Cabinet reacted faster to the threat on our turbot
By EDWARD GREENSPON
Friday, September 14, 2001
The government of Canada emerged from its secret bunker yesterday.
Sure enough, we've seen Jean Chrétien every day this week, although withoutmuch ado. We've caught sight of Foreign Minister John Manley and Transportation Minister David Collenette going about their business.
But where was the government in a collective sense? Where was the gathering of privy councillors? Our world has changed this week -- suddenly, radically and perhaps irrevocably -- and yet the apex of our democratic structure, the cabinet, has still not come together.
When this country fought a fish war against Spain, serious business but nothing approaching the current magnitude of seriousness, a special cabinet committee met daily or every other day. But only on the third day of this crisis did the head of national police and intelligence forces, Lawrence McAulay, deign to brief the public. Same with the minister in charge of our borders, Martin Cauchon. Our Immigration Minister remains in South America.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has reconvened Parliament for a special debate today. Mr. Chrétien is yet to convene his council of ministers. To be fair, he's kept in close touch with key ministers throughout, and deputies have formed a working group. "The PM has been co-ordinating the government's response," points out his spokesman. But this approach belies the functional way in which he views cabinet government.
A curious lag time -- almost an air of unreality -- has been evident in Ottawa from the earliest hours of this crisis. On the first morning, I walked up to Parliament Hill at 10:50 a.m. By that time, two commercial airliners had crashed into the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon.
And yet tourists, many of them oblivious to the goings on, were still being shepherded through the Centre Block. A single guard was on duty at the west entrance. (When one of my colleagues arrived 20 minutes earlier, he found nobody there.) I flashed my badge and walked up the stairs toward the Prime Minister's Office. The commissionaire normally on duty was nowhere in sight. I could see PMO staff gathered in the room next to Mr. Chrétien's unoccupied office.
The door to the office of the Prime Minister's legislative assistant was ajar. I thought of sticking my head in but didn't want to be caught on this day above all others in a corridor where I'm not normally allowed to stray.
The laxity of the security was evident as well when I went back outside. A suspicious package had been found beside the East Block. I watched from 15 metres away as a robot carried it toward a bomb-squad van. Elderly women were walking on the sidewalk beside me. It took some time for the police to clear the area, as it did to secure Parliament Hill itself.
Meanwhile, the government was putting out its message of the day. The Prime Minister and commissioner of the RCMP went on television to reassure Canadians. They had nothing to worry about. They were not the targets.
In Britain, Mr. Blair was delivering a more stirring message. He informed his country that we all have something to worry about -- that we were all targets.
One guy offered his condolences to our close friends but reminded his public that we are a separate country. The other guy lectured his country that we are the world.
Even when it came to yesterday's announcement of a national day of mourning today, Canada lagged behind other allies. Israel began mourning earlier in the week. European countries announced their plans on Wednesday. Our efforts, while commendable, emit a certain air of me-tooism. Our reactions are dulled. We follow, not lead.
As for military action, Mr. Blair vowed, without equivocation, to throw all the resources of his country behind the efforts of the United States to bring the perpetrators of these heinous crimes to justice. Meanwhile, a clearly uncomfortable Mr. Chrétien has continued to say we'll be there, but we can't say in what form. He appears to be searching for the familiar middle ground where none exists.
In his news conference yesterday, the Prime Minister was asked about Canada's participation in any military action. "We're not faced with that situation as [of]today," was his first response. He was asked if he had asked immigration officials to impose any restrictions on travel to Canada. "No, we have not changed anything at this moment in terms of immigration."
As for the ease with which terrorists are said to operate in Canada, he replied that his government has been working against terrorism for a long time and that the problem is an international one. True enough. But he's responsible for the Canadian aspect of the problem. And there is little indication of what his government has done to respond to a searing May, 2000, report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that 50 terrorist groups operate at some level -- including "planning and preparing terrorist acts from Canadian soil" -- within our borders.
Mr. Chrétien's ministers won't get together until their regularly scheduled meeting next Tuesday. Perhaps then they will begin to discuss such weighty matters as the meaning of Wednesday's NATO declaration; the extent to which Canada would participate in any military action; the consequences of such participation on domestic security; the consequences of any response on such friendly Arab countries as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia; the possible economic repercussions of this week's events; the appropriate level of security for our air system; the appropriate level of security for Parliament Hill. And so on.
Some government officials argue that it's simply too early to consider such substantial issues. But symbolically at least, the major institution of collective decision-making in our democracy should have gotten together by now.