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Canada takes a stand

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have his faults, but fence-sitting is not one of them, especially when it comes to foreign policy. His government's recent decision to close the Canadian Embassy in Iran, expel the Iranian ambassador in Ottawa, and cut off ties with this rogue state, is a significant statement about the Harper government's stand on human rights, justice, democracy and global security.

It has grabbed the world's attention and may establish a precedent.

Since the end of the Second World War, such purposeful actions have been a rarity in Canadian foreign affairs. Successive Canadian governments, Liberal or Conservative, have been more or less content to accept Canada's status as a "middle power," working behind the scenes as a member of the United Nations and other international organizations. The guiding principle has been trying to keep the peace in the world without offending anyone or any country, no matter how threatening or dangerous they might be. Diplomacy rather than confrontation has been the Canadian motto. Until now, it seems.

For the first 50 years after Confederation, Canada really did not have its own foreign policy since it was part of the British Empire. In 1899, young men from Winnipeg volunteered to defend British interests in far-off South Africa when the Boer War broke out. During the First World War, Canada's response to the mother country was a loyal and obedient, "Ready, Aye, Ready." In the 1920s, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King persevered at successive imperial conferences establishing a degree of autonomy for Canada and the other Commonwealth countries. Yet in 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War, King did not hesitate to follow Britain's lead and declare war on Germany.

The major shift and the emergence of a truly independent Canadian foreign policy can be traced to a speech delivered by Louis St. Laurent in 1947, a year before he succeeded King as prime minister. In his remarks at a University of Toronto gathering, St. Laurent highlighted the basic tenets that governed Canadian foreign affairs for the next 60 years: the importance of maintaining national unity between English and French Canadians; defending political liberty without meddling in the affairs of others; respecting the rule of law and human rights; and being a co-operative member of world organizations.

On paper, Canada's dedication to peace sounded honourable, and in 1956 Lester Pearson did win the Nobel Peace Prize for devising a peace-keeping force to halt the conflict between Egypt and Israel over control of the Suez Canal. But no matter who has been in charge, there is another reality Canadian politicians and diplomats do not like to readily admit. Canada, according to historian Norman Hillmer, has always had a "limited influence" on world events. Our foreign policy, he writes, "tends to be responsive, its thrust defensive."

That's why so many diplomats and an array of Ottawa and Toronto commentators are upset with Harper's latest decision on Iran. It is wiser to keep your enemies close, they insist; better not to side so openly with Israel, the only true democracy in the region, because it jeopardizes Canada's impartial world standing. They argue shutting the Canadian Embassy in Tehran prevents Canada from effecting real change, as if Iranian leaders were actually open to such overtures. Consider that in 2003, diplomacy did not protect or save Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-born Canadian journalist from being murdered in an Iranian prison.

Harper has boldly decided it is time to draw a line in the sand with Iran.

The theocratic regime has flouted "all basic principles of diplomacy and human rights," rightly suggests Derek Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States and Fen Hampson of Carleton University. However Iranian leaders view the world, and it is admittedly far different and more complex than we likely comprehend, their catalogue of threatening actions should not and cannot be ignored any longer. Iran, adds Burney and Hampson is "a pariah regime" and "enough is enough."

Like Hitler in 1938, Iran has manipulated UN observers and world leaders with false statements and stalling tactics in negotiations over curtailing its intention to build nuclear weapons. It has shipped arms to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime.

It has supplied the terrorist group Hezbollah with rockets and weapons, among other terrorist groups it supports. In 2009, Iranian officials arrested, tortured and killed protesters who objected to sham elections, which inexplicably maintained the status quo. And, its leaders, most notably President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have denounced Israel as "a usurper and illegitimate regime and a cancerous tumour (that) should be wiped off the map."

Who can blame the Israeli government from taking such shocking statements seriously and contemplating a military operation to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities?

In his comments in 1947, St. Laurent also pointed out Canadians, who had just lived through the worst conflict in history, had come "to distrust and dislike governments which rule by force and which suppress free comment on their activities." Count Stephen Harper and the Conservatives among those who hold that view. Much as it may cause some Canadians to feel uneasy, they have resolved to do something about it. I'll vote for such a stand any day, if the alternative is to continue to be wishy-washy and appeasing of a ruthless dictatorship.

Now &Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2012 A11

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