For as long as anyone can remember, Canada has been the world’s warm-hearted, generous friend.
When Mao’s millions were on the Long March, Canadian physician Dr. Norman Bethune went to China to care for the sick, wounded and disabled making the trek, regardless of their politics. Because British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery used Canadian troops as disposable cannon fodder during World War II, the nation’s soldiers liberated places like Central Italy and Holland after ferocious fighting left thousands of Canadians dead and wounded.
To this day, the Dutch of all ages revere Canadians. I was in a small café in rural Holland one evening and when people learned I was from Toronto, they insisted on paying for my food and drinks, not taking no for an answer after inviting me to join them rather than eating alone. I felt like Tony Bennett at an AARP convention.
When England, France and Israel tried grabbing the Suez Canal from the Egyptians in the mid-50s, Canada’s then-Prime Minister Lester Pearson rushed to the UN and worked out a peaceful end to the disaster. Blue helmeted Canadian peace keepers became a welcomed site in war-torn nations everywhere since then.
All during the Bush years, countless Americans pasted Canadian flag decals on their luggage or backpacks and wore the Maple Leaf flag in their lapel when travelling the world ‘lest they be taunted, tormented or worse as if they were Yanks, even in friendly nations. No one hates Canada.
But Stephen Harper, prime minister of a minority Canadian government since February, 2006, is doing his Bushian best to change this.
Harper is such a reactionary, so Neanderthal in his outlook, beliefs and world view that he makes Mike Huckabee seem qualified to lead MoveOn.org by comparison.
If you’ve never seen a picture of Harper, he’s the guy at the far end of the line of world leaders at G8 summits, usually wearing an ill-fitting, tan sports jacket and looking so out of place, he seems like the bookkeeper who came to do the accounts, stumbled into the wrong room by mistake and ended up in the photo before anyone realised he was there.
Canadians, or at least those who don’t live in Alberta which is Harper’s home and political base, are well aware of his many shortcomings.
For example, as the world economy collapsed last year, he refused to even consider a stimulus package until the three main opposition parties in Parliament – Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois – threatened to gang up and topple his minority government. An election was avoided only because Harper reluctantly supported a robust bill to help relieve the hideous problems facing Canadians. One result is that Canada now owns about 5% of GM, which has several large factories in Ontario and saving thousands of jobs. While many of its people are still struggling, Canada seems to be inching out of the Great Recession more easily than the US, no thanks to Harper’s darkly distorted ideology and widely discredited view of the role of government.
Like his role model and folk hero George W. Bush, Harper is busy doing as much damage to Canada’s world role as he is to its long tradition of providing a functional social safety net.
Just this week, in a move totally out of character for China – especially for senior government officials – as Harper stepped off his government green Boeing 757 jet at Beijing’s Capitol Airport, he was pointedly and publicly rebuked by both its premier and president for not visiting the country sooner. After the US, China is one of Canada’s largest trading partners and huge numbers of Chinese live here: Toronto has the largest Chinese community outside of Asia and Vancouver is home to the second-largest. The two countries have been strategically important to each other since the early 1960s.
“For some reason, Harper thinks he doesn’t like China, if he thinks about it at all,” a career foreign service officer with decades of experience dealing with the country told me. Although not authorised to speak publicly, I’ve known and trusted this source since 1993 when I made the first of nearly a dozen trips to Beijing, Shanghai and other provinces.
“We’ve been after the (Prime Minister’s Office) to schedule a trip for as long as Harper has been PM,” he continued. “The Chinese embassy here suggested a number of dates and became insulted when Harper’s people kept saying ‘no’.
“It was increasingly embarrassing to both sides, which is why (prime minister) Wen Jia Bao and (president) President Hu Jin Tao both gave him a polite but very public slap when he arrived in Beijing.. Anyone who knows Chinese culture grasped that they are really pissed.”
Two other officials in the foreign affairs ministry essentially confirmed the information.
“I don’t know if he (Harper) is extremely naïve or doesn’t like Chinese food or it’s something else,” one of them complained. “It was especially insulting to the Chinese that he made several official trips to Asia since taking office but wouldn’t stop for a day or two in China.”
“In working with the people around Harper, I get the feeling they don’t grasp the diplomatic, business and foreign policy importance of China to Canada,” the third stated in exasperation.
By comparison, each of Harper’s three predecessors made countless trips to China. Jean Chrétien went so often when he was Prime Minister, insiders jokingly wondered if he was hiding a second family in Beijing..
It Gets Worse
As if the Beijing photo-op wasn’t personally embarrassing enough, his nation chastised by an old friend, other Harper foreign policy disasters lie scattered around the world.
Last week, a special Parliamentary committee on Afghanistan – where Canadian troops have been fighting since the beginning – was stunned when a senior intelligence officer testified that insurgents captured by Canadian forces were tortured when they were turned over to the Afghan government. Even more shocking, Richard Colvin revealed that during his 18 months stationed in Kabul, cabinet ministers in Harper’s government knew it was happening.
Colvin directly contradicted three years of assurances by Harper that there was no credible evidence prisoners handed over to local authorities were tortured.
Colvin said the sweeping roundups of prisoners – many of them innocent by-standers – and their subsequent torture drove a wedge between Canada and the people of Kandahar where most Canadian troops are stationed, destroying much of the good will soldiers died to achieve.
“In my judgment, (our) complicity in torture turned local people against us,” Colvin told a hushed room, where opposition MPs sat slack jawed and open-mouthed at what they were hearing.
“According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was standard operating procedure,” Colvin insisted.
Colvin said he remains concerned because Canada continues to hand over its prisoners to the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s notorious intelligence service.
While the Harper government first denied the claim, within days Foreign Minister Peter McKay admitted much of Colvin’s testimony was true but only after memos incriminating the government were leaked.
Same At Gitmo
Harper is equally indifferent about a Canadian citizen detained for years at Guantanamo Bay.
Omar Khadr was 15 when he was captured in Afghanistan by Americans and shipped to Gitmo where a secret video of him begging for help from someone he thought was a diplomat but was really an intelligence officer was leaked. Khadr has told officials he was a soldier only because his father, now living in Pakistan, threatened to kill him if he didn’t. Evidence indicates that Khadr hadn’t shot or killed any US forces, as his original detention alleged, and now the US wants to send him home.
But Harper is blocking it, forcing the Supreme Court of Canada to intervene and agree to hear the case. Nothing in Canadian law allows the government to refuse entry to a citizen but Harper doesn’t want the boy – who’s now 22 – to be reunited with his family.
O, Canada. Stephen Harper stands on guard for who?