TORONTO — SHEDDING its traditional role as the patient peacemaker and Dudley Do-Right of global affairs, Canada is flaunting a new tough-guy image.
Slashing fishing nets. Firing machine-gun bursts. Sending warships into a standoff.
And at a United Nations conference on fishing quotas in New York last month, Canada condemned Spanish fishing practices and was in turn condemned by the 15-nation European Union (EU) as a ''pirate'' for seizing a Spanish fishing vessel off Canada's east coast March 9.
Canada's pugnacious defense of the ugly, oily turbot is only the most recent sign it is moving away from a turn-both-cheeks foreign policy to an unabashedly self-interested approach.
''Canadian idealism is evaporating,'' says Bruce Campbell, an Ottawa-based political consultant. ''Canadians are in an angry mood and worried about their economic future. They feel Canada has been seen as a patsy abroad, and now they want a tougher image on the world stage: one more concerned with pursuing their own material interests.''
This new tack has been emerging in pieces since Prime Minister Jean Chretien's Liberal Party swept to power in 1993.
Since then, the government, burdened by huge deficits, has announced a rethinking of Canada's cherished but expensive leadership role in international peacekeeping. Foreign aid has been chopped. Trade has been emphasized over human rights concerns.
Although Canada remains a primary destination for the world's huddled masses, the federal government last year cut the number of immigrants allowed into Canada and now requires a head tax of $692 each.
''There's been a complete transformation on the part of the Canadian people and their government,'' says Hugh Thorburn, a political scientist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.
''The No. 1 priority is no longer Boy Scoutism abroad and do-goodism at home. The concern is that in these tight times, Canada can't afford to just give things away to people at home or abroad,'' he adds.
Embodying this new thinking is hard-charging Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin, who has become nothing short of a folk hero in just a few weeks. ''One way or another, there will be an effective enforcement regime,'' he said recently. ''One way or another, Canada will get control of this [turbot fishing] zone.''
What Canadians appreciated is that it wasn't just the usual tough talk. After the initial standoff between warships, Spanish ships kept on fishing despite Canadian warnings to stop. So on March 26, Canadian patrol boats cut the net of another Spanish fishing vessel and sent $100,000 worth of gear to the ocean bottom.
Government action wins over the public
''This kind of behavior is jarringly out of character for a country [Canada] whose greatest international role has been as peacemaker and conciliator,'' lamented the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, in an editorial chastising the government's action.
But if Mr. Tobin's gunboat diplomacy didn't get rave reviews from some editorial writers, it certainly was winning over Canadians. A poll last week showed 89 percent of Canadians support the government action to save the turbot. About 58 percent would support further use of force.
In Newfoundland, where a devastated fishing industry has meant a 19 percent unemployment rate, comments on the most popular local radio talk show are resoundingly in favor of the tough government action.
Tobin's move to protect the turbot appeared at exactly the right moment to distract attention from the government's own failed fishing policies over vanished cod in the Atlantic and ailing salmon stocks in the Pacific, analysts say. It may even persuade Quebeckers of the value of remaining a part of Canada, they say.
Canada's Walter Mitty syndrome
''This kind of old fashioned manifestation of nation-state power is comforting,'' says Stephen Clarkson, a historian at the University of Toronto.
''It ties into Canadians' sense of territoriality as the basis of their identity and reinforces the Quebec public's sense that Canada matters. It's hard to imagine [Quebec Premier Jacques] Parizeau sending out a rowboat to defend the fisheries,'' he adds.
Pollsters say defense of the turbot also taps into Canadians' desire to lead on environmental matters and to stand tall in foreign affairs -- a sort of Walter Mitty syndrome.
''Canadians are tired of the usual Canadian attitude of talking tough then backing down,'' says Donna Dasko, a pollster at Environics Research Group in Toronto. ''I would not call it nationalism, but there is a feeling of dignity about saving the turbot, that we're entitled to do this.''
Whether or not it is out of character, Canada's new approach seems to be working.
While missile-toting Spanish and Canadian warships remain in an uneasy standoff in the Atlantic, foreign ministers from Spain and other EU countries met yesterday to discuss a compromise. They called for further talks to end the dispute.