Toronto Star

After Paris, how Canada can be a leader


In light of the Paris terror attacks, let’s all take a deep breath and remember the lessons of history.

Justin Trudeau, for one, seems to be doing just that and — after 10 long years of Stephen Harper — that is refreshing.

The fact is that the greatest threat from those criminals who call themselves Islamic State may not come from the group itself, but from all of us — if we don’t carefully think this crisis through and get it right.

Yes, the horror of those Paris attacks needs to be confronted. Yes, this band of fanatics must be defeated. And, yes, a military campaign — forceful and sustained — will be necessary.

But if that is the totality of the response then we will be replaying the mistakes of history.

In 2003, the disastrous invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain created chaos in the region that led to the emergence of these extremists. Relations between the Muslim world and the West fractured and have never recovered. In addition, government­s worldwide — including Canada’s Conservati­ve government — exploited this mood for cynical political reasons.

If you listen, you can hear those same drumbeats of fear and division coming from the same dark corners of our political life in both the U.S. and Canada.

But does that mean history is repeating itself? Thankfully, the answer in Canada so far seems to be no.

In recent days, we have been witnessing something unusual in 21st-century Canadian politics. We have a prime minister who remembers there was an election, and what he promised voters he would do.

It appears we live in a democracy that is respected by our national leadership, and not undermined. How incredibly novel.

Prime Minister Trudeau was barely sworn into office before his foreign travels began. This week, it was the G20 summit in Turkey and then the AsiaPacifi­c meeting in the Philippine­s. It was an unusual immersion in global politics.

Whether or not you agree with Trudeau on every issue, it has been an impressive introducto­ry performanc­e. But he still generated controvers­y, particular­ly with the immediate issues that confront his government: the fate of Syria’s refugees and the future of Canada’s military role in the coalition against Islamic State.

In spite of the hand wringing and carping from critics, there are two aspects to this complex story that warrant attention:

First, it is obvious that many Canadians are looking forward to the arrival of thousands of Syrian refugee families, despite reservatio­ns about the quick deadline. The preparator­y work being done by Canadians across the country is heartwarmi­ng. Yes, the security checks need to be thorough — do you think the government doesn’t know this? — and I have little doubt the Jan. 1 deadline will slip a bit if necessary.

Second, Trudeau is absolutely right in phasing out Canada’s contributi­on of six CF-18 fighter aircraft as part of the anti-IS coalition. Western planes dropping more bombs on Muslim lands will not solve this conflict.

It will only be solved by local and regional forces — Kurds, Turks, Arabs — that desperatel­y need training and support. As Trudeau indicated, Canada needs to increase that contributi­on dramatical­ly. Even if this brings Canadian military people closer to danger, which it would, that is how Canada’s men and women can truly make a difference in the conflict. But, above all, a political solution to the Syrian civil war is needed. And that is where Canada’s underutili­zed diplomatic efforts need to be directed.

Russia and Iran are now more part of the solution in this conflict than the problem. Under Trudeau, Canada needs to reset its relationsh­ip with these two countries so that peace in the region can be the goal. Is this far-fetched? No, not really. Canada has taken on these challenges in the past. In 1970, Canada became the first Western country to recognize the People’s Republic of China. In 1984, Canada led the world in rescuing Ethiopia from its famine. And in the 1980s, Canada was instrument­al in bringing South Africa’s apartheid regime to its knees.

Yes, that was real change. On a global scale, it is time for some of that now.

Refugees, yes, fighter-jets, no, supported by a return to diplomacy

Tony Burman, former head of CBC News and Al Jazeera English, teaches journalism at Ryerson University. Reach him @TonyBurman or at

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Tony Burman

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