Aggressive pipsqueak of the north

Stephen Harper seems to be trying to convince us that, behind our pleasant, peaceful exteriors, we are an aggressive, warrior-like people.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated last month, the Prime Minister argued that the characteristics of hockey -- tough and aggressive -- are key elements of the Canadian national psyche.

It was an odd comment. Yes, hockey is Canada's sport, but there's been a national clamouring recently to get rid of its most aggressive aspect -- shots to the head. The Olympic tournament -- less aggressive than NHL games - was apparently no less thrilling to Canadians.

The Oxford dictionary defines "aggressive" as "disposed to attack ... to begin the quarrel." Indeed, aggression -- long associated with some of the worst nations and regimes in history -- hardly seems like an attractive trait to claim as a national characteristic.

But the notion that we are an aggressive, warrior-like people fits with the Harper government's emphasis on greatly expanding our military, and moving its focus resolutely away from peacekeeping and toward war-making.

And as the federal budget revealed earlier this month, the coming restraint and austerity in just about every area of public spending will not be extended to the military.

As other areas are reined in, frozen or cut back, military spending will keep rising substantially, with only a slight reduction in growth. As the budget charts show, the Harper government is sticking to its 20-year plan, announced in 2008, to dramatically increase military spending. The total cost will top $400 billion -- equal to roughly $12,000 per Canadian, according to Bill Robinson, a defence analyst with the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute.

What is driving this massive ramping-up of our military budget, which is about 20 times larger this year than the budget of the environment department? Yes, Canadians support the troops, but there's no evidence they want a bigger military.

Even a poll released last week by the ultra-conservative Manning Centre for Building Democracy showed that fewer than half those polled believe a strong military is essential to Canada, while four out of five support Canada withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

And there's no evidence that Canada -- already the world's 13th biggest military spender -- is falling behind. Just the opposite. Robinson notes that Canada's military spending has grown faster than world military spending, even though Canada is in one of the world's safest regions. Since 1996, world military spending rose 36 per cent, while Canada's rose 42 per cent.

While the trend began under the Liberals, it has become more pronounced under the Conservatives, who seem focused on projecting military power rather than relying on Canada's traditional rules-based approach to international relations.

The Harperites have loudly trumpeted plans to enhance Canada's military footprint in the Arctic to back up sovereignty claims - even though military posturing seems inappropriate in a matter being adjudicated on the basis of UN treaties.

Robinson notes that, as a small nation, Canada will never be more than a minor military player, no matter how much we ramp up our military spending.

We could, however, "punch above our weight" on the world stage if we increased our efforts in development and humanitarian assistance -- crucial areas that the Harper government just cut back significantly in the budget.

Instead of being a muscular humanitarian on the international beach, we seem determined to be an aggressive pipsqueak, speaking loudly and swaggering around with a little stick.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.


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