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A continuing failure to communicate

In his autobiography1 former Clerk of the Privy Council Gordon Robertson, who directly served Canadian Prime Ministers King, St Laurent, Diefenbaker, Pearson and Trudeau – often in the most senior positions, said: “St Laurent’s administration from 1949 to 1956 probably gave Canada the most consistently good, financially responsible, trouble-free government the country has had in its entire history, before as well as after Confederation.”

Prior to giving Canada outstanding leadership as its prime minister, Louis S St Laurent was, arguably, its best ever foreign minister. He, along with Dean Acheson of the USA, was, in Acheson’s words, ‘present at the creation’ of the United Nations, NATO and the Colombo Pact (Canada’s version of the Marshall Plan which, in large measure, made Asian success stories like India, Malaysia and Singapore possible). Canada, with St Laurent as either foreign affairs minister or prime minister, was a leader in forming the UN, NATO and the Colombo Plan.
In his now famous ‘Grey Lecture’ at the University of Toronto in 1947 St Laurent set forth five principles2 upon which Canadian foreign policy needed to rest. The fifth and final principle was a “willingness to accept international responsibilities.” In his conclusion St Laurent said: “we must play a role in world affairs in keeping with the ideals and sacrifices of the young men of this University, and of this country, who went to war. However great or small that role may be, we must play it creditably. We must act with maturity and consistency, and with a sense of responsibility. For this reason I return in conclusion to the point at which I began. We must act as a united people. By that I mean a people who, through reflection and discussion, have arrived at a common understanding of our interests and our purposes.”

Accepting international responsibilities, playing a role in world affairs and playing it creditably, acting with maturity, and a sense of responsibility are all hallmarks of St Laurent’s decision to make Canada a ‘leading middle power.’

Prime Ministers John G Diefenbaker and Lester B Pearson (the latter having been St Laurent’s deputy) continued with the ‘leading middle power’ policy and Pearson added to it the concept of Canada as a ‘helpful fixer’ in world affairs. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau categorically rejected both concepts in his 1970 white paper “A Foreign Policy for Canadians.” Successive prime ministers (Clark, Turner, Mulroney, Campbell, Chrétien, Martin and Harper) have done little or nothing3 to undo Trudeau’s policy vandalism.

The Ruxted Group advocates a return to M. St Laurent’s views and policy. Canada must, once again, “play a role in world affairs in keeping with the ideals and sacrifices” our best young men and women are making in Afghanistan.

Ruxted believes Afghanistan provides a suitably ‘pivotal’ point around which a sharp turn-about in policy can be made. See our earlier comments on that subject.

It seems fairly clear that Ruxted is out of step with Canadian opinion on this issue. It is equally clear that Canadian opinion has been ‘informed’ by media reports which are “unbalanced, mostly negative” and, with some notable exceptions, 4 ill-informed and biased – based too often on the sort of sophomoric, knee-jerk anti-Americanism which animates too much opinion in the media and Canadian society. Journalists themselves note, continuously, that the young men and women doing the “sacrificing” have ideas and ideals which are at odds with the prevailing wisdom.

The problem is that, despite the excellent work of some journalists, most are not telling the whole story.

There is more going on than Canadians fighting and dying. There is real development work going on right now, in Kandahar, but the media is not reporting it. We suspect there are two reasons:

1. It’s not ‘sexy’ enough – the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality - the ‘outside the wire’ combat stories and stories about casualties are much more newsworthy; and

2. More worrisome, they are not being led to the other ‘good’ stories. Leaving aside the real ‘combat correspondents’ (and there are quite a few), too many journalists work almost exclusively ‘behind the wire’ when they should be taken to the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and shown the work being done so that they, in turn, can tell Canadians. Ruxted believes that most Canadian journalists want to get the whole story out and that they and their editors are willing to tell Canadians all sides of that story if they are shown the ‘goods.’

Perhaps the root of the problem is that the Department of National Defence (DND) is doing almost all the ‘communications’ work in Afghanistan. It is not DND’s mission. It is Canada’s mission and the head men are Foreign Affairs officials in Ottawa, Kabul and Kandahar. They, and especially their political masters, need to be seen and heard. They need to communicate.

As Ruxted has said before, the primary communication responsibility rests, exclusively, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. We continue to believe that he is failing to do his duty to the people of Canada and to Canada’s soldiers. We all deserve better.

Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor and his staff have carried too much of the ‘communications’ burden. Not surprisingly the defence communication team tends to focus on defence matters.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and his communication team, need to jump into second place, behind Prime Minister Harper, and take on the bulk of the communication tasks. They (Harper and MacKay) need to tell Canadians, clearly, simply and above all honestly, why we went to Afghanistan, why we are still in Afghanistan and why we should stay in Afghanistan – beyond early 2009.

