Trudeau and Ian

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Trudeau set right tone in the days after Flight 752 downing, say foreign policy experts

By NEIL MOSS      
Trudeau’s comments have underpinned Canada’s interests-based foreign policy, says former diplomat Colin Robertson.

In the days after Canada learned that it was Iran that downed a Ukrainian airliner shortly after it took off from Tehran, the somber, measured, but outraged tone of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s public comments has struck the right chord, say foreign policy experts.

But with only a supporting role in the crash investigation and little diplomatic presence in Iran, questions persist over how Canada can find the truth behind the Jan. 8 downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by Iran, which led to the death of 176, including 57 Canadians on board.


Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and current vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said Canada should always have an interests-based foreign policy and Mr. Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) comments reflected those interests.

“You’ve got to always think of what is your overriding objective,” Mr. Robertson said, adding for Canada, it’s to get an investigation and justice for the victims.

“Anything you do, [you have to ask] is this going to help or is this going to hurt?”

Mr. Robertson said while there may be a short-term gain for condemning Iran, it won’t help get compensation for the victims.

He added that if Mr. Trudeau took a harder line with Iran, it could lead to Canada being shut out.

After a period of silence in the midst of rising tensions between Iran and U.S., Mr. Trudeau stepped in the public spotlight Jan. 8 following news of the plane crash and the firing of more than a dozen of missiles by Iran at military bases in Iraq where Canadian, American, and coalition soldiers are stationed. He followed that press conference with two more on Jan. 9 and 11.

Mr. Trudeau said on Jan. 11 that “shooting down a civilian aircraft is horrific” and “Iran must take full responsibility.”

He called Iran’s admittance of downing the aircraft an “important step towards providing answers for families” and added that more steps need to be taken.

“Canada will not rest until we get the accountability, justice and closure that the families deserve,” he said.

Kathy Fox, the head of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), told reporters in Ottawa on Jan. 13 that there are “early signs” that Iran is willing to grant Canada a “more active role” in its investigation of the crash, while stressing that Iran is leading the investigation.

Two TSB officials have obtained visas to investigate the crash site and wreckage in Tehran. A second TSB team is expected to be deployed once it’s determined where the download and analysis of the cockpit and voice recorders will be held

Former high-level diplomat Jeremy Kinsman said that Mr. Trudeau’s Jan. 8 comments of “genuine sorrow” and dealing with the situation as a tragedy opposed to being antagonistic had a “salutary effect” on the internal debate in Iran, contributing to the Iranian government’s decision to announce that they had shot down the Ukrainian airliner, which Tehran said was mistakingly downed by a surface-to-air missile. Initially, Iran denied responsibility for the plane crash.

“[Trudeau] said the right things. He said it the right way,” said Mr. Kinsman, who was on Mr. Trudeau’s foreign policy advisory council in the lead-up to the 2015 election.

Kaveh Shahrooz, a human rights activist and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said while Mr. Trudeau set a good tone with a “tough line” and a demand for an investigation, he would like to see an additional call for prosecution of those responsible.

“What I worry about is the Iranian government will identify a few, sort of, low-ranking people and try to get this over with,” said Mr. Shahrooz, a former senior policy adviser on human rights at Global Affairs. “What I would like to see the prime minister do is recognize whoever ordered this attack on the plane ought to be prosecuted no matter where they are up the chain.”

Iran announced that on Jan. 14 that it has made arrests of “some individuals” after a “extensive investigations,” according to an Associated Press report.

On Jan. 13, Mr. Trudeau participated in his first broadcast interview since the plane was downed, telling Global News that recent escalations in the region led to the plane’s downing.

“If there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families,” he said.

Mr. Shahrooz tweeted that Mr. Trudeau’s comments ruined his “good week.”

“The crash happened because the Iranians are both malevolent and incompetent,” Mr. Shahrooz told The Hill Times. “They struck the American bases at the time of their choosing, so they could have ground all the flights and they didn’t do so. … I don’t think it has much to do with escalating tensions. At the end of the day, the only regime that can be blamed for this is the Iranian one.”

U.S. House of Representative Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Jan. 14 that the United States has no blame for the downing of the Ukrainian plane.

Tories call for IRGC to be listed as terrorist entity, NDP wants Parliament to return early

In the fallout of the plane crash, the Conservative Party has been calling for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to be listed as a terrorist entity.

The listing of the IRGC stems from a private member’s motion by Conservative MP Garnett Genuis (Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.) in 2018, which received the support of the Liberals at the time.

The call to list the IRGC as a terrorist organization was backed by Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith and the Council of Iranian Canadians on Jan. 13.

Mr. Kinsman said listing the IRGC would only serve to be antagonistic.

“The fact is, they are the army of the state,” Mr. Kinsman said. “I think that is just playing to the crowd.”

Jocelyn Coulon, a former policy adviser to then-foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion and author of Canada is Not Back: How Justin Trudeau is in Over His Head on Foreign Policy said in an email that listing the IRGC will do nothing and said Canada should be practical.

The Conservatives are also calling for Iran to compensate the victims of the crash, repatriate their remains, and hold those who are responsible for the downing of the aircraft accountable.

The Canadian government—and others who had Iranian dual citizens perish aboard Flight 752—will have to negotiate with Tehran regarding how and where the bodies of dual nationals can be buried, as Iran doesn’t recognize dual citizens, according to The Globe and Mail.

Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper said a change in Iran is needed in order “to see peace in the Middle East” at a conference in New Delhi.

Meanwhile, the NDP has called for Parliament to be recalled before its scheduled resumption on Jan. 27 in order to address the situation as well as the status of the Canadian-led NATO training mission in Iraq.

Mr. Coulon said recalling Parliament would just serve as “political theatre” and do nothing to get the needed information and quicken the inquiry.

The former diplomats and Mr. Shahrooz said the situation is too important for it to become a political football.

Crash could provide opportunity to resume diplomatic relations with Iran, former diplomats say

Mr. Robertson said Canada should use the current situation to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran.

“Having a presence in Tehran should be one of the outcomes of this,” he said.

Canada has been without diplomatic relations with Iran since Mr. Harper closed the Canadian embassy in Tehran and booted Iran’s diplomats in Ottawa in 2012.

Then-candidate Trudeau pledged to restore diplomatic relations during the 2015 election campaign.

In addition to the TSB officials in Iran, Global Affairs has sent a Standing Rapid Deployment Team to provide consular services.

Mr. Trudeau has been in contact with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as has Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne (Saint-Maurice-Champlain, Que.) with Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Mr. Shahrooz said the current situation is an argument for why Canada cut off diplomatic ties in the first place.

“Diplomatic relations with them only emboldens them in some way,” he said. “I think restoring diplomatic relations with Iran should be viewed as some kind of reward and at the moment we have nothing to reward Iran for.”

Mr. Kinsman said the return of diplomatic relations isn’t a “seal of approval,” but rather it’s about communicating with another country.

“You simply have to have it,” he said, adding that an embassy opposed to an ambassador is crucial because it gives access to all ministries in a foreign country.

—with files from Beatrice Paez

Justin Trudeau Foreign Policy

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: A Foreign Policy Assessment 2015-2019


Image credit: Adam Scotti/Instagram


by Colin Robertson
CGAI Vice-President and Fellow
January 2020


Table of Contents

Executive Summary

An internationalist and a progressive, Justin Trudeau consistently boosts diversity, social justice, environmentalism and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. A gifted retail politician, Trudeau prefers campaigning and contact with voters to the hurly-burly of the House of Commons.  He possesses an empathy and emotional intelligence most people found lacking in his famous father, Pierre Trudeau. But are these attributes and causes out of sync with our turbulent times?

Mr. Trudeau is learning firsthand what British prime minister Harold MacMillan warned U.S. president John F. Kennedy what was most likely to blow governments off-course: “Events, dear boy, events.”

As Trudeau begins a second term as prime minister, the going is tougher. The Teflon is gone. He leads a minority government with new strains on national unity. Parliament, including his experiment in Senate reform, is going to require more of his time.  Canada’s premiers will also need attention if he is to achieve progress on his domestic agenda. Does he have the patience and temperament for compromise and the art of the possible?

The global operating system is increasingly malign, with both the rules-based international order and freer trade breaking down. Managing relations with Donald Trump and Xi Jinping is difficult. Canadian farmers and business are suffering – collateral damage in the Sino-U.S. disputes.

In what was supposed to be a celebration of “Canada is back”, there is doubt that Canada will win a seat on the UN Security Council in June 2020. Losing would be traumatic for his government and their sense of Canada’s place in the world. It would also be a rude shock for Canadians’ self-image of themselves internationally.



Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared “Canada is back” and promised a return to “sunny ways” upon winning a majority in the October 2015 federal election. The son of Pierre Trudeau – Canada’s third-longest serving prime minister – had quickly climbed the greasy pole of politics. For the former drama teacher, “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. For his band of Gen Xers, especially those destined for cabinet office, “to be young was very heaven”. William Wordsworth captured the moment. For the temper of the times, however, Trudeau should have kept at hand a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Four-plus years and a second election later, Trudeau has had a sobering, often frustrating education in the art of governing. Hope and conviction met the realities of managing a cabinet chosen more for its look than experience, a caucus that wanted attention from its leader and not just his acolytes, and a public that is diverse and increasingly skeptical of politicians and governments. All of this was set against an international backdrop of populism, protectionism, rearmament and the breakdown of the rules-based liberal order.

Trudeau has pushed his personal priorities – climate, gender and reconciliation – while grappling with the permanent files that preoccupy all Canadian prime ministers – security, unity and Uncle Sam. As he begins a second term leading a minority government, the achievements are hard won and probably fewer than expected. The road ahead remains bumpy with more ashcans than roses.




The 2015 throne speech focused on four major priorities: the middle class, reconciliation, diversity  and international engagement. In an unprecedented demonstration of transparency, ministers were all given public mandate letters detailing their objectives.

Even if his government’s foray into “deliverology” was mocked, the independent Trudeaumeter assesses 143 of 230 promises achieved, 67 broken – notably the promised reform of Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system and failing to balance the budget by 2019 – and the rest in progress.  Notably, during his first term the Trudeau government would decriminalize cannabis and legalize assisted suicide.


The 2019 throne speech identified five priorities that reflected strong continuity from those of 2015: fighting climate change; strengthening the middle class with its own minister, and more tangibly, a tax cut; walking the road of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples; keeping Canadians safe and healthy with new gun control, although pharmacare is less likely; and positioning Canada for success in an uncertain world.

In terms of foreign policy, the 2019 mandate letters to the ministers prioritized peace operations and the modernization of NORAD’s North Warning System; reaffirmed the Feminist International Assistance Policy; the creation of a Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government; the conceptualization of a new cultural diplomacy strategy; the legislative passage of the new NAFTA; the creation of a Canada free trade tribunal; the modernization of the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. and the new border enforcement strategy.


Gender, Diversity and Feminism

The original Trudeau cabinet reflected gender parity: 15 women and 15 men. Most were under 50, reflecting both generational change and Canadian diversity with two First Nations and three Sikh members. Only 10 cabinets around the world have gender parity, and the global average for women holding ministerial positions is around 18 per cent.


Speaking at a UN summit (2016) focusing on women, Trudeau promised to continue saying he is a feminist “until it is met with a shrug.” His government introduced “feminist” budgets with a gender equality statement, created a feminist international assistance policy, passed pay equity legislation and made women’s empowerment and gender equality key priorities of the 2018 G7 Charlevoix summit. While there has been the inevitable criticism around delivery, the policy is soundly rooted. As a McKinsey Global Institute study, The Power of Parity (2015), concluded, advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth. The Trudeau government’s policy built on work advancing maternal and child health that former prime minister Stephen Harper had personally led.



As one of its first actions in 2016, Trudeau’s government signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. When it comes to reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations, Trudeau said: “We have to be patient. We have to be present. We have to be unconditional in our support in a way a parent needs to be unconditional in their love – not that there is a parent-child dynamic here.”

Canadians, Trudeau argues, have spent decades advancing international goals on poverty and human rights, while failing their First Peoples. Reconciliation is, arguably, the unfinished business of colonialization. Whether this constitutes “ongoing genocide” – a conclusion of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019) – is debatable.

First Nations, including Métis and Inuit, account for almost five per cent of the Canadian population, with over half living in Canada’s western provinces. Since 2006, their numbers have grown by 42.5 per cent – more than four times the growth rate of the non-Indigenous population.

Is reconciliation working? In the words of Justice and now Senator Murray Sinclair, who headed the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “Education is what got us here and education is what will get us out.” The commission set out 94 calls to action and in its annual report card (2018), KAIROS, a joint-venture ecumenical program administered by the United Church of Canada, “acknowledges that significant progress has been made in the majority of territories and provinces.” But it will require more time, money and effort.

Ironically, despite his avowed feminism and focus on aboriginal reconciliation, Trudeau would suffer his biggest political setback when two of his most prominent cabinet members, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first Indigenous Justice minister, and Treasury Board president Jane Philpott quit the cabinet. Trudeau’s principal secretary and friend, Gerald Butts, and his clerk and head of the Public Service, Michael Wernick, would also resign. Wilson-Raybould accused Trudeau and his office of pressing her to give preferential treatment to a Montreal-based engineering firm, SNC-Lavalin and, after the ethics commissioner contravened the Conflict of Interest Act, she sought an apology.

Would an apology from Trudeau have helped? If Pierre Trudeau was unapologetically without regrets, Justin Trudeau’s apologies are frequent, dramatic and sincere. Most of them are for the actions of previous governments dating back to the 19th century over their treatment of the Indigenous population or migrants. Autres temps, autre moeurs. A public opinion survey (July 2019) assessed that most Canadians thought “Justin Trudeau apologizes too much for government wrongdoing from the past.”

Pollsters identify the affair as lifting the Teflon that had once enveloped Trudeau. A plea bargain with a fine that allows SNC-Lavalin to still qualify for government work was reached in December 2019. Trudeau observed that: “there are things we could have, should have, would have done differently had we known, had we known all sorts of different aspects of it.”


Climate Change

Trudeau has consistently campaigned for climate change action and his government enthusiastically endorsed and signed the Paris Climate Accord. He declared: “With my signature, I give you our word that Canada’s efforts will not cease … Climate change will test our intelligence, our compassion and our will. But we are equal to that challenge.”


