TORONTO — The weekend of March 18, worldwide antiwar protests took place, Toronto included. That day, I was having my hair cut. My Ecuadorian stylist, in Canada four years, proudly asserted, "Canadians are peacekeepers. We don't fight." Wow, I thought, only here four years and you've got the lingo down like a native. I suspect they taught her that in citizenship class.
In 1956, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister (and future prime minister) Lester B. Pearson proposed a peacekeeping force to deal with the Suez Canal crisis. Mr. Pearson was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, and ever since, Canadians have been in love with the image of themselves as blue-hat wearing do-gooders, convincing everyone to get along while never firing a shot. That fantasy took on even greater power during the era of Pierre Trudeau, who welcomed draft dodgers and positioned himself as a Euro-style "citizen of the world."
But that fantasy is being challenged. Through the early months of 2006, the number of Canadian troops in Afghanistan (there since 2002) increased to 2,300, by our standards a huge commitment. Canadian forces in Afghanistan are part of a multinational combat force participating in both the continuing battle against stubborn Taliban remainders and in the securing of the young Afghan democracy. One would think, given the generally accepted role of soldiers and given the easily provable brutality of the enemy in question, that Canadians would understand the inevitability of casualties, both military and civilian.
Yet a cursory look at recent headlines in Canadian newspapers reflects the sad reality: Canadians are in a dream world, and need to be shaken from their sleep. Some examples: "More risk for our troops," "Dangers to Canadian troops in Afghanistan expected," "Canadian deaths in Afghanistan unavoidable: Department of National Defence," and, "Nervous day for Canadian troops after Afghan blasts." On TV and radio, debates about whether our troops should be "exposed to danger" are commonplace. Should it not go without saying that soldiers face risk and danger? The minutiae of each death of a soldier (there have been 11 so far, four from hostile action, three in accidents, four from friendly fire) is parsed, analyzed, given wall-to-wall coverage, exploited by politicians and everyone with an anti-American ax to grind.
And it isn't just soldier deaths that send us reeling. When an Afghan civilian ran a checkpoint in mid-March, Canadian soldiers shot him. The incident sparked Canadian self-flagellation, and the man's family asked to be relocated to Canada and have us pay for the education of his six children. So far, this wish has not been granted, though there are Canadians who feel it would be appropriate. Had we brought over the families of every German civilian killed by Canadian soldiers in World War II, I would be writing this column in German. (Canada played a vital, and decidedly nonpeaceful, role in that war.)
As civilian and soldier deaths continue, Canada will have to learn to deal with harsh reality. Each death also brings about a roller coaster of public surveys. One indicated that 62 percent of respondents were against Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, once it was explained that we were there in "combat" capacity. Have we forgotten that Canadian citizens were murdered on 9/11? Or that we are included on Osama bin Laden's list of target countries? If it weren't so frightening, the idea that a nation was surprised its military might be involved in something, well, dangerous and violent, would be laughable.
And hypocritical. A peacekeeper is a soldier first and foremost, one whose actions, we hope, will bring about and maintain relative peace. He is not a Quaker. More than 100 Canadian soldiers have died in peacekeeping operations in the past 50 years, some from enemy fire. But none of those conflicts got the headlines or attention Afghanistan does, so public reaction was nil to muted. In the Balkans alone, more than 20 Canadian soldiers died. Why the discrepancy? Because soldiers on "peacekeeping missions" did not die in anything openly called "war" - though de facto, that's what it was. Nor was the twisted logic involved in blaming the United States for everything we don't like as much a part of the picture previously as it is now (though in Canada, that habit has not been fully absent in the past 40 years).
In 2005, reports from Canada's military commanders warned that Canada's forces were overstretched and underfunded. But those problems, grave as they are, are nothing compared to the dangers of the Canadian mind-set. Underfunding can be overcome. A firmly entrenched national myth, five decades in the making, is a different matter. Our new prime minister, Stephen Harper, visited Canada's troops in Afghanistan in early March. Paul Martin, his predecessor, in power for two years, never bothered. Mr. Harper's gesture was welcome and overdue. But it was just one step. We have a long way to go. I fear what it might take for us to wake up, and whether that day will come too late.
• Rondi Adamson is a Canadian writer.