‘Do you wake up and ask what it means to be Canadian?’: Q&A with Noah Richler

Author and journalist Noah Richler is visiting Ryerson University on Wednesday, Jan. 28 to talk about the implications of failed peacekeeping missions and Canada’s new obsession with national security. Exploring themes found in his book What We Talk About When We Talk About War, The Ryersonian’s Lindsay Fitzgerald caught up with Richler over coffee to get his take on the Harper government’s military agenda and how it’s refashioning Canadian identity.

 (Courtesy Noah Richler)

Noah Richler will be speaking at Ryerson on Jan. 28. (Courtesy Noah Richler)

Q: What do you want to get across to Canadians with your book What We Talk About When We Talk About War?

A: I think the message I want to convey is that we need to listen really carefully to how events are described to us, and see how narrative is used to engineer a political outcome. When I was writing the book, I had to understand that perhaps we have always been this other, in shorthand, more militaristic society. Maybe Harper’s idea that, in fact, Canada’s character was forged in the trenches of Vimy and that wars are what have shaped us is true. But after my research, it became was very distressing to find that there has been an assault on our nationally binding stories, altering our ideas of multiculturalism, immigration and community.

Q: When you began writing this book, what were you trying to find ?

A: I was trying to understand what it means when we think we are at war. It’s easy to be disinterested in this, it’s easy to pay lip service, and it’s easy to stand up for the Canadian troops and sit down again. But what does it really mean? We have just become outraged over 12 deaths in Paris, which were awful and shocking, but there were 143 children killed in Pakistan. We have to begin to gauge the extent of self-interest that prevents us from seeing, again, the things we need to address.

Q: You have addressed the idea of “military patriotism” taking over the Canadian narrative. Where did this idea come from?

A: I think the Canada of the Charter, the Canada of constant flux and change and multicultural society, the one that was constantly asking itself what it meant to be Canadian, was harder to entertain. If you wake up everyday and say, “What does it mean to be Canadian?” many regarded it as a weakness, not having a ready answer. I regard it as (a) strength, because if you’re asking what it means to be Canadian, you asking what it means to be a citizen of this country or of the world, which is essentially asking, “How do we get along?”

Q: Can you describe what you see in Harper’s military strategy?

A: At every single opportunity Harper reiterates a single message of security. Much like after the Ottawa attacks, he relies on divisions and hatred to further his policy. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking spending on oil sands, education, pensioners or military, his routine tactic is to create a division and come out on top. And I have always been extremely uncomfortable being led by a leader so palpable and reliant on hatred.

Q: What effect do you think this has?

A: It’s there to encourage demagogic instincts in people, and the chief of those is to think of themselves as wholly good and the monster in the margins. The enemy, more often than not, is not a monster in the margins, and it takes a lot of imagination and concentration to understand that. I think Harper, like Thatcher and many fascist leaders, has figured out that a simple formula is very handy if people don’t have to think much. I think his pathology is putting us in a dangerous and regrettable situation.

Q: But you’re not anti-military, are you?

A: No. I understand that there is a need for an army and an observation for the military that wants to go into foreign places and help people. I think we need to consider what alternatives there might be. And unfortunately Afghanistan is not the only forum that strikes me as a devastating failure. There is an argument being made and can be made that even ISIL, as hideous as their acts appear to us, nevertheless offer some order to people who remain in the parts and territories they control. Why would that be a relief, with all the penuries that go with it? Because of the devastation that we perpetrated upon Iraq for ten years.

Q: What questions need to be asked now?

A: At the base of it all, it has to be asked what is the difference between military and policing. A lot of the work done is about policing and international order, about saying certain things are forbidden and that we are here to keep order. That’s different from an army that says they wish to take or defend territory. I think greater policing on an international level between nations is actually inevitable. A part of me is optimistic and I think there is still a window of opportunity to pull us back from the sports mentality of nationhood.


*Interview has been condensed and edited.


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