Mon 31 Dec 2001
Scary new world: Sept. 11 left us thinking more about our place amid global tensions, and relying on our essential pragmatism to get byFiled under Maclean's, Magazines, September 11th, Year-end Review
In the three months plus since the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, much has been written about how the events of Sept. 11 forever altered us and the world we live in. There is no question the terrorist attacks traumatized Canadians. They brought us closer to our families; made us recognize that Canada cannot shirk its military responsibilities; forced us to look beyond the comforts of our borders; and drove home the fact that the world is, and for some time will continue to be, a dangerous place.
For some, this trauma also has lent new importance to religious beliefs. Others are questioning the wisdom of pursuing the holy grail of more material possessions. Cynical for decades about government’s ability to forge a common good, we now fully support Canadian and U.S. initiatives in the war on terrorism and, while we worry that the hostilities could escalate, we’re prepared to back a long military effort and, if necessary, see it expand into other regions of the globe.
The 2001 Maclean’s/CBC News poll provides dramatic evidence of these feelings. Almost two decades of analyzing these year-end soundings also tells us how uncharacteristic it is for Canadians to embrace them, and that we would most surely not hold them were it not for the outbreak of terrorism. But the balance of our findings makes something equally clear — that Canadians have come to these views not out of any fear, naivete, wishful thinking or slavish acceptance of prescribed dogma, but from what appears to be a cool, reasoned and pragmatic response to their altered world.
Sept. 11 may have caused Canadians to change their assessment of the world they live in, but it has not changed them as people. We’re not just wishing for a return to the old, or succumbing to the temptation to lash out, in prejudice, at obvious targets. Nor are we rushing to champion an easy and quick fix. We have chosen, instead, to accept these new circumstances and to adapt ourselves to them. In this respect, far from changing us, the trauma of Sept. 11 seems to have refocused Canadians and given us cause to re-dedicate ourselves to our essential character. This reasoned, pragmatic and rational perspective is evident throughout this year’s polling results.
Surprisingly, virtually none of us believes that the threat of terrorism can be entirely eliminated. Half believe efforts to root out the perpetrators of these acts will continue for at least four years, and fewer than one in four can foresee this war being over in less than a year. Moreover, for all the support Canadians have extended to the domestic and U.S. military initiatives to date, similar majorities don’t think they’ll do the job entirely. Especially outside Quebec, at least half of us wouldn’t be surprised to see a variety of terrorist acts against the U.S. — chemical and biological, attacks on nuclear facilities, another hijacked plane, even a nuclear explosion. Anywhere from one-seventh to more than one-quarter think those scenarios are very likely. What’s more, majorities in every province other than Quebec think Canada is likely to become a target of terrorists.
It would be tempting to attribute these results to an overwrought culture of pessimism and dread, or to conclude that Canadians are merely trying to insulate themselves from the horrors by anticipating and preparing for the worst. Yet there is no evidence that Canadians are hiding their heads in the sand, quivering in fear or even significantly altering their lifestyles and priorities. The religious may be praying more and family may have taken on greater importance, but the vast majority of Canadians are still shopping, sleeping soundly in their beds, travelling and going about their lives as they always have. And while they are calling for increased measures to guarantee their security and safety, they are still firmly focussed on the problems with health care and the failing economy — and expect their leaders and government to keep the same perspective.
While they are acutely aware of the dangers posed by terrorism, Canadians’ response is not to run away from them but to integrate them into their world view. We seem to have accepted that this is now the way the world is.
At the same time, Sept. 11, the forces of globalization, the allure of the American dollar and the continuing onslaught of the U.S. monoculture have not drawn us any closer into the orbit of our neighbours to the south. While we may empathize more as a result of the common threat, we are no more likely to want to be U.S. citizens or feel that we have become any more American in recent years. Similarly we have witnessed no momentum over the past two years towards adopting a common currency. On the contrary, Canadians are twice as likely to describe our relationship with the U.S. as “friends but not particularly close” (47 per cent) than as “the best of friends” (23 per cent). Less acceptable definitions are “cordial but distant” (18 per cent) and “like family” (10 per cent). Across all regions and demographic and socioeconomic groups, majorities resist the notion that we should be prepared to give up our sovereignty to fight terrorism.
We are prepared to pay other prices — including the acceptance of often sweeping measures to enhance security in our new world — but sacrificing our basic identity as something unique, different and separate from the United States is not one of them. We will entertain the harmonization of our immigration and refugee policies, even a North American security perimeter, but the message is clear: adopt these reforms if they’ll be effective, but don’t sacrifice our freedom to act independently.