But for Canadians, managing climate is complicated. We are the fourth coldest country in the world after Kazakhstan, Russia and Greenland. We also have abundant quantities of energy sources – coal, oil, natural gas and uranium – that keep us warm during our long winters, and whose export pays the bills for universal health care and public education.

Environmentalists have focused on the pipelines that transport oil and gas, and as with most infrastructure projects, no one wants them in their backyard – the NIMBY problem. Alberta is the richest province in Canada, thanks to long-term investments in technological know-how that have freed its mineral wealth.

But Alberta is landlocked, so to get its oil and gas to market, it depends on pipelines. The Trudeau government cancelled the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. Another proposed pipeline to Canada’s East Coast was cancelled in part because of opposition from governments in Ontario and Quebec, where Premier François Legault described it as “dirty oil”. Under some duress, the Trudeau government purchased, at considerable public expense from its American owners, the existing Trans Mountain pipeline into Vancouver and promised to complete the proposed twinning project after the conclusion of the court-required consultations, especially with the First Nations on whose lands it transits.

All of these actions, of course, strained national unity. Albertans protested that the equalization funds generated by their “dirty oil” made possible, for example, heavily subsidized day care in Quebec.

Their shared climate commitment and Canadian efforts that helped bring about the Paris Climate Accord originally cemented the bromance between former U.S. president Barack Obama and Trudeau. Obama likely saw in Trudeau a younger version of himself: liberal, multilateralist and committed to diversity and environmentalism.


Prime Ministers’ Permanent Files

Canadian prime ministers have three permanent files on their desks. The first, in common with every other leader, is to keep the nation secure and the economy prosperous.

The second is to preserve and sustain national unity, no easy task in a diverse country of 5½ time zones, two official languages and  634 First Nations with aspirations to self-government.

The third is managing the relationships with the rest of the world, chief among them the United States, our principal ally and pre-eminent trading partner.

Economic Security

Canada is prosperous and the economy is chugging along, although economists worry that this owes a lot to Donald Trump’s goosing the U.S. economy, oblivious of his country’s trillion-dollar deficit. When the reckoning comes due, how will Canada fare? Is the Trudeau government prepared?

Trudeau can argue that his policies are growing the middle class. Critics argue that running chronic budget deficits is creating debt for the next generation. Redistribution will not address Canada’s weak productivity performance.


Since the Legatum Prosperity index began in 2007, Canada has held the consistent rank of eighth of 149 nations, following assessment of factors that include economic quality of life, business environment, governance, education, health, safety, security, personal freedom, social capital and natural environment.

The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) annual summary (2019) of Canada’s fiscal policy says Canada’s economy – and its management – is good, marked by “a judicious mix of policies” that support “inclusive growth and reduce vulnerabilities in the financial system”.  The federal debt-to-GDP ratio, the lowest in the G7, is expected to decline to 29.1 per cent by 2024, representing its lowest level since 2008-2009. Growth is solid and business confidence is returning with the negotiation of the new NAFTA. Financial institutions are robust and taxation levels keep Canada competitive, although business argues for adjustments to regulatory barriers and openness to foreign investment.


Trade barriers between provinces remain the unfinished business of Confederation. Internal trade represents roughly 1/5 of Canada’s annual GDP. The Trudeau government has made some headway, including the 2017 Canadian Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) to resolve regulatory barriers and establish more efficient dispute settlement processes. Interprovincial barriers to trade in wine and beer have been eased, but 152 years on, there is still much work to be done.


Like most Western nations, Canada’s population is aging, which has implications for pensions and health care. Immigration partly alleviates this problem. Canada takes in about one per cent of its population annually – between 300,000 and 350,000 migrants.  One of five residents in Canada was born outside the country.  Most new migrants come from Asia – China, India and the Philippines. In our biggest city, Toronto, almost half the population was born outside of Canada. Our other big cities – Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary – also have a significant percentage of foreign-born residents.


Immigration is not the hot-button issue that it is in the United States but this reflects a smart selection policy. Canadians were generally proud of Trudeau’s pledge to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees (we eventually took in 60,000). The major parties in Canada support immigration with the emphasis on recruiting migrants with necessary skills. The reaction in Manitoba, Ontario and especially Quebec when U.S.-based refugee claimants crossed into Canada in response to Trump’s changes to U.S. immigration is a warning that public tolerance is not as liberal as Trudeau may think.

National Unity

Shortly after becoming leader, Trudeau threw out of caucus the Liberal senators appointed by his predecessors and vowed to appoint those drawn from an independent advisory body so as to create an independent chamber of sober second thought. Its reports, as with the recent study arguing that cultural diplomacy take front stage in our foreign policy, can become the basis for government action. As prime minister, he followed through and now most of the senators in the upper chamber owe their appointments to Trudeau. It is too soon to determine whether the experiment in having a membership that more closely resembles the Order of Canada has worked or whether it will endure. Senator Peter Harder, who stepped down after serving as government representative, endorses the new approach but observed that having appointees with legislative experience would be useful.

Having won seats in every province and territory in 2015 – no small accomplishment – Trudeau rightly claimed that he enjoyed broad national support.

That provincial governments soon began to shift from liberal to conservative probably says more about Canadians’ penchant for hedging and balancing between the levels of government. National problems are often resolved at first ministers meetings between the provincial premiers and the prime minister. There have been over 70 such meetings since 1945.  Climate change was top of the agenda in Trudeau’s four meetings (2015, twice in 2016 with one that also included Indigenous leaders, and 2018). While the leaders acknowledged the climate problem, there was no consensus on how to manage it.

The Trudeau government imposed a carbon tax on provinces that failed to come up with commensurate carbon-reduction measures designed to help meet Canada’s commitment under the Paris Climate Accord. Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Ontario all became subject to a federal carbon price after refusing to create their own. While these provinces challenged the federal measure, the courts have ruled that climate change is a matter of “national concern” and Ontario’s chief justice wrote of “the need for a collective approach to [such] a matter”.

Unlike our southern neighbour, Canada has relatively strict gun control legislation that Trudeau promises to further tighten. Canada’s murder rate is closer to that of Europe than to the United States. While there is growing concern about the use of guns in Toronto, The Economist ranked Toronto the fourth safest major city in the world and the safest major city in North America.

National unity, always a challenge, is again strained. While it will never convince the Wexiters, getting the Trans Mountain pipeline built is important not just to get our oil to market but to underline that we can still do national projects in Canada. In Quebec, provincial legislation banning religious symbols defies Trudeau’s inclusiveness. The courts may fix this.

Managing U.S. Presidents

The one relationship that Canadian prime ministers have to get right, opined former prime minister Brian Mulroney, is the one with the American president. Mulroney’s relationship with Ronald Reagan netted the original Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and acknowledgment of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. Mulroney’s equally close relationship with George H. W. Bush won the acid rain accord and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Trudeau understood this. It was easy with Obama. It is hard work with Trump.

The greatest test of Trudeau’s foreign policy management is handling Trump and the U.S. relationship. He avoided the easy route – become the anti-Trump – recommended by members of his cabinet, caucus, the punditry and Joe Biden. Instead, he and his team worked hard to establish an entrée into the Trump White House through various channels, including first daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. It worked. Trump likes celebrities and Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, possess the right celebrity aura.

The relationship was tested often, especially at the 2018 G7 summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, when Trump, who left early for his first meeting with Kim Jong-Un decided that host Trudeau had somehow offended him. Trump tweeted that Trudeau was “meek and mild … weak and dishonest” and withdrew the U.S. signature from the communiqué. Trudeau later said he took it all with a “grain of salt” and persevered.


Trudeau’s U.S. ambassador, David MacNaughton, was exactly right for the challenge. He quarterbacked a campaign to support Canadian interests, especially through the renegotiation of NAFTA, that focused on Trump’s base in the Midwest – all states whose main trading partner was Canada – as well as in Congress. Traditionally, protectionism and narrow interests emanating from Congress and the states are the source of Canadian headaches.  But allies – in Congress, the statehouses, and governors and mayors who appreciate the importance of mutual trade to job creation – have become a counterweight to Trump’s unpredictability, recklessness and chaotic behaviour.


Trudeau’s Continuing Foreign Policy Vision

While marred by partisan shots at the Conservatives, Trudeau’s Montreal speech (August 2019), is the most thorough self-examination of his foreign policy as prime minister. Unabashedly internationalist, he re-commits to multilateralism – UN, NATO, G7, G20 – but acknowledges that we operate in a “more unpredictable and unstable world, where some have chosen to step away from the mantle of global leadership, even as others challenge the institutions and principles that have shaped the international order”. He reaffirms the importance of the U.S.’s relationship with Canada: “To say that the U.S. is our closest ally is an understatement. Canada has long benefited from this relationship, and from American leadership in the world. We are friends and partners more than mere allies. We share more than just a border – we share culture, food, music, business. We share a rich history, and we share many of the same core values.”

Without explicitly identifying Trump, Trudeau places responsibility for the current conditions on Trump’s decision to embrace America First. Trudeau points out that “protectionism is on the rise, and trade has become weaponized. Authoritarian leaders have been emboldened, leading to new forms of oppression. Calls for democratic reform, from Moscow to Caracas, are being suppressed. Crises that were once met with a firm international response are festering, becoming regional emergencies with global implications. And all of this is making it more difficult to solve the problems that demand urgent global action. Climate change is an existential threat to humanity, with science telling us we have just over a decade to find a solution for our planet. And technological change is happening at an unprecedented rate, transcending borders, re-shaping our societies, and leaving many people more anxious than ever.”


Trudeau makes the case for “free and fair trade”, pointing to the renegotiated NAFTA, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement (CETA). He argues for responsible reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO). He argues that in our “more unstable world, Canada must also be prepared to both defend ourselves and step up when called upon.” He also points to investment in defence and security, especially sea power and new fighter jets, saying, “we make the greatest contribution to global stability when we match what Canada does best to what the world needs most.” He recognizes China’s growing power, “but make no mistake: we will always defend Canadians and Canadian interests. We have a long history of dealing directly and successfully with larger partners. We do not escalate, but we also don’t back down.”

Acknowledging other challenges, Trudeau says: “White supremacy, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism are an increasing scourge around the world and at home. Gender equality is backsliding. Human rights are increasingly under threat. This is the world we’re in. And so we cannot lose sight of our core values. That means being prepared to speak up, and knowing that sometimes, doing so comes at a cost. But when the courage of our convictions demands it, so be it.” Looking forward, he says: “Canada should place democracy, human rights, international law and environmental protection at the very heart of foreign policy … As some step back from global leadership, we should work with others to mobilize international efforts, particularly by ensuring the most vulnerable and marginalized have access to the health and education they need. Canadians have found strength in diversity and benefited from openness. Financial strain should never hold Canadians back from exploring the world or building positive connections abroad …”

There are other speeches including his Davos speech on Canadian resourcefulness (January 2016) and his speech while he was still in opposition on North American relations (June 2015). Trudeau embraces multilateralism and a progressive agenda on trade and the environment. But the signature themes remain: climate, feminism and gender equality, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.


His UN General Assembly speeches were essentially one-plate affairs addressing migration (2016), then reconciliation (2017), with climate as a side dish for both. The Charlevoix G7 summit (2018) reflected his signature issues with a specific focus on topics like plastics in the ocean. He embraced the Christchurch Call to Action (May 2019) to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.

A spontaneous sense of Trudeau’s global perspective is found in an interview he gave to CBC journalist Aaron Wherry in January 2019 for his bookPromise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power. Asked if the issues with China and Saudi Arabia stem from the U.S.’s failure to lead, Trudeau says: “obviously that’s a reflection of part of it … But having the Americans there to enforce Pax Americana around the globe over the past decades made it a little bit easier for all of us who have our lot in with the Americans. And I think what we’ve seen was that if the stability and the rules-based order we’ve built as a world relies entirely on one country continuing to behave in a very specific, particular way, then maybe the world’s not as resiliently rules-based as we think it is. And had it not been the particular circumstance we have right now, maybe it would’ve been something else. At one point you’ve got to decide – well, are you a world, are you countries, are you an international community that believes in those rules or not? And it shouldn’t be fear of punishment or consequences that keeps you behaving right.”

“I mean, the reason you and I don’t go murdering people is not because, ‘Well, it’s against the law.’ It’s because that’s where our values and where our beliefs are. So if we’re going to actually build a better world that is rules-based and solid and predictable, I think there was always going to be a moment where people have to sort of put up or shut up: either you’re standing for the rules even as it gets awkward and difficult and people are unhappy with you because you’re applying the rules. Or you don’t.”

“And I think this is something that we’re obviously going through as a world right now, and people are deciding how they want to position themselves. But I am very, very serene about Canada’s positioning in this and our history that leads us to this. But also our vision for the future that says, if we don’t follow rules and we accept that might is right in the international rules-based order, then nobody’s going to do very well in the coming decades.”

“As the Americans make different political decisions over the cycles, and even if the Americans do re-engage in a way, I think the lesson is that all of us need to be a little more rigorous in the way we stand for and expect and push back on others who are not following the rules that we abide by and accept. I think this is probably a moment that, again, in hindsight, fifty, a hundred years from now, we’ll say, ‘Yeah, this was a moment where people had to decide whether we do believe in an international rules-based order or not.’”


Then-Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland gave the government’s definitive foreign policy speech in 2017. It was erudite in its defence of liberal internationalism, robust collective security and the rules-based system, arguing that Canada is an “essential country” in that defence. She would champion the passage of Magnitsky legislation (2017) enabling Canada to sanction, impose travel bans on and hold accountable those responsible for gross human rights violations and significant corruption thus ensuring that “Canada’s foreign policy tool box is effective and fit for purpose in today’s international environment.” It has since been used to sanction individuals notably those from Venezuela, Myanmar, Russia, South Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

The Freeland speech was much more digestible than her predecessor Stéphane Dion’s “ethics of responsible conviction” remarks on foreign policy at the University of Ottawa (2015). But while Mr. Dion’s remarks were wonkish, they did make the sound observation that severing ties with governments we do not like is not effective diplomacy. In the case of Iran, that the Harper government declared a terrorist state in 2012,  Dion observed that “severing of ties with Iran had no positive consequences for anyone: not for Canadians, not for the people of Iran, not for Israel, and not for global security.” Of Russia, Dion sensibly observed that as long as we refuse to engage Russia through diplomatic and political channels, we preclude any opportunity to advance shared interests in the Arctic or to support Ukraine through negotiations. Unfortunately, these sensible suggestions were not picked up by Ms. Freeland, who on Russia is shaped by anti-Communism (natural given her Ukrainian heritage and the fact the Russians declared her persona non grata in 2014).

