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Mark Johnson: A nation—and a founder—to be proud of

Commentary

I never thought that I, as a Canadian and a former candidate for Parliament, would feel compelled to stand up and defend Sir John A. Macdonald—our first prime minister and one of our greatest political leaders. Such are the times. 

There’s a high school named after Sir John A. Macdonald in the neighbourhood where I grew up and that I sought to represent in Parliament. Over the decades it has played an important role in the Scarborough community and has educated tens of thousands of Canadians. Teenagers should be happy to attend a school so named. It’s named for a leader of whom we should be proud of and who bequeathed to us a nation to be proud of.  

Yet the Toronto school board is considering the renaming of that school as other governments have erased Sir John A. Macdonald from our public spaces because of his role in residential schools in the 1800s. Recently, the National Capital Commission announced plans to change the name of the Macdonald Parkway in Ottawa. This movement to erase Macdonald is an unfortunate and destructive development for our country.

It’s long past time for our leaders to take a courageous stand against this immature nonsense and defend our founder. What exactly are they afraid of?

The issue is not about turning away from the injustice of Canada’s residential schools, and we must meet the pressing need to improve the quality of life of Indigenous Canadians. All must be fully committed to that goal. This is about an altogether different subject—the rightful place in Canadian history of Sir John A. Macdonald.  

Enlightenment against the Four Horsemen

Historical events are never fully just or fully humane because events are made by humans, and humans are never fully just or fully humane. Man’s brutality to man and the countervailing march of progress mark the major streams in world history. For thousands of years, the two conflicting forces of humanity have been the forward pull of peace, wealth, enlightenment, and science straining against the backward drag of violence, poverty, ignorance, and disease. Pick up any history book, turn to any page, and you’ll be reading about a small battle in the larger war between light and darkness. One can argue that the former only started to prevail in the second half of the twentieth century, well within our living memory.  

The founding of countries was nasty business 

Almost all countries have been established by similar methods. A geographic area must be defined, acquired, and protected, which means war. Other cultures in that territory must be eliminated, separated, or dominated, which means genocide. Then a national founding myth, skewed to the heroic, must be created to unify the culture and provide social cohesion. This requires the editing of the truth to avoid just how unpleasant that business actually was.  

Canada’s founding followed the same path, but by any measure it was far more peaceful and balanced than any peer country. Most countries are based on race or language. Very few share our core characteristics—a transcontinental settler society whose membership is granted not based on race, creed, or language, but on common values, forward-looking ideals, and a shared commitment to a shared future. We owe much of this to the wisdom and peaceful ways of the Fathers of Confederation led by Sir John A. Macdonald.  

Sir John A. and the leaders of that era did their best in the world of the late 1800s as it then existed with all of its limits, knowledge, and strictures. As the saying goes, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. They were men of their times, limited by the contemporary confines of class, religion, mores, science, and politics. Yet they still pressed forward and pushed those limits. Despite being men of their time, they were very much ahead of it. They should be judged on the entirety of their achievements. 

It wasn’t just him  

It is human nature to yearn for a single cause of a problem, for one man to blame, and to look for a single salutary act to wipe it all clean. It may satisfy our desire for a simple explanation, a singular cause of a complex problem that still bedevils us today but it wrongfully acquits so many others of the charge. 

All leaders bequeath good and bad legacies to their heirs.  The mistreatment of Indigenous Canadians will always stain our history books, yet we must not pin the accumulated failures of all governments across 150 years on Macdonald. Not only would it be historically inaccurate but it lazily excuses the many others who were equally culpable if not more so.  

Who deserves our shame? The ones who established the residential schools or the ones who kept them going after the harm so obviously manifested itself across the decades? The erasure of Canada’s founder is not only the wrongful conviction of Sir John A. Macdonald but it’s also the wrongful acquittal of his many successors.  

Bereft of heroes. Devoid of pride. 

Wilfred Laurier, D’Arcy McGee, Joseph Brant, Brébeuf, Stephen Leacock, Sam Steele, Agnes Macphail, Norman Bethune, Oliver Mowat, Frederick Banting, Grey Owl, Henry Kelsey, William Osler, Winston Churchill, and Pope John Paul II all have schools in Toronto named after them. All great but imperfect. Must they too be erased? And who’s next?   

Erasing Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from our public space is nothing more than tokenism and childishness, with barely a passing glance at history, that will have no meaningful impact on the very people it professes to help. It only alienates the broad swath of Canadians whose support is needed to drive at real change. And the application of an increasingly strict, unforgiving purity test applied retroactively to great Canadians who lived and died long ago in a different world will inescapably lead to a nation bereft of heroes, devoid of pride, with no spirit or unifying beliefs, and filled with anger and resentment fueled by historical grievances.

