Canada 150

Canada at War: How Two Decades of Conflict Have Changed a Country

Reminder, the Canadian military is shooting people across the world.

by Ian Munroe
Jun 30 2017, 4:15pm

According to media outlets around the world, Canadians have a lot to celebrate this July 1 long weekend.

The New York Times ran stories this week about how good we are at resisting strongman populism, and how clever our prime minister is for wearing colourful socks.

Another bunch of recent stories lauded the sharpshooting prowess of our military snipers, after one of them recorded the longest confirmed "kill shot" in history from a whopping 3,540 metres away. It happened somewhere in Iraq over the past month as part of a secret special forces mission to "support and assist" Iraqi security personnel battling ISIS, according to unnamed Canadian military sources.

That incident also prompted some uncomfortable questions on Parliament Hill about whether Canadian troops might in fact be fighting in a far-flung civil war, even if just a wee bit.

However our politicians choose to describe what Canada does in foreign military campaigns, we've been involved in them for most of the past 16 years since 9/11. First there was Afghanistan, then Libya, then Iraq, where it now looks like we'll have troops until at least 2019.

How has this affected our country? What changes has the "war on terrorism" brought home? And what does it mean for Canada's future?

A big anniversary seems like a good time to think about big questions, even for just a minute or two, so I spoke with a number of experts about the past and present of Canadian warfare.

'A drum beat in the background'

There's a big difference between what Canadian military missions are about today and what they entailed in the heyday of Canadian peacekeeping 20 years ago, says David Bercuson, a military historian and the director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

But that fact tends to get muddied by Ottawa's messaging machine.

"The government, and today it's the Liberals but in years past it was the Conservatives, are not being straight with people," he says.

"Afghanistan was Canada's third-largest war in terms of the number of troops that we sent there," he said. "Can you sell a war to Canadians? No, I don't think you can. But can you sell 'getting back at the guys who crashed into the Twin Towers?' Yeah, you can do that."

Bercuson also believes we've become sort of indifferent to the military missions that the Canadian Forces take on.

"'Desensitized' is a good word for it," he says. "We haven't had any bodies coming home for a long time now but I think it's like a drum beat in the background. It seems like we're there somewhere, doing something, all the time—and what we're doing is we're engaged in war."

He predicts that in coming years Ottawa will expand the military's special forces capability because they're better equipped to deal with the type of conflicts, like insurgencies, that arise nowadays. Their operations are also highly secretive, so we'll probably hear very little about them.

New kinds of policing

When it comes to terrorism Canada isn't at a particularly high risk, says Veronica Kitchen, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who studies counterterrorism and security bureaucracies. But sweeping legal and institutional changes have been made to deal with the threat.

"There's been a massive increase in the amount of spending on national security in the RCMP, but also on the number of people devoted to national security," Kitchen says. An unintended result is that there are now concerns that areas like cybercrime or organized crime could be getting less attention from our national police force than they would be otherwise.

Investigators are focusing more on online behaviour too. There is some mass data collection going on," Kitchen says. "But a lot of the time, reasons to censor yourself on social media have a lot more to do with common sense than they do to concern that you're being watched."

More resources are being devoted to pinpointing people who have become radicalized and who might be at risk of doing something violent. The Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence was established in Montreal in 2015 for that reason, and it may expand to Quebec City. Kitchen says police forces in some other cities are also looking at using social services instead of officers to help minimize the chances that an intervention will backfire.

'Major chill effect'

The growing focus on national security has taken a toll on Indigenous movements, says Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaw lawyer and chair of Indigenous governance at Ryerson University.

"It gives the government an excuse, some sort of perceived justification, to intervene and monitor and surveil and control and enforce our lives in ways that were clearly not legal before," she says. "The most recent access to information report about government operations and which 'terror groups' they monitor, which are threats to national security, included groups like women who participate in Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women vigils and marches."

"Government and law-enforcement surveillance of Indigenous peoples has a major chill effect. People are nervous and worried about just speaking out, about engaging in peaceful marches and what will happen to them," Palmater says.

Another major problem in her view is the militarization of police forces in Canada.

"If you look at scenarios like what happened in Elsipogtog when they didn't want hydro-fracking in their territory, the police officers don't look any different than military guys. They're dressed in combat gear, they've got snipers, they bring all of their SWAT guys out. And that is quite intimidating in terms of a relationship with Canada, and we're supposed to be engaged in one of reconciliation," she says.

"We need an independent national inquiry on policing and surveillance," Palmater says. "And then we have to have a separate, whether it's an inquiry or independent committee, actually look at national security and the protection of human rights. We've got to do those two things very urgently."

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