It was a sweltering summer day in 2003 – not long after the fall of Saddam Hussein – and the Iraqi police officer gave a knowing laugh when I said I was Canadian. "Let's see your passport," he challenged. We were in Ramadi, a blood-soaked city in what the U.S. Army used to call the "Sunni Triangle," just west of Baghdad.
The officer raised his eyebrows when I handed the little blue booklet over, and he called over his shoulder to a colleague. "Hey – this one really is Canadian!" Then he handed it back with a smile. "A lot of foreigners say they're Canadian. But I've never seen a Canadian passport before."
That was 11 years ago, when being Canadian meant a very different thing, particularly in the Middle East.
We don't yet know for sure why Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed a soldier guarding the War Memorial in my hometown, Ottawa. Nor do we know if the shooting rampage has any more than a coincidental connection to the attack two days earlier in Quebec that saw Martin Couture-Rouleau slam his car into two other soldiers, killing one. (A day after the Ottawa shooting spree, a package of suspicious yellow powder arrived at the Canadian consulate in Istanbul.)
There are only scattered facts that might be clues. The perpetrators, in both the Ottawa and Quebec cases, were recent converts to Islam. The victims in both were Canadian soldiers. Both attacks came the same week that Canada was dispatching six CF-18s to the Middle East to join the war against the so-called Islamic State. Both attacks were lauded by social media accounts associated with IS.
That last line is perhaps the most noteworthy. Not since the Second World War has there been a force that has borne so much ill will towards our country.
The confrontation, clearly, is an outgrowth of the hateful politics of IS, an entity that murders anyone who disagrees with it. But that's not the full story of how we got to here.
Eleven years ago in Ramadi, my passport represented a Canada that had chosen to stay away from the debacle of the U.S. and U.K.-led invasion of Iraq.
Canada was seen – even by those who resented the West in general and the United States in particular – as a peace-loving country, a non-belligerent. Yes, we had gone to war in Afghanistan, but that was a war of obligation, made necessary by al-Qaeda's attack on the U.S., our NATO ally. When asked to join a war of choice, we had wisely said no.
We were still the nation that had invented international peacekeeping (in the Sinai Peninsula) and perceived, most of the time, as something like a balanced mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Today, Canada is unquestionably a willing combatant in the Great War shaping the Middle East. We're part of an awkward alliance with the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar that is simultaneously bombing the Islamic State (never mind that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were funnelling weapons and money to them as recently as a few months ago) and ostracizing Iran (never mind that Iran is the party most threatened by the rise of IS).
Meanwhile, we did little to aid the Sunni Muslims of Syria and Iraq – those who now form the rank and file of IS – while they were being persecuted by the Shia-dominated army of former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, or being gassed and barrel bombed by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Though Canadian jets likely won't drop their first bombs on Islamic State for at least a few more days, our decision to join the fight against an opponent that – until this week – had never attacked us has been noted. As the celebrations from Islamic State make clear, in their eyes, we're a target now. Fair game.
Our changing posture in the Middle East – from balance-seeker to belligerent – has been evident since 2006. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's then newly elected Conservative government rushed to be the first in the world – before the U.S., before even Israel – to announce a boycott of the new Hamas parliament that Palestinians had elected to lead them. On my next visit to the Gaza Strip, the Hamas leaders I interviewed were perplexed. They had expected this kind of reaction from Israel, and perhaps the U.S., but why was Canada leading the boycott? What had Hamas done to Canada? Hadn't Canada been among those calling for Palestinians to adopt greater democracy? Hadn't the election been free and fair?
The calculation at the time was likely an easy one for Mr. Harper and his government. They took a stronger pro-Israeli stand than any previous Canadian government (a position that has been maintained ever since), certain that the electoral rewards would follow. The downsides must have appeared few: there was almost no trade relationship with the Palestinian Authority to speak of, and Canada's generous aid to the PA would ensure President Mahmoud Abbas didn't complain too much.
A similar calculation would be made six years later, when Canada closed its embassy in Iran, scoring political points at home, but badly missing the big picture. Today, as the U.S. and Europe negotiate hopefully with the government of President Hassan Rouhani, no country is more irrelevant to what's happening than Canada.
Forgotten in such cynical politics has been the effect on Brand Canada. That thing that made a police officer in Ramadi smile – that idea of Canada (accurate or not) that always left me feeling a little safer than my American colleagues in places like Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza – has been badly diminished.
And now here we are, with at least one section of the Muslim world cheering the idea of Canadians being shot and killed in the middle of Ottawa.
I'm not arguing here that Canada shouldn't have taken some kind of action against Islamic State. No one – especially not a journalist who has seen colleagues beheaded – is pleased to see the rise of such a barbarian entity. But as former prime minister Jean Chretien recently wrote, Canada has a long history of playing a front-line humanitarian, rather than military, role in such fights.
As we gear up for a long war against Islamic State – Mr. Harper says we will "strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts" to combat "terrorism" abroad – let's pause a minute to mourn the passing of the Canada that we used to know, the country that saw itself as a "middle power," a force for peace and internationalism.
Consider this is a lament for the idea of a nation. A mourning for the Canada of old, the mention of which used to draw smiles even in Ramadi and the Gaza Strip.
I, as one who occasionally walks those streets, dearly miss it.