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Has Harper turned dove?

John Bell

July 6, 2014

Has Stephen Harper lost World War I? Jack Granatstein, historian and lover of all things military, sure thinks so. He accuses the Tory government of “botching” the looming centenary of the First World War. Has the Tory hawk turned dove?
Many, yours truly included, expected Harper to roll out a government propaganda offensive, as has been seen in Britain, Australia and elsewhere, designed to rebrand history’s most egregious imperialist slaughter as a “good war” in defence of democracy and western civilization.
Pro-war propaganda
In recent years the Harper Tories have announced their intention to re-examine how Canadian history is taught at schools and universities. The Commons Canadian Heritage Committee was given the goal of restoring military history to a place of pride. And since those wars were mainly in defence of empire, some of that pride would naturally rub off on the now disparaged concept of imperialism.
Harper and his crew have also attacked opposition MP’s like the NDP’s Alexandre Boulerice, who had the nerve to blog that WWI was “a purely capitalist war on the backs of workers and peasants.” Tory spokesman Fred DeLorey announced that it was unpatriotic “to denigrate and disrespect the legacy of those who served, sacrificed and gave their lives in the defence of freedom and democracy during World War I.”
Then Harper et al spent millions on celebrating the War of 1812. Their patriotic commemoration fizzled. Instead of a wave of “we beat the Yankees” euphoria, a serious discussion ensued, focused on the national ambiguity of that war; on how settlers along both sides of a tenuous border would have preferred peace and trade with their neighbours; and on how England’s little imperial outpost relied on First Nations allies to defend it, allies who were subsequently belittled and betrayed.
Which brings us up to date. In a few weeks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I will come and go. In spite of the general trend toward militarism that has marked the Harper regime, we hear hardly a whisper coming from the PMO.
Losing the war for public opinion
No wonder Jack Granatstein is upset. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Globe and Mail back in April: “The government has a long list of events and commemorations, to be sure. But there is no new money behind this string of events–government departments, agencies and Crown corporations have been ordered to finance the commemoration costs out of existing budgets.” No new money? An outrage. Britain’s Tory government will spend more than 50 million pounds to whoop it up. Even poor little Belgium is spending 55 million euros to celebrate the war that put it in the spotlight.
“What’s going on here?” Granatstein complains. “We all know that burying the deficit remains the Conservative government’s primary target as it looks toward the next election. We know that the War of 1812 bicentennial, for which Ottawa earmarked some $28-million, was attacked as a waste of money on a forgotten conflict…. And we know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a fervent supporter of the Afghan war when he took office in early 2006, lost his enthusiasm as the casualties and costs mounted and public opinion on the conflict turned tepid, then ice-cold.” Poor Jack is pissed that Harper, his ideological soulmate, is putting pragmatic politics ahead of patriotic purity.
Rest assured that Harper would dearly love to lavish our tax dollars on a four and a half year festival of misty-eyed militarism. Back in 2011, before he was driven from the Tory inner sanctum in disgrace, Tory advisor Tom Flanagan said this about Harper: “I remember him saying years ago that the Conservative party in any country ought to be the party of patriotism, that the Liberals in Canada had appropriated that role, and that the Conservatives had to win it back.”
But Conservatives can’t win anything back if they lose power. And as much as he loves wars past, present and future, Stephen Harper loves power most of all. And all his attempts to turn military pride into popularity have fallen flat.
Veteran protests
Thanks to outspoken veterans groups, the hypocrisy of Harper’s “Support Our Troops” mantra has been exposed. Veterans’ pensions have been slashed, converted to lump-sum payments rather than life long support. Veterans’ Affairs offices in many regions have been shut down. And an epidemic of suicides reveals that government support for returned warriors suffering from PTSD is inadequate at best, and non-existent at worst.
His most recent attempt to turn the tide, declaring a “National Day of Honour” in May to celebrate the end of Canada’s war in Afghanistan, was a massive and expensive flop. Filling the streets of Ottawa with tanks and soldiers didn’t exactly fill onlookers with pride. Most were creeped out, comparing the spectacle to something out of cold-war era Moscow. Outside Ottawa reaction ranged from a collective “Meh” to outright hostility. All of the spurious excuses that dragged Canada into the Afghan War were revisited. And with Afghanistan demonstrably worse off today than it was before the invasion and occupation began, Canadians rejected celebrating the end of a war that should never have begun. And damned if veterans didn’t use the effort and expense of the “Day of Honour” as another opportunity to expose the dishonourable treatment of returned soldiers at the hands of the Harper Tories.
Small wonder that Harper has decided to tread lightly around the WWI centenary. As his party continues to slip in the polls, and his personal popularity crumbles, all his re-election hopes hinge on his economic performance–his balanced budget. Throwing a big celebration for a war that exposes the vicious inhumanity of the economic system he loves might just backfire.
Harper isn’t stupid­–he’ll leave that for Jack Granatstein. He’s willing the fly the white flag over WWI as long as that helps win the war that really counts for him: the class war.

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