Chrystia Freeland’s feistiness aggravated Trump, who labelled her a “nasty woman”. But she effectively worked her counterparts – first, Rex Tillerson, and later, Mike Pompeo – as well as Congress. Early on, as International Trade minister, she had charmed GOP Senate Agriculture chair Pat Roberts, and thus helped resolve the decade-long country-of-origin dispute. This dispute, essentially over access for Canadian and Mexican beef and pork, had also earned her the friendship of Mexico’s then-secretary of Economy, Ildefonso Guajardo, with whom she would work closely during the NAFTA renegotiations. Freeland played a key role in securing CETA with the European Union (2017) and the 2018 CPTPP.

The CETA and CPTPP negotiations were inherited from the Harper government. While there remained some residual wariness about trade deals in his cabinet and caucus, Trudeau understood that our nation’s trading interest is best served by opening new markets and diversifying Canada’s trade dependence – 75 per cent of our exports – on the U.S.

Elements of the progressive trade agenda are reflected in CETA, CPTPP and the renegotiated North American free trade pact, as well as bilateral trade deals with Chile and Israel, but its limitations and the lesson of overreach became clear. China’s Premier Li Keqiang gave labour and Indigenous rights the back of his hand, and plans for a closer economic partnership with China never materialized. They are now on hold in the wake of the controversy involving Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s extradition, which has seen Canadians held hostage and our food exports curtailed.

There was too much virtue-signalling. Relations with China, Russia and Saudi Arabia are in the deep freeze. Relations with Asian nations still need a strategy and more engagement. The magical mystery tour to India chilled relations, not because of Trudeau’s dress, but on security issues with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Wobbliness at the Da Nang APEC summit on CPTPP negotiations annoyed fellow leaders. Relations with Japan’s Shinzo Abe were patched up with closer defence co-operation. Despite his geniality, Trudeau’s close fellow-leader relationships are few:  Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and perhaps France’s Emmanuel Macron.

The Trudeau government is behaving as a helpful fixer in Ukraine, the Koreas, Venezuela, on migration and climate issues, and at the WTO. Relations with Mexico, our third largest trading partner, improved after he lifted a pernicious visa requirement. And with the one relationship that really matters – that with the U.S. –Trudeau and his team have successfully managed Trump, fending off his tariffs, while preserving Canada’s preferred access to the U.S. market.


Security beyond our Borders

Multilateralism is integral to Canadian diplomacy. By working with like-minded nations to sustain and advance the rules-based order, we get much more leverage from our place as a middle power. Great powers can always throw their weight around. The age-old concert of great powers reduces relationships to the big dictating terms to the small. When adroitly employed, multilateralism levels the playing field. It is especially useful in time of crisis and in addressing global challenges like crime and terrorism, migration, climate change and pandemics.

After more than a decade of often frustrating experience in Afghanistan (2001-2014), Canadian troops are deployed around the world in support of collective security and peace operations.  Most of our deployments are with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Canada leads a NATO brigade in Latvia, and our aircrafts, warships and submarines patrol the waters and the skies of the Atlantic and Mediterranean as part of NATO’s assurance and deterrence initiatives. There are Canadians in Iraq, again under the NATO umbrella and as a member of the Global Coalition against Daesh. Canadians wore the blue beret of UN peace operations in Mali (2018-2019) and are now in Uganda (2019-2020) with a standing commitment (2017) to supply more peacekeepers as required. Canadian air and sea forces support enforcement of the UN’s sanctions on North Korea. A half century after the armistice, we continue to contribute to the UN peace operations team in Korea’s demilitarized zone (DMZ) and now in sanctions enforcement on the high seas.

The Trudeau defence policyStrong, Secure and Engaged (June 2017), promised strength at home, security within our continental frontiers and engagement abroad. There would be re-involvement in UN peace operations, building on previous, sometimes mythologizedexperiences in Suez (1956), in Cyprus (1964-93), in the Balkans (1991-2004), in Afghanistan, and still currently in the Congo and Syria’s Golan Heights. Trudeau hosted a ministerial conference in Vancouver (2017) that resulted in The Vancouver Principles on Peacekeeping and the Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers. But while preserving ongoing commitments, there were only two new peace operations deployments: the concluded mission in Mali and now in Uganda. While useful, it was less than what was expected, and as Jocelyn Coulon points out, more continuity than break with the Harper Conservatives.

There were commitments to rearmament, with more money and forces for the defence of Canada. The Canadian navy and coast guard will receive a new ship every year for the next 20 years. In assessing the new defence policy after two years, CGAI’s David Perry concluded that the Trudeau government is “mostly delivering”, although spending on equipment and infrastructure has lagged behind projection because of contingencies not being used, project efficiencies, industry not delivering on schedule and project delays internal to government.


Election 2019

The October 2019 election was short, nasty and vacuous. Charges of hypocrisy were laid against Trudeau for appearing in black-face and brown-face. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was also accused of hypocrisy for holding dual Canadian-American citizenship while previously criticizing others who held dual citizenship. There were only four debates, with Trudeau participating in just three of them (two French language and one English). The foreign policy debate was cancelled.

When the election ended, Scheer’s Conservatives won the most votes: 34.4 per cent versus 33.1 per cent for the Liberals, with Jagmeet Singh’s NDP at 15.9 per cent, Yves-François Blanchet’s Bloc at 7.7 per cent and Elizabeth May’s Greens at 6.5 per cent. Yet the Liberals formed a minority government, winning 157 seats to the Tories’ 121, the Bloc’s 32, the NDP’s 24 and the Greens’ three, with Wilson-Raybould as the sole independent.

If Trudeau pulled his party to a majority in 2015, pollsters said he was a drag in 2019. But so was Scheer, and within weeks he announced he would be stepping down. May also announced it would be her last election as the Greens’ leader.

Shut out in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Trudeau said that attention to regional needs would be a top priority. He followed up with a series of individual meetings with provincial premiers. As deputy prime minister and Trudeau’s likely successor, Freeland takes on federal-provincial relations and is charged with organizing a first ministers meeting in early 2020.


Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s request for a “fair deal” is reasonable and his argument that a strong Canada needs a strong Alberta is compelling. There will be some rebalancing in fiscal sharing arrangements, although the loser is likely to be tomorrow’s taxpayers who inevitably will have to pay the piper for deficit spending.


Foreign Policy Challenges Ahead

In Monty Hall’s long-running Let’s Make A Deal, contestants faced three doors. Behind one was a car and behind the other two were goats. For Trudeau, the goats are the continuing challenges in our relationships with the U.S. and China while the prize is winning a seat on the UN Security Council – a vindication of his commitment to internationalism.

Unfortunately for Trudeau, he has to manage all three doors.

Relations with the U.S. always come with irritants. What is remarkable is how well it works, even with Trump. Freeland stays responsible for the U.S. file. She has managed this file very well and her contacts are excellent, but splitting ministerial responsibility for the U.S. from new Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne will cause headaches down the road. It will complicate life for our yet-to-be-named ambassador in Washington where our embassy is effectively an adjunct to the Privy Council Office and source of advice to the Prime Minister’s Office. Effective ambassadors also have relationships with ministers and premiers.

Washington is all about power and politics and the political class – whether on Capitol Hill or in the Administration. They prefer dealing with those who understand politics, a skill not generally found in professional diplomats. Our next ambassador will require political instincts, gravitas and knowledge of the U.S. Former ministers or premiers who have these qualities include Rona Ambrose, Jean Charest, Peter Mackay, John Manley, Anne McLellan, Bob Rae and Brad Wall (although some of these may soon be seeking the Conservative leadership). To succeed, our new ambassador also needs the confidence of the prime minister. Otherwise the White House will go direct to the prime minister’s office. The ambassador should also work closely with the U.S. ambassador in Ottawa – as quarterbacks in the field, the two ambassadors can resolve a lot of the transactional problems.


The Trump administration expects more from Canada on defence and security. For Trump, the metric is spending two per cent of GDP. An increased NATO commitment is the first instalment. Lost in the foofaraw around an off-mic comment dissing Trump at the London summit (December 2019), is the fact that Trudeau committed more naval and air support to the 70-year-old security alliance.

What the Americans really want is for Canada to exercise the sovereignty it claims in the Arctic. In practical terms, this means upgrading the North Warning System.

Fixing the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., promised in the throne speech, is another challenge. Porous borders feed populism and help breed legislation like Quebec’s Bill 21. Requiring potential refugees to apply for sanctuary in the country where they first land – the Safe Third Country Agreement – was one of the accomplishments of the Chrétien government when then-Foreign Affairs minister John Manley negotiated the “smart border” accord with Homeland Security’s Tom Ridge. The Trump administration should go along; the U.S. wants a similar agreement from Mexico.


Managing the trading relationships, especially trade diversification, is another permanent challenge; Pierre Trudeau pursued ‘counterweights’ and the ‘Third Option’ to reduce trade dependence on the USA. Freeland’s first assignment was negotiating the new NAFTA. The prerequisite for the Trump administration was to achieve legislative passage through the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. The major changes – tougher enforcement on environment and labour – were aimed at and swallowed by Mexico, although they did wrest a dispute settlement panel provision that will serve Canadian interests. The other changes – patent protection for biologic drugs consistent with the CPTPP and steel made in North America – did not disadvantage Canada. Having passed the House, it should sail through the Senate after the impeachment proceedings. It should also get through the Canadian Parliament.

While experts question the gains in the new NAFTA with its increasingly managed trade, it does provide the required stability that foreign and Canadian investors expect. Canada’s exports are the fourth most concentrated by destination out of 113 countries. Can we convince Canadian business to use the new transoceanic trade relationships? How much collateral damage will the ongoing Sino-U.S. trade war inflict, and if it is resolved, will we find ourselves at a disadvantage vis-a-vis our American competition, especially when it comes to our agri-food industry?

The second major test is China and the requirement for realism in dealing with a rising superpower that is increasingly aggressive abroad and repressive at home.

The government’s handling of the Meng affair and its fallout is tactically suspect. Elevating the extradition to the sanctity of “rule of law” has confused the Chinese and left us with little room to maneuver.  Trudeau’s request of Trump not to sign any agreement with China until the hostages are freed would seem to misunderstand Trump and his art of the deal, while for the Chinese we simply look weak. It plays to their evaluation of Canada as a vassal state of the U.S. – a running dog of U.S. imperialism. Jean Chrétien, who understands China, is likely right when he characterizes our China debacle as “a trap that was set to us by Trump, and then it was very unfair, because we paid the price for something that Trump wanted us to do.”


If the Trudeau government needed reminding that it no longer enjoys a majority, the Conservatives introduced – on the one-year anniversary of China’s detention of hostages Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – a motion creating an all-party parliamentary committee to assess and monitor Canada’s relations with China. Despite Liberal opposition, the resolution passed with the support of the NDP and Bloc Québécois. If they can park partisanship at the door, the all-party committee might just achieve a realistic China policy that all can support. For too long, our China policy has teetered between the romantic and the hostile, depending on whether the government is Liberal or Conservative. Its only common thread was a cloak of government secrecy. Inconsistent and opaque policy serves neither our interests nor our values.

The third major test will come in June 2020 when Canada competes with Ireland and Norway for a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council. The fatalists may be right about us losing, but a second loss will be traumatic for the government and a shock to Canadians. Losing in 2010 could be rationalized as the Harper government having run a lackluster campaign due to ambivalence about the UN and taking perverse pride in the mantra “we don’t just go along to get along.”


To win will require more active campaigning by ministers and Trudeau in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and drawing on our ties within the Commonwealth and la Francophonie. We have a good ambassador in Marc-André Blanchard and a credible platform built around combating climate change, promoting gender equality, promoting peace and economic security, and a commitment to multilateralism.

And if we win, then we will have to deliver on our promises. This will mean more resources – people and money – for our UN missions. The Trudeau government has gotten away with little investment in our foreign affairs. If we want to be effective it also means we will need to open embassies in places like Pyongyang and Teheran. If their governments are corrupt or abusing human rights, we should use our Magnitsky sanctions on individuals rather than shutting down our embassies. Diplomatic relations are not a seal of approval but rather the means by which we conduct business, most of it having to do with people-to-people transactions – visas for students, migrants and business as well as the classic consular work of helping Canadians in distress – in addition to the high politics. If we want to provide a Canadian perspective to a situation, it starts with being there – having trained diplomats who look, listen and when necessary speak out to advance Canadian interests.

“Canada is back” is a conceit. The Trudeau record does not match the rhetoric: Canada still falls short (1.31 per cent of GDP) of the NATO target of two per cent of GDP on defence spending. Our international development assistance (0.264 per cent of GDP) remains well short of the 0.7 per cent endorsed by the G7. Mulroney got it right when he described our spending as a “disgrace” and asked: “How are you going to assert your leadership skills when you enter a room and somebody says, ‘Hey, you haven’t paid your bills’.”

If we want to make a difference – to achieve a progressive agenda, to diversify trade, to be a credible security partner – then the Trudeau government is going to have to invest more in defence, in development and in its foreign service.


Concluding Observations

Born on Christmas Day 1971, this charismatic son of the equally charismatic Pierre Trudeau initially held Canadians and the world in thrall. A natural cheerleader who likes to be liked, Justin Trudeau is at his best when the going is good. When the going gets tough, Trudeau is sometimes indecisive, at a loss about what to do next. Unfortunately for Trudeau and for Canada, these are treacherous times. We live in an age of populism and protectionism. Democracy is on the downslide. The rules-based order with its internationalist norms are broken with impunity. This breakdown only seems to encourage more bad behaviour. Democratically-elected  leaders are now as likely to look like Trump as Trudeau. Mr. Trudeau is learning firsthand what British prime minister Harold MacMillan warned U.S. president John F. Kennedy what was most likely to blow governments off-course: “Events, dear boy, events.”

