Is Canada ‘back’? Not quite, but here’s how it can get there

Though change is already palpable, here are seven
steps the Trudeau government can take to re-engage Canada in the world.

By: /
3 December, 2015
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves a meeting at the Elysee palace in Paris, France, Nov. 29, 2015 ahead of COP21. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
By: Kyle Matthews
Executive director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

The winds of change have blown Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada out of power and onto the sidelines of shaping foreign policy. Over the course of the federal election campaign political partisans and pundits alike have bemoaned the fact that Canada’s position in the international community has weakened during the past decade. 

With Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party now sworn into power, changes to how Canada engages in the world have come about swiftly.

The most important and least costly step taken so far has been the “un-muzzling” of Canadian diplomats. Too many stories emerged over the past nine years of senior Canadian officials having been spoken to in a condescending manner and overruled by young, hyper-partisan and ill-experienced political staffers from the Prime Minister’s Office. To a sigh of relief at the Lester B. Pearson building in Ottawa and Canadian embassies abroad, a more positive relationship between the federal government and the diplomatic corps seems to be taking shape.

With Prime Minister Trudeau having recently traveled to Paris to announce Canada “is back” and would now be a trusted international partner in issues pertaining to global warming, every foreign policy observer knows that change is in the air.

And while all of the above must be celebrated as an encouraging sign, many other steps can be taken that fall in line with Prime Minister Trudeau’s pledge to advance Canada and Canadians as global players. Indeed, there are immediate action items that can be implemented quickly to advance Canadian leadership and engagement on the global stage. 

The first is to invest in and support Canadian youth. The government should seize the moment and increase internship opportunities for young Canadians in international organizations and non-governmental organizations by re-establishing the “International Youth Internship Program,” which was shut down by the past Conservative government.

Second, help and support young Canadians to enter and have a career in the UN system. While everyone noticed the Conservative government was not a great fan of multilateralism, nobody took notice that Canada closed the door on the JPO program, which effectively blocked young Canadian diplomats from working for UNICEF, the World Food Program, the UN Development Program and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Third, re-establish important Canadian institutions that were shut down over the past decade to the detriment of Canada’s role in the world.  Rights and Democracy, the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, and the North South Institute were defunded and shuttered, depriving Canada of numerous world-class institutes and think tanks, while simultaneously weakening our collective influence in the world.

Fourth, promote Canada as a place where international NGOs and multilateral institutions should open offices and host international events. When I worked for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva a decade ago, the organization began moving staff and operations to other cities due to high costs. That trend has continued but yet Canada has not shown itself willing to lobby aggressively to attract any of these agencies to set up shop here. With Montreal being the only Canadian city that is home to a significant UN presence, and the fact that it has created a public private partnership called Montreal International tasked with luring international organizations to the country’s second largest city, it would seem a no brainer to pursue.

Fifth, inject new funds into a financially starved and newly named department of foreign affairs and aim to reopen shuttered embassies and high commissions in neglected parts of the world, most notably in Africa. Canada must not and should not do foreign policy on the cheap.

Sixth, curtail the practice of farming out research funding on international issues of global importance to foreign think tanks and academics. Much can be done to ensure more of this work is conducted in Canada.

Last but not least, re-commit to the human rights initiative known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and appoint an R2P focal point to help guide Canadian policy on preventing and responding to mass atrocity crimes. Under the leadership of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, since 2010 more than 50 countries have created “R2P focal points” within their governmental structures to help coordinate policy and strategies to prevent and interdict atrocity crimes. Canada has disappeared from the conversation.

Canada can re-engage the world by investing in our youth, our institutions, our diplomats and our ideas. There is no time to waste.


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Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

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