a terrorist organization,” he said, “and we cannot send any direct aid to an organization that refuses to renounce terrorist activity, refuses to renounce violence.”

Collacott adds that the Harper government is also stronger on anti-terrorism measures inside Canada, having declared the Sri Lankan separatist Tamil Tigers a terrorist group.

Harper is now mulling deeper Canadian involvement in Darfur, the blood-soaked region of Sudan. In addition, he wants to reopen talks with Washington on missile defense. The previous government held an agnostic view of the system, opting out of full participation in mid-2005.

It’s no surprise that a recent CBC analysis called Harper a “pro-U.S., pro-military leader the likes of which Canada has never seen before.”

“We have much in common with America,” Collacott says. “We are an independent, sovereign country, but we are partners with the United States.”

Nor is this partnership limited to the security realm. The new government wants to pursue closer energy integration with the United States, which should come as welcome news south of the border, given the rising cost of oil and the discovery of new reserves north of the border – reserves that could soon position Canada as the world’s fifth-largest oil producer.

Risk and Reward. Yet all of this carries political risks for Harper, whose Conservative Party has more seats than any of its rivals but lacks enough seats to comprise a majority government. Sovereignty and security were not the only issues driving Canadian voters away from Martin and toward Harper. Corruption and scandal also played a role in the defeat of the previous government.

In other words, Canada has not been transformed into a nation of hawks. Before the elections, for instance, Harper himself pledged that he would not commit Canadian forces to the democracy-building mission in Iraq, which may explain why Ottawa initially refused to confirm reports that JTF-2 participated in the March rescue operation. In addition, some of Harper’s political rivals in parliament are angry that Canadian troops are operating under U.S. command in Afghanistan rather than NATO or the United Nations.

Plus, there are critics outside government who warn that Harper will spend too much trying to rebuild Canada’s crumbling defenses. As Steven Staples of the Polaris Institute told the Canadian Press, Harper’s “defense increases will take the military budget to levels not seen since the Second World War.” In addition, he worries that the Harper government will ultimately “Americanize the Canadian armed forces.”

But to his credit, Harper believes Canada is strongest when it partners with its closest and nearest ally. “We are lucky to have the Americans as our neighbor, ally and friend,” he said after criticizing the government of Jean Chretien for refusing to send Canadian troops to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “They are our biggest asset in this very dangerous world.”

If Harper succeeds at reviving and reinvigorating the Canadian military, Americans may come to view Canada in the same way.