We’re a great country. The world is getting better.

Canada is a blessed country to which many millions of immigrants came for a better life. From before our official founding, they braved perilous journeys, financial hardship, great distances from family and familiarity, and sailed and flew into an unknown future because of their faith in Canada. They placed their future and their children at the mercy of Canada. Why Canada?  

Contrary to what some pessimists argue, Canada was and continues to be more peaceful, more just, and more enlightened than any other country. We owe much of this collective achievement to our political culture—the Canadian political culture—and our political culture is very much the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald. Tolerance, generosity, the peaceful and pragmatic bridging of political differences, the spirit of compromise, measured responses to problems, and the never-ending journey to a better Canada for all. These were his politics and the values that he championed.  

Canadians are proud of their history and rightfully so. The life of Canada led by the decisions of its leaders, like our own lives and those of our forebears, remains imperfect, for a national life is solely composed of human acts; but humans can never be perfect, free from error that only time and hindsight reveal.

Different opinions are not unpatriotic or invalid. New knowledge emerges through historical study. New perspectives are shared. There’s nothing wrong with offering a fuller picture of our historical figures. We live in a free country where reasoned disagreement should be noble and is the mark of a mature society.   

The world is moving to a better place—the rule of law, respect for the dignity of all humans, the advancement of science, and the conquest of disease. No one would prefer that their children were born in 1923 over 2023. Yet problems and failures persist.   

Vandalizing monuments is easy. Pulling down names is easy. Improving lives is hard. Changing the future is hard. Sir John A. Macdonald knew this. He dedicated his life to the hard work of building Canada. Honouring him is right.  

Richard Shimooka: The Chinese spy balloons: What we know so far

Commentary

North America’s skies have been abuzz with activity in the past several weeks, starting with the startling appearance of a Chinese spy balloon over North American skies on February 2, followed by three subsequent balloon-like devices that were detected and brought down by NORAD forces between February 10-12.

While only the first balloon shot down on February 4th has been identified by the United States as a Chinese spy balloon, there is some evidence to suggest that the subsequent incisions may be part of a single event. It is important to note that a significant portion of what follows are best guesses based on the available information, so take this all with a slight grain of salt. 

What is the Chinese government doing?

Over the past few years, there has been mounting evidence of the Chinese government undertaking a major modernization and expansion of its strategic nuclear weapon capabilities. While this has primarily encompassed a modernization and enlargement of their missile forces, this can also be achieved by a better understanding of how NORAD operates—the capabilities of its radars, its communication system, or its organizational responses. This intelligence would allow China to improve its offensive capabilities collectively. 

This sort of work mirrors the United States and its allies’ daily intelligence-gathering operations along the People’s Republic’s air and maritime borders.On any given day there are several intelligence aircraft, such as RC-135s, P-8s, and RQ-4s, orbiting just outside Chinese and Russian airspace and hoovering up electronic emissions for analysis. Satellites play an important role in this system, but they cannot fully replace aircraft or other stratospheric systems. Unlike the United States, China does not have allies near North America where it can launch similar missions, which means they need innovative new solutions to achieve the same outcomes—balloons may well be their response. 

Why balloons? 

Balloons are sub-optimal solutions in a number of ways. Weather is highly unpredictable and relying on it can be highly problematic. However, the advent of much more capable weather modelling systems, as well as control systems on balloons, has provided more capabilities. In particular, changing the altitude of such balloons can allow a user to roughly control the direction of travel according to different wind patterns and even provide the ability to hover. Balloons also have the benefit of being able to stay aloft indefinitely and can operate at a slightly higher altitude, if required. 

Certainly, this is all conjecture, but the different sizes, configurations, and properties of the balloons suggest a relatively complex signals intelligence gathering program, and possibly even a coordinated mission between the different parts.

The first balloon shot down off of the South Carolina coast operated at a very high altitude, over 60,000 ft, and displayed a high level of sophistication. The presence of a large solar panel array suggests that it required some levels of permanence—perhaps for control but more likely for a fairly powerful set of onboard electronics. U.S. officials have noted that a number of antennas protruding from the balloon’s gondola are “likely capable of collecting and geolocating communications.” This would fit in the potential signals intelligence mission, although other approaches might be possible—it may also contain onboard cameras or other sensor systems. Nevertheless, the balloon would also need to power communication systems to pass on telemetry onto satellites or other data transmitting nodes.

