The latest deployment of Canadian troops to Afghanistan, this time from here in Quebec, is special to us. But that's not to say we cared any less about the 14,000-some soldiers from across Canada who have rotated through Afghanistan since 2002, or that we judge this deployment any differently than previous ones. These soldiers, like those other Canadians who went before them, are serving a cause we should all support, period.
Nor should Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government be judged any more or less harshly here for their commitment to the Afghanistan mission just because the 2,300 new troops are mainly Quebecers, most of them from Canadian Forces Base Valcartier near the provincial capital.
But that political result might be inevitable as Quebecers, far less supportive of the mission than other Canadians, see the war coming closer to home. Recent polls show rest-of-Canadians split roughly down the middle on the Afghanistan issue, with a slight majority in favour, while less than a third of Quebecers back the mission.
Already there is speculation as to how this latest deployment will play politically in Quebec and whether the spectacle of young Quebecois casualties will doom any prospects of a Conservative advance in Quebec in the next election, along with Harper's chances for a majority government. Gilles Duceppe, with his typical grace, has already suggested that such a result would be a boon for his wilting Bloc Quebecois.
The strong opposition to the mission in Quebec is not surprising. Quebecers have consistently been the most pacifist of Canadians, from the time of the Boer War more than a century ago. Opposition to the Afghanistan campaign is no doubt intensified by the streak of anti-Americanism in Quebecois society, and by the misconception that the Afghanistan mission is a U.S. operation, when in fact it is run by NATO with the participation of 36 other countries along with Canada.
But it might also be that the three in 10 Quebecers who currently support the mission are a solid base. Not all Quebecers are anti-military. The province has produced its share of Canadian military heroes, and the Quebec-based Royal 22nd Regiment, the celebrated Van Doos from which 800 of the new contingent are drawn, is rich in battlefield honours.
A sign that Quebecers don't feel all that differently about the military than other Canadians is the rate at which they're joining it. The latest Canadian Forces figures show that Quebecers are joining up at the same rate as other Canadians, and that on a per-capita basis Quebec City is one of Canada's most fertile grounds for recruiting. And the chance of being sent to Afghanistan is more of an attraction than a deterrent, recruiting officers say.
It would be crass for anyone to play Quebecers' service on this duty for home-front political advantage. We should simply wish our troops a successful mission and a safe return, as we have wished to all who went before them.