In this regard, our ability to embrace and support U.S. efforts but, at the same time, withstand and even reject much of the rhetoric surrounding the war effort amounts to a classic demonstration of Canada’s exquisite pragmatism and clarity of thinking. Even while acknowledging that we may not be spared from future terrorism, we are divided — and therefore as a nation uncertain — about whether the attacks represent an assault on all Western societies or solely on America.
Possibly as a testament to our internationalism and ability to lift our perspective beyond the horizons of North American xenophobia, Canadians (in all regions and across all demographic groups) are generally willing to acknowledge that some in the Middle East have legitimate grievances regarding their treatment by the West. In the same vein, and in the face of hothouse media incitement, we refuse to demonize the evil one, Osama bin Laden — his elimination, we believe, will neither rid the world of terrorism nor put an end to our anxiety. Rather than seek retribution through his annihilation, our preference is to allow due process and have bin Laden face trial.
We’re solidly behind the U.S. war effort, but President George W. Bush loses us when he demands a black-and-white choosing of sides. Over eight out of 10 Canadians reject that stark appraisal and stand fast with the right of the war effort’s opponents to “speak out.”
In fact, there is a distinct pattern to what we are and are not willing to accept in the name of security. Reflecting our collectivist heritage, Canadians will tolerate limits to their individual rights. We will carry identification cards and have our fingerprints taken, and we support the government’s anti-terrorism bill even if it presents the likelihood of abuse in its application to non-terrorist activity. Against this, we have not succumbed to the natural prejudices this conflict might otherwise inflame.
Support for restricting immigration, while relatively widespread, is tepid. Even more telling, Canadians have resisted the temptation to blame an entire people for the transgressions of the few, and clearly see this as a war on terrorism and not on Islam. We are also not willing to see perceived threats and promised protests pour sand in the gears of the machinery of civilization. Overwhelmingly, we expect the Olympics to go ahead as planned in Salt Lake City in February, and a meeting of world leaders to take place in Alberta as scheduled in June.
In a nutshell, we will give up some of our latitude to pursue our individual needs but we will not sacrifice our values, sense of morality or our distinctiveness. This is the response of a culture with a strong — arguably, even strengthening — sense of itself, no matter how much trauma or anxiety Sept. 11 may have produced.
Perhaps nowhere is this resolve more apparent than in the evolution of our views concerning our military responsibilities over the past three months. For decades, Canadians have placed a very low priority on our defence capabilities and military spending. Our self-image as peacekeepers, and not warriors, has been documented thoroughly since the time of Lester Pearson. Now, upwards of two out of three Canadians agree “we must substantially increase the amount of money we spend on the Armed Forces.” Long used as the rationale for our limited defence capacity, Canadians now soundly reject the notion that “we don’t need to spend much money on the Armed Forces because we have the United States next door.” Significantly more Canadians also believe that the main purpose of our military should be “defence and attack” than see that as its prime role now. There’s no question that this is a new outlook among Canadians, one that we have never before detected in polls.
Yes, we have changed. But for all that, we have also stayed the course. Almost six out of 10 of us continue to believe that Canada’s principal role in the world should center on peacekeeping. Sept. 11 awoke us to realities that we might not have recognized before then. Among them is the notion that, as a sovereign nation, we must have the military capacity to shoulder our share of responsibility to the world community. At the same time, we are not a military power and show no desire to become one. We are who we are — a pragmatic, reasonable and rational people who will adapt but not be swayed from that essential posture by terrorism or any other force in our altered world.
What is the most important issue facing Canada today?
Sept. 11 attacks
The gender divide
Numerous questions on terrorism, the economy and other issues drew
significantly different responses from men and women. Percentage saying Yes:
Use military action against suspected terrorist targets in Iraq or other
Middle Eastern countries
Support government-authorized assassinations of political figures known to
support terrorist groups in the Middle East
The war on terrorism will last at least six years
Police should use all force necessary to control demonstrators at
international conferences, even if it could lead to loss of life
The economy is heading into a recession
If there is a recession, Sept. 11 was a big factor
It is appropriate for the government to ask Canadians to spend more to
stimulate the economy
Canada would benefit from a common currency with the U.S.
Lost interest in material possessions since Sept. 11
TERRORISM MATTERS, BUT SO DO OLDER CONCERNS
Percentages citing various issues as Canada’s “most important problem”
Sept. 11 attacks