Identity politics is central to the Trudeau team’s playbook. But what politicos say plays domestically can back-fire internationally. The problem with the shambolic magical mystery tour to India was not in the costume changes but the setback to relations with India when it appeared that we put domestic politics ahead of what India saw as their legitimate security concerns.

All governments focus on style and stagecraft, but the Trudeau team takes it to a new level through use of social media. But selfies, tweets and celebrity status are volatile. The once APEC “hottie” is caricatured for dress-up involving black- and brown-face, episodes that occurred long before he entered politics. Trudeau is no racist, but the incidents and his initial response when challenged on them raised questions about his judgment for which he paid a price in the 2019 election.

Some prime ministers are transformational. Fewer are consequential. Pierre Trudeau was both. Whether Justin Trudeau will match his father is still to be determined but no one is forecasting sunny ways anymore.

Leadership depends on winning respect through achievements and Justin Trudeau has led on issues of climate, diversity, and migration. He has well managed our most important relationship, that with the USA, despite the challenges of Donald Trump. Building on Mr. Harper’s initiatives, he has opened the way for trade diversification across the Pacific and Atlantic, while preserving freer trade within North American. He has made necessary and overdue investments in defence, but procurement must be fixed. We need to invest more in development and in diplomacy. Then we might be able to claim that ‘Canada is back’.


Further reading

Two excellent accounts offer differing interpretations of Justin Trudeau as prime minister. CBC journalist Aaron Wherry’s Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power (2019) benefited from insider access, and this is perhaps why his is the more sympathetic account. National Post columnist John Ivison’s The Education of a Prime Minister (2019) is thorough and more critical of Canada’s 23rd prime minister. Jocelyn Coulon, a former special assistant to Stephane Dion, has written Un Selfie avec Justin Trudeau (2018), a critical account of Trudeau’s foreign policy.  For scholarly evaluations of Trudeau’s foreign policy, look to the essays in the annual Canada Among Nations published by Carleton University, and now Canada in International Affairs, published by Springer, notably Justin Trudeau and Canadian Foreign Policy (2018).

Iran-Canada Relations

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Plane crash investigation could be Canada’s chance to re-open diplomatic ties with Iran: former minister

Canada’s embassy in Tehran was closed in 2012


A former federal minister says Canada should work together with Iran to investigate the plane crash that claimed 63 Canadian lives, as a step towards improving diplomatic relations between the two countries.

“I would hope that our involvement with the Iranians through this investigation will help to open the door, to the point where we can re-establish relations diplomatically,” said Allan Rock, who served as justice minister, and later minister of health under Jean Chrétien.

That would allow Ottawa to “get somebody on the ground in Tehran, who is a Canadian representative,” he told The Current’s Matt Galloway.

Canada’s embassy in Tehran was closed in 2012 by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, over concerns about human rights abuses committed by the Iranian regime.

Rock said he was “disappointed” by the move at the time.

“Merely having an embassy there and having their embassy here, does not mean that we approve of that government’s policies,” he said.

“It means that we recognize the importance of dialogue, notwithstanding our differences.”

Flight PS752 crashed Wednesday, minutes after it took off from Tehran. All 176 people onboard were killed, including dozens of Canadian-Iranians en route back to Canada.

The crash happened shortly after Iran launched a missile attack against Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops.

The investigation into the cause of the crash is still in its initial stages, but Thursday afternoon, sources told CBC News that U.S. officials shared intelligence with Canada that the airliner was shot down by an Iranian missile.

Canadians families are also preoccupied by an impossible question, the same one being asked in many other countries. Why did that plane crash? The CBC’s Katie Nicholson with some expert insights on the investigation. 2:26

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne spoke to Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif late Wednesday, and pushed for immediate access to the crash.

The Current requested an interview with Champagne, as well as Transport Minister Marc Garneau, but both declined.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that consular teams were being prepared to go to Iran. He added that Italy was offering support as an intermediary to Iran, and Australia, France and Ukraine had also offered assistance.

Lack of embassy could slow progress: former diplomat

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said he had no doubt those allies would be helpful.

But “they’ll have priorities too, and we would fall sort of second in that list,” he warned.

He also said that sending a consular team has limitations, because it takes time to get them there, and they won’t have the network of contacts that an established ambassador would have.

“One of the key roles of an embassy is to act as a co-ordinator for Canadian interests,” said Robertson, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“And obviously, we’ve got significant Canadian interests because a number of Canadians that were killed in this crash.”

Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was only in the air for two minutes before bursting into flames and crashing to the ground. The National’s Adrienne Arsenault looks at what happened before the crash and talks to an expert about how an investigation would play out. 6:14

Robertson agreed that re-establishing diplomatic relations would be beneficial, particularly for Canada’s application for a seat on the UN security council.

“One of the things that Canada has over both Ireland and Norway, our two competitors, is that we’re a G7 country,” he told Galloway.

“We really do have worldwide reach.”

Robertson believes that “the whole point of diplomacy is to be there.”

“We live in a very turbulent world, things are changing,” he said.

“And if you want to play, you have to be there.”


Canada has closed its embassy in Iran effective immediately and declared persona non grata, all remaining Iranian diplomats in Ottawa. Canada, views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.

MG: John Baird was the conservative foreign affairs minister in September of 2012, and there have been no formal diplomatic relations between Ottawa and Tehran since. That might make getting answers about this crash harder to come by. Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former Canadian diplomat. Colin, good morning.

COLIN ROBERTSON: Good morning, Matt.

MG: What role would a Canadian ambassador in Iran play in the aftermath of a crash like this one?

COLIN ROBERTSON: Well, they’d immediately be talking about the foreign ministry and ministry that are responsible for the investigation, as well as fielding the calls from the families back in Canada and family members that would be in Tehran. You act as kind of a coordinator on Point Centre to deal with tragedies like this. Well, this is not– these things unfortunately happen and one of the key roles of an embassy is to act as a coordinator for Canadian interests. And obviously, we’ve got significant Canadian interests because a number of Canadians that were killed in this crash.

MG: So given the lack of relations, then how does Canada go about getting answers about the crash from around?

COLIN ROBERTSON: Well, we’ve had a number of other foreign countries have relations with Iran. So right now, I understand the Italians are principal managers, but there are others like the Dutch, the French, the British that we would be calling to ask for assistance as appropriate. Some of these citizens and some of these Canadians may also have other citizenship as well. So you work through that, but it is much harder. The whole point of diplomacy is to be there. And that’s why my view is which we should have somebody in Tehran. It’s not a good housekeeping seal of approval for the regime. It’s simply a means by which countries do business together because we all have interests.

MG: The prime minister was asked about this yesterday. He was speaking about how Ottawa is trying to work around its lack of Canadian diplomats in Iran. Here’s what he said.


We are preparing consular teams that will be prepared to go to Iran. There are conversations we have to have with the Iranian government. But as I said, Italy, that has played a role as our supporting power and our interlocutor in Iran for many years now has offered all the assistance they can offer. They have offered full assistance. Other countries like Australia and France and Ukraine and others have also offered their support.

MG: People are pulling together. But does the lack of a Canadian presence there truly put us on the back foot?

COLIN ROBERTSON: Yes, I think so. I have no doubt that our friends and allies will be helpful. But again, they’ll have priorities too. And we would fall short of second in that list. So again, you can send a team there, but it will take some time. By the time they get there, the days have elapsed and people usually want sort of immediate relief and they won’t have the contact base that you would have when you when you actually have somebody on site. That’s the whole point of having the diplomatic representation. You develop a network and contact base for use in any kind of emergency or any kind of contingency.

MG: And that’s what you mean when you say and you’ve written about this as well. Diplomacy is about being there. It’s about being on the ground.

COLIN ROBERTSON: Absolutely. Exactly. And, you know, this is a country of 80 million people. Again, we do not like its governments. And there are things their government has done that we appropriately criticize and have taken sanctions on. But the whole point of diplomacy is to be there. Use your eyes and your ears and your voice when and when necessary. That’s how you do business with people. You just don’t close doors. So I think this is a big enough country that we should probably – when the Trudeau government came in and there was talk that they would look at it. Then Foreign Minister Dion talked about and said, really, not having somebody there put us at a disadvantage. And I think that’s exactly right. So I think we should this should be hacked with a kind of a catalyst to once again think about having somebody there. Again, it’s not because we endorse the regime. It’s because we have significant interests representing the Canadians, the Iranian-Canadian community, as well as the students. Well, there’s a number of students from Iran that come to Canada again. That’s a that’s a service industry that the Canadian mission can help to facilitate.

MG: What happened in 2012? We heard John Baird speaking forcefully there about the Iranian government. What happened in 2012 that would lead Canada to break off diplomatic relations with Iran?

COLIN ROBERTSON: It was kind of a combination of things. The human rights abuses. There was a Canadian Iranian photographer, Zahra Kazemi, who was killed in Iranian captivity. At that point Mr. Baird said, okay, we’re simply going to break relations and declared the Iranians who were in Ottawa persona non grata, sent them home and then we closed our embassy and then sent families, had to rely upon others, as the prime minister noted, Italy, to facilitate our interests. My view was that I don’t think that we need to take that step. I think you can withdraw some of your members, some traditional- which happens when there’s a problem. You should withdraw your ambassador. But my view is that that’s when you really need an ambassador. The whole point of an ambassador is to– because they usually have the best set of contacts. So again, my perspective would be you keep your people there. Again, it’s not an endorsement of the government you’re dealing with, but it’s there to represent Canadian interests.

MG: What’s your sense as to why the Trudeau government hasn’t resumed diplomatic relations with Iran?

COLIN ROBERTSON: Well, I think they’ve had a lot on their plate for the whole Canada-U.S. relationship, Canada-China relationship, there has not been a lot of reinvestment in foreign affairs. We’ve shifted policy orientation. I think appropriately the feminist development policy. But there’s a lot on the agenda. And I think that this fell further back and simply just didn’t get dealt with. I think Foreign Minister Dion would have. But I think what Chrystia Freeland, came in, she came in with one major party, the appropriate one dealing with the United States relationship. And then since then, other things come along. The government has other priorities. But I think having diplomatic relationships, especially as we’re now planning, six months from now, we’ll be facing election for a seat on the Security Council. And one of the things that Canada has over both Ireland and Norway, our two competitors, is that we’re G7 country G20. We really do have worldwide reach. And I think being in places like Tehran, being in places like Pyongyang and North Korea will give us a perspective on international problems. And as a country that aspires to middle power status, you have to rely upon your diplomatic service. And we traditionally had a very good diplomatic service. You think back to Pearson’s days and the rest. And I think that’s something the government should reinvest in because we live in a very turbulent world. Things are changing. And if you want to play, you have to be there.

MG: Do you think, just briefly, do you think that decision or the lack of action from the Trudeau government has been influenced at all by the United States and its foreign policy?

COLIN ROBERTSON: I don’t think so. Because I think the magic Americans are always very interested in what we hear. We are a country that they find has the most similar sort of feel for. Things were different the United States. But they understand us. We understand them. So they’re always very interested. When we did have a chargé in Tehran. We have somebody in Havana. They’re always very interested in what we’re hearing and picking up. So I don’t think this was as a result of U.S. pressure. Again, you can take a forceful stand, but you can still be there and the Americans are, they are always interested in the Canadian perspective on what we’re hearing.

MG: Colin Robertson, thank you.

John Gormley Show
Saskatoon / 650 CKOM

8:30 – The tensions between the US and Iran are escalating quickly. Iran launched more than a dozen missiles at US forces in Iraq yesterday, but no US casualties were reported. The middle-eastern nation warned the US not to retaliate after the attack, which was done in retaliation for the US killing of Iranian General Quasem Soleimani earlier this week. Although no US casualties have been reported, 63 Canadians and 113 others died when their plane crashed due to a suspected mechanical issue just minutes after taking off from the Iranian capital following the missile strikes. To help analyze the situation, and what Canada should be doing in response, John is joined by Colin Robertson with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

LIVE: Colin Robertson, former diplomat, commentator, and vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian government signalled its determination to stay the course in Iraq, where about 500 Canadian soldiers are posted, despite Iran’s vow to avenge the U.S. killing of a prominent military leader.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s office said Monday he spoke to his Iraqi counterpart, Mohamed Ali al-Hakim, about the contributions Canada is making there – and that he pledged Canada would continue to deliver that aid.

“The Minister reiterated Canada’s ongoing commitment to a stable and united Iraq and to ensuring the enduring defeat of Daesh [the Islamic State],” Mr. Champagne’s office said in a statement.

“Canada is deeply engaged in development, humanitarian, military and diplomatic efforts to support Iraq. Minister Champagne pledged to continue to work with the government of Iraq to achieve the peace, stability and prosperity that the people of Iraq want and deserve.”

Iran has vowed to strike back at the United States, which has a huge presence in neighbouring Iraq, after a U.S. drone strike in Iraq last week that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force.

Canada’s commitment to keep operating in Iraq came out the same day media reports suggested the United States is considering a withdrawal of troops. News outlets reported the U.S. military had informed Iraq it was repositioning troops for a withdrawal but the Pentagon and Defence Secretary Mark Esper later denied this.

Canada’s military aid to Iraq stems from 2014 after Islamic State militants cut a swath of destruction across Syria and Iraq.

There are about 500 Canadian Forces members in Iraq today. This includes approximately 200 Canadian soldiers in Baghdad who are part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization training operation, another 20 Canadian Forces engineers in Besmaya, southeast of Baghdad, as well as another 30 in Erbil with a tactical-aviation detachment that operates three CH-146 Griffon helicopters to carry Canadian troops, equipment and supplies. It also includes Canadian special-forces soldiers engaged in training Iraqi fighters.

Canadian diplomats in Iraq include Canada’s ambassador to Iraq, Ulric Shannon, in Baghdad as well as approximately half a dozen staff. Canada also operates a small consulate in Erbil.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, asked if Canada supports the U.S. strikes that killed Gen. Soleimani, said Canada backs efforts to deter future attacks on its soldiers and those of its allies.

“We need to make sure we as a coalition protect our people and prevent future attacks,” he told CTV’s Power Play. “The Quds organization, that has been supporting proxy groups in the region, has been responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths – plus also putting our own personnel at risk.”

