David Bercuson is director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
The Trudeau government announced its intention to withdraw from direct combat against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the CF-18 bombing campaign) just two days after a major national poll revealed a majority of Canadians still support that very mission.
To be sure, Canada's efforts against IS will continue – we will train more anti-IS troops, we will provide more humanitarian aid, we will help our coalition partners with aircraft that can refuel their fighter jets and point them in the direction they need to kill IS and to destroy its governance and logistical centres, but we won't be shooting IS ourselves.
That's not what Canadians want and the action taken by this government begs explanation from the Prime Minister himself. Why? Because his mysterious but persistent effort to withdraw Canada's CF-18s from the fight, against the wishes of most Canadians, and against the wishes of Canada's allies, possibly stems from his juvenile comment almost a year ago that his predecessor wanted to "whip out his CF-18s" to meet the crisis, and nothing more.
Unless that is, the Prime Minister himself is a pacifist (which he certainly has a right to be as a private citizen), who hid his secular or religious pacifism from his voters when he ran for election last fall. On the whole, Canadians are not pacifists and have never been. There is, and there ought to be, tolerance for pacifists or conscientious objectors in this country. That tolerance held for two horrendous wars in the 20th century because of promises made by Canadian governments to groups such Mennonites, etc. Sometimes, governments didn't deliver on the promises they made – the First and Second World Wars were horrendous experiences for the entire nation – but for the most part they held.
At the same time, literally millions of Canadians joined the military to defend (as they saw it) Queen, country, nation, motherhood or maple syrup because great evil was loose in the world and the time had come to down tools, close the office, kiss wives and family goodbye and gamble their lives to fix the world. More than 100,000 never came home. They and the other men and women who served in farmers' fields, in factories or at the front were not pacifists, either.
Nor were the tens of thousands who fought in Korea and Afghanistan or who took part on peacekeeping missions. They knew that in a world where the law of the jungle prevails far too many times, violence was (and still is) the only way to stop violence.
A former Canadian lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick and military historian, George F.G. Stanley, once titled a textbook he wrote on Canadian military history: Canada's Soldiers: The Military History of an Unmilitary People, and he was right on the mark. Canadians have always been reluctant to maintain a sufficient and well-trained military, but when they believe great evil is loose, directed against them or their allies (9/11 and IS), they do not shy away.
So if Mr. Trudeau is not in tune with his voters, he ought to say so. If he is in tune (though in the campaign, he never gave an example of just what sort of an enemy he would fight) then the explanation lies elsewhere. Perhaps in a misreading of the so-called golden age of Canadian diplomacy, lasting from roughly 1943 to 1963 when great Canadian diplomats, headed by Lester Pearson, seemed to accomplish so much for Canada on the world stage through reason, argument, negotiation and an honest-broker approach, and not through violence. Why misreading? Because they did it under the American nuclear umbrella, at a time of large Canadian military expenditures, which gave their voices clout. And also because although they strongly hated force, they – especially Lester Pearson, who was Canada's external affairs minister during the Korean War in 1950, knew it was sometimes necessary.
Had it not been for Mr. Pearson, Canada might have avoided the Korean War altogether.
Those people and those times were unique. They are not our times. And the people around the Prime Minister ought to know that.