The war on terror is "an ongoing reality" but Canada is a safer and more confident country than it was a decade ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says in an exclusive interview with CBC News.
In a wide-ranging interview with CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge that aired on The National Thursday night, Harper reflects on how Canada has changed since the Sept.11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States.
He says that prior to 9/11 most people weren't aware of terrorism threats facing the country and even though they existed and had been carried out — the 1985 Air India bombing was an example — they weren't a source of general concern. "Today we are much more focused on it. We are much more concerned about it. We're much more able to detect and thwart terrorism than before," said Harper.
The prime minister says, however, that the world is "still a very dangerous place" and some areas pose threats to Canada. He said there were "some well-known failures" in Afghanistan but that it's no longer a safe haven for terrorists to use as a staging ground for plotting attacks around the world. But that doesn't mean the war on terrorism is over, the prime minister acknowledged.
"The war on terror, can it be won?" said Harper. "The truth of the matter is there's so many different possibilities, manifestations of terrorism I think it is a case that we will have to be perpetually vigilant … and I just think that's going to be an ongoing reality … that's just life going forward in the 21st century, unfortunately."
'Hateful ideology' behind 9/11 attacks
Harper said the roots of the 9/11 attacks had "nothing to do with wealth versus poverty," as former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien had suggested at the time.
"It has to do with, in this case, a particular hateful ideology that has attacked people around the world, not just in affluent societies like our own, but some pretty poor places," Harper said.
Afghanistan was a failed state where people lived in poverty but were also governed by "a kind of Islamic fascist regime" that invited terrorists to set up camp there, Harper added.
"I think that that kind of situation obviously bred a threat, and that's why we are so worried when we look around the world now at other places where the same thing could happen," Harper said, naming Somalia and Yemen as examples.
He also said it is in Canada's interest to help countries that are at risk because of poverty and lawlessness.
"I do think it's in our broader interests, and the right thing to do, to try and help people and help countries so that they don't get into that situation," he said. "That's why, you know, we obviously are helping with the famine in East Africa. It's why we're so involved in Haiti."
As reported earlier by the CBC in the week, Harper said in the interview with Mansbridge that the biggest terrorism threat to Canada is "Islamicism" though "it's diffused." He said terrorist threats can also "come out of the blue" but that "Islamic terrorism" is a threat all over the world. His remarks prompted quick reaction from opposition critics on Wednesday who accused him of using divisive language.
Canadians 'more dedicated to service'
In their discussion of how the country has changed over the last 10 years, Harper told Mansbridge that he thinks the country has become more self-confident. He attributes part of that confidence to Canada's economic performance but adds that he thinks 9/11 caused Canadians to become more engaged in the world and they changed their outlook.
"I think Canadians are more dedicated to service here and around the world," said Harper. The government plans to recognize Sept. 11 as a "national day of service" he noted. It will honour the contributions of Canada's military, and citizens, he said.
The prime minister commented on how Canada's relations with the U.S. have changed since Sept. 11, particularly when it comes to security as a priority. He agreed with the view that the U.S. is more concerned about security than Canada and suggested that eight or nine years ago it was all Washington was focused on, but now, "things have started to come a bit back into balance in the United States."
He said Canada "stepped up our game in terms of security" in the last decade, and that progress has been made in combatting the perception that Canada is soft on terrorism.
"In fact, I think to the extent we used to be perceived as lax on security, I think that's diminished considerably," he said.
Harper said Canada shares a border with the U.S. and it's common sense to work with the Americans on security. That doesn't mean Canada can't chart its own course and set its own policies, said Harper. He noted that in the ongoing negotiations for a new perimeter security deal between the two countries, Canada has "certain legal bottom lines in terms of certain rights, Charter protections that are expected, certain privacy rights" and that the U.S. understands those bottom lines.
The perimeter deal has prompted some opposition from critics who are concerned about the extent to which Canada and the U.S. might co-operate and consolidate security and intelligence efforts, but Harper said he thinks "Canadians long ago crossed the threshold" where trading or co-operating with the U.S. means Canada is selling out.
"I think Canadians are way past that," he said, adding that an action plan for the new agreement will be announced "pretty soon."
Harper shared his personal memories of Sept.11, 2001, recalling that he was a private citizen then who was in the first phases of preparing a return to politics. He watched the events unfold on television at home and remembers turning to his wife Laureen and saying, "This is going to change the course of history."
He said the attacks that day made everyone aware of "how vulnerable we really can be if we don't keep our guard up."
Now a decade later, he's the person responsible for that vigilance, Harper said, adding, "That's a big responsibility some days."
He said he spends a significant amount of time every week getting briefed by officials on security and intelligence matters.