Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Why Canadians don't like Waffles

I could make this into a long diatribe about why I think that Canadian participation in the missile defence program is a bad (or good) idea. Instead, I'd like to take you all on a trip down memory lane to a time when another Prime Minister was faced with a decision over defence policy and how to deal with American demands.

Picture it: the early 1960s. The Avro Arrow project has been cancelled, and John Diefenbaker has decided to build Bomarc missile sites in Canada and deploy Honest John missiles to Canadian forces in Europe. Trouble is, both projects require nuclear warheads. We are now about three years after Diefenbaker has ratified the Liberal-negotiated NORAD agreement.

The decision to start construction on the bases is made without much hesitation. But there is trouble brewing in the cabinet between External Affairs Minister Howard Green, who is anti-nuke, and Defence Minister Douglas Harkness, who supports the nuclear weapons. Like a certain man currently occupying the PMO, our man Diefenbaker does not deal well with multiple options and conflict. And it takes a while for missile bases to be built, which gives him ample opportunity to start dithering on whether or not nuclear weapons will actually be allowed on Canadian soil. Options are floated, including the construction of the missiles with one part missing - presumably to be shipped ExpressPost from the US when trouble looms.

To make a long story short, pressure is laid to bear on Diefenbaker by the United States to accept the nuclear weapons. Diefenbaker bristles at pressure from the young whippersnapper JFK, and then again at comments from General Lauris Norstad (the retiring chief of NATO), that nuclear weapons are part and parcel of Canadian commitments to NATO. Pearson's Liberals declare in favour of nuclear weapons, to live up to their NATO and NORAD obligations, despite earlier opposition to the plan.

And Diefenbaker... waffles. He refuses to allow a clear statement to be made on Canada's nuclear policy, and kneecaps Douglas Harkness for attempting to clarify government policy to the media. Harkness resigns in disgust, prompting a schism in cabinet, leading into the 1963 election. Diefenbaker tries to pull every trick in the book during the campaign, including the fabrication of a letter from the US government offering to help the Liberal campaign. (Mind you, shortly after this came to light, JFK did send feelers to Pearson asking if he would indeed like some help - an offer wisely refused). All this comes to naught for Dief, and the Liberals win a minority.

It strikes me that Canadians tend to prefer leaders who weigh the pros and cons on an issue, come to a reasoned decision, and stick with it. They can respect decisions, even if they don't always agree with the decisions made - witness the Trudeau approach to governance. Paul Martin and Diefenbaker seem to have problems with parts two and three of this equation, and I suspect that Martin, like Diefenbaker, will suffer for his indecisive nature. With the big chair comes big decisions, and they have to be made in a timely fashion.

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