by Tim Harper
The triumphant walk to Rideau Hall, the showmanship, the welcome move toward more transparency, the big shift in “tone” – it all now seems so easy. And distant. Was that really barely 10 days ago?
Now Justin Trudeau will have to show something much more important: resolve.
Trudeau was elected on a platform that included withdrawing Canada from the bombing mission against Islamic State, finding a national security balance between vigilance and personal liberty and expediting the arrival of 25,000 Syrian refugees.
It is worth noting that beyond the Liberal vote, 63 per cent of Canadians voted for one of the three federal parties that would have ended the bombing mission.
Trudeau has a lot of political capital – but enough capital to jettison a core election promise, one of the promises he has so forcefully vowed to keep, under international pressure and pressure at home from the opposition, days after taking office?
To do so would be to embark on one rocky term in government.
But that doesn’t mean he has no room to move.
The Paris slaughter has put Trudeau in a terrific bind. He is meeting with world leaders as the new guy swimming against the tide, and back home opponents are waiting for him, emboldened, again arguing that his refugee plan will bring extremists to our land and that his soft power credo is naive and ill-suited to the times.
The soft power argument worked for Trudeau when a young Syrian boy was washed up on a Turkish beach, but it does not work well when people are slaughtered inside a Paris concert hall.
In fact, one can wonder whether our recently-completed election might have ended quite differently if the Paris atrocity had occurred midcampaign and Alan Kurdi was found after Canadian voters had pronounced.
It is human nature that delivers a base response to both images, but governments cannot move on such base emotion.
In the hours before the wave of terror hit the French capital, Ottawa was immersed in the so-called “mandate letters” Trudeau had given to his cabinet and many news outlets led with the top priority for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, ending Canada’s combat mission in Iraq and Syria.
Instead, his orders read, the mission should “refocus Canada’s efforts in the region on training local forces and humanitarian support.” It was short on details.
But only hours before that, Canadian fighter jets played a key role in liberating the northern Iraq city of Sinjar from ISIS control.
In the hours before Paris was awash in terror, interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose was asking for a Parliamentary debate on Trudeau’s decision to end the combat portion of the mission.
Trudeau should agree to the Parliamentary debate. He doesn’t have to, but neither did the Conservatives when they sent the symbolic mission first to Iraq, then to Syria. Trudeau can make it a free vote, to give further voice to his decision. He can pledge to put more Canadian military trainers on the ground in Iraq.
He can wait until Stephen Harper’s bombing mandate ends in March, but Trudeau must also make a more cogent argument to Canadians as to why our planes should be pulled back. It is no longer enough to say it is because Harper didn’t make a good enough case to send them there.
The refugee resettlement must go ahead. In fact, the Trudeau refugee position is more important than ever because those legitimately forced from their homes should not be further punished because someone who looks and sounds like them has chosen extremism.
But all security screening must be done in refugee camps, not in Canada, and that will necessarily slow down this ambitious end-of-year plan.
That is proper, because the Trudeau government must do more than pay lip service to legitimate concerns by Canadians who fear we will welcome jihadists in their midst.
And Trudeau must recommit to his promised amendments to Bill C-51, the anti-terror bill he promised to overhaul when elected. His ministers have said there is no imminent Islamic State threat here, but the Paris shootings cannot mean a new government tilts further away promised safeguards over privacy and freedom here.
Atrocities on allies should be met with solidarity. If not bombing missions, Trudeau must spell out how that solidarity will manifest itself.
He can remain true to his campaign promises, but he cannot pretend nothing has changed.
He didn’t know the when, where or how of the day that sunny ways had to give way to hard decisions, but he had to know it was coming. The test is here, early, and Canadians who have invested so much in the Liberal prime minister know this is no time for skittishness.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services