A new threat we must take seriously

Stephen Harper has dispatched as many as 100 military advisers to northern Iraq as part of a U.S.-led “core coalition” to help degrade what we are told is a long-term threat to all NATO countries. We know their mission will be reassessed in 30 days and a greater Canadian military contribution might be coming. We know there have been at least 130 Canadians who have travelled to join radical fighting forces, including the Islamic State. At least 130. That number was released early in the year and other estimates put the number much higher.

Stephen Harper has dispatched as many as 100 military advisers to northern Iraq as part of a U.S.-led “core coalition” to help degrade what we are told is a long-term threat to all NATO countries.

We know their mission will be reassessed in 30 days and a greater Canadian military contribution might be coming.

We know there have been at least 130 Canadians who have travelled to join radical fighting forces, including the Islamic State. At least 130. That number was released early in the year and other estimates put the number much higher.

We know that at least 80 of them have returned to this country, with the training and the motivation to cause much harm here.

We know should just one of them cross the U.S. border and carry out any attack, we will be plunged back to the black post-9/11 days when security concerns at the 49th parallel (misplaced as they were) broadsided our economy.

So why do Canadians feel so safe and secure?

When Abacus Data asked Canadians voters to rank the importance of 13 issues in a poll done last month, security and terrorism ranked 13th, cited by a mere six of 100 respondents as one of their top three concerns.

This I’m-alright-Jack attitude among Canadians, focused as they are on their economic interests, job creation and pensions, has always perplexed and betrays a hermetically sealed sense of safety from distance.

Even as daily dispatches of Islamic State barbarism, mass executions, beheadings of two Americans with a Briton now much in danger, and genocide come into their homes, Canadians apparently believe it is something that merits a baleful shake of the head.

Maybe it’s because this new threat snuck up on them during the soothing summer warmth.

Maybe it’s simple fatigue with Middle East mayhem.

Maybe it’s because they don’t see any involvement in Iraq being debated in the House of Commons, and it’s unclear that they will ever hear differing views from their parliamentarians. There were signs in weekend polling that this may be changing, but Canadians remain split on our involvement in Iraq.

As NATO leaders met in Wales last week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird brought two opposition critics, New Democrat Paul Dewar and Liberal Marc Garneau, with him on a surprise visit to Iraq.

After the Harper government was widely criticized for snubbing the opposition on a trip to Ukraine when Baird travelled there last winter, the foreign minister deserves praise for making this trip non-partisan. But there is also no better way to co-opt any opposition.

“From the Liberal perspective, we all have the same interests here. ISIS is a scourge and we have come together to help Iraq here,” Garneau said from Baghdad, and if Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was preparing a different response, his critic has boxed him in.

The real wake-up call for Canadians should be what is potentially brewing in our own country.

The Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter, a former solicitor general, has called for parliamentary hearings on this growing threat to national security.

He wants Canadians to hear firsthand from this country’s security agencies to determine what proactive measures are being taken, the extent of an RCMP intervention program and why so many have slipped through the security net already.

In a letter to Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, Easter refers to recent measures announced by British Prime Minister David Cameron, giving the country the right to seize the passports of suspected jihadis returning to the country.

He’s not sure we need to go that route — but wants to know whether the Conservative government is moving in that direction.

Easter points out that these returnees come home skilled in bomb-making and suicide bombings and “don’t give a damn” about human life or the value of innocence.

“This is an extremely dangerous situation.’’

The West may again being lured into a conflict in a country we don’t understand.

Once in, the question of mission creep, extensions and ultimately combat boots on the ground is a real possibility.

Canadians may be divided on this issue but they should be united in vigilance at home.

And they have the right to more transparency on this matter from their government, and it should start with public hearings.

This is not to unduly alarm the country. This is to inform the country about very real threats and what is being done to neutralize those threats. And maybe to provide a much-needed wake-up call.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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