Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Leadership is not always easy.

According to the CBC, 83 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2002. More deaths, on a proportional basis, than any other country fighting the Taliban, including the US. Asked about the significance of Canada's sacrifice, Arif Lalani yesterday said this:

"Leadership is not always easy."

Ambassador Lalani expressed in these five words a sentiment pervasive in Canadian thought over the last ninety years. Leadership is not easy. But when the world needs a leader, when the world needs valor and willingness to sacrifice, Canada is there.

The Taliban did not attack the CN Tower in Toronto. Osama Bin Laden did not laugh in glee over deaths in Vancouver or Calgary, Montréal or Halifax. Religious sociopaths did not attempt to fly planes into the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. In this war on terror, innocent Canadians have been tortured and imprisoned by over-zealous Americans. Maher Arar is only the most celebrated of these. Many other Canadians, their only sins a connection to the Middle East and a love for Allah, have suffered undeserved punishment.

Canada has not received so much as a thank you for its sacrifice in Afghanistan. Even when U.S. fighter pilots recklessly bombed Canadian positions in Afghanistan, resulting in the death of four Canadian soldiers, Canada fought on.

Why does Canada fight?

There is much hand-wringing in the land I love concerning identity. What does it mean to be a Canadian? Books have been written on the subject. Entire hour-long CBC broadcasts have been devoted to an examination of the question. The great icons of modern culture--Rick Mercer, George Stroumboulopoulos, Paul Gross--have not rendered a verdict. Not even Peter Mansbridge can tell us. The answer is not recorded in any of Pierre Berton's many tomes. John Ralston Saul is silent.

Why does Canada fight?

The answer is as old as Vimy Ridge, and as new as Prime Minister Harper's visit to the front lines in Kandahar in May, 2007. The answer encompasses Lester Pearson's Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 and Roméo Dallaire's defiance of the United Nations in 1994. We find it in the friendship of Baldwin and LaFontaine in the 1830s and David Suzuki's televised entreaties in the 1990s.

The answer is unique to Canada.

The answer is engrained in the Canadian soul. As much as hockey, the answer defines the national character, and imbues every Canadian with a sense of self and a pride in this land.

Vimy Ridge, April 9, 1917, marked the first great Allied victory of World War I. Conceived, designed, and executed by Canadian soldiers, it was regarded in Canada as the country's entry on the world stage. Arif Lalani probably never heard a "Vimy Veteran" at his grade school. But his teachers undoubtedly did. And even if Mr. Lalani, in his youth, did not have a direct connection to Vimy, he had continual reminders of his heritage. The greatest poem of World War I, the poem that inspired the poppies worn on Armistice Day, Memorial Day, Veterans' Day, and Remembrance Day, was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian:

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Remembrance Day (Veterans' Day in the United States, Armistice Day elsewhere in the world) is celebrated in cities and towns across the country. It is a day to remember sacrifice, but also a day to consider the call to leadership. The flavour of this day of celebrations and thoughtful contemplation has a deeper sense of purpose than the memorials south of the border, and more of a connection with the future than the solemn observations in the U.K. The poppy becomes an emblem. The little red flower in the lapel says the sacrifices of our fathers were meaningful. They inform our decisions today. They instill in us a sober recognition of necessary sacrifice.

The answer has nothing at all to do with fighting. There must be a willingness to fight, but above all, there must be a willingness to lead. Even the leadership has a purpose.

This is the way Lester B. Pearson concluded his address "The Four Faces of Freedom," in 1957:

"Above all we must find out why men... can become... animals under the incitements of collective action.... It was posed for me in a new and dramatic way one Christmas Eve in London during World War II. The air raid sirens had given their grim and accustomed warning.... the anti-aircraft guns began.... In between their bursts I could hear the deeper, more menacing sound of bombs. It wasn't much of a raid, really, but one or two of the bombs seemed to fall too close to my room. I was reading in bed and to drown out or at least take my mind off the bombs, I reached out and turned on the radio.... the room was flooded with the beauty and peace of Christmas carol music. Glorious waves of it wiped out the sound of war.... Then the announcer spoke -- in German. For it was a German station and they were Germans who were singing those carols. Nazi bombs screaming through the air with their message of war and death; German music drafting through the air with its message of peace and salvation."

The paradox he cites is always with us: humanity is a mixture of compassion and corruption. Pearson's answer to this was leadership.

In the midst of the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, he proposed that the United Nations create an Emergency Force to be placed as a buffer between the two sides. Since then, UN Peacekeepers--Pearson's "Emergency Force"--have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and have prevented suffering around the world. Canadian ideals, played out on the world stage, lead to the upholding of human compassion, and the diminishing of corruption.

The answer is distinctly and uniquely Canadian. Canada fights in Afghanistan because in doing so Canada upholds compassion and rejects corruption. Canada fights in Afghanistan because in doing so Canada promotes the common good and rejects nationalist and religious pathologies.

Leadership is not always easy.

Life, though, has never had any necessary connection with ease. In the tradition of Baldwin and LaFontaine, in the words of John McCrae, in the example of Lester Pearson and Tommy Douglas and David Suzuki and Terry Fox, we see the true meaning of leadership:

Leadership reaches beyond self, to community and country.
Leadership rejects personal desires, to fulfill others' needs.
Leadership accepts sacrifice, for the common good.

Leadership defines the character of a people. Leadership defines Canada.

PM 4 Jun 2008

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