The three smaller balloons have similarities—they operate at lower altitudes, have similar configurations but unique shapes, and have an apparent lack of sophistication and no propulsion. At this time governments have been cautious to even label them balloons—possibly because their orientation better fits the description of a dirigible.They also operate at much lower altitudes than the first “spy balloon,” (approximately 40,000 feet), which could pose a navigational hazard to civil aviation, which is likely one of the reasons why they have been intercepted over the continental United States rather than over the ocean.

The purpose of these balloons is not clear at this time, but several clues have been released. The unique geometric shaping of these objects and their metallic exterior may suggest they are intended to interact with radars. There are a number of benign civil applications for such systems, which is important to note. If it is related to the Chinese espionage efforts, however, it could be intended to obtain intelligence concerning NORAD’s operation, either independently of or in concert with other capabilities. Prime Minister Trudeau’s comments that there “is some sort of pattern” with all of the incidents in such a short period of time lends some credence to the latter option. 

One possibility is that the three subsequent balloons could be intended to “provoke” NORAD radars in order to aid in signals intelligence. Once locked onto, the more sophisticated spy balloon or satellite systems can pick up the emissions for later analysis. Of interest is that all three have different shapes. This may be intended to present different radar profiles, requiring search radars to use different measurement techniques and provide more data for analysis. This sort of information would be of immense value to China or Russia in developing countermeasures and responses for their own weapons. Even simply knowing where the balloons were detected would be useful information. Still, until the debris is recovered, it is difficult to make any substantive conclusions. 

Are these balloons a threat, or a new weapon? 

Unlikely. Clearly, intercontinental ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons are the core of China’s capability. This is likely just an intelligence-gathering campaign. However considering the ease at which the first balloon did penetrate North American airspace, the design could be adapted for more nefarious purposes, such as to disrupt communications or confuse radars.

Why was this not detected earlier? 

Since the first balloon was detected, American officials have mentioned that there have been several incursions over the years. It is not clear whether these have been at the same scale as what has been observed in the past several weeks. 

As the Washington Post reported, NORAD radars detected these previous balloons, but the signals processing systems did not identify them as a potential target. These systems look for specific patterns in vast seas of raw data to detect and track targets. Now that Canadian and American personnel know what they are looking for, NORAD detection systems are better placed to identify them going forward.

Why was an American F-22 used to attack the balloons? 

Thus far, the location of all of the intercepts has occurred in locations closer to U.S. NORAD  airbases. The Yukon intercept over Canadian territory was closer to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska than the Canadian Forces base in Cold Lake, Alberta, while the Lake Huron intercept was only a few hundred kilometres away from Selfridge Airforce Base in Michigan. This is not at all surprising in the bi-national command structure—it’s not uncommon to have Canadian CF-18s intercept airliners over American airspace throughout the year.

It is important to distinguish the fact that the two different balloon types present different challenges. The “decoy” balloons, of which three have been shot down pose much less challenge—they operate at altitudes that CF-18s routinely intercept Russian bombers at. Moreover, the Lake Huron intercept occurred with an F-16: a fighter that has roughly the same capabilities as the CF-18. 

The larger spy balloon would present far greater challenges, however. Canada does not possess the necessary supporting capabilities to undertake an intercept, which the CF-18 would be extremely hard-pressed to carry out.The first set of challenges involves vectoring a fighter into the vicinity of such a high-flying balloon. This would require two aircraft types: a mid-air refuelling and an airborne early warning and controller ( AWACS). Canada’s refueller fleet is limited in its capability, and it possesses no AWACS. Thus any interception would require US support. 

Once getting a CF-18 nearby the balloon, there are other challenges involved with the final stages of intercept—largely to do with the altitude and some limitations of the aircraft’s sensors, though they may be addressed by using different missiles. Or, if the balloon can be identified, through some other method. While Canada does not currently operate the AIM-9X missile (though it has procured it), it does possess the AIM-120C, a larger, more capable medium-range air-to-air missile. While it is better suited to shoot down the high altitude balloon, it also presents greater risks. Any misses, like that which occurred during the Lake Huron intercept, would result in a missile that could travel uncontrolled for hundreds of kilometres and be a threat to people on the ground. Thus, while technically feasible under some circumstances, it is highly questionable in practice, and Canada would be highly reliant on the U.S. military for support.

What now?

The key takeaway from the past two weeks’ events is that China is serious about its military modernization and is investing heavily in improving its capabilities. That was apparent to many military watchers over the past five years, but the balloon surveillance program only serves to drive this point home. 

It shows the pressing necessity of NORAD modernization. Many of the radar systems and underlying infrastructure supporting them are nearing 40 years old and desperately require replacement in order to deal with the new threats being developed by China, Russia, and other adversaries. Understanding how the balloons fit in a broader Chinese government strategy should give any North American leader pause.