HomeFeaturesDailyBriefingsRapidReconSpecial ReportsAbout Us

Political Turmoil in Canada: Should Americans Care?

It is likely a fair assumption that more Americans are familiar with Stephen Aboutman, the fictional head of the WGA made famous by South Park, than Stephen Harper, Canada's Prime Minister (in the interest of full disclosure, I am Canadian and proud of it). To be fair, Canada has done little to garner any real international attention, thus evading the notice of many Americans (despite the fact that the U.S. and Canada are neighboring - spelled neighbouring up north - nations). But over the past few weeks, Canada has been embroiled in a political crisis that would rival anything the U.S. political system could conjure up - the opposition parties (the Liberal party, the New Democratic Party, and the Bloc Quebecois) have formed a coalition aimed at removing the ruling conservatives from power less than two months after federal elections. In fact, the calamity even garnered a feature on the Daily Show (see here and here).

Humor aside, why should American's care? The answer is not so obvious. In an editorial in today's Globe and Mail (Canada's leading national newspaper), J.L. Granatstein, a senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, offers the best elucidation yet as to what the consequences of the collapse of the conservative government might mean for America:

The implications are serious, primarily because the level of governmental anti-Americanism, recently held in check, may well increase substantially if the coalition comes to power. The reasons are obvious: The New Democratic Party has always been soft on defence and has historically trafficked in anti-Americanism; the Bloc has used anti-Americanism when it suited its purposes, which include pacifism and neutralism; and elements of the Liberals, up to and including foreign ministers and prime ministers, have not ordinarily been interested in the Canadian Forces and, when it suited their purposes, have deliberately played the anti-American card.

This has serious implications for the Canadian Forces and for relations with the United States. In the first place, the re-equipment of the armed forces, already slowed by an unwieldy procurement system, may not proceed under the coalition. The acquisition of new supply ships and Arctic patrol vessels; replacements for the navy's aged destroyers and for its frigates; the finalization of contracts for Chinook helicopters; new Hercules transports, unmanned aircraft and fighters; a replacement for the Aurora surveillance aircraft; new search-and-rescue aircraft, trucks and light armoured vehicles - all had become stuck in the sclerotic processes of the departments of National Defence and Public Works and could be killed. The Liberals have been lamentably soft on defence for the past 40 years; there is little doubt they will be even less interested in spending the very large sums that are necessary to restore the Canadian Forces if they are dependent on the NDP and Bloc.

The most immediate effects will be felt in Afghanistan, where Canada continues to play a crucial war in fighting the Taliban in Khandahar province. During the elections, the conservative government stated that it would end its military mission in 2011. The coalition has stated its support for this policy, but as Granatstein notes, "to do what? Will the battle group will be allowed to fight? Or would a new coalition government oblige it to pursue the passive, purely defensive role wanted by the NDP and Bloc?"

There are also more long-term consequences. Russia's resurgence and its desires to control the Arctic passageway, among other factors, have put an emphasis on a perimeter defense policy for the U.S., in which Canada will play a critical role. As noted earlier, the Canadian armed forces are not prepared to defend against emerging threats and are in desperate need of substantial capital investment - something which is unlikely under the coalition. As such, the burden for continental security could fall solely with the U.S.

Recent events, including the resignation of Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion (who would have served as Prime Minister under the coalition) and the appointment of Michael Ignatieff (who has never endorsed the coalition) as interim leader make it less likely that there will be a change of government in Canada. Nevertheless, Americans would be wise to note that the meager Canada is not such an insignificant part in the U.S.'s national security calculus.


You might also want to note that Michael Ignatieff is at least as military-oriented and definitely more knowledgeable about foreign affairs than Stephen Harper. Coalition or no, if he took over its more likely that Afghanistan would be extended rather than crippled. Harper himself has been criticised for cutting down his capital commitments to the military.

From the geopolitical point of view, Canada has served as a buffer state - between the U.S. and Britain, the U.S. and Germany, the U.S. and Russia. The Canadian people (there are at least two) have benefited from this sheltered position from which they have departed only under Nazi German threat. During Soviet days they did participate in NORAD but only under muted U.S. pressure (although an American I did work and live in Canada 1968-75). Today's Russia - let alone China - do not pose a threat to Canada's version of neutrality. Yes, greater Arctic navigability will bring some challenges to Canadian sovereignty. But such challenges may come from the U.S. as likely as from Russia. Canadians show little patience with distant involvements like in Afghanistan. Thus it's at this time unlikely that Canada would allow itself to be integrated into an American national security system. Of course, cooperation against cross-border criminal activities - including terrorism - is another matter: Canada-U.S. law enforcement cooperation has always been excellent.

Leave a comment