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Opinion Who’s really ‘chasing headlines’? Domestic and foreign relations intertwine at Munk debate

Bessma Momani, is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs

At the Munk debate on Monday, three federal party leaders tried to make the pitch that they offered the authentic Canadian approach on foreign policy. For Stephen Harper's Conservatives, this was billed as a pragmatic approach; for Justin Trudeau's Liberals, this was about being balanced, and for Thomas Mulcair's NDP this would be a more principled approach.

Dominating the debate early was the question of combatting ISIS and the Canadian response to the refugee crisis emanating from Syria and the Middle East. For Mr. Harper, there was no shortage of attempts to link the fight against ISIS to all Canadian foreign-policy issues. Mr. Harper inferred that there was no limit to the fight against ISIS, placing Canadian interventions both at home and abroad as part of a preventative war against global terrorism that Canada had no choice but to partake in.

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Mr. Harper continued to suggest that Syrian refugees are fleeing the ISIS-dominated "terrorist-conflict zone." In reality, Syrian refugees are fleeing areas shelled by the Assad regime which has the blood of more than 300,000 people on its hands. Syrian refugees are by far less likely to be fleeing the barren, deserted territory of ISIS which, albeit no less dangerous, has seen the deaths of 10,000.

The fear that ISIS might infiltrate refugees, as repeated by Mr. Harper, diverts attention away from the reality that perhaps only 1,200 Syrians of our estimated two-year old commitment to offer refuge to 10,000 people have already arrived on Canadian soil.

The military fight against ISIS remains a necessary one, and it is not Mr. Trudeau's romanticized image of Canada's role as peacekeepers that is most needed or where we can make the most valued contribution. In the fight against ISIS, our military training of the Iraqi national army and the Kurdish peshmerga forces are essential.

Mr. Mulcair wants to remove these Canadian forces and instead increase humanitarian aid to Syria and presumably, Iraq. While the later will be needed, Mr. Harper rightly noted that our humanitarian aid to refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon will help stem the tide of millions of Syrians and Iraqis citizens fleeing war and dysfunctional governments; at the same time, Mr. Mulcair undervalued the benefits of continued Canadian forces' training of the Iraqi army. In fact, Canada can do more to provide its know-how to create a professionalized army that both follows the chain of command and respects the essence of a multicultural and diverse society.

In his appeal to pragmatism, Mr. Harper claimed that Canada "can't open the floodgate" to refugees and that his party is "not chasing headlines," but using the ISIS hyperbole to explain why Bills C-51 and C-24 – legislation that could curtail civil liberties and revoke citizenship rights – are necessary is just that: chasing ISIS-invoked headlines of terror.

No Western democracy has gone as far as Canada in proposing laws as described by Bills C-51 and C-24. Why Canada needs these two policies more than all of our Western allies, some of which are arguably higher on global terrorist organizations' target list, was not explained.

Mr. Trudeau was passionate about the potential abuses of C-24 by cautioning Canadians against the "slippery slope" of revoking someone's citizenship and insisting that "a Canadian is a Canadian, is a Canadian." That same passionate fear of a "slippery slope" that could erode civil liberties described under C-51 was not displayed by Mr. Trudeau.

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Accusing Liberals of "sitting on the fence" by supporting Bill C-51, Mr. Mulcair reminded voters that the NDP maintained a principled approach of rejecting measures that curtailed civil liberties. Mr. Mulcair was not so principled, however, when he claimed – to chuckles from the audience – that NDP governments do not run fiscal deficits. He said the deficit that grew in Ontario under Bob Rae's government was run up by a premier who turned out to be a Liberal. But in blowing his own horn as an astute minister of the environment, Mr. Mulcair neglected to mention that his record was established when he was a Liberal.

So while it is said that Canadians rarely cast their vote based on foreign-policy issues, the debate demonstrated that domestic and foreign policies are ever more intertwined. No one leader made a convincing case in the debate, but all three tried to evoke memories of Canadian history and symbolism, and offered plenty of jingoism.

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