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October 24, 2002 Political science students consider national defence, U.S. relations



by James Stairs

On Jan. 18, a day when 20,000 Montrealers took to the streets to peacefully protest a potential invasion of Iraq, 80 students from across Canada gathered at a conference to discuss many of the same issues. They were attending the opening session of the Canadian Political Science Students Asso-ciation annual conference.

In the de Sève Cinema, Dr. Joel Sokolsky, Dean of Arts at Royal Military College (RMC) presented an argument that Canada should restructure its commitment to peacekeeping missions around the world, and acknowledge our true relationship with the United States.

Sokolsky began by quoting from a government document which outlined a number of issues that mark Canadian-U.S. relations: “There is an underlying fear in Canada that the U.S. is too impatient and too quick to enter into a war.” The document also noted that there is a “latent anti-American feeling” in our country.

“These quotes come from a Privy Council paper dated June 28, 1951,” he told the delegates. Obviously, it’s not a new issue.

Rather than adopt an adversarial tone, Sokolsky said, we should acknowledge that Canada follows U.S. defense policy, because the two countries are natural allies. We benefit from American policy because that country acts in its own self-interest. The reality is that “America must defend Canada to defend itself.”

Canada’s real contribution to the United States is the fact that we lend ourselves as allies, he said. American calls for more funding on behalf of Canadians were due more to domestic politics in the U.S. than actual concern about Canadian defence spending.

Canadian policy has become so close to that of the U.S. that it can be argued that “Canada be excused from overseas commitments,” and devote its resources to protecting its own borders. “It used to be that the ‘over there’ was more important than the ‘over here,’ but this is no longer the case.”

After his lecture, Sokolsky was joined in a panel discussion.

Julian Schofield, of Concordia’s Political Science Department, commented that increasing the national defence budget represented a minimal political payoff for the government. “An election will not be won or lost over funding the DND,” he said. In Canada, “there is no ‘collective shock.’ We haven’t had a Pearl Harbor or 9/11 that would spur spending.”

Schofield suggested that it was time to end peacekeeping altogether. The practice of peacekeeping came out of the idea that we needed to avoid nuclear war and later to stop genocide, but the Cold War ended and “Canada doesn’t have the political clout to stop genocide.”

Advocating a brand of “expeditionary anti-terrorism” as a potential new direction of Canada’s military forces, Schofield suggested that Canada could act in a pre-emptive manner, sending soldiers on missions to locate weapons of mass destruction around the world so as to prevent their being used. Military policy should be anticipatory and adapted to the realities of a changing world.

Daniel Bon, the Director-General for Policy-Making at the Department of National Defence, argued that Canada should not change the nature of peacekeeping missions. He did express concern that Canada’s efforts overseas were not being noticed by the global community, and in particular, the European Union.

Citing Canada’s presence in Bosnia as an example, Bon said “the United States had no ground troops and got the credit. Canada had two battalions and got none.” Nonetheless, Bon said, the DND’s commitment to peacekeeping was solid.

The safety of Canada’s troops was clearly a major concern for the panelists. Another speaker, Stephane Roussel, chair of Canadian Foreign Policy and Defense Research at the Université du Québec à Montréal, noted that “the Canadian people have never paid the price for a lack of funding, but the Canadian forces have paid that price.”

Sokolsky added that he thought it was essential that military policy-makers avoid what he called “the Dieppe mentality, [in which] unprepared troops are deployed for political reasons.” Military policy had to be reviewed to avoid the scenario in which politicians have the ability to “glibly send our troops into danger.”

In the afternoon session, delegates split up in to two groups to follow up on the ideas from the morning. Students gave short presentations to begin the debates and each participant was encouraged to contribute to the discussion.

“I really found these sessions interesting. There are a lot of different perspectives in this room,” said Tsui, a student from the University of Toronto.

Captain André Berdais, a public affairs officer with the DND, sat in on the conference and said that the debates offered his department valuable information as to how the Canadian military is seen by civilians. The DND contributed to the conference both financially and logistically. “We’re always listening and want to hear what Canadians expect from our department, and we really appreciate input we got this weekend.”

Concordia student Melanie Anestis, co-coordinator of the conference, was pleased with both the attendance and the feedback.