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Corporal Kris Barker, a soldier with Edmonton’s Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, First Battalion, who served over eight years with slain Lieutenant Justin Boyes, stands by his friend’s body yesterday in Saskatoon. (GEOFF HOWE/Geoff Howe for The Globe and Mail)
Corporal Kris Barker, a soldier with Edmonton’s Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, First Battalion, who served over eight years with slain Lieutenant Justin Boyes, stands by his friend’s body yesterday in Saskatoon. (GEOFF HOWE/Geoff Howe for The Globe and Mail)

Canadians embrace new role for military Add to ...

There's no doubt that Canadians have developed a full-blown, if heartbreaking, romance with their soldiers - and, it can be argued, a more robust sense of the country's place in the world. They have become modern-day action heroes, fighting the Taliban in lethal skirmishes, chasing pirates off the Somali coast, providing a worthy air escort for the Olympic torch across the ocean. But it's an awkward love affair.

And if Canadians have accepted - and even come to admire - a military that is more muscular, they are still more comfortable with Joe, the Canadian of that decade-old beer ad who declared: "I believe in peacekeeping, not policing."

But after decades of keeping the peace, our soldiers have become police - immersed in a deadly combat mission which, according to several polls, a majority of Canadians oppose. While tending to accept that their soldiers should stay in Afghanistan to the 2011 deadline, a war-shy public will be hesitant to commit to a future of grieving over the Highway of Heroes, however renewed their patriotism. Afghanistan, some analysts say, may be the country's last war, at least for a while. So a hard conversation looms when the fighting side of the mission ends two summers from now: Welcome home, brave soldier. But where and how will you serve next?

"The question facing Canadians - and it's very important - is what do we want to do with a better armed, better equipped, better funded military," says Janice Stein, director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. "Are we willing to use it? That's the debate that's coming."

For a country shaped over the past 50 years by its peacekeeping identity, that means a truth-telling: "Classic peacekeeping of the kind where you interpose yourselves between two armies and play volleyball in the middle, that's gone." Now wars are fought inside countries between armies and militants, and civilians are killed deliberately. In Afghanistan, Dr. Stein observes, "we can talk about it as a reconstruction mission or stabilization mission, but that actually involves fighting and dying. [That makes]many Canadians uncomfortable still."

Canadians largely support a military presence in Canada's north, but that's a matter of "standing on guard" for sovereignty, not advancing into war. As Dr. Stein says, "Nobody is going to die in combat in the Arctic."

The military - particularly under the outspoken command of Rick Hiller, now retired as chief of defence staff and promoting his autobiography across the country - has been quite deliberate in self-promotion, and successful, to a point. "If the key icons of the 80s were things like medicare and the CBC, the military became the new icon of the 21st century," says pollster Frank Graves, president of the social research firm EKOS. Once the Afghanistan mission began, "the military became the most recognizable face of the federal government," he said.

The lingering shame of atrocities by Canadian soldiers in Somalia has dissipated into history, the images of soldiers piling sandbags during the Red River flood or saving stranded citizens during the ice storm that struck Quebec and Eastern Ontario in 1998 sparked the return of affection. But it is the war in Afghanistan - and the steady, wrenching return of fresh-faced young men (and a few women) in coffins - that inspires the solemn crowds on those dozens of overpasses between CFB Trenton and the Coroner's office in Toronto, and the ribbons of support on car windows (or the more hostile bumper-sticker rebuke "If you don't stand behind our troops feel free to stand in front of them"). Annual Armed Forces appreciation nights have become de rigueur at professional sports events across the country. most recently at a Senators game in Ottawa, where 2,200 uniformed soldiers were given free tickets. "Ten years ago," Mr. Hillier said during a phone interview this week, "that would have been incomprehensible."

Standing in a line for a flight at the Ottawa airport, a couple months ago, anonymous in his civvies, he watched the mass of people in line approach the uniformed soldiers, shaking hands, even offering to buy them a Tim Hortons coffee. Less than five years ago, he observes, that would never have happened. "I don't think most Canadians would have known who they were, and even if they had known, very few of them - if any - would have gone out of their way to say 'Thank you for what you do, our hopes and prayers are with you.' And I've seen that across the country."

And after a long stretch of resistance to spending money on the military, support for defence expenditures has steadily risen over the past decade, rooted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in the need for a stronger military, and, at times, an even stronger desire to make work safe for the soldiers themselves.

"We have to be careful we don't romanticize the change too much," counters Douglas Bland, chair in Defence Management Studies at Queen's University School of Policy Studies, who believes that dwindling political and public enthusiasm for combat missions makes a sequel to Afghanistan unlikely. "It's not very deep-seated."

The public, he says, will not support big-money defence spending and hasn't responded to newly enthusiastic flag-waving by enlisting. (Every branch of the Armed Forces is struggling to replace retiring veterans with new recruits.) Bottom line, Dr. Bland said, Canadians are "not very keen on a mission that involves a lot of shooting."

But for two more years, they will have to live with one. In the meantime, Canadians will wear their poppies and shake the soldier's hand on the bus, and sadly, inevitably, line up to honour more convoys carrying the casualties of a divisive war.

Last week, after a speech at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, Mr. Hillier played a video of pictures from the Highway of Heroes, with a Canadian version of the stirring U.S. country western anthem, God Bless the USA . ("I am proud to be in Canada," chants the chorus.) A standing ovation followed in homage to the soldiers flashed on the screen. That's the easy part - waving the flag a little higher, caring much more for lives sacrificed in service to country. Now the tough talk begins about the future of the country's finer fighting force.

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