OTTAWA — A public opinion poll conducted for National Defence says half of Canadians surveyed want their soldiers to return to a “peacekeeping only” role in the world.
The Ipsos Reid research suggested there was “a small, but statistically significant increase,” in the number of people who feel that way.
The figure edged up to 50 per cent of the 1,300 people surveyed last March, compared with 46 per cent of those asked in a similar survey in 2008.
The public supports the deployment of troops when it is “an observation and monitoring role over a more aggressive one for the military,” said the survey, conducted in early March and released on a federal government website.
That Canadians cling to the image of their soldiers as peacekeepers is something that grates on the military and its supporters, who argue the era standing in between warring factions largely ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The survey noted that there is a growing recognition among the public that times have changed and world conflicts are now more opaque.
Even still, when focus groups were asked to identify their first impressions of the Canadian military, they chose peace signs, hands reaching out to help others, blue berets and helmets, as well as soldiers helping others rather than bearing arms, rather than the images of death and combat from Afghanistan.
“When I thought of Canadian forces, I drew an army guy helping someone else — helping as opposed to destroying, peace rather than bearing arms — unlike the States,” one participant told researchers.
The results suggested to researchers that “other images of the Forces remain more deep-seated, despite the high profile of the Afghan mission in the media over the last few years.”
The nostalgia for the Pearsonian peacekeeping days and the demand that the military make humanitarian relief operations, rather than combat its principle focus seem to be tied to the realization that such operations offer “a clear-cut reason for Canada’s involvement” over a defined period of time, said the survey.
It’s also easier to measure the outcome and success of a mission.
The study noted there is also a feel-good factor, where the public sees such missions as contributing to the image of “helpful or good Canadians.”
The survey had a margin of error of 2.7 per cent 19 times out of 20.
The poll also found a significant lack of understanding and confusion about Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.
There were two conflicting views on whether Canada should remain in the fight Afghanistan, with surprisingly many in the focus groups saying the country should ‘stay the course’ while others have come to the conclusion the war is unwinnable.
“Many participants expressed the view that Canada should ‘stay the course’ in Afghanistan because of the potential damage that could be done to the Afghan people were they to pull out,” the report said.
“Participants expressed concern about the humanitarian crisis that could unfold if the Canadian Forces were to leave, particularly if there were a swift withdrawal from the country.”
Yet surprisingly many of those asked were unclear about Ottawa’s 2011 deadline to end combat operations.
“Certain participants suggested that an extension to Canada’s mission should be considered only if it was requested by the people of Afghanistan,” said the report.
The survey was conducted around the same time Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a U.S. cable news network that he had doubts about the current direction of the war.
“We’re not going to win this war just by staying … my own judgment is quite frankly we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency,” Harper told CNN on March 1.
Researchers said it may have influenced their results.
Calls for the country to end its involvement in Afghanistan are getting louder.
Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, a staunch supporter of the military, equated the ongoing fight in Kandahar to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a comparison that has privately outraged many in uniform.
He defended the provocative statements Sunday on CTV’s Question Period by saying politicians are too afraid of offending soldiers and their families by questioning the direction of the war.
He said it’s important to have an honest debate about the mission.