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RESPONSE TO TERROR

In Canada, a Sea Change Follows Wave of Terrorism

January 28, 2002|WILLIAM ORME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OTTAWA — Canada's quiet Victorian-era capital may seem serenely unchanged, but officials and citizens agree that the political landscape here has been dramatically and perhaps permanently transformed.

There are the minor but symbolically important inconveniences: No longer, for example, can Canadians drive up to the doors of their ornate Parliament building or wander freely in its corridors.

Less visible, but far more significant in a culture that puts a premium on privacy, are the wide-ranging powers the government has been granted since Sept. 11. It can now intercept e-mail, ban inflammatory speechmaking and interrogate anyone suspected of having knowledge about terrorist activities.

And from bars to bus stops to federal office buildings, the usual talk of hockey and political intrigue is overshadowed by discussion of the infantry battalion about to be airlifted from Edmonton to Kandahar--the first Canadian combat troops, as opposed to peacekeepers, to be deployed abroad since the Korean War.

"This is not a peacekeeping mission," Defense Minister Art Eggleton stressed in Parliament this month. "The military campaign in Afghanistan is not over yet."

The decision to dispatch the renowned Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry to Afghanistan--and to place the nation's combat forces under U.S. command for the first time since the Korean conflict--is a striking example of what analysts say is the most notable change here since Sept. 11. There is a strong new pro-American tilt of the political center, led by the once nationalist-minded Liberal Party.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien is using his solid majority in Parliament to align his government with the Bush administration's counter-terrorism campaign in Central Asia and North America alike, with new joint border patrols and the importation into Canada of U.S. Customs agents, among other controversial initiatives.

"There has been a profound change in the way the U.S. and Canada do business," said a Canadian Foreign Ministry official here as he headed out the door for a recent meeting in Washington with Thomas J. Ridge, the U.S. homeland security director.

The new security measures are not designed primarily to protect Canadians, officials here contend, but to ensure that their nation does not become a staging ground for attacks against the United States.

"Canada has never been a target for international terrorism, but there is a concern that Canada not be used as a giant aircraft carrier for terrorists targeting Americans," said a Justice Ministry official who helped draft Canada's month-old anti-terrorist legislation. Like most senior civil servants here who agreed to be interviewed, the official asked not to be identified.

Chretien has drawn the expected rebukes from the New Democratic Party, the leading bloc to his party's left, which charged that he is "turning Canada into the 51st state." The criticism has been joined by mainstream opinion makers, including Chretien's former foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, who said sending troops to fight under U.S. command was tantamount to a surrender of sovereignty.

Chretien's foreign policy team bats away the criticism.

"When Mr. Axworthy was foreign minister, we were involved in Bosnia and Kosovo and other places with Americans, in fact frequently under American command structures," said John Manley, the newly designated deputy prime minister, who is charged with coordinating national security policies with allies.

To the surprise of many analysts here, the pro-American stance appears to have strengthened rather than jeopardized the government's standing. The largest opposition party, the rightist Canadian Alliance, advocates even closer ties with the U.S., and polls show two-thirds of respondents supporting the American-led military coalition abroad and strict anti-terrorism laws at home.

"In the wake of September 11th, security has jumped to the top of the agenda here," said Mike Thielman, who heads the Canadian solicitor general's Counter-Terrorism Division.

Security cooperation with Washington began almost immediately: When the U.S. closed its airspace to incoming aircraft Sept. 11, the Chretien government volunteered within the hour to have scores of jets diverted to Canada.

"This government took a big risk that day," said the Foreign Ministry official. "Nobody knew if there would be more attacks."

Canada quickly complied with a U.S. request to put plainclothes air marshals on every flight from Canada to Washington's Reagan National Airport--even though Canada had never had such a program. About 2,000 of the 16,000 officers in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were reassigned in September to terrorism-related jobs, most along the U.S. border, officials said.

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