Two studies by U of T political scientists suggest shift in Canadians' attitude to war

June 7, 2010

War casualties in Afghanistan could actually boost support for the mission and the federal Conservative government, two new academic studies reveal.

In fact, the image of flag-draped coffins — long seen as a potential political liability for any government — could make Canadians more hawkish about the Afghan war in general and less likely to embrace the old peacekeeping image of Canadian forces, according to one study.

“Exposure to images of flag-draped coffins leads to greater support for the mission in Canada,” said the study, which was conducted through months of observation along Ontario’s so-called “Highway of Heroes” by Joseph Fletcher and Jennifer Hove from the University of Toronto.

The other study, meanwhile, showed that Conservative politicians actually do better in ridings where families have lost loved ones in the Afghan mission.

“We find strong evidence at both the individual and district levels that support for Conservative Party candidates is higher in districts that experienced war deaths,” professor Peter Loewen, of U of T, and Ryerson’s Daniel Rubenson conclude in their research.

The findings, a result of detailed, on-the-ground analysis of public reaction to Canadian soldiers’ deaths over the past several years, run contrary to conventional political wisdom as well as experience in the U.S., where war casualties have tended to be toxic to politicians’ fortunes.

The two studies also raise questions about plans by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to pull combat troops out of Afghanistan in 2011, which has largely been cast as a political necessity.

The professors involved in this research, who unveiled their work at the Congress of Humanities gathering in Montreal this week, acknowledge they did not expect to see these results.

“It certainly surprised us, because we worked on the assumption that war is going to exert a cost,” Loewen said.

And they see their findings as a challenge to politicians and political strategists who have been trying to minimize the impact of war deaths on the Canadian public.

Fletcher, for instance, said Harper’s government may have been “out of step” with the sentiments of Canadians when it moved early in its mandate in 2006 to ban media trying to film the repatriation of Afghan war casualties.

“Despite what they might think, exposure to flag-draped coffins does not lead to a crumbling of support for the mission in Afghanistan,” Fletcher and Hove wrote. “But this sensibility is apparently poorly understood by Canada’s political class, or perhaps simply resisted.”

Loewen and Rubenson studied the reaction to the 69 deaths that occurred during the Harper government’s first term in office, from 2006 to 2008. Of those 69 casualties, 56 ridings in Canada experienced one death, 11 experienced two deaths and one riding each had three and four casualties.

When they looked at the political fallout in the election of 2008, however, they found that those war casualties didn’t erode Conservative support.

“We find no evidence that voters punish candidates of the incumbent government in Canada for losses in Afghanistan,” they write. “To the contrary, we find evidence that voters in constituencies that experienced a casualty increased their support for the governing party.”

Loewen said he can envision some political implications for his findings, especially behind the closed doors of the Conservative caucus, where MPs from ridings with Afghan war casualties may end up with more clout when they talk about the public’s feelings about the mission.

Fletcher said a result of his research — this study and one he conducted previously about support for the mission — is that Harper’s government is failing to properly appreciate the emotion that Canadians are investing in their fallen soldiers.

“The Harper government’s attempts to market the mission failed because not because people didn’t believe what he was saying — they bought the content. They did not see the emotional connection. It’s that lack of an emotional element that we’ve tracked.”

by Susan Delacourt.

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