Following the Liberal landslide in October of this year, alongside a persistent fascination with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's good looks, youthful lifestyle and age, the global blogosphere seemed to pay particular attention to one election promise above others. Trudeau was poised to make good on his decision to stop bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq. His first phone call with Obama after winning the Canadian election reiterated precisely this determination. Last month, the Paris attacks brought his as yet unchanged decision back firmly into view.
While the White House continues to put (still gentle) pressure on Canada to continue its "ongoing support for this very important mission," the Globe and Mail, Toronto Sun, Vancouver Province, among others, have already issued their verdicts on what they feel is Mr. Trudeau's political naivety and international inefficacy. In the face of Trudeau's insistence that the bombing must stop even after the Paris attacks, Maclean's and Vice are also chiming in. Is he simply doggedly following an election promise? Is he unable to react to special circumstances and current events? What are his political motivations?
The new light in which his decision is inevitably being seen after the despicable acts in Paris makes it important to revisit the issue, which is bigger than the press sometimes lets on. Because Trudeau's decision is not a political one. On the contrary, it is cultural. His decision to stop bombing speaks to what can only be seen as a fulfillment of national identity.
Even before Paris, it seemed that nothing in the world could divide Canadians as definitively as their opinion of whether Canada should be dropping bombs in the Middle East. The horrific scenes in everyone's mind have heightened the tension, but the basic outlooks remain the same.
Those who oppose it are absolutely convinced. The reasons vary, from the historical ineffectiveness of bombing at stopping terrorism, to protectionist arguments claiming that Canada still has no reason to participate, to general unhappiness at the prospect of thoughtlessly following the American war drum.
Similarly, the reasons why a person agrees with Canada's participation in a multilateral bombing campaign led by the Americans are less important than the fact of agreement itself. Be it a sense of ideological duty, of playing some small role in a righteous cause, or the significance of choosing a side in a simple choice between good and evil, what is important is one's staunch belief in sending CF-18s to drop bombs over Syria and Iraq.
It is the dichotomy between flag-waving support and virulent opposition that lends significance to the choice that Trudeau and his government are set to carry out by pulling the bombers. Because for most people, he is not choosing between two equally viable courses of action; he is choosing between two systems of cultural belief that go to the heart of what it means to be Canadian.
I don't say this lightly. I'm aware that there isn't actually a great deal that defines what it means to be Canadian. Once you dispense with the forced attempts by companies to sell their products, you find very little to distinguish a "Canadian" self-identity. Rather than espousing a common nationalism, Canadians are more likely to extoll their diversity, their multiculturalism. However, they do hold beliefs in common, ones that they keep quietly close to their chests, as well as close to their hearts. Canadians do believe in universal medical care, they do believe in gun control, they do believe in an acceptance of alternative lifestyles, and predominantly in a woman's right to choose.
The decision facing Trudeau in the near future will add to this list. During the election, the promise to stop bombing was the one heard most often. This was the promise many people voted on. They were voting, not only in favour of a policy decision, they were voting for a cultural pronouncement that will identify Canada for itself and the world. Though people variously defend their positions, the two sides can be boiled down in ideological terms: on the one hand, that violence begets violence and that one should be exceedingly slow to deal blows to others; and on the other, that we belong to a greater ideological, multinational union that demands an armed defense from which we should not shy away.
Canadians want Canada to stand for one side or the other, they want Canada to stake itself outwardly as either a wise and conscientious objector, or a steadfast and devoted soldier. This amounts to an outward cultural identity that they wish Canada to have.
And of course, we know which side has won the day. The tenor of Trudeau's promises could not be mistaken during the campaign, any more than the vote of confidence they received on election day. Canada is marching to a different tune now, with a different set of beliefs. The key is to recognize the fundamental shift being attempted. For this, Trudeau will have to be clear. He will have to go all the way. He will have to acknowledge that this decision is bigger than discrete practicalities and even politics. Because like Canada, he himself is at a crossroads, and still runs the risk of being judged by the standards of his predecessor.
It will take boldness and leadership to understand this cultural shift for what it is. If he manages it, his decision will have set the tone for his term. And perhaps Canada can be newly reimagined as a devotee of peace, that will send advisers and potentially peacekeepers but refuses to be mistaken for an aggressor.
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