Mr. Sajjan, asked if Canada has put extra security measures in place to protect Canadian soldiers, declined to discuss matters of operational security but said, “Decision and planning is currently going on to making sure that we are in a good posture.”

Asked if he believes Canada’s soldiering work should continue in Iraq – both training and assistance in fighting Islamic State militants – the Canadian Defence Minister said he is concerned about a “serious threat of a resurgence of Daesh [Islamic State] in that region.” He said Canada wants to continue its mission there but is studying how best to do that.

Separately, Monday, NATO’s top civilian leader also said the military alliance is standing fast in Iraq and signalled that member countries back the United States.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke to reporters in Brussels Monday following an emergency meeting. He singled out Iran when talking about the need to lower tensions.

“We are united in condemning Iran’s support of a variety of different terrorist groups,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “At the meeting … allies called for restraint and de-escalation. A new conflict would be in no one’s interest. So Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations.”

He added that “all allies have several times expressed their concerns about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, including Iran’s support for different terrorist groups.”

Late Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office said Justin Trudeau spoke with Mr. Stoltenberg and “They emphasized … the need to support security and stability in Iraq and the wider region, notably through ongoing counter-Daesh efforts.” The pair “agreed on the important role of the NATO training mission in strengthening Iraqi security capacity.”

Iraqi lawmakers passed a non-binding resolution on Sunday to expel U.S. troops from Iraq.

Mr. Stoltenberg said NATO member-country troops intend to remain in Iraq and continue to assist with training Iraqi soldiers. He said training has been suspended because of the security situation but that NATO members intend to resume it when possible.

“I strongly believe the NATO training mission is good for Iraq and NATO allies.”

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat who is now vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the government is likely making contingency plans for its presence in Iraq, including the possibility of pulling troops out of the country. He said a combat situation would make it hard for the Canadian-led training mission to continue.

“The bottom line is can we continue with a training mission and do it effectively so it’s not going to be harmful to our trainers and is going to have some positive effect in Iraq?” Mr. Robertson said. “It’s a real possibility that we would not stay.”

Trump’s Soleimani killing the latest blow to allies’ trust in United States: experts

The decision by the Trump administration last week to target and kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani marks the latest blow to allied trust in the United States, and the damage could prove challenging to repair, according to experts.

U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike on Jan. 3 to kill Soleimani, who was Iran’s top general and widely credited as the architect behind Iran’s efforts to expand its influence across the Middle East. That strike killed the general and others en route from the airport in Baghdad, Iraq.

Allies were reportedly given no advance notice of the strike, including those with troops and personnel on the ground in the Middle East.

And as Trump continues to publicly muse about attacking Iranian cultural landmarks — which would constitute a war crime — allies including the U.K., France, Germany and Canada are calling for restraint as concerns grow about how Iran could retaliate to the targeted killing.

“At the working level, relations between the U.S. and its allies remain very good,” said Stephanie Carvin, assistant professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

“At the higher level, I think there’s a growing concern about U.S. behaviour and the lack of consultation.”

READ MORE: How Trump settled on the airstrike that killed Soleimani

Responses issued by allies since the strike have called for de-escalation of the conflict.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne put out a statement highlighting the need for “all sides to exercise restraint” and made a point of noting that Canada has held longstanding concern about the “aggressive actions” of Soleimani.

His counterpart in the U.K. warned against conflict with Iran, calling it “in none of our best interests.”

Germany called the attack a “dangerous escalation.” United Nations Secretary-General pleads for de-escalation of tensions between U.S., Iran

United Nations Secretary-General pleads for de-escalation of tensions between U.S., Iran

But the head of the British Parliament’s foreign affairs committee offered a biting criticism of the attack, one that struck at the root of many of the questions being raised about Trump’s decision to take unilateral action without notifying allies.

“The purpose of having allies is that we can surprise our enemies and not each other,” said Tom Tugendhat in an interview with the BBC.

READ MORE: Here’s what we know about the U.S. intelligence on Soleimani’s planned attacks

Steve Saideman, who holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University, also suggested the targeted killing has hurt trust in the U.S. for its allies and that the responses by many to its move say a lot.

“They’ve come to realize the U.S. is not a reliable ally and they’re not going to stick their necks out for the U.S.,” he said.

“The fact they haven’t jumped to the U.S. side, that’s telling.”


Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said he’s not so sure the move itself will damage trust, given the precedent for keeping such actions secret from allies in cases where leaks may be feared.

Elliot Tepper, emeritus professor of international affairs at Carleton University, agreed that while it is normal for such decisions to be taken without advance warning to allies in such cases, it’s also customary that allies with people on the ground who could be hurt or targeted be given a heads up.

READ MORE: Killing of Qassem Soleimani could endanger Canadian troops in Middle East, experts say

Tepper, however, suggested that allies will likely hold off on wading further into the mire for now, until they have a clearer sense of what will happen next.

“It’s going to be a wait-and-see situation in the immediate future.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to express frustration with the responses from allies, claiming the killing saved American and European lives and that allies voicing concern were not being as “helpful as I wish that they could be.”

That frustration is likely being similarly felt by allies worried about having few voices left in the U.S. administration who understand and value them.

“A lot of those people who were around him, who understood the value of alliances, are gone,” said Carvin, pointing to figures like John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, and former defence secretary and respected retired military general James Mattis.

“That’s a huge problem because you can’t trust anyone.”

READ MORE: Who is Qassem Soleimani? The top Iranian general killed in a U.S. airstrike

Mattis resigned in December 2018 in response to a decision by Trump to pull American soldiers out of Syria — a move the president made without consulting any of the U.S. allies also involved in the response to the ongoing civil war in that country and the spread of the so-called Islamic State terrorist group.

Two days after that withdrawal was ordered last year, Turkey invaded northern Syria and attacked Kurdish forces, key Western allies in the fight against ISIS in the region who Trump was promptly accused of abandoning.

In November 2019, the U.S. Department of Defence watchdog said in a report to Congress citing American intelligence that ISIS used that Turkish invasion and the U.S. withdrawal to recalibrate its resource networks and its abilities to plot attacks abroad.

That same report said ISIS is now resurgent.

What Foreign Diplomats Need to Know about Canada

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What Foreign Diplomats Need to Know about Canada: Personal Reflections

Image credit:


by Colin Robertson
CGAI Fellow
November 2019


Table of Contents


Originally written for the annual orientation program for newly arrived diplomats put on by the Carleton University Initiative for Parliamentary and Diplomatic Engagement it has been revised in response to readers’ feedback, especially on the cultural segment. A consolidation of notes used in response to requests from foreign diplomats for a briefing on Canada. It remains a personal reflection, drawing on my travels across every province and territory, as well as my diplomatic experience, much of which involved working with our provincial governments. One of my assignments also involved  leading Historica Canada, dedicated to building awareness of Canadian history and citizenship.

Canadians are a generally socially progressive but economically prudent people living in a cold climate. Our vast and formidable geography and harsh weather breeds resilience and perseverance against the elements. Hockey is our national sport and we think of ourselves as a northern nation, even if most of us live within 200 miles of the U.S. border. Practical issues like transportation and communications matter to us. Our diversity as a people and as a place to live obliges us to practise tolerance, accommodation and compromise. We try to govern by consent.

We must trade to ensure our prosperity, and trade requires peace and stability.  For a middle power like Canada to have impact, a rules-based order is essential. We are, by nature and habit, multilateralists. We enjoy membership in just about every multilateral organization going, notably the G7 and the G20; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD); the United Nations (UN) and its alphabet soup of agencies; the Commonwealth and la Francophonie; the World Trade Organization (WTO); the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC); the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA); the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Pacific Alliance, among others.

By necessity, we must be innovative and practical. Canadian inventions include basketball (Go Raptors), the paint roller, the garbage bag, peanut butter, insulin, Pablum and the WonderBra. Yet, we are not as entrepreneurial or as good at marketing as our U.S. neighbours.

We are patriotic, especially when our men’s or women’s national teams are playing hockey. The economic and cultural pull tends to be north-south, toward the U.S., rather than east-west, across Canada. This creates a certain insecurity that is accentuated by regionalism. Reflecting that insecurity, for too long, English Canadians would define themselves as “not Americans”. As one humourist put it “Canada could have enjoyed English government, French culture and American know-how. Instead it ended up with English know-how, French government and American culture.”

We are officially bilingual – English and French – but proficiency beyond the public service and parts of Montreal and New Brunswick is nowhere near European standards. Fifty years after former prime minister Pierre Trudeau implemented bilingualism, the percentage of Canadians claiming proficiency in both languages has only risen from 12 to 17 per cent. It is not as though our schools have not tried. French immersion is usually the preferred program in English Canada for the middle and upper classes.


Proud of its diversity, this vast country is distinguished by its regions. To truly understand Canada, Ottawa-based envoys need to travel to the provinces to meet our premiers and the mayors of our major cities. While the national (or federal) government sets the framework for trade and investment, it is the premiers and the mayors who are closest to the reality of business. Just as all politics is local, so is business.

By temperament, we are helpful fixers and bridge-builders. This usually makes us good at diplomacy, as long as we do not take ourselves too seriously or succumb to preachiness. We rate high on likeability and as a desirable place to live. There is broad support for our public health and education systems, and, unlike our southern neighbours, we have no real allergy to taxation to pay for these public goods. But while our social safety net and public education system compare favourably when contrasted against those of the U.S., we know little about how the services other governments offer their citizens compare to ours.

We do integration well, but we still have remedial work when it comes to treatment of and reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples: the Inuit, Metis and 634 First Nations speaking more than 50 languages.



Colony to Nation

Canada. The name comes from the Huron-Iroquoian word kanata, meaning a village or settlement. Jacques Cartier sailed up the “rivière du Canada” – the St. Lawrence River – in 1534 to claim the land for France. Samuel de Champlain would later use both Canada and New France to refer to the French colony. But Canada stuck.

Canada came into its own after the British beat the French (1759-1763) and the division (1791) into Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec). The British North America Act (1867) created “One Dominion under the name of Canada”. It would be another 100 years before we got our maple leaf flag (1965) and our anthem, ‘O Canada’, only received legislative approval in 1980. We still fiddle with the words.

At various times, the Vikings, the French and the British colonized us. The Spanish had temporary fishing camps. The Americans invaded us during their Revolution and during the War of 1812. American “manifest destiny” included Canada. There were Fenian raids across the border after the American Civil War.


If we are not war-like, we certainly bred warriors. Canada came of age during the First World War, and the Vimy Ridge Memorial is a tribute to the 61,000 who died during that conflict. During the final two years the Canadians never lost a battle and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George called them the ‘shock troops’ of the Empire and they are immortalized in a splendid volume thatis part of military historian Tim Cook’s accounts of Canada at war. During the Second World War, if the U.S. was the arsenal of democracy, Canada was the aerodrome, with its extensive Commonwealth air training program. Canadians helped win the Battle of the Atlantic. By war’s end, the Royal Canadian Navy had more vessels than it had officers when the war began, making it one of the world’s largest fleets.

Our three oceans give Canada the world’s longest coastline, and currently, we need more navy and coast guard capabilities. An ambitious shipbuilding initiative with three of our shipyards is underway to both refit and launch a new vessel every year for the next 20 years. This will give Canada a new fleet of warships and patrol ships. After much delay, a similar exercise is underway to provide the Royal Canadian Air Force with 88 new fighter jets.


The Constitution

We are the “peaceable kingdom, a confederation of 10 provinces and three territories that began in 1867, with the union of what are now Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and continuing through to the creation of Nunavut in 1999. Jurisdiction over responsibility for trade (shared), immigration (shared), education (provincial), natural resources (provincial), and defence and foreign policy (federal) is divided between the national and provincial governments and set out in the Constitution with the judiciary – usually the Supreme Court – arbitrating on differences.

A key feature of the federation, embedded in the Constitution, is equalization, the “the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services and reasonably comparable levels of taxation.” The transfers from rich to poor and the formula and criteria  that determines these transfer amounts is inevitably controversial.

Queen Elizabeth II is our hereditary monarch. We have had a monarch as head of state since Cartier claimed Canada for France in 1534. We exchanged the French monarchy for the British one after the Treaty of Paris in 1763. In the old parliamentary restaurant in Centre Block (now under renovation), you used to be able to see portraits of all Canada’s monarchs from François I to Queen Elizabeth II. Our longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, was the first to be crowned as Queen of Canada when she succeeded to the throne in 1953, yet another step in Canadian independence.


Our national government aims to provide “peace, order and good government”, as the Constitution requires. Once a parliamentary democracy, we became a constitutional democracy with the patriation of our Constitution and adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, thereby subjecting the will of Parliament and the legislatures to judicial scrutiny.

We like to contrast this approach to the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” celebrated by the U.S. Indeed, we like to contrast ourselves to the U.S. whenever we can, even if to outsiders we look and sound a lot like our American neighbours, eh!



The Great White North

Canadians think of themselves as a northern people. The North is our frontier. Hockey is the national game, and the country goes into a funk if our Olympic teams – men and women – do not make the finals. There is great frustration that the last time a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup was in 1993 (by the Montreal Canadiens, once the most winning team in sports). When the important games are played, the nation is glued to its screens.

But our attachment to the North is romantic rather than real. Canada is urban and we live in the southern part of Canada. Few Canadians have actually travelled to our Far North. Tourism is limited and expensive. But if you get the opportunity, take it. Many ambassadors consider the tour of the North organized every two years by Global Affairs the highlight of their Canadian posting.

While successive governments have all paid lip service to northern development, the reality is that there is not much to show for all the talk. The U.S. regularly reminds us that if we claim sovereignty in the Arctic, we should exercise it. Former prime minister Stephen Harper went north every summer to participate in the annual Operation Nanook military exercise.

Northern and Indigenous youth are the most prone to disease (tuberculosis and diabetes), alcohol and drug addiction, and suicide. Whether government policies toward Indigenous women constitute genocide is now a subject for debate following the release of Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.


We take pride in our Mounties – the common name given to members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) – although we are embarrassed by their past behaviour toward women members. We also take pride in our mountains, maple trees and maple syrup, and our beavers, polar bears, moose and loons.



