Canada Foreign Policy
Tuesday, August 31, 2004
  Parrish the Thought

Is Liberal member of parliament Carolyn Parrish on a mission? Is she closer to the balance of power than NDP leader Jack Layton, or the entire Bloc caucus? While these issues can certainly be argued, and I plan to do so in the next few paragraphs, what can’t be is that Parrish has discovered the simple secret to grabbing international headlines when one doesn’t have much formal authority, and when one is just a Canadian. The basic formula goes something like this: show up at a public demonstration, make a scene, sidle up to the microphones and/or cameras and tell the world the Americans are “idiots.” To make certain that your fifteen minutes of fame stretches out long enough to be timed with a calendar, use every afforded opportunity to retract the comment or apologize to do the exact opposite.

And so with this strategy, Parrish was able to entice even such venerable dailies as the Chicago Sun-Times to run headlines like “Canadian Pol Doesn’t Regret ‘Coalition of Idiots’ Comment” [Chicago Sun-Times, 30 August 2004. Posted at]. Indeed the Sun-Times leads off its coverage of her remark made at a 25 August rally by noting “Parrish has rejected Prime Minister Paul Martin's request to withdraw her comment that the United States and other missile-defense supporters comprise a “‘coalition of the idiots’” [remarks posted at]. And to be fair to Parrish, never did she say all Americans were “idiots,” just those who support missile defense.

Canadians may be tempted to say Parrish really should be ignored. After all, she has next to no influence with Cabinet, and even far less with Prime Minister Paul Martin. Believing this would make one both right and wrong. Americans may be inclined to suspect that somebody holding office reflects public opinion, shapes policy, and may even determine national debates. Again, this would make one wrong, yet somehow right. Parrish is in no position to claim that her formal role and capacities in government are important, far from it. Yet at the same time, her influence may be more than profound, putting her in a position to impact government by exercising a pivotal role within the Liberal Party. Here’s why: only a few short months ago Paul Martin accomplished what many Liberals regard as a serious blunder. After taking office from the immensely popular Jean Chretien back in December 2003, all things seemed to point to Martin being able to call an election at his leisure, and simply to coast back into office, most average Canadians likely regarding voting day as the formality to his coronation and four more years of solid majority rule. When the best the Prime Minister could do was deliver a minority, many disaffected Liberals, and among them likely more than a handful of Chretien stalwarts, were quick to go public with the observation that Martin’s lackluster performance on polling day put him and his leadership very much on “probation” with the party. Parrish’s “idiots” crack serves to remind the PM that he remains very much under assessment within Liberal ranks.

Martin says what Parrish said was not constructive, and not likely to be helpful when policy reviews come up. In truth, Parrish’s comment may be far less about offending anyone, and much more about ensuring Canada doesn’t even start up any discussions or doesn’t further participate in missile defense. What is unknown is exactly how many sitting Liberal MPs share Parrish’s point of view, and if they are as committed to ideals as she appears to be, would they seize an opportunity to bring down a minority government on a no confidence motion if Martin opts to forge ahead with missile defense. If this issue can be linked to a confidence motion, Parrish just may be able to define her role as the leader of the caucus-within-caucus determined to stall foreign policy debates. Perhaps the Conservatives are well aware of such a scenario [see What White Paper on Defence? below], and in response have stepped away from Liberal infighting, hoping the intra-party split will pave the way for elections in a year or so that produce a Tory government.

The Liberals have a long history of resisting any and all temptations to quarrel anywhere apart from behind very tightly closed doors. Thus at this stage both Parrish and Martin are unlikely to take any steps that could doom the Liberal regime. For Martin, does this mean foreign policy will not be on the docket at all, or at the very least buried until he can make a run at regaining a parliamentary majority? Maybe not. Most recently, about a week ago, Canadian forces took part in Operation Narwahl, the largest Arctic campaign in this country’s history. Could this be a signal from Martin that the international community should not be confused about his intent? That steering away from missile defense does not mean Canada will continue to remain bound by soft power and merely a grudging supporter of our North American allies’ military interests? One account describes the magnitude of Narwahl:

‘The $4 million exercise is the most prominent sign to date of Canada's intensifying effort to reinforce disputed claims over tens of thousands of miles of Arctic channels and tundra. Once nearly permanently frozen, forbidding and forgotten, the region is today seen by officials from Canada and competing nations as a potential source of both wealth and trouble.

Not all of Canada's vast claims to the Arctic are recognized internationally. The United States, the European Union and Denmark either contend that the region's waterways are open to all or have placed their own claims on parts where climate change is expected to increase access to the region's bountiful resources in coming years.’ [cited in Clifford Krauss’ “Canada Reinforces Its Disputed Claims in the Arctic,” New York Times, 29 August 2004].

So Narwahl may be an attempt at a compromise, an effort to signal to the world that even though Canada may not be in a position right now to be a vocal supporter of missile defense, the days of neglecting defence and foreign affairs are long gone. Parrish perhaps even supports the idea of Narwahl: it could appeal to all those who want to see national pride and patriotism advanced, but without any risk of an arms race in space. On the other hand, it may be the kind of exercise that even the most anti-military advocate could stomach. Canada’s armed forces have been in disarray for at least a decade, and no single Narwahl could ever change that reality. Some coverage may even suggest that investigators of the paranormal and aficionados of spontaneous combustion may benefit more from this exercise than anyone, with this foray into the Arctic getting just as much coverage for the fact that two soldiers, somehow inexplicably, managed to have an “adventure” after getting themselves temporarily lost on the tundra and an aging, rusting “Sea King helicopter was grounded after its engine caught fire. There were no injuries, but the helicopter was put out of commission until replacement parts arrived.” [cited in CP, 24 August 2004. See article posted at].

For Martin, the job now may be to keep missile defense and other defence and foreign affairs initiatives separate. Should exercises like Operation Narwahl ever, in any meaningful way, get to be linked with arms in space, the PM will likely have to give more than passing thought to what Carolyn Parrish might, and possibly will, say aloud.

Stan Markotich
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A discussion of geopolitics and Canada's role in the world. A series of essays to examine the components of Canadian foreign policy making. Psychological, sociological, historical, and cultural variables impacting Canada's perceptions of the world.

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