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The Great White North Revisited:
Or, What Fox News Doesn't Understand

In 1979 a couple of toque-wearing, ostensibly Canadian, beer-drinking buffoons named the McKenzie Brothers appeared on Second City TV. The blatant parody of Canadian blue collar types as Miller-Time bozos featured a backdrop of a map of Canada. On it was written “The Great White North.”

It was a terrifically successful spoof of a working class that injected such phrases (briefly) into the language as “hose-heads” and “no way” and “take-off.” Many Canadians enjoyed it as much as Americans. Many did not. However…most intelligent folks north and south of the 49 Parallel knew it was a skit. That knowledge seems to have been lost on the impresarios of Fox News.

On March 17 at 3am, a satirical Fox News show called Red Eye touched off a minor diplomatic row with derogatory comments regarding the Canadian military’s performance in Afghanistan, the Mounties, and the Canadian nation itself. Host Greg Gutfield took off on comments from Canadian Lt. Gen. Andrew Leslie’s (“Leslie - what a name for a general”) remarks that the military may need a year to rebuild after Canada’s tour expires in 2011. That led to a panel discussion in which comedian Doug Benson chimed in with “I didn’t even know they were in the war…I thought that’s where you go if you don’t want to fight. Go chill in Canada.”

After other such comments as “this ridiculous nation” and “we should invade,” the response was not long in coming, which included thousands of YouTube and FaceBook reactions north of the border, a stinging rebuke from Canadian-born conservative columnist David Frum (, and an official complaint by Canada’s Defense Minister Peter MacKay. An apology of sorts was forthcoming from both Fox and Gutfield.

Poorly timed?

To say the least. That very week, four Canadian soldiers were killed and eight more wounded in operations that involved the largest joint U.S.-Canadian offensive since the Korean War. To get a comparison, you have to think in terms of 10%. Canada is - very roughly -10% of the population, economy, and output of the United States. If you can imagine forty American soldiers killed in Afghanistan in one week, you can get some sense of the proportion, the tragedy, the upset.

In October 2008, Kevin Myers, writing in the London Sunday Telegraph, asked the following: “So who today in the United States knows about the stoic and selfless friendship its northern neighbor has given it in Afghanistan?” U.S. Defense Secretary Gates well knows it, British historian Andrew Roberts speaks and writes about it, as do most informed observers on the conflict from Central Asia. Canada has been doing fairly steadfast service in Afghanistan since the first units arrived in 2002, as poorly equipped and under-prepared as they may have been, a situation castigated by Canadian voices above all. In 2005, after serpentine negotiations between Donald Rumsfeld’s State Department and the Canadian government, nearly 2300 Canucks honored Washington’s request to begin reassignment to what would become the most dangerous region of the country - the Taliban-infested area around Kandahar.

These facts are superbly documented in The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar (2007) by University of Toronto political scientist Janice Stein and policy critic Andrew Lang. They show how this deployment, steadily losing in popularity in Canada, came about essentially because of treaty obligations between the two countries dating back to 1949, the beginnings of the original NATO Alliance: if one nation were attacked, the others would come to its aid.

On September 11, 2001, it was very obvious that the United States, the pivot of the NATO Alliance, had been attacked. The "United Nations...sanctioned the invasion of Afghanistan as a just war,” record Stein and Lang who also reveal that the now denigrated Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did not want Canada in Iraq. (For Canada’s leaders, such a deployment was not in the cards in any case). Rumsfeld wanted the Canadian force in Kabul as a stabilizer to NATO forces - Dutch and others - still fighting there.

Usually calm, even phlegmatic, Canadians instinctively bridle when their country’s military record is dismissed by some of their tragically uninformed neighbors. With typical judiciousness, Stein and Lang themselves report: “Canadians generally know little about their country’s history.” But one thing that hits home to those of a certain age north of the parallel - perhaps from the effect of so many small, well-kept military cemeteries that dot the countryside (and Northern France) - is the heart-rending human cost of Canada’s wars in the century just past.

In August 1914, as part of the British Empire at the time, Canada entered World War I handily and heartily almost a full three years before the United States (April 1917). It famously took part in some of the heaviest fighting at Second Ypres and Vimy Ridge, Ypres being the first time mustard gas was used in battle. Ypres became a Canadian Thermopylae, accounting for some of the 60,000 casualties in a war that risked the break-up of the nation over a bitter majority-minority Conscription Crisis. This conflict left scars between the French and English that still remain. It was much the same in World War II, with internationally-attuned Canucks not hesitating to follow Britain and France to war against Hitler in September 1939 over the Nazi invasion of Poland - a long way from the banks of the South Saskatchewan - well over two years before Pearl Harbor.

In the Korean War (1950-1953), an elite Canadian Brigade, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, won a then unprecedented Presidential Citation by U.S. President Harry Truman for covering a U.S. and United Nations withdrawal at Kapyong in April 1951. The two countries are pretty much in the same waters even if they aren’t always in the same boat. Alert Canadians know this. After 1945, Canada was an absolutely vital member of NATO (some nervous Europeans felt if the Canadians were “in” it could not be a U.S. Trojan horse). Since 1945, Canadians have suffered more casualties than any other nation in the cause of United Nations peacekeeping. (Canada stayed out of Vietnam. “It should make you think, when your nearest neighbors aren’t with you,” says Fulbright Scholar Bruce Solheim, a Vietnam War expert.)

Which brings us back to the present. Kevin Myers's comments have merit even if Canada has almost scandalously ignored its military in recent decades, largely for economic reasons. Seasoned Canadian voices have been strident in calling to reverse this trend. Even so, today the record stands at 116 Canadian men and women, plus one diplomat and two female aid workers paying the ultimate price in Afghanistan. This is happening when folks back home, just like their American counterparts, have serious doubts about the mission. The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) spearheading local development (which Canada sent to Kandahar in 2006) is seen by both enlightened Canadians and Americans on the ground as an example of the best hope for a three-pronged strategy for Afghanistan - defense, development and diplomacy. The Obama Administration appears ready to implement Stein and Lang’s “three D’s.”

All of this blood, sweat, and effort make an ill subject for American television satire. Knowledgeable Canadians react viscerally when their sacrifices are mocked gratuitously by those who have never heard a shot fired in combat. But Canadians, as a people, have shown they can also be wise and patient and, above all, steady. They know that every country has its share of hose-heads. The trick is to keep them from the microphone.

May 2009

From guest contributor Neil Earle

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