O Canada

What is a Canadian? A bit bilingual, but certainly multicultural. Unlike the American melting pot, Canadians are more of a kilt. Over 200 ethnic groups make up the Canadian mosaic, giving us different accents, as well as regional, ethnic and cultural variations.

While we constantly debate our national identity, we do have a distinctive culture.


One way to experience this is to walk through the new Canadian and indigenous galleries in the splendid National Gallery of Canada, designed by Canadian architects Moshe Safdie and Cornelia Oberlander. The Canada collection is world class. There are also the Canadian history galleries in the equally attractive Douglas Cardinal-designed Canadian Museum of History across the river. The three-part Canadian history galleries – early, colonial, modern- may be  politically correct, but it is not an improvement on the original galleries that were lively and regionally experiential.  The children’s gallery is always popular, and the Grand Hall’s totem poles and Pacific coast Indigenous village constitute a spectacular and popular venue for national day celebrations.

We’ve other museums in the National Capital region: the splendid War Msueum, the Aviation and Space Museum, Agriculture and Food, the Museum of Nature and the Museum of Science and Technology. There are also two superb national museums outside the Ottawa region: the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights at the Forks in Winnipeg.

Personal6.jpgOur iconic national artists are the Group of Seven. They are found in our national and provincial galleries, and a visit to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection along the Humber River in Vaughan, Ontario, is well worth it. But there is more: the photography of the Karsh brothers; the sculptures of Bill Reid and Joe Fafard; and paintings by Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jack Bush, William Kurelek and Emily Carr.

Literary greats range from authors such as Susanna Moodie, Stephen Leacock, Robertson Davies, Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro, to popular historians such as Pierre Berton and Charlotte Gray. Almost all of them incorporate the North in their stories.

Canadians love music. At the foundation of it all are English language poet troubadours in the tradition of Leonard Cohen, Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and chansonniers Robert Charlebois, Monique Leyrac, Gilles Vigneault, Félix Leclerc, Jean-Pierre Ferland, Angèle Arsenault, Ginette Reno, Harmonium, Beau Dommage, Édith Butler, Éric Lapointe, Kevin Parent, Isabelle Boulay, Daniel Lavoie, les Cowboys fringants, Marie Mai.

We have classical icons like Maureen Forrester, Glenn Gould, and Yannik Nezet-Seguin; jazz artists like Oscar Peterson and Diana Krall; and crooners like Paul Anka, Michael Bublé, and Rufus Wainwright and k.d.lang. We also have Oscar winning composers including Howard Shore and Mychael Danna; world-renowned producers David Foster and Daniel Lanois; and rock stars including Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Feist, the Guess Who, Tragically Hip, Arcade Fire, Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies and prog-rock giants Rush. Country and western has long had an attachment for Canadians from Nova Scotia’s own Hank Snow, to Don Messer’s Jubilee, Anne Murray and superstar Shania Twain. Then there are the pop stars like Celine Dion, Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes; R&B/Hip artists Drake and the Weeknd, Bachman Turner Overdrive (Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap  plays on CBC radio every Saturday night), and indigenous artists Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tanya Tagaq and Susan Aglukark.

The Quebec cultural scene is particularly rich in talent and imagination whether on canvas or paper as well as on stage, screen and digital media as exemplified by artists including Michel Tremblay, Marie-Claire Blais, Robert Charlebois, Hubert Lenoir, Robert Lepage, Louis Lortie, Angèle Dubeau, les Violons du Roy, and Denys Arcand whose Les Invasions barbares (2004) won Canada’s only foreign language film Oscar. The global giant Le Cirque de Soleil originated in Montreal where it has its school. For an insight into what Quebecois and Quebec watch Radio Canada’s Tout le Monde en Parle on Sunday nights.

Arguably, our success is partly the result of government regulations that require a percentage of Canadian content to be broadcast, which gives vital exposure to new artists, and financial support that subsidizes their recorded and live music-making. Watch the Junos, our annual awards for Canadian music artists, or attend the East Coast Music Awards or Breakout West, to see new talent. If you are in Calgary, visit the Canadian Music Centre to experience the breadth and depth of our national music making and see one of the most important keyboard instrument collections in the world. The Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, an annual gala affair at our recently renovated National Arts Centre, is an evening celebrating Canadian cultural excellence.

My favourite poet is Robert Service – the Kipling of Canada – and you have to start with his Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Other notable poets include Al Purdy, Bliss Carman, Irving Layton and F.R. Scott.

Canadians have to have a sense of humour. Living in the Great White North, with Uncle Sam as our next-door neighbour, requires an appreciation for the comic and the capacity to laugh at ourselves as This Hour has 22 Minutes does each week on CBC. Stephen Leacock’s sketches of small-town life in the first part of the 20th century are still worth reading. Most of our humourists find a place on the stage or screen. They include Dan Aykroyd, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara and David Steinberg. And watch this sketch of the McKenzie Brothers on SCTV for an insight into our cultural identity.

In most countries, it would be inconceivable for a national police force to be a revered national symbol, but the Mounties evoke our nation-building myth.



A Compromise with Geography, Climate and Diversity

The structural challenges in Canada are geography and climate – huge, cold and difficult – so we put a premium on communications and transportation to keep the country together. A former U.S. ambassador once remarked that the national temperament goes from A to Z in the U.S., but only from F to M in Canada. We compromise because we have had to deal with the land, our weather and the diversity in our peoples.

Our Fathers of Confederation purposely created a decentralized federation – the provinces control their resources and administer health care and education. You have to get out of Ottawa to appreciate the land and the people. You need to get to know the premiers. They recognize the importance of international trade and economics, more so than their national brethren.

Second only to Russia in area, Canada is a geographically big country with 5 1/2 time zones (Newfoundland, Atlantic, Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific); Saskatchewan does not use Daylight Saving Time. It takes longer to fly to the North Pole from Toronto than to the Equator. With 35 million people, we are the world’s 37th most populated country, falling between Uganda and Iraq.

In terms of GDP, while we enjoy a place in the G7 thanks to the U.S., we rank 11th behind Brazil, Italy, India and Russia. We were instrumental in creating the G20. Protected by the U.S. defence shield, we spend one per cent of our GDP on defence, which is only half of what the U.S. wants from us and other NATO allies.

Canada is one of the most diverse nations. There is no majority group, although the 30 per cent claiming descent from the United Kingdom – Scots, Irish, English and Welsh – are the largest group. France follows with 19 per cent, and then Germany. But since 1980, the majority of our new immigrants have come from Asia. Eighty per cent of us live in cities, and those cities are almost all located within a couple of hundred miles of the U.S. border.



Settling Canada

We are good at integrating newcomers. We are still nation-building, and we resettle with little resistance some 300,000-plus immigrants and refugees every year, a number equivalent to almost one per cent of our population.

To some extent, Canada was settled by the dispossessed. The Indigenous First Nations lost land first to the short-staying Vikings, and then to French and English colonization. After the French were defeated at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the ruling elite went back to France, while the “habitants” stayed. Having lost the other 13 colonies to the American revolutionaries in 1783, the British had learned something about compromise. So they guaranteed French language rights, as well as the preservation of the civil code and religious freedom for the predominately Catholic French-Canadians.

The American War of Independence also brought the next wave of settlers. The losing British Loyalists fled north and more than doubled the soon-to-be Canadian population in the process, settling along the St. Lawrence in Ontario and Quebec, as well as in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Then came the poorest from the British Isles – Scots displaced by foreclosure and Irish fleeing famine. Canada was the cheapest fare for those who could not afford Boston or New York, so they came to Quebec, Montreal or Halifax. Grosse Isle on the St. Lawrence, upriver from Quebec City, is the largest graveyard outside of Ireland for those thousands who fled the 1840s Great Famine and died of typhoid and other diseases.

We built our national railway with Chinese (whom we then sent home) and Scots-Irish immigrants. We settled the West with “stalwart peasants” in sheepskin coats with large families from Eastern Europe, including Ukrainians, Germans, Poles and Russians. Those who claim Ukrainian descent form 3.9 per cent of the population, which explains our continuing interest in Ukraine. By comparison, our Indigenous population stands at four per cent.

But open migration only went so far. We once applied a head tax on Chinese migrants and discouraged Asian migration until the mid 20th century. Today, Asian migrants – Chinese, Indians, Filipinos – make up almost half of our annual intake. And they integrate themselves well into Canadian society. There were more Sikhs in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s original cabinet than in its Indian counterpart.

After both world wars, we welcomed many from Eastern and Southern Europe, including Italians and Greeks, as well as Jews and other displaced persons. Poles, Hungarians and Czechs followed after their failed insurrections. Later came Ismaili Asians who had been thrown out of Idi Amin’s Uganda, over 100,000 Vietnamese boat people, and then refugees from Chile and Central America, Haiti, and more recently Somalia, the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Trudeau promised a home to 25,000 Syrians during the 2015 election. Canada has since taken in more than 60,000, many of them under private sponsorship from communities, churches and other groups. Refugees arriving via private sponsorship integrate more quickly because of the sponsors’ personal involvement.

The Aga Khan looked over the world and established his Centre for Pluralism in Canada. And we have to make pluralism work. Half the population of Toronto was born outside of Canada and Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal have populations with about 40 per cent born outside of Canada.



Resources: “Quelques arpents de neige”


Our natural resources are our national patrimony, vital to our economy and our inheritance to the next generation. The French philosopher Voltaire dismissed Canada as “quelques arpents de neige” – a few acres of snow. In the horse-trading of the colonial war, France chose Martinique and Guadeloupe for their sugar over Canada’s fur and fish.

Using our resources well and conserving them matters to Canadians. Take energy, worth about 11 per cent of our GDP. Canada is the sixth largest energy producer, the fifth largest net exporter and the eighth largest consumer.

Or our agrifood industry. Canada is the fifth largest agricultural exporter in the world. Canada is the world’s number one producer and exporter of fresh and frozen wild blueberries. There are enough apples produced in Canada for every Canadian to consume 10 kilograms per year – almost 100 apples per person.

Canada is the world’s largest producer and exporter of lentils and peas, and the world’s largest producer of high-protein milling wheat. Canada is also the number one canola-producing and exporting country in the world. Canola oil is used for salad dressing, marinades, margarine, biofuel, printer ink, adhesives and cosmetics. Canada exports approximately 90 per cent of its canola as seed, oil or meal to over 50 markets around the world. Canola seeds are crushed to create meal (56 per cent) and oil (44 per cent). Meal is used for high-protein livestock feed.

Where’s the beef? In 2018, Canada produced 1.3 million tonnes of beef and veal, and is the fifth largest global exporter of beef and cattle. And it takes 29 per cent fewer cattle in the breeding herd and 24 per cent less land to produce the same amount of beef in 2011 compared to 1981. As the world’s third largest pork exporter, Canada exports to more than 90 countries.

But the distribution is unequal. Overlay politics and the original design of Confederation and you have the resource politics of the country laid out. Overlay population and you have the power balances and power conflicts within Canada.

Our fisheries are located off our coasts. The cod fishery in the Atlantic that sustained us for centuries is still recovering from over-fishing.

Hydro is significant in four provinces. Oil is mostly in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with natural gas also there and in British Columbia, offshore Newfoundland, in the Far North, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and Manitoba. Coal is abundant in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. The Prairie Provinces, our traditional breadbasket, now produce as much pulse and lentils for overseas markets as wheat and barley, and our canola has become a major export crop.




A Trading Nation but Not Yet a Nation of Traders

We must trade to ensure prosperity, but, while we are a trading nation, we still do not have free trade within Canada. This is the unfinished business of Confederation. Nor are we yet a nation of global corporations. Whenever we develop any, they seem either to run into financial or product trouble – SNC Lavalin and Bombardier – or get taken over – Nortel, BlackBerry, Inco, Falconbridge and Barrick.

Our relative competitiveness is declining, despite government efforts, including the creating of superclusters. The sense that we go for bronze when we should go for gold is a source of concern especially when it comes to government procurement, regulatory overload and our overall tax burden as identified in the annual reports of the World Economic Forum.  It’s the subject of recent focus by our leading business associations, the Business Council of Canada and Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Public Policy Forum.

The U.S. is our biggest market, but this dependence comes at a price, especially for our oil and gas which are both sold at a discounted price. We need to diversify our trade and increase the number of Canadian companies that export. We need to make better use of the people-to-people relationships. Our active, global immigration adds about one per cent to our population each year and this adds to our people-to-people ties.



National Unity

Concern over Quebec’s separation from Canada has been a permanent feature of Canadian history since we were a British colony. The conscription crises in both world wars divided French and English Canada. Violence flared during the 1960s, most notably with the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) and the 1970 October Crisis, the latter being considered either Pierre Trudeau’s finest hour or a black moment for civil liberties.

The election of the Parti Quebecois in 1976 and the adoption of French language-only laws in Quebec pushed the separatist movement from terrorism to a democratic party that governed from the left. There were two referendums on Quebec separation – in 1980 and 1995. During the 1990s, the federal Bloc Québécois went to Ottawa with official party status (including a stint as Official Opposition from 1993 to 1997 while the right was divided).  

For now, Quebec separatism is in hibernation. Pierre Trudeau thought immigration would take care of it but, aside from Montreal, most immigrants settle outside of Quebec. After the Second World War, Quebec accounted for almost 1/3 of the Canadian population, but today it is closer to 1/5.

Power and population have moved west. Toronto is now our premier city. Calgary has more head offices than Montreal. The last census gave 15 new parliamentary seats to Ontario, six each to B.C. and Alberta and only three to Quebec.

The rumblings on the national unity front now also come from the West, especially oil-rich Alberta, with its discontent over resource policy and climate policies.

Canadian populism was initially farmer- and worker-based, with their intellectuals drawing from the U.S. and U.K. experiences (and in Quebec from France). In recent years, populist discontent generated both the left-wing NDP (and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party) and, on the right, the current Conservative Party. The latter was born out of the Reform and then Canadian Alliance parties, in reaction to the more centrist Progressive Conservative Party of former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

As provinces asserted their constitutional powers after the Second World War, differences would be addressed at meetings of the first ministers – the prime minister in the chair with the premiers and sometimes First Nations leaders.

