Rona Ambrose is the chair of the Women’s Economic Council of Canada and a former leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. Frank McKenna is a former New Brunswick premier and Canadian ambassador to the United States. Colin Robertson is a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former diplomat.
The invasion of Ukraine has brought in its wake not just the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, but also a global food security crisis and profound disruption of energy markets. Canada is uniquely positioned to help, but it will require the kind of effort we mustered all those decades ago.
The immediate challenge posed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine is meeting the energy crisis imposed by the necessary sanctions on Russian oil and gas: Russia is the world’s largest exporter of oil to global markets, and its gas exports account for close to 40 per cent of the European Union’s consumption. The invasion has also created the biggest commodity crisis since 1973, and, in the case of wheat, a level of disruption that has not been seen since the First World War. To adjust, Europeans have had to make dramatic changes to the status quo that would have been unimaginable just three weeks ago.
This courageous effort, and the heroic sacrifices of the Ukrainian people, must be matched by a herculean effort by allies around the world to supply the war effort. And so Canada – endowed as we are with an abundance of food and energy – cannot respond as if things are business as usual. We have already opened our doors to the displaced, but we also have the oil and gas Europe needs and, like Ukraine, we are a breadbasket to the world. Canada must be part of the solution to help our friends and allies. Throwing up our hands wasn’t an option in 1939 – and is not an option now.
Harnessing our natural resources to do so, including oil and gas, hydroelectricity, uranium and critical minerals, requires a strategic approach. It starts with an inventory of infrastructure requirements – electrical grids, pipelines, rail, road and port capacities – then identifying their vulnerabilities and how to fix them. Canada also needs to take such an approach to our agri-food resources. We need to inventory what our farmers, ranchers, fishers and food processors need to ramp up production, and resolve any choke points in getting our food to markets.
We will also need dynamic leadership. For inspiration, look at how Canada helped win the Second World War. Like never before, Canadian industry and government worked together under the direction of the redoubtable C. D. Howe, who the Canadian Encyclopedia aptly describes as the “most successful businessman-politician of his day.”
In those years, Canada became a vital link in keeping Britain alive with our supply of food, oil and armaments. We built ships and trained pilots. If the U.S. was, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “the great arsenal of democracy,” Canada was the aerodrome. In securing vital sea lanes in the long Battle of the North Atlantic, our navy had the fourth-largest fleet in the world by the war’s end.
Once more, Canada needs to step up and put our economic assets on a war footing. In short, we need a C.D. Howe moment.
A good start would be the appointment of a minister with the authorities of a Howe – someone who can work closely with industry and labour across the areas of energy, agri-food and defence with the goal of cutting through red tape and executing a plan to rebuild our military while fuelling and feeding our allies.
We need dynamic leadership that will work across party lines and provincial boundaries. We need a bulldozer to plow through the thicket of bureaucracy and regulations that make it so hard to get things done in Canada.
This may seem impossible, but the same was said before the Second World War. That conflict should teach us that nothing is impossible when life and liberty are in the balance. We must defang Russia and any other malevolent country that wants to use its commodity hegemony to hold the world at ransom.
The rules-based world as we knew it is gone. The institutions that we helped build and sustain are no longer fit for purpose. Canada now needs to roll up its sleeves and join in reconstructing a rules-based order for the democracies.
In the struggle between autocracy and democracy, Canadians know where they stand. We expect our governments to rise to the challenge and help our allies. It starts with feeding and fuelling our friends and allies.
Interview with Shaye Ganam on the oped
After the horrors of Ukraine, Canada should aim to be a major player in helping the world meet its future food needs
TORONTO—The Russian invasion of Ukraine is triggering many responses in Canada, including calls for more aid to Ukraine, tougher sanctions against Russia, accelerated welcoming of displaced Ukrainian families, dramatic new defence spending and ways for our oil industry to profit.
Some of these responses make great humanitarian and pragmatic sense—such as speeding up the entry of displaced families, directing more help to Ukraine, and contributing to world food needs. But some, despite coming from reputable individuals, are so extreme or misguided one has to wonder why they were made.
