Is Canada in a World of Hurt?

4 minute read

In the pantheon of issues facing Canada, foreign policy is rarely, if ever, deemed a priority in the eyes of voters. Polling firms often ask Canadians what they deem the most pressing issues in the country, with the economy, health care, and climate change being perennial chart toppers; Canada’s foreign policy or position never seems to make the list. 

Despite the seeming lack of interest from the general populace, Canada’s place in the world has recently become front page news, as journalists, columnists and experts decry Canada’s apparent lack of standing amongst our allies and around the world. 

Two recent, high profile events have served as a catalyst for this concern, with the first being the murder of Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar. On September 18th, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a statement in the House of Commons in which he alleged that “agents” of the Indian state were behind the killing of Nijjar, confirming what many of Mr. Nijjar’s supporters had long suspected. It was a damning allegation for the Prime Minister to make public following his second trip to India, but one that he also noted was well-backed by top intelligence. The fallout from this allegation was swift; consular services have been impacted for Canadians in India, and while there was some backing from Canada’s allies (including the United States) acknowledging this claim and intelligence, their response was notably tepid. 

These underwhelming statements of support made by Canada’s allies following these allegations fomented concerns among alarmists about the importance that the global community bestows upon Canada. However, the geo-political picture demonstrates the rationale behind the approach taken by allied nations. After all, the last thing the United States and other western powers want is a conflict that divides them from India – an increasingly key political and economic power who many in the West view as a potential bulwark against China. 

The other development that provided further ammunition to the theory that Canada has diminished standing in the global community was the publication of a joint statement by the governments of the US, UK, Germany, France and Italy to express their “steadfast and united support to the State of Israel” and vowed to “remain united and coordinated, together as allies, and as common friends of Israel, to ensure Israel is able to defend itself”. Critics quickly rushed to criticize the Canadian government for being left out, with opposition leader Pierre Poilievre stating that foreign governments “don’t take Justin Trudeau seriously”. Meanwhile, foreign affairs critic and Conservative MP Michael Chong stated our allies no longer see Canada as a reliable partner. 

But the reality of whether or not Canada was “left out” of the statement is debatable. The five nations that released the statement are members of a long-standing informal foreign policy working group known as the quinte, made up of the major European powers and the US, all of whom are nuclear armed, or part of nuclear sharing agreements. The domestic reaction to being “excluded” from this statement, particularly from those on the centre-right, serves as an example of what University of Ottawa foreign affairs expert Thomas Juneau has labelled a “Canadian Hypersensitivity” on foreign issues. For his part, Juneau suggested being excluded from this statement “is not a big deal”. 

The question of whether or not Canada is truly losing status on the world stage likely depends on the role you believe Canada ought to play on it. For many, Canada is, as described by late Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, “a power of the middle rank”. We historically have not had the economic power, nor military might on par with some of our allies, and thus we cannot be expected to conduct ourselves in a manner that is identical to larger powers . 

But that does not mean Canada should abandon or acquiesce on ts foreign policy and diplomatic efforts; many would argue for instance that our country has punched well above our weight in supporting Ukraine in the current conflict with Russia. The latest conflict in Israel and Gaza is likely to serve as another litmus test for the Liberals on their international presence and importance (the country has already dedicated $10M to aid in the region, and calls for additional support may grow should the conflict persist). 

Voters may be best served by an honest acknowledgement of Canada’s capability to contribute globally at the size and scale that those opposing the current government believe is required. To shift gears would cost significant dollars, and likely deprioritize many of the domestic issues most voters want to see action on in the immediate term.  And while an honest look at what Canada is capable of is unlikely, it may be better than mismanaging global expectations while pining for a global stature that will be politically and economically risky to fulfill.

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