The US as a threat. Love for NATO. This is how Canadians feel about security issues
With results in from a public opinion survey commissioned after the Department of National Defence launched its new strategy in 2017, Roland Paris summarizes the most interesting — and sometimes surprising — findings.
Professor, international affairs, University of Ottawa
Canada’s Department of National Defence has released the results of a public opinion survey conducted by the Earnscliffe Strategy Group between February and April 2018. The survey, part of the department’s regular polling of Canadians on defence-related issues, followed the government’s release of Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy in 2017. Earnscliffe consulted eight focus groups across the country and conducted a telephone survey of Canadians over the age of 18.Here are six takeaways:
1. The second-biggest security threat to Canada is... the United States?
Terrorism tops the list of perceived threats to the security of Canada and Canadians, but the second most-common answer, by a wide margin, was the United States and Canada’s proximity to it. This is a striking result, especially since Canada is arguably under no greater physical threat now than it was in 2016, but we shouldn’t assume that respondents were thinking about “security” in this way. The poll probably reveals, instead, a more general concern about the impact of the Trump administration on Canadian interests, including our economic well-being. (After all, if you look further down the list of security threats, Donald Trump is cited as the fourth-biggest.) Nervousness about the US administration seems to be acute — and this poll was conducted before Trump imposed steel sanctions on Canada and before the G7 Charlevoix summit, when he attacked Justin Trudeau.
2. Canadians love NATO.
Nearly all Canadians surveyed (88 percent) agreed that North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership is important for Canadian security. Support for NATO has long cut across all political parties and demographics, so this result is not a surprise. It’s a reflection of a deep-rooted liberal internationalism in Canadian public attitudes. But it puts Canada increasingly at odds with the United States at a time when Trump is questioning the value of the alliance and Republican voters are following their president’s lead.
3. Public awareness of the Canadian military is low and declining.
Nearly three-quarters of respondents had not seen, read or heard anything about the Canadian Armed Forces in the previous year. This figure is lower than in previous years, presumably because Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan, which had attracted sustained media attention, ended in 2011.
4. But the public continues to have a very positive view of the military.
The CAF experienced a popularity surge in Canada during the Afghanistan war. This has endured, even as public awareness of the military has declined.
5. Canada has a new defence policy, but Canadians don’t know about it.
This is a classic example of the Ottawa bubble. Many people in the capital — and nearly everyone in Canada's defence, security, and foreign policy circles — are aware of Strong, Secure, Engaged and its plan to increase defence spending by 73 percent. But the new defence policy is largely invisible to the public.
6. Canadians are wary of combat missions, but do they understand the risks of 'peace support operations'?
According to the survey, Canadians strongly agree that the CAF should be performing non-combat activities, including disaster relief and non-combat roles supporting the United Nations or NATO. They are less supportive of anything that smacks of combat.
One response is noteworthy: High approval for “peace support operations” suggests that many Canadians believe that is a non-combat activity. In practice, however, today’s peace support operations take place in insecure environments where fighting is not uncommon. Canada is in the process of deploying 250 troops and equipment to one such mission, in Mali. Government officials have warned that this mission involves risk to Canadian troops — but has the public heard this warning?