These conferences became a feature of Canadian federalism, especially in the years before and after the 1982 patriation of the Constitution from the U.K. and subsequent efforts at constitutional reform, known as Meech Lake and Charlottetown. After initial meetings, both Harper and Trudeau have preferred to deal with premiers one-on-one rather than as a collective.

For their part, the premiers meet annually in the Council of the Federation to look at shared interests. Indigenous leaders also have their own forum (Assembly of First Nations). This usually involves pressing the federal government for more money and powers.



The U.S.A. …

The U.S. is more than a country, it is a civilization. As Pierre Trudeau once observed: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Or as author Margaret Atwood once observed “If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia” mostly about our southern neighbour.  

We were the 14th colony in British North America and the U.S. Articles of Confederation provide for Canada’s accession to the Union. From the American Revolution until the turn of the 20th century, there was always a fear that the U.S. would absorb Canada, either through manifest destiny or by invasion, as occurred during the U.S. War of Independence, the War of 1812 when the U.S. troops burned York (now Toronto), and then after the Civil War when Fenians made unsuccessful incursions.

Prime ministers have three permanent files on their desks: ensuring the nation’s political and economic security; preserving national unity; and managing the U.S. relationship. Our relationship with the U.S. is always tricky, but the one relationship that a prime minister has to get right is that with the president of the United States. Donald Trump, with his penchant for tweets and tariffs, presents a special challenge.

Protected first by Britain and the Royal Navy, since 1938 we have a series of understandings and formal alliances with the U.S., including the Permanent Joint Board on Defence (PJBD), the Five Eyes, NATO and NORAD.

In terms of foreign policy, for Canada it is “America First” – in trade, security and people-to-people relations. More than 400,000 people cross in both directions over the border daily. We trade nearly $2 million a minute with the U.S. The U.S. takes 74 per cent of Canada’s exports (we provide about 18 per cent of U.S. imports) and provides 64 per cent of our imports. Despite what Trump says, the U.S. enjoys a positive balance of trade with Canada on the back of its services. Americans hold nearly half the stock of foreign investment in Canada.


Canadians too often define themselves by what we are not – ‘Americans’ even though we occupy the upper half of the North American condominium that we share with the USA and Mexico. This attitude reflects the natural insecurity of living next to the U.S. Mexicans share a similar insecurity and with greater reason – the U.S. absorbed 1/3 of Mexico’s original territory while Canada only lost bits and pieces along the Alaska panhandle, the lower mainland of British Columbia, and between Maine and New Brunswick.

Periodically, this leads to an identity crisis that afflicts and engages our cultural elite, especially in English Canada.  French Canada takes comfort in the shield of its language and distinct culture. Ironically, the mark of making it in Canada is usually having made it in the U.S. This is especially true for our film, television and music stars, from Anka to Dion, Bublé and Justin Bieber, and, of course, Drake.

The relationship with the USA will always be complicated. But whether we like it not former Social Credit Leader Bob Thompson once told the House of Commons, whether we know it or not said former Ambassador Derek Burney, the Americans are our best frineds. We share this extraordinary continent with Mexico (our too oft ignored amigo). So we need to be there for each other.



… And the Rest

There are long and historic links with Europe and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is capstone to continuing efforts at closer economic relations. The Harper government negotiated CETA, but the Trudeau government concluded it, and it took effect in 2017.

With the rise of Asia, Canada’s transpacific trade and security interests now matter as much as the traditional orientation across the Atlantic. The new 11-nation CPTPP gives us freer trade with Japan, a goal sought since Pierre Trudeau’s days. Security ties are strengthening with Japan and South Korea. A member of APEC since its inception, Canada will likely be eventually admitted to the East Asia Summit. Canada belongs to almost every multilateral club, be it economic, security, or with a general or specific purpose in creation. On balance this is a good thing, but prioritization of attention and resources is overdue.

We would like closer relations with China. Trudeau visited Beijing in December 2017, with the intent of beginning a process leading to freer trade, but Premier Li Keqiang rejected the progressive trade elements that Canada wanted to include. U.S.-instigated extradition proceedings against Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 have seen China jail Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor as hostages and engage in trade actions against our canola, pork and beef. This situation, combined with Canadians’ abiding concerns about human rights in China – the Uyghurs and China’s treatment of Hong Kong (there is a big Hong Kong diaspora in Canada) – has put this relationship in the deep freeze.

For too long, Canadian relations in the Americas stopped at the Rio Grande. Beginning with Mulroney and the decision to join the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1990, successive governments have episodically tangoed with Latin America and then settled back for a siesta although there are significant Canadian mining and banking interests. There have long been trading and banking interests in the Caribbean, largely because of the British Commonwealth ties. Canada has taken a sustained interest in helping Haiti, and the country hosts a considerable Haitian diaspora, especially in Montreal. Mexico is our NAFTA amigo and two million Canadians annually travel there for holidays. We have preferred associate membership in the Pacific Alliance and we are now negotiating with Mercosur.

If the Americas get episodic attention, Africa is mostly ignored and deserves more attention. We can build on our ties through la Francophonie and Commonwealth as well as trade, investment and immigration links.



Canada: A Work in Progress

Managing this diverse, often fissiparous, federation is no easy task. It depends on mutual accommodation,  first with our climate and geography and then between political parties, between different intterests, between the regions, between rural and urban, between English Canada and French Canada, with the indigenous peoples and with newcomers. We depend on immigration who bring new skills and ideas with them. The challenge is to knit these many constantly evolving threads into a kilt for every place and every season.

We don’t have a lot of history in comparison to Europe or Asia. Some would argue that this is a good thing. Canada continues to be a country ‘in development’ and an experiment in pluralism.  The humourist Will Ferguson remarled that the great themes of Canadian history were keeping the Americans out, the French in and the natives out of sight. We’ve managed the Americans and the French fact. Today there is realization and recognition on reconciliation with our indigenous peoples.

To say governing Canada requires the capacity to listen and the capacity to balance would be an understatement. The poet F. R. Scott sarcastically described the modus operandi of our longest serving prime minister, Mackenzie King, a pudgy bachelor who engaged in seances so he could speak to his dead mother:

We had no shape
Because he never took sides;
And no sides
Because he never allowed them to take shape…

Do nothing by halves
Which can be done by quarters.

While it was not meant as a compliment, Scott unwittingly captured the Canadian formula of accommodation.



Further Reading

The journalists I regularly read and trust for reportage and insights are Susan Delacourt, Tonda MacCharles and Chantal Hébert in the Toronto StarMaclean’s John Geddes and Paul Wells (who is also the author of a number of excellent books on Canadian politics and hosts In Conversation with policy-makers), John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail, and John Ivison and Andrew Coyne in the National Post. Hébert, Wells and Coyne, and Huffington Post’s Althia Raj appear regularly on CBC’s Thursday night At Issue panel hosted by Rosemary Barton. Vassy Kapelos hosts Power and Politics on CBC every weeknight, while Don Martin hosts Power Play on CTV. CPAC has a good newscast with Peter Van Dusen, and, during the parliamentary season, Mark Sutcliffe does a morning podcast digest of the news and opinion for CPAC. Global’s Mercedes Stephenson hosts West Block on Sunday morning and CTV’s Evan Solomon hosts Question Period.  Chris Hall’s The House on CBC Radio is required listening on Saturday mornings.

To get a sense of Quebec, read Joel-Denis Bellavance of La Presse, Daniel Leblanc of the Globe and Mail and Hélène Buzzetti of Le Devoir.

The journalists who write regularly on Canadian foreign policy include Mike Blanchfield from Canadian Press, David Ljunggren from Reuters, Campbell Clark in the Globe and Mail and Murray Brewster who covers defence for CBC.  The New York TimesWall Street Journal and The Economist have Canadian correspondents.

Nik Nanos does a weekly running tracking poll that should be your first stop. Abacus’s David Coletto and Bruce Anderson have regular surveys. Other pollsters of note include Darrell Bricker of IPSOS and Frank Graves of EKOS, as well as Mainstreet and Angus Reid and, for Quebec, Leger.

For an easy and fun insight into Canadian history, watch the Heritage Minutes produced by the Historica Foundation. There is also the online Canadian Encyclopedia and A Country By Consent. Read Charlotte Gray’s Promise of Canada and Andrew Cohen’s Lester B. Pearson, the story of our greatest diplomat who became prime minister. The Pearson book is part of the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians short biography series, another good way to get to know Canada. Richard Gwyn has penned a superb two volume biography of our first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald: John A: The Man who Made us and Nation Maker. If you go to a used book store look for my favourite quartet of past Canadian chroniclers: Pierre Berton, Peter C. Newman and Peter Gzowski.

For single histories, look at Conrad Black’s rambunctious Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present or Robert Bothwell’s Penguin History of Canada, Desmond Morton’s A Short History of Canada, or Will Ferguson’s Canadian History for Dummies. For Canadian military history, look to the works of historians David Bercuson, Jack Granatstein and Des Morton. I think the best single-volume history of Canada and the U.S. is Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada, by historian Robert Bothwell. The Canadian Government has also produced Discover Canada, a study guide on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

On contemporary politics:  Read National Post columnist John Ivison’s Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister and Aaron Wherry’s Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power. Nik Nanos looks at populism in his Age of Voter Rage: Trump, Trudeau, Farage, Corbyn & Macron – The Tyranny of Small Numbers. Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson wrote in The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture and What It Means for Our Future that Canadian politics, once dominated by the liberal Laurentian elite, is shifting to a conservative western base. Their analysis is good, although I’m not convinced of their conclusion. Their new book, Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, argues that Canada will rise as global population declines.

On the role of the provinces and their relationship with the national government, read Ed Whitcomb’s Rivals for Power: Ottawa and the Provinces: The Contentious History of the Canadian Federation and on Canada’s relations with its First Nations, his new book Understanding First Nations: The Legacy of Canadian Colonialism.

To get a good sense of the politics of energy, environment and First Nations, read the late Jim Prentice and J.S. Rioux’s Triple Crown: Winning Canada’s Energy Future and David Yager’s From Miracle to Menace: Alberta, a Carbon Story.

To understand our government, read Glenn Milne’s Making Policy: A Guide to How the Federal Government Works (2018). The best guide to the constitutional system remains Eugene Forsey’s classic How Canadians Govern Themselves 

On Canadian foreign policy, subscribe to the weekly newsletter or listen to the weekly podcasts of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Look also to the Centre for International Governance Innovation’s Open Canada, to the research of the Canadian International Council and to Carleton University’s annual Canada Among Nations and its Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.

The wise former governor general David Johnston – legal scholar, university president, hockey player – has written three books that will enlarge your understanding of Canada. They are The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation; Trust: Twenty Ways to Build a Better Country; and co-written with Tom Jenkins, Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier and Happier.

Canada and China

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If we can put partisan politics aside, we might find a smart China policy

With the appointment of the all-party parliamentary committee, our China relationship may get the attention it deserves. Our security and economic well-being depend on an astute understanding of the wider world and, after the U.S., that means China.

The committee’s effectiveness depends on its members: Can the Tories resist demonizing China? Can the Liberals get over their opposition to the committee – welcome to minority government – and avoid wishful thinking on China?

The committee should look at three broad baskets: trade and investment; people connections including human rights; security and defence. It also needs to ask: Is our quiet diplomacy working? The committee hearings will inform a public increasingly feeling chilly on China.

China is our second largest trading partner. When Hong Kong is included, China constitutes our sixth largest source of foreign investment. Chinese-made products are integral to our digital lives. China is a primary market for our farmers. As Wendy Dobson argues in Living with China, we need a forward-looking policy acknowledging China’s state capitalism and the challenges around intellectual property and state-owned enterprises. We cannot do it ourselves, so we must work with our Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development partners in pressing for Chinese adherence to standards such as those in our new Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Family ties should be an asset with Chinese migrants now our third-largest source of new citizens. More than 1.8 million Canadians claim Chinese descent. Mandarin and Cantonese are our most spoken languages after English and French. There are nearly 150,000 Chinese students studying in Canada. Chinese-sponsored Confucius Institutes work with our schools and universities. But as Jonathan Manthorpe’s Claws of the Panda demonstrates, we also need to monitor Chinese United Front activities aimed at subverting our democracy and our citizens.

China is determined to achieve ultimate sea control in the South China Sea through which 80 per cent of global commerce sails. While endorsing engagement with China, former national security adviser Richard Fadden warned in his recent Vimy Award lecture that China is not just an aggressive competitor but a strategic adversary. Neither our defence policy nor the new ministerial mandate letter reflects this despite the implications for our navy and freedom of navigation.

Chinese treatment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor is abominable. Parliamentarians should endorse the proposed Senate resolution applying the Magnitsky sanctions against the responsible Chinese officials.

In seizing our hostages, the Chinese claim to have acted in “self-defence” over our detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. In China’s eyes, Canada is simply a running dog of American imperialism and, in the continuing Sino-American trade war, we are an unfortunate surrogate. The Chinese embargo of our canola and, until recently, our beef and pork demonstrates to others what China can do.

Under Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian direction is not for turning. China, as its leadership sees it, is resuming its rightful place as the dominant Asian power. Through its Belt and Road initiative and its claims to maritime dominance in adjacent waters, it is re-establishing the Middle Kingdom. Stability depends on the Chinese Communist Party. In their narrative, human rights, as with the rule of law, are not international values but for each state to determine.

China and the West are not engaged in a clash of civilizations and we need to avoid this characterization. Ours is a clash of systems: autocracy against democracy. Look to Hong Kong or Taiwan to know which system the Chinese people chose when given a vote. We should be firmly, vocally on the side of the democrats.

For now, let’s use the tools of containment, deterrence and, most of all, engagement. If China curtails official meetings, we’ll continue to utilize Track Two dialogue. As with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the democracies need to act collectively in striving for a peaceful, albeit competitive, co-existence. One goal should be a Helsinki-type accord that includes human rights.

For too long our China policy has swayed between the romantic and the hostile, depending on whether the government is Liberal or Conservative. Its only common thread was a cloak of government secrecy. Inconsistent and opaque policy serves neither our interests nor our values.

If they can park partisanship at the door, the All-Party committee might just achieve a realistic China policy that all can support.

