The Quebec-Afghan connection

As Van Doos head overseas, calculating the political impact of casualties is unavoidable

NON à l'aventure afghane

This past week in Quebec, the news was dominated by the departure for Afghanistan of the first group of soldiers from the Quebec-based Royal 22nd Regiment.
Their departure followed a month-long public relations blitz by the federal government and the Canadian Forces to regain the hearts and minds of Quebecers, as their own sons and daughters prepared to go into battle.
They are leaving at a critical juncture in Canada's involvement in that distant conflict. While the situation on the ground is growing increasingly perilous for the troops, the home front also is growing hazardous for the Conservative government as opposition seems to be gathering steam.
Moreover, the inevitable casualties of the conflict will soon begin to return in coffins to their hometowns in Quebec, where opposition to the mission is highest.
So much has been made of this opposition, in fact, that the Taliban are expected to target the Van Doos intentionally in the hope of driving Canadians out of their country.
What does this mean?
Will this new situation make the Afghan mission so unpopular as to render it politically untenable for the government?
Will it spell the end of the Conservatives' honeymoon with Quebec voters?
These are important questions that many analysts seem inclined to answer in the affirmative.
That may well be the case but, in my view, it only tells part of the story – and not the most important part.
First, is support for the Afghan mission really falling?
Compared with the mission's first year, definitely; compared with last year, not really.
While it is true that the public is divided on the mission, that only a small minority support its extension beyond 2009, and that large majorities find the number of casualties unacceptable, support for the mission is about where it was in January 2006, both in Quebec and in the rest of Canada.
For example, polls conducted since the beginning of 2006 by Ipsos Reid and the Strategic Counsel show ups and downs, but not a one-way trend.
In and of itself, the fact that the next rotation of troops is from Quebec shouldn't change this overall picture.
At about 75 per cent, opposition to the mission in Quebec has little room to grow and, although that opposition is stronger than in the rest of the country, it moves in lockstep, responding to the same events and to similar messages.
If Quebec opinion about the mission responded to events by moving up and down along with the opinion of other Canadians when casualties were mostly from outside Quebec, why should we assume that reactions will be any different when the troops are from Quebec?
The key difference thus is not the movement of Quebec opinion, but the intensity of opposition and the salience of the issue as a potential determinant of voting intentions.
The reluctance of Quebecers to support armed intervention abroad has deep historical roots and is well documented in nearly all past military ventures, except for low-intensity peacekeeping operations.
This reluctance has rarely, if ever, stopped Ottawa from sending troops into harm's way. It seems obvious that if Quebec opinion were driving policy on Afghanistan, the Canadian contingent would have packed up long ago.
Since the conscription crisis of 1917, Quebec voters have never sanctioned the use of force abroad. Stephen Harper's dream of winning big in Quebec depends on being an exception to this rule.
On this point, recent precedents are not good omens for the Conservative leader. For example, in the summer of 2006, support for the Conservatives dipped significantly in Quebec, largely because of Harper's position on the conflict in Lebanon, which profoundly shocked many Quebecers.
Although this episode won't have much effect on the next federal vote, it would have made a difference back then, and it clearly contributed in shaping a negative perception of Harper's foreign policy among Quebecers.
This liability has been compounded by the widespread perception that Harper models his foreign policy on that of the vastly unpopular Bush administration.
Seen in this context, the prospect of the Prime Minister regaining the confidence of Quebecers – as their own soldiers start to come back in coffins – appear to be slim.
All is not lost for the Conservatives, however.
Harper's decision not to commit to an extension of the mandate beyond 2009 has essentially rendered his policy interchangeable with the Liberal position.
Even the Bloc Québécois is unlikely to ride the wave of discontent against the intervention, as Gilles Duceppe has refused to call for an early withdrawal.
This leaves the NDP as the only party that calls for an immediate end to the mission, but its prospects of winning Quebec seats remain virtually non-existent.
If Quebec public opinion is not the most important part of the story, what is?
Whether troops are from Petawawa, Edmonton or Valcartier, what truly matters remains what happens in the villages, mountains and roads of Afghanistan.
The way to win the hearts and minds of Quebecers, like those of other Canadians, is to concentrate on winning the hearts and minds of Afghans with a strategy that will stop them from falling into the arms of the Taliban.
So forget public relations campaigns and get on with the campaign that really matters.
Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal and a member of the Université de Montréal-McGill Research Group in International Security.

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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)

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