North of border, mixed feelings on war

Forty-five percent of Canadians favor joining the war in Iraq.

Dan Haugen

Ranging from students to senior citizens, several dozen concerned Canadians filled a small classroom at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University on Thursday afternoon for a public discussion on the war in Iraq.

Canada’s government has neither condemned nor endorsed U.S. military action, and recent opinion polls have shown Canadians are split on the issue. But this particular discussion was not so much a debate as it was a one-sided airing of grievances about the U.S. invasion.

According to an Ipsos-Reid poll conducted one week after the war began, 59 percent of Canadians were glad their country decided not to get involved in the war at its outset. But 45 percent said Canada should now join the military effort. As with Americans, simple “yeas” and “nays” do not fully capture Canadians’ views on the war.

Conversations with Thunder Bay residents last week revealed a wide array of opinions regarding the war. Canadians are concerned about the implications of U.S. unilateralism. They worry about the inevitable civilian casualties in Iraq, and they fear potential economic and cultural backlash from the United States if Canada does not lend support.

Balancing act

“We represent our national interests in an ambiguous way because it is in our interest to do that,” said Lakehead University philosophy professor Richard Berg, one of four faculty members who led Thursday’s conversation. “On the one hand, we’re condemning the war. On the other hand, our naval support is actually greater than some of those who are supporting the war. So we have this ultimate political conflict.” Canada has had a small number of naval vessels patrolling the Persian Gulf since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

This precocious balance maintained by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has been targeted for criticism by war supporters and opponents in Canada.

“I’m not happy with our prime minister. We shouldn’t be just sitting on the fence. We should be for it or against it, one or the other,” said Doug Laidler, owner of the Cloud River Trading Post, located approximately 10 miles north of the Canadian border on Highway 61. The gray, winter-worn gas station, convenience store and cafe is a frequent stop for Canadian and U.S. travelers.

“We’ve been selling a lot of these to Americans lately,” Laidler said, waving a glittery silver and red bumper sticker that says “Canadians Kick Ass.”

Laidler said most Americans he encounters appreciate Canada’s resistance to the war. However, he said he has also heard stories of Canadians being heckled or denied service south of the border.

“I know the U.S. government is going to punish us for being against (the war),” Laidler said. “They’re already starting by making it tough to get across the border.”

Laidler said his primary concern is how the United States went about starting the war.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’re breaking international law,” he said. “They don’t have the support of the world. They shouldn’t be there.”

Employees at a local sporting goods store do not see it that way. They voiced harsh opinions about their prime minister and his decision not to support the U.S. effort.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Cosmo Costa, who also hosts a fishing program on the local public access television station. “I didn’t vote for him.”

Costa’s co-worker Steve Delorme said he is also disappointed that Chretien has not supported President George W. Bush.

“People don’t invade Canada. We don’t have much for natural resources that people would want to take, but the reason they don’t take it is that the United States is right there,” he said.

Delorme and Costa are apparently in the minority of Canadians, at least in Thunder Bay.

This winter, the Thunder Bay City Council approved what Mayor Ken Boshcoff called “a resolution for peace and support of the United Nations.”

“We feel very strongly that the United States should have given the United Nations the time it needed,” Boshcoff said. The mayor acknowledged Canada’s strong cultural and economic ties to the United States, and summarized what he sees as Canada’s attitude toward war.

“We’re there when you need us, but right now a need still has not been demonstrated,” he said.

Organized opposition

Wednesday night is open mic night at The Apollo bar in downtown Thunder Bay, and activist Dave Clement was sitting with friends, taking in the acoustic music. Nearly everybody in the bar seemed to know the 29-year-old Lakehead University geography teacher and soldier. The self-proclaimed anarchist is a leader in Thunder Bay’s small but organized activist community.

“I think (the war) is about the worst possible thing that could be happening,” he said.

Clement served four years in the early 1990s as a Canadian exchange soldier with the British army in Central America.

“I’ve seen a lot of people killed for U.S. corporations,” he said of his military experience. “I don’t think this war is any different. I see it as the Bush ‘oil-igarchy’ expanding the American oil empire.

“Obviously, Saddam Hussein is not a good guy. At the end of the day, I would like to see him out of power in Iraq, but not if it costs civilian lives,” Clement said.

Questioning U.S. policy

Antiwar activists in Thunder Bay have held demonstration marches and peace vigils since Bush began pushing for military action against Iraq.

One protest site was outside the Thunder Bay Armory and Military Museum. Even inside, however, there is questioning of U.S. foreign policy.

Those actively serving in the Canadian military were unable to comment, but museum volunteer George Reguly said the United States should have taken more time to build a stronger coalition.

“I can understand why the Americans went in, because the United Nations has a pretty crappy track record,” Reguly said. “But I don’t think they realize the animosity developing among Islamic countries. They’ve made it a religious creed to hate Americans, and Canadians are going to be in there, too. As Westerners, we’re going to be in the same boat.”

Reguly said he believes a broader coalition might have defused perceptions that the war is part of an American-Islamic conflict.

Still, Reguly is a staunch critic of Saddam Hussein.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a son of a bitch. If the guy can smuggle in parts to atomic bombs and ammunition, hell, couldn’t he have smuggled in some medicine and food?” he said.

A few blocks away at the aging Royalton Hotel there is less sympathy for the U.S. administration. The slightly dank, dimly-lit hotel bar is yellowed like an old newspaper. Between bringing beers to a few early afternoon customers, the elderly, Italian-born owner Dominic Primerano spoke with disgust for the U.S. war in Iraq.

“It’s for oil,” he said. “They’ve got no clue who did the job on Sept. 11.”

Primerano also said he is appalled at the number of civilian casualties being reported in Iraq.

“They show on TV kids and women getting hurt,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re doing. Stay home if you don’t know how to bomb.”

No effect on travel to U.S.

There are indications Thunder Bay residents are staying closer to home these days. Katie Zuber, general manager of Thunder Bay Travel, said the local travel industry has been stressed since Sept. 11, 2001. Terrorism and war anxieties, plus the recent string of severe acute respiratory syndrome infections around the world, have made people less likely to go far from home.

“After Sept. 11, we really didn’t rebound all that well, and then the SARS hit. Now we’re hit with a double whammy,” Zuber said.

The biggest impact has been on overseas packages, she said. There has not been any noticeable effect on travel to the United States.

“I think people still want to travel to the States. We have no problem going across the border,” she said. “My mom went to Grand Portage, Minn., Monday night. Why wouldn’t she? (The war) is not stopping anybody here.”

Dan Haugen welcomes comments at [email protected]