Canadians have a self-image of themselves as well-meaning, liberal, polite and open. Canada as a nation is often seen in much the same way. Yet every so often a series of events collide that forces us to question some of these core precepts. The past 2 weeks has seen 3 sets of events that force me, once again, to ask a fundamental question: who do we think we are?
The first event was the spectacular testimony of Richard Colvin, who claimed to have repeatedly warned his superiors while he was posted in Afghanistan that Afghan detainees held by Canadian forces were being tortured upon their transfer to Afghan custody. The subsequent attack upon Colvin by senior government and military figures was staggering, and was clearly designed to deflect attention away from the central issue: were Canadian forces complicit in the torture of innocent Afghans?
What surprises me about this issue, though, is that in any event it deflects attention away from an even more central question: are Canadian soldiers complicit in the deaths of innocent Afghans. This question is not asked because we already know the answer: yes, of course they are. That the Canadian military kills innocent people is not the image that Canadians have of their armed forces; but the blue-capped Canadian peacekeeper is a thing of the past, replaced by a war-fighting machine that is currently involved in a mission that cannot be won and which has produced tens of thousands of dead non-combatants. Is this who we think we are?
The second event has been the series of racist attacks targeting international students in central Peterborough, where Trent University is located. Is Canada a country that respects difference? Canadians think they do; but these attacks say otherwise. They say that there are many places in Canada where the right to be different should not be assumed but instead remains an ongoing struggle. It says that Canada is not what it thinks it is, and Canadians are not who we think we are.
The third event is the Copenhagen conference on climate change. Writing in The Guardian George Monbiot described Canada as a 'corrupt petro-state'. There is more than an element of truth here: Canada is amongst the worst contributors to global warming on a per capita basis, the government's plan to deal with greenhouse gas emissions is derisory, and the government continues to promote the Alberta Tar Sands project, one of the dirtiest energy projects in the history of the past 2 centuries. Canadians as despoilers of the environment? It's not who we think we are.
Canadians, like people everywhere, need to face up to the realities of their country. Only then can improvements be made, and the reality start to begin to match the aspirations that Canadians have for themselves.
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