There must be reasons Prime Minister Chrétien sent troops to Afghanistan in 2002, there must be reasons Prime Minister Martin redeployed our soldiers from Kabul to Kandahar, there must be reasons Prime Minister Harper convinced parliament to extend the mission until 2009, there must be reasons Prime Minister Harper hopes “the view of Canadians is not simply to abandon Afghanistan.” Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Minister MacKay need to share those reasons with Canadians. When (if) they do then Canadians might be of the view that we should not just abandon Afghanistan.

Canadians, even those who oppose the military/combat mission in Afghanistan, want to help. CIDA is supposed to be Canada’s lead agency in the international helping business. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is helping, but it is failing to explain this to Canadians. Minister Josée Verner may have a fine programme in place but she has, to date, used only bland rhetoric to explain it. Part of the problem may be that her English communication skills are inadequate. If that’s the case then the prime minister’s communication staff is negligent in sending her, Sunday after Sunday, to the English talk shows, to try (and fail) to answer the increasingly difficult question: where is CIDA? What is it doing?

It is a fact that CIDA is doing good, mostly long term development work – much of it outside Kandahar. Mme. Verner needs to explain that. Despite her well publicized visits to Afghanistan, Ruxted doubts that Mme. Verner understands what is happening there or, perhaps, she does understand but is misrepresenting what we are doing. Mme. Verner’s agency has transferred funds to the military PRT, funds which are being used, right now, to do real, practical development work in Kandahar. Mme. Verner seems intent on having CIDA take unearned credit for military work. She may be a ‘captive’ of her officials who might be trying to win bureaucratic battles in Ottawa rather than hearts and minds in Kandahar. She and CIDA should be proud of the ‘work’ their money (in military hands) is doing in Kandahar and in Afghanistan’s other regions and in it political centre.

For a start, Mme. Verner should tell her boss, Foreign Affairs Minister MacKay, to tell his colleague Gordon O’Connor, to tell his people to make room for a DFAIT/CIDA media liaison team in the Kandahar Air Field which will escort journalists to the PRT’s area, day after day, to see what's going on… WAIT! That’s the problem. It may be Canada’s mission in Afghanistan but the Government of Canada has, thus far, refused to take responsibility for it – leaving it to DND and the military to tell our, national story.

The start point must be to turn the Canadian public away from the siren song of weak kneed isolationism sung by Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton. Canada and Canadians deserve better. We need to steer Canada back on M. St Laurent’s course.

Communication is the key. If Prime Minister Harper wants to change Canadians’ minds – minds which in mid summer 2007 appears firmly aligned with Dion and Layton – then he must convince them that Canada’s position in the world, as a leading middle power, matters and that how we conduct our mission in Afghanistan will materially affect our stature and position.

The responsibility for communications needs to be put in the political centre, preferably in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), where it belongs.

The ‘centre’ in Ottawa needs to tell Canadians that, contrary to what Stéphane Dion, Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton say, Canada is doing more, a lot more, than just killing and dying in Kandahar. Our diplomats, our aid officials, our NGOs, our military mentoring teams and our military PRT are all doing the sort of things Canadians want to see and hear about, things which will fill Canadians with pride. We are, in short, acting like a ‘leading middle power’ again. He should tell Canadians that.

If he will communicate a vision of Canada leading the world towards the sorts of goals Canadians support – being a “helpful fixer,” working, even fighting, to bring peace to those who are too used to war – then he will have Canadians’ support for turning our foreign policy away from Pierre Trudeau’s self-centred isolationism and back towards Louis St Laurent’s strong, generous, responsible Canada.

As another political leader said: "A nation's first duty is within its borders, but it is not thereby absolved from facing its duties in the world as a whole; and if it refuses to do so, it merely forfeits its right to struggle for a place among the people that shape the destiny of mankind."5

1 Robertson, Gordon: Memoirs of a Very Civil Servant, University of Toronto Press, 2000

2 National unity (must not be imperilled by foreign affairs); political liberty; rule of law; human values and accepting responsibility. See:

3 Although Mr. Mulroney deserves credit for his anti-apartheid stance and for the Canada/US free trade agreement – both of which were major foreign affairs accomplishments for Canada

4 It is important for Ruxted to reiterate how much we admire the reporting of e.g. Christie Blatchford of the Globe and Mail, Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star and Richard Johnson of the National Post. They paint wonderful and wonderfully accurate pictures, in words and graphics, of Canadian combat soldiers ‘outside the wire.’ Those pictures must remind all Canadians that our soldiers are tough, superbly disciplined, amazingly well trained and, above all, ‘ordinary’ young men and women doing extraordinary things in a difficult and dangerous time and place.

5 US President Theodore Roosevelt


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