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  • IntroductionDiscourses of Security, Peacekeeping Narratives, and the Cultural Imagination in Canada
  • Heike Härting (bio) and Smaro Kamboureli

Peacekeeping and the Canadian Imaginary

Historians J. L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer have remarked that 'if nations must have images, it is certainly better for Canadians to think of themselves as umpires, as morality incarnate, than as mass murderers or warmongers' (350). Indeed, it would be safe to argue that this is one of the truisms that best encapsulate popular sensibility about Canada's self-image in the world. Since 1957, when Lester B. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize, Canada has adopted international peacekeeping in the name of human compassion, responsibility, and protection as one of its most important political and diplomatic strategies for self-invention employed both domestically and internationally. This does not mean, however, that Canada has been all along one of the most actively engaged nation-states in international peacekeeping,1 or that its peacekeeping self-image has remained unsullied, or, for that matter, that peacekeeping operates today as it was understood then. Pearson may not have [End Page 659] been singlehandedly responsible for resolving the Suez crisis, but as Andrew Cohen writes in Lester B. Pearson, though the Nobel Prize did not help Pearson become prime minister the following year, not only did it 'confer … a holy legitimacy on the man' but it also helped peacekeeping 'become a part of our iconography, celebrated on a postage stamp, the ten-dollar bill, and in an imposing stone monument on Sussex Drive in Ottawa.' As he goes on to say, 'Many Canadians have come to see Canada exclusively as a peacekeeper, as if there is a rare property in our psyche – perhaps an instinct for accommodation, a unique gene of tolerance or compromise – that makes us a natural at this task. It has become a touchstone of our identity' (124).

This vision of Canada as an engineer and custodian of global civility reflects a politically comforting national imaginary domestically, but is nevertheless marred by its exclusionary and dichotomous rhetoric that pits disinterested justice – reminiscent of British 'colonial fair play' ideologies – against arbitrary violence and the absence of the rule of law. What's more, Canada's role as a global umpire or middle power has long since been embroiled in and compromised by a number of political scandals, of which the so-called Somalia Affair in 1991 and the failure to intervene efficiently in the 1994 Rwandan genocide count as the best-documented and -known cases. Sherene Razack's book, from which the epigraph to this section comes, is a notable example of such documentation. These cases make it abundantly clear that Canada's self-calling as global peacekeeper is at best highly ambiguous and at worst affiliated with imperial projects rooted in discourses of race and exclusion. Yet, against this evidence, the popular sensibility of Canada as a peacekeeper persists, and it is as apparent in letters to the editor in newspapers appearing on the occasion of yet another Canadian soldier killed in the mission in Afghanistan as in official statements such as that made by Adrienne Clarkson, the governor general of Canada at the time, in 2001 in response to 9/11: '[O]ur ability to maintain justice and do what is right … is a role that history has allotted us' (2001). The unwavering tenacity with which Canada's self-appointed role as peacekeeper returns since the time it was forged as a domestic and international form of national branding operates as a narrative of explanation of what is taken to be a natural marker of Canadianness and as a narrative of rationalization that casts the Canadian military role in the international arena as motivated exclusively by compassionate and thus benign incentives.

Even though, as is frequently the case with such national myths, the Canadian peacekeeping self-image has been shown to be just that, a persistent cultural fable, it continues to thrive as it is being questioned, often in the same context. Consider the following example. Colonel Berndt Horn, a professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada and director of the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, in the [End Page 660] introduction to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 659-686
Launched on MUSE
2009-08-07
Open Access
No
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