USMCA passed

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USMCA expected to restore investor confidence in Canada

  • Corwyn Friesen, mySteinbach
  • Posted on 12/18/2019 at 10:16 am

The Vice President of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute says ratification of the USMCA should restore the confidence of investors in investing in Canada.

Following approval yesterday, by the Ways and Means Committee, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote tomorrow to ratify the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement and, pending that approval, the Senate is expected to approve the agreement early next year.

Colin Robertson, the Vice President and a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says implementation of the agreement will be good for Canada.

It is significant because we had created a North American platform allowing for freer trade. Because we have energy, we’ve got a highly educated workforce and we’ve got a big market of 500 million people, when you look at North America in comparison to some of the other trading blocks, the European Union for example or what’s coming together in China and parts of Asia, we are highly competitive because we have the vital ingredients and we have the work force and we have market size. So this now gives investors both within North America and foreign investors, and investments are what creates jobs, the assurance to invest once again in North America.

I think Canada has a particularly advantageous position because we have freer trade agreements now with the European Union and with the leading countries in the Pacific, notably Japan, and that’s something the United States doesn’t have. So, from an investment perspective, this was quite important. Certainly over the last two years there had been a real fall off in investments both by Canadians in Canada and by foreign investors in Canada.

~ Colin Robertson, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

Robertson says this should give those who were concerned about Canada’s continued access to the biggest market in the world, the United States, that investing in Canada is something they can do with some assurance that their products can be sold under freer trade conditions into the U.S.

Parliamentary Committee on China

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Special Parliamentary committee to study relations with China

Following the actions of China internationally and in respect of the diplomatic and trade dispute still ongoing with this country, Canada will strike an all party committee to study and  recommend policy regarding dealings with China.

Colin Robertson is a former consular diplomat with Chinese experience and currently Vice-President at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, an independent, non-partisan research institute related to foreign policy

ListenMany political analysts in the recent past have suggested that Canada take a harder line against China. While internationally China has been criticised over its human rights abuses and such things as occupation of the South China Sea, relations with Canada have become particularly frosty.

This comes mostly from Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on an extradition request from the United States.

China responded by arresting two Canadians on what were widely viewed as being vague charges and simple retribution and suddenly upping the charges of two other Canadians arrested for alleged drug offence to that of a death penalty.

The opposition Conservative party has long pushed the Liberal government to take a harder line and last week in a vote in the House of Commons, they were supported by members of the other opposition parties in a request for an all-party committee to study China policy and make recommendations to the government. Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole tabled a motion to “appoint a special committee with the mandate to conduct hearings to examine and review all aspects of the Canada-China relationship including, but not limited to consular, economic, legal, security and diplomatic relations.”

The Liberals had argued there was no need for such a committee as any such issues or policy reviews could be handled by the Commons foreign affairs committee. They opposed the motion but lost 148 to 171 in the first vote for the newly re-elected government.

Subi Reef, part of the Spratly chain of islets in the South China Sea, is seen in May 2015. China has been building up miltary reef bases in the sea to bolster its territorial claim to the area, which has been rejected by the U.N.and condemned internationally especially by countries in the region. (courtesy of the U.S. NAVY)

The committee will consist of six Liberals, four Conservatives, one Bloc Quebecois and one New Democrat. The committee would also have power to order Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Phillipe Champagne and Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China, to appear as witnesses if necessary.

Additional information

Trump & Civil Military Relatonships

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Trump’s Syria policy now appears to be — quite literally — ‘blood for oil’

Can allies trust an administration that boasts of using military power to pillage other nations’ resources?


U.S. President Donald Trump walks off the podium after the official group photo during a NATO leaders meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

It was perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment in Donald Trump’s impromptu, marathon news conference — an event which, along with the NATO leaders summit that provided the occasion, was already crowded with jaw-dropping moments.

“Right now, the only soldiers we have in that area are essentially the soldiers that are keeping the oil,” the U.S. president said of the redefined role of American troops in eastern Syria. “So we have the oil. And we can do with the oil what we want.”

In that infamous hot-mic video of the reception for NATO leaders at Buckingham Palace, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was caught gossiping with other world leaders about watching the jaws of Trump’s staffers “hit the floor” upon hearing him announce that the next G-7 meeting would be held at Camp David.

Trudeau also was a witness to Trump’s tirade over the Syrian oil fields in that same “unscheduled” (the prime minister’s word for it) media event.

The U.S. president has, for over a month, railed on about securing control of Syria’s oil resources to America’s benefit — partly as a way to save face over his sudden abandonment of Kurdish allies in the face of a Turkish incursion into northern Syria, partly to paper over the broken promise to withdraw U.S troops from the country entirely.

Piracy as policy

What made this performance especially jaw-dropping was his suggestion that America should have — and by extension could have — pillaged the oil resources of other nations.

“We’ve taken the oil. I’ve taken the oil. We should have done it in other locations where we were. I can name four of them right now,” said Trump. (He did not name the other countries.)

It might have been the random musings of a stressed-out president facing impeachment. That might be too generous an interpretation, however, given Trump’s bottom-line approach to alliances — where cash transactions in exchange for Washington’s support rule the day.

It all leaves allies pondering some uncomfortable questions. What does this mean for the future? And how willing should any country be to support an America that muses openly — perhaps illegitimately — about stealing the resources of other nations?

At the very least, Trump’s repeated comments have given fresh ammunition to critics who’ve long claimed U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is more about controlling the oil than supporting freedom and democracy.

‘Political whims’

Stuart Hendin, a University of Ottawa expert on the laws of armed conflict, said if U.S. allies — Canada included — weren’t paying attention, they should have been.

Trump’s remarks present a conundrum for U.S. allies in that they call into question U.S. policy aims and intentions.

“Why would one partner want to be with a force when you really never know [what] the political whims are going to be?” Hendin asked.

“What [the remarks] create is a fear and a potential lack of respect. The military ethos is that you have to have the respect and absolute trust of the people you’re in the field with.”


President Donald Trump and national security adviser Robert O’Brien speak to the media at Los Angeles International Airport. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, provided a somewhat more rational policy explanation for holding the eastern Syria oil fields during the recent Halifax International Security Forum. He said the resources had been a revenue source for the Islamic State and keeping them out of the hands of newly rejuvenated extremists was a U.S. priority.

“It is totally consistent with our campaign to defeat to Daesh, to defeat ISIS, and we’re going to hold on to those oil fields as long as necessary to make sure ISIS doesn’t reconstitute,” he said.”The added benefit is that the Kurds can use some of that oil to pay for refugees, to guard the camps where ISIS prisoners are being held.”

A revenue source for Assad?

Many of those oilfields are in disastrous shape and in need of overhaul after eight years of civil war.

But who’s buying the oil from Syria’s Hasakah province? Do those customers include the rogue regime of President Bashar al-Assad?

O’Brien’s answer was astonishing.

“Some of the oil may be going to the Assad regime, some of the oil may be going to Turkey, some of the oil may be going to the Kurds in Erbil,” he said.

“I think the oil from those fields is going to be a number of different places. The main point is that the revenue from that oil is not going to ISIS.”

Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said Trump’s Syria decisions may have been knee-jerk, maybe even a strategic blunder, but allies can still have faith in the U.S. institutions that have been trying to hold America’s foreign policy and interests together in the face of a willful president.

“Certainly Trump is unpredictable,” he said, adding that “in the military establishment, certainly on the uniform side” there is a respect both for democratic institutions and international law.

He may have a point. It’s worth remembering that one of the key witnesses in the impeachment drama to date — one of the few people at the centre of U.S. power who have stood up to Trump — is a serving member of the military: Lt.-Col. Alexander Vindman.

NATO at 70

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ANALYSIS: Trump will remember Trudeau’s NATO snickers — so may Canadian voters

 U.S. President Donald Trump called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “two-faced” after a video appeared to show him and other world leaders apparently talking candidly about the president.
They were three schoolyard chums — the U.K.’s Boris Johnson, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau — snickering about the schoolyard bully — America’s Donald Trump — confident that none of their yuk-yukking and nudge-nudging would ever make it out of their corner of the playground.And then it did. And only one of those chums got caught: Trudeau.

But the bully’s response was surprisingly charitable. He only called Trudeau “two-faced” before shrugging Trudeau off as “a very nice guy” who was hurt after Trump correctly called him and Canada out for being lightweights when it comes to defence spending.

READ MORE: Trump calls Trudeau ‘two-faced’ after video appears to show leaders gossiping

And as both leaders jetted back to their respective national capitals Wednesday, the chattering classes in Washington and Ottawa got down to figuring out how this would affect a Canada-U.S. relationship that was already a little more than slightly chilled.

“My view is that President Trump made his mind up about Justin Trudeau at [the 2018 G7 summit in] Charlevoix — ‘very dishonest and weak’ — and now has been confirmed in this impression because Trudeau was nice to Trump face to face and then catty about him with Macron later,” said Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies in Washington.

“This is not good for their personal relationship, but the machinery of government will continue to handle most issues on the bilateral agenda for now, so there will not be an explicit price for Canada to pay now. But as we have seen with Mitt Romney and others, Trump has a long memory for slights and I expect there will be consequences down the line.”

Trudeau addresses candid comment seemingly made about Trump at NATO summit

Trudeau addresses candid comment seemingly made about Trump at NATO summit

Indeed, even though the Trudeau-Trump relationship might remain unchanged — for now — it may make things more difficult for those working on Canada’s behalf in Washington. On social media and the cable news networks, Republicans reminded anyone who would listen that, when he’s travelling outside the United States, Trump represents all America and that America’s allies at least ought to have a little respect for the office. That was a point made on Twitter by a Democratic representative — who is no fan of Trump — on Twitter.

Ted Lieu


When @POTUS travels outside our country, he represents us to the world. We are all Americans. We should wish him well and want him to succeed. Basic courtesies should be extended to the American President and First Lady. What Princess Anne did was unnecessary and disrespectful. 

Sky News


Is Princess Anne in trouble?

The Queen appears to glance awkwardly at Princess Anne who responds with a shrug 👀🤷‍♀️ as the royals greet US President Donald Trump and the First Lady at Buckingham Palace.

More here: 

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In any event, to the extent that one believes that Trump is a strategic thinker when it comes to politics — and that’s obviously a highly debatable point — Trump has bigger problems than catty comments by Trudeau, Macron or Johnson.

For example, Trump needs to get the new NAFTA through Congress, where it’s known as the United States-Canada-Mexico agreement. As he enters his re-election year, Trump needs a foreign policy win.

READ MORE: Video captures Trudeau seemingly speaking candidly about Trump at NATO summit

“Trump needs NAFTA more than anyone else does,” said Kim Richard Nossal, a professor of political studies at Queen’s University and a longtime student of Canada-U.S. relations. “Trump’s got nothing to show for his three years. Everything he’s touched in global affairs has turned to dust.”

If Trudeau can push the USMCA over the finish line, Trump may more quickly forget the NATO snickers.

Colin Robertson, a veteran Canadian diplomat who is now a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, noted that, so far as the NATO summit was concerned, Trudeau’s “unforced error” is not the most significant issue. Trump, Robertson said, has a problem with the Pentagon. His generals are suspicious and annoyed at Trump for the way he has destabilized the NATO alliance. Trump needs to patch that relationship up and he got a start in London by seeming to be a defender of the kind of NATO-bashing that Macron engaged in.

And Robertson agrees with Sands that Trump’s ‘two-faced’ comment is not a big deal, as he has said worse about Trudeau in the past.

“I think this will pass.”

Singh comments on Trudeau ‘mocking’ Trump at NATO reception, says other things to criticize about

Singh comments on Trudeau ‘mocking’ Trump at NATO reception, says other things to criticize about

But Trudeau has given Canadian voters yet another reason to think that he is not a serious player on the international stage.

Indeed, during the just-concluded election campaign, it was easy to find Liberal partisans at Trudeau rallies who, though they certainly planned to vote for him again, thought his conduct on the foreign affairs file in his first mandate was disappointing, mostly because of that ill-fated trip to India.

But most polls over the last few years have, by and large, shown that Canadians generally approved of the tone and approach that Trudeau took when dealing with the combustible American president. Trudeau was respectful but not deferential; firm but not aggressive. His approach yielded a new NAFTA that could have been much worse and ensured that the illegal and damaging steel and aluminum tariffs levied on Canadian firms last for as short a period as possible.

Trudeau’s handling of his Washington neighbour — a neighbour polls have shown that very few Canadians like — may have helped Trudeau in the election.

And though it may be two or three years before voters are asked to render their second verdict on Trudeau’s time as prime minister, they, like Trump, may have long memories for slights.

NATO at 70: leaders meet in London today

Most alliances historically don’t last more than a couple of decades, but the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance is 70 this year, and has grown over that time to its now 29 members.

Originally formed as a protection against the Soviets, new and much different types of threats lurk, and there are divisions in the organisation.

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and a Vice President of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. discusses the issues.

ListenU.S. President Donald Trump has been forcefully scolding many members of the Alliance for not living up to defence spending. In 2018, the Alliance widened the rules as to what counts as defence spending.  Canada is among several members, including France and Germany, not living up to the commitment to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence.

Colin Robertson, VP Canadian Global Affairs Institute, former Canadian diplomat (supplied)

This now includes for example, pensions paid to former soldiers. The Liberal government has been meticulously searching for any expense that might be counted as defence spending including RCMP expenses for members involved in peacekeeping, costs for Canada’s spy agency-the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and even death benefits for veteran’s survivors. Canada now spends about 1.27 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product on defence.

Robertson notes that the Alliance is burdened with disagreements, but that this is not unusual in NATO’s history.

Members of the enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Latvia wait for helicopters in the training area during Exercise TOMAHAWK Soaring at the Lielvārdes Military Base, Latvia on Oct. 3, 2018. Canada points to such efforts and training missions of other NATO troops as a demonstration of its commitment, beyond mere dollars. (eFP BG ROTO 10 LATVIA Imagery/CAF)

It now faces new and much different threats from the more simpler Cold War period, such as new state actor threats, social but somewhat fluid and unorganised threats like piracy and mass migration, and non-state actors like Al Queda and DAESH, and a move by Russia and China to militarise space. While it has its hurdles to overcome, Robertson feels the Alliance will remain strong coming out of this week’s meetings.

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