Harper, Communism and the lessons of memory

Paul Wells explains why Harper’s speech deserves a closer listen

Apparently these days it takes only 20 minutes to deliver a “lengthy” keynote address. Here’s the speech Stephen Harper gave in Toronto on Friday to organizers of a memorial to the victims of Communism: text here, video here. Here’s the website of the organization raising funds for the memorial. The Prime Minister spoke to their fundraising dinner.

Communism will be much on his mind these days. On Wednesday the Prime Minister will be in Warsaw for the celebration of Freedom Day, the 25th anniversary of the partially free June 4, 1989, elections in Poland. Only a grudging quota, 261 seats, were open to competition among non-Communist candidates that day; candidates affiliated with the Solidarity trade union won 252 of them. It was a mortal blow to European Communism. Poland’s embassy in Canada has organized commemorative events across the country over the next several days. And of course Vladimir Putin’s recent adventures in Ukraine cast a certain light on all these events.

Despite its modest length, Harper’s Friday speech deserves to be taken seriously. First, because he plainly took it seriously. He was saying things that have been on his mind. His prepared remarks for this speech repeat, nearly verbatim, parts of an interview he gave Maclean’s just after the 2011 election:

“Look, let me give you the two big threats of the 20th century. First, fascism. Canada, next to its big-three allies, played one of the largest roles in the world in the defeat of fascism, which purged the world of one evil, and obviously the most robust military engagement anyone’s ever been involved in. And then through a different kind of engagement, the long, sustained state of alert of the Cold War against Communism, the other great threat to the world and to our civilization. In spite of, quite frankly, the ambivalence of some Liberal governments toward that, Canada, in fact, remained engaged in that from the beginning to the very end … The real defining moments for the country and for the world are those big conflicts where everything’s at stake and where you take a side and show you can contribute to the right side.”

(Harper’s thinking on these subjects dates from long before 2011. In its themes, Friday’s speech also parallels one Harper gave to the Civitas group in 2003. I discuss that speech in detail in Chapter 2 of my recent book.)

Second, because it’s not devoid of political connotation; as I write this, the only news we have had from the federal Conservatives’ Twitter account today is four tweets about the PM’s Communism speech. Communist revolutions and expansionist adventures in Europe and Asia sent millions of people to Canada in waves throughout the 20th century. Those diasporas and their descendants vote, sometimes with a keen eye to the lessons of memory. The Conservatives are careful to speak to them.

But just because something wins votes doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The people who fled Stalin and Mao were right, the regimes they escaped were wrong and doomed, and their values have helped inform Canadian values. So Harper’s speech is worth considering.

The PM covers Canada’s role in the Cold War and in welcoming those waves of refugees. He notes “with immense regret” that “Canada has not always lived up to those high aspirations.” There follows a brief summation of Pierre Trudeau’s foreign policy as if penned by Bob Plamondon: “moral equivalency… blindness to the unparalleled crimes of Maoism… indifference in the face of the Communist coup against Poland’s Solidarity in 1981” and — and here the Prime Minister chuckled in disbelief — “the so-called Peace Initiative of 1984, not long before the Warsaw Pact collapsed.”

Here as always, the thing about moral clarity is that it is easy to be clear if one ignores contradictory evidence. Pierre Trudeau, and Lester Pearson before him and Brian Mulroney after, kept many thousands of Canadian troops stationed in Germany’s Black Forest — a much longer commitment of a much larger Canadian force than Chrétien, Martin and Harper sustained in Afghanistan. Trudeau was hung in effigy by protesters for permitting U.S. cruise missile tests in Canadian airspace. Nor did being on the right side with Harper endow major players with the guarantee of being right. Margaret Thatcher was certain Germany must not reunite. It may seem now that 1984 was “not long before the Warsaw Pact collapsed,” but I’m here to tell you it felt long at the time. Indeed, Ronald Reagan had time during the interval from 1984 to 1989 to get up to Reykjavik to offer total nuclear disarmament to Gorbachev, a stunt that would certainly have found its way into Plamondon’s book and Harper’s speech if Pierre Trudeau had thought of it first.

Canada fought on the right side during the Cold War. Successive governments (including, I am reminded, Joe Clark’s during the Vietnamese Boat People crisis) made enough right calls, on balance, to leave a record that can make us all proud. It is entirely fitting that the evil we and our allies sought to contain be commemorated in Canada today. And if the Conservatives translate their support into votes, good for them. But while it is always satisfying to say something like “We were right then, and we’re right now,” it’s best not to use that sentiment as a shield and risky to use it as a weapon. It’s more of a test, and the appropriate tone is interrogative: How much of what we did then was right? How much of what we do next can be?