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Canada Says It Will Chart Its Own Course, Apart From U.S.

Foreign minister Chrystia Freeland expressed Canadian government discontent with U.S. protectionism and isolationism

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered a speech on a shift in Canada’s foreign policy in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 6. Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters


Paul Vieira

Updated June 6, 2017 5:51 p.m. ET


OTTAWA—Canada signaled it would pursue foreign-policy objectives that are in contrast to the growing isolationism of the U.S., marking a shift away from its historic alignment with its neighbor and most important trading partner.

In a speech to the legislature on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland took the unusual step of expressing Canadian government discontent with the U.S., citing concerns about America’s growing protectionism, its withdrawal from the Paris climate-change agreement and the desire by its voters to “shrug off the burden of leadership” globally.

Canada plans to strengthen its military presence in the most dangerous parts of the world, Ms. Freeland said, and will on Wednesday release details on spending plans for a new defense policy. A boost in military spending and greater engagement would mark a departure for the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was elected on a campaign promise to end Canada’s direct combat role in the fight against Islamic State.

“To rely solely on the U.S. security umbrella would make us a client state,” she said. “Such a dependence would not be in Canada’s interest.…The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,” Ms. Freeland said.

While Ms. Freeland didn’t name U.S. President Donald Trump, she left little doubt that she was talking about U.S. leadership as she described the distance between the Canadian government and Trump administration policies on global trade, climate change, the commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the pursuit of women’s rights, including access to safe abortions.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, embraced Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland in the House of Commons on June 6, after she delivered a speech about a shift in Canada’s foreign policy. Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters

The remarks are the latest in a string of warnings from world leaders about the risks of U.S. isolationism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe can no longer rely on other countries, underscoring her concern with U.S. policy such as Mr. Trump’s refusal to publicly back a core tenet of NATO, that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

Ms. Freeland said the principle, known as Article 5,  is “at the heart” of Canada’s security policy.

Ms. Freeland, who is also responsible for cross-border trade, highlighted Canada’s differences with the U.S. even as she faces renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, in talks scheduled to start in August. Mr. Trump was elected in part on a vow to revamp the trade pact incorporating the U.S., Canada and Mexico, which he has called a “disaster” and blamed for U.S. manufacturing job losses.

That criticism is misplaced, Ms. Freeland said. “It is wrong to view the woes of our middle class as the result of fiendish behavior by foreigners,” she said. “The real culprit is domestic policy that fails to appreciate that continued growth, and political stability, depend on domestic measures that share the wealth.”

The big surprise in the speech, observers say, was Ms. Freeland’s “strident endorsement” of a stronger Canadian military, said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and now vice president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, in Ottawa. “She gave every indication the government will make a robust investment in our security and defense,” he said.

Such an investment would move Canada closer to, although still below, the NATO target that member countries should spend 2% of gross domestic product on defense.

Last week, Mr. Trudeau joined Ms. Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron in publicly rebuking Mr. Trump for his decision last week to withdraw from the Paris climate-change accord.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Merkel spoke by phone on Tuesday, at which time both Group of Seven leaders reiterated their commitment to multilateralism and the fight against climate change, according to a summary of the conversation released by Canadian officials.

They agreed to “continue working closely with like-minded partners to implement the historic Paris agreement on climate change,” the Canadian readout said.

—Jacquie McNish
contributed to this article.