The Chretien government soon may be forced to make a diffi- cult decision about whether to back US military action in Iraq. It may well have to choose between support for its neighbour and closest ally, or its commitment to the rule of law in international affairs as well as the institutions that oversee it.

The government mustweigh many factors, the most obvious being the enormous importance of the Canada-US relationship to Canada’s prosperity. Another is public opinion. Public sup- port for whichever option the govern- ment chooses cannot be taken for granted. While war preparations are always countered by peace demonstra- tions, today’s demonstrators appear to have much of the Canadian public onside. This has not been true in similar situations in the past. This article will examine the different facets of public opinion that define some of the parameters within which the government’s decision ultimately will be made.

In recent years, several observers have argued that Canadian self-confi- dence, or even nationalism, is on the rise. In their analysis of what they call the new Canadian mindset, Darrell Bricker and Edward Greenspon argue that the country has shed its ”œidentity deficit” and taken on ”œa new outward- looking nationalism” that underpins the desire of Canadians to preserve their distinctive values while becoming fully engaged with the world beyond its bor- ders. According to this view, Canadians are less and less preoccupied with a nar- cissistic search for identify, and instead are busy expressing an identity of which they are increasingly certain.

Several aspects of this emerging con- temporary sense of identity touch direct- ly on the international crisis at hand. One is a willingness to be actively involved in world affairs and, more specifically, to support Canada’s participation in peace- keeping operations, the delivery of foreign aid, its traditional mil- itary alliances, and international trade. A 2001 CRIC survey found that only 9 percent of Canadians (and only 4 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24) wanted the country to become less involved in world affairs.

In fact, in a speech delivered in Banff last October, public opinion expert Matthew Mendelsohn argued that ”œCanadians have become more internationalist than ever. Several strands of internationalism have now been incorporated into Canadians’ identity: they believe Canada has a moral obligation to the world, they would like to encourage the adoption of Canadian values abroad, and they believe these can be furthered by trade and engagement with the world.”

Another component of the coun- try’s more assertive identity is derived from a combination of active support for multiculturalism, or for the coun- try’s growing diversity, and for the equality and minority rights as embod- ied in the Charter. Surveys show that the notion that multiculturalism and especially the Charter are important to Canada’s identity is all but unani- mous. Similarly, a 2002 CRIC poll found that no less than 92 percent of Canadians agree that ”œevery Canadian has a responsibility to make sure that people from different races and cul- tures feel welcome in this country.”

It is possible that these types of attitudes play a role in informing the Canadian perspective regarding war in Iraq. Canadians’ desire to ensure that whatever military action occurs is sanc- tioned by the United Nations ”” which will be documented below ”” may be connected not only to their support for that institution, but also to their lack of comfort with any conflict that has the air of a new crusade or a ”œclash of civi- lizations.” In other words, the value of internationalism for Canadians incor- porates not only support for interna- tional activities, such as peacekeeping, but also support for fair treatment for people of different cultures and reli- gions, and this too shapes their views on the international crisis at hand. 

These points about the Canadian identity are significant because they help clarify what might lie behind reluctance to follow the United States on its chosen foreign policy path. Some have detected a certain streak of ”œanti- Americanism” in the tone of question- ing among some Canadians of the US policy in Iraq. Such an attitude may or may not be reflected in the unguarded remarks of one or two public officials, but there is little evidence that it colours Canadian public opinion.

Canadians take a distinct approach to some issues. For example, surveys conducted in 2002 showed that both Canadians and Americans supported the military intervention in Afghanistan, but that at the same time Canadians tended to be much more likely to want more spending on foreign aid and Americans much more likely to want less. Canadians are also less likely than are Americans to support reductions in immigration.