Perhaps the strangest proposal came from Rona Ambrose, former interim leader of the Conservative Party; Frank McKenna, former New Brunswick premier and our ambassador to the United States; and former diplomat Colin Robertson, all well-experienced individuals with serious accomplishments, that Canada put itself on a full-scale war footing.
Conjuring up pictures of brave Canadian naval convoys ploughing the treacherous North Atlantic during World War II to deliver supplies to a beleaguered Britain, they called for the quick appointment of a war minister with draconian powers—C.D. Howe—so that, as in World War II, we can “feed and fuel” our allies while expanding our national defence capabilities and put our economic assets—energy and food in particular—“on a war footing.”
There clearly are things we can do to help the world cope with the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the widespread consequences of sanctions. But, without denying the horrors of what’s happening in Ukraine, this doesn’t need to be dressed up in wartime hysteria as though Europe was reliving World War II. This is a time for cool heads, not hot heads.
In fact, aside from important, ongoing aid to Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, the most useful things we can do will not be in Europe or the United States, but in the developing world, which may end up paying the highest price for anti-Russian sanctions. It is the developing world, and especially in the poorest of the poor countries which will have the most serious difficulty coping with soaring energy and food prices, and, in the case of food, even finding adequate supplies. They will have an urgent need for increased foreign aid. Food shortages, for example, can lead to humanitarian disasters and food riots, with serious political implications across regions, as we have seen before in North Africa and the Middle East. Egypt has already turned to the International Monetary Fund for help.
There are opportunistic calls from the oil patch and its supporters to get our oil and gas to the U.S. and Europe to replace Russian sources. But the reality is that the U.S. can cope and Europe has other options. For example, Saudi Arabia has already announced it will spend heavily to boost oil production and Germany has unveiled a long-term supply contract with Qatar for liquified natural gas. Meanwhile, Europe will be accelerating its transition to a low-carbon economy, steadily reducing oil and gas consumption.
Food is where we can make a much better contribution, and mainly for the food-deficient countries of the developing world, not the U.S. or Europe. Paradoxically, the more we push oil output, the more we threaten future food production. Climate change is already raising the prevalence of drought, which poses a major threat to our capacity to produce food, and risks of drought are expected to intensify. With harsh drought conditions in Western Canada last year, wheat production fell 39 per cent and canola production 35 per cent. Early signs are for continuing dry conditions this year.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already having a serious impact, triggering record-high grain prices earlier this month. Russia is the world’s largest wheat supplier and Ukraine is the fifth largest. Together, they supply about 25 per cent of world wheat exports. Barring weather shocks, and assuming no effort by the West to block Russian wheat exports, Russia should be a major supplier again this year. But Ukraine is unlikely to be, since it is far from certain it can harvest this summer or plant for next year.
Some countries depend heavily on wheat imports and in large measure from Russia and Ukraine. Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, followed by Indonesia and Bangladesh. But many food-deficient countries in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia are reliant on Russia and Ukraine for wheat and vegetable oils such as canola. Canada, Australia, and the United States can make up for some of the expected deficiency but not all. Many countries, including Canada, also rely on Russia for fertilizer supplies and these have been curbed by sanctions. To the extent it can boost food exports, Canada should give priority to countries facing humanitarian disasters.
From a long-term perspective, Canada should work to raise its potential as a sustainable global food supplier— especially for developing countries that are major importers of food and, with ongoing climate warming and weather shocks, face growing threats to their own agricultural capacity.
This also means making agriculture a more significant part of Canada’s innovation agenda. The combination of a rising world population, the existing and future threats from climate change, the major risks to global water supplies, and the deterioration and loss of healthy soils all mean that we have to pay much more attention to sustainable food production and the science of food production.
Right now, our eyes are fixed on the horrors of events in Ukraine, as they should be. But coming out of this crisis, as we will, we should focus on what’s next. For Canada, this means, we need to aim to be a major and reliable future player in helping the world meet its future food needs.
In the longer term, food and agriculture should be a growing industry for Canada while we, at the same time, must accept that oil and gas will become a shrinking industry.
David Crane can be reached At firstname.lastname@example.org.