Unusual NDPer backs international missions

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Randall Garrison is a calm, cerebral, 56-year-old criminal-law instructor at Victoria's Camosun College. Good-looking guy. Shaved head, goatee. He's also as honourable a man as you're likely to meet in a day's walk. He's the federal New Democratic Party candidate in Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, and he's a serious contender. But he's got a problem.

The problem is a debilitating legacy within the NDP, and within the left in Canada, generally, that has resulted in a kind of political and cultural illiteracy about military policy.

You can test for it yourself. Ask an NDP supporter this question: What is the NDP position on Canadian troops in Afghanistan? Chances are good the answer will be "Dunno." Ask the same question about Sudan. Or Haiti. You'll get the same answer. Dunno.

Think about that, just for a second.

Canada's mission in Afghanistan represents one of the largest military mobilizations in this country's history. Canada is also among the world's top three contributors of military equipment and expertise to the African Union's attempts to staunch the ongoing genocide in Sudan's Darfur region-but the intervention is failing. In Haiti, Canadian soldiers are playing a key role in a contentious and faltering effort to restore some stability in that blighted country's gang-riddled political culture.

What's the NDP policy on these things?

Who knows?

One reason this is a problem for Garrison is that Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca is the home port of Canada's Pacific fleet, and roughly one of every four voters in the riding is either employed by, does business with, or has a family member who is a military or civilian employee of the Canadian Forces base there.

It's a problem because it allows Troy DeSouza, Garrison's Conservative party opponent, to go around saying that NDP leader Jack Layton wants a complete freeze on Canada's military spending. And that's precisely what DeSouza did claim in an advertisement in the Victoria Times-Colonist earlier this month. And that's precisely what NDP leader Jack Layton was saying-in 2003.

But since then, the NDP has voted with Liberal MPs in favour of a massive, $12-billion, five-year military spending strategy. The NDP is changing.

So it's a problem for Garrison when the NDP can't show that it is sincerely and bravely clawing its way out of an obsolete, counterculture fuzziness on these questions in time to allow Garrison to trounce Liberal MP Keith Martin, the incumbent in Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca. Martin is a chameleon. In his 12 years as MP, Martin has represented the Reform party, the Alliance party, and the Conservative party. Then he sat as an independent. Then he joined the Liberals. But Martin is no slouch on military policy. He's also Defence Minister Bill Graham's parliamentary secretary.

But there's another reason why the questions the NDP has been afraid to confront are important to Garrison. It's that Garrison believes in things that any self-respecting social democrat would be proud to believe in. And he's not afraid to do the heavy lifting that comes with those beliefs.

In 1999, Garrison was the senior coordinator with the International Federation of East Timor observer project-the largest observer mission working with the United Nations' referendum on East Timor's independence from Indonesia. In 2002, Garrison established a peace-building project with feuding Christian and Muslim communities in Malukus, Indonesia-which was hard enough, and doubly difficult because Garrison is openly gay, and his partner, Teddy Pardede, is a Jakarta Catholic. Garrison has also worked for Amnesty International in every corner of Afghanistan.

Garrison is a new and different sort of New Democrat. He isn't afraid to say this: "An independent foreign policy requires a strong military." He isn't afraid to say this: "People who serve in the Canadian Forces are ordinary people, and the left has distanced itself from people who do that service. We disdain that service, and we should not." And he's also unafraid to say this: "You know, if you were a woman or a gay person, what happened in Afghanistan wasn't a war of occupation. It was a liberation."

Here's how Garrison answers those questions that stump most New Democrats: "The NDP hasn't been very clear about Afghanistan." Generally, the NDP gives a thumbs-up to Canada's participation in NATO's United Nations-sanctioned mission there but a thumbs-down to Canadian military involvement with the Americans' "Enduring Freedom" operations in the Kandahar area-at least until Defence Minister Graham is more forthcoming with a justification.

On Haiti, Garrison is refreshingly candid. He's got little time for what he calls the "imperialist conspiracy" analysis of the implosion of civil and democratic order in the final days of Jean-Baptiste Aristide's regime last year. The UN has sanctioned the intervention that Canadian soldiers are involved with in Haiti, and Garrison is for it.

"Do we say, 'Let's keep our hands clean'? Or do we participate in rebuilding, or building, democratic institutions?" Garrison asked. "I don't think the NDP has taken an official stance on this. I think you'd get a lot of divided opinion. My personal opinion is that it's probably better to be in, doing some constructive work, than out."

On Sudan, where 400,000 people have already been slaughtered in a slow-motion repeat of the Rwanda genocide, the NDP has been pushing Ottawa for more active engagement. But what to do there, exactly?

"I don't know," Garrison said. He wasn't afraid to say that, either.

But he's seen enough of the world to know a little about what counts. Like the bravery of the Timorese people, for instance, on August 30, 1999. Voting day.

"That is a day that will, you know, always leave an impression with me," Garrison said. "People risking their lives for the right to vote. That's when you realize that it's important. That it's worth it."