By the same token, Canadian and American opinion does not diverge on every issue. It is notable that while Ipsos-Reid found in September 2002 that 84 percent of Canadians felt that the US policies in the Middle East were at least partly to blame for the terrorist attacks one year earlier, a CBS News/ New York Times poll conducted at the same time found that 75 percent of Americans held the same view. However, the main point here is that when Canadians take a different view of the world than does the US govern- ment, this is due more to a self-confi- dent expression of their own values and identity, rather than feelings of ”œanti-Americanism.”

This point is illustrated by a January 2003 Ipsos-Reid/CTV/Globe and Mail poll, which showed that while only 39 percent of Canadians said they thought that the Bush administration was a good force in the world, 83 percent nonetheless said they liked Americans. Clearly, a differ- ent approach to foreign policy does not reflect hostility to the US.

It is also hard to sustain the idea that Canadians are ”œanti-American” when so many are willing to enter into new arrangements with the US that draw the two countries closer together. CRIC surveys have shown that about two-thirds of Canadians say that our basic values are different from those of Americans. Yet this does not prevent the same number of Canadians favour- ing such notions as expanding the Canada-US free trade agreement to cover labour as well as goods and serv- ices, or a common border policy.

All of this brings us to considera- tion of the specific issue of the current confrontation between the US and Iraq. In examining different sur- veys about Canadian attitudes on this issue, some important points stand out:

  • Canadians have been uncomfort- able with the notion of the US implementing a ”œregime change” in Iraq by military force. A major- ity has consistently rejected the idea of Canada participating in a US military intervention in Iraq ”” that is to say, one conducted out- side the auspices of the UN. To this extent, the peace demonstra- tors have the public onside.

  • The situation changes when Canadians are asked about UN- sanctioned military action in Iraq. In this case, as illustrated by the Focus Canada surveys conducted by Environics, a majority of Canadians tend to favour Canadian participation in the conflict. This is consistent with Canadian attitudes to similar events in the past. For instance, in April 1991, 62 percent of Canadians told Environics that they approved of Canada’s involvement in the war in the Persian Gulf.

  • Canadians are getting more skepti- cal. According to Environics, the number opposing Canada’s partic- ipation in an American military intervention is growing, and the number favouring the country joining in a UN sanctioned inter- vention is falling.

  • Quebecers are much more strongly opposed to Canada’s involvement in military activity in Iraq than other Canadians. In fact, the most recent Environics survey shows that a majority (56 percent) of Quebecers even oppose Canadian participation in a UN-sanctioned intervention ”” that’s more than twice the level of opposition (27 per- cent) in the rest of the country.

A few further remarks on this remarkable difference of opinion are in order. First, it is much more pro- nounced than in the past. Quebecers, for instance, were just as likely as other Canadians to support Canada’s involvement in the NATO action in Kosovo in 1999. They were less sup- portive than other Canadians of Canada’s participation in the 1990-91 Gulf War, but the difference was not as large. In that case, Quebecers were evenly divided on an action that a majority of other Canadians support- ed. Second, Quebecers do not seem to be more ”œisolationist” than other Canadians ”” they are just as likely to want the country to be more involved in world affairs, peacekeeping and the delivery of foreign aid. They are how- ever less likely to want the country to be more involved in its military alliances such as NATO. Finally, like other Canadians, Quebecers are not ”œanti-American” ”” Ipsos-Reid finds 78 percent of Quebecers like Americans.

This is the public opinion context within which the government’s decision on Iraq would be made. Clearly, Canadian involvement in mili- tary action could be supported by a majority of the public, as it has on pre- vious occasions. But public support is more likely to be forthcoming if such action is conducted under the auspices of a multilateral institution such as the UN. In the absence of UN approval, the public may balk at the scenario that ultimately unfolds. If they do, it should be understood that it is likely because they are eager for their own distinctive view of the world to be reflected in gov- ernment policy, and not because they are against the United States, a country with which most Canadians want to work closely on a variety of other issues.


Survey results relating to Canada’s participation in the 1990-91 Gulf War and the NATO action in Kosovo were obtained from the Canadian Opinion Research Archive at Queen’s University.

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