Canada-Türkiye – shared ties, shared issues

Despite Canada’s arms embargo on Türkiye, trade and tourism are on the rise

By: /
5 September, 2023
In 2022, a record number of Canadian tourists visited Türkiye and this year is expected to set another record. Photo: Open Canada In 2022, a record number of Canadian tourists visited Türkiye and this year is expected to set another record. Photo: Open Canada
Chris Kilford
By: Chris Kilford
Fellow with the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy

Earlier this year President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won another five-year term as Türkiye’s president, continuing his twenty-year hold on power. Indeed, his win was a major political achievement considering, among other challenges, the dire financial situation the country faces. Economically, and while life has not ground to a halt, the cost of living has skyrocketed. Certainly, his government’s top priority is turning the Turkish economy around, which is easier said than done given the lingering effects of the global pandemic, two massive earthquakes that struck south-eastern Türkiye earlier this year, the nearby war in Ukraine, and living in one of the world’s most difficult geopolitical neighbourhoods.

Against this backdrop, relations between Canada and Türkiye have continued on a mostly positive note. Certainly, more Canadians are visiting Türkiye than in the past when spillover from the Syrian civil war, an attempted military coup in Türkiye, and the global pandemic, drove them away. In 2020, for example, only 34,000 Canadian tourists visited Türkiye. However, by the end of 2022, over 197,000 Canadians had wandered through Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, or made their way to Ephesus and Cappadocia, just to name a few of the many historical sites where foreign tourists often flock to in Türkiye. This was the highest number of Canadian visitors on record for a single year. And 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic, is expected to set another record for Canadian visitors. Behind much of this tourist traffic are Turkish Airlines direct flights from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver to Istanbul, along with the return of major cruise lines stopping at Turkish ports.

Bi-lateral trade is also climbing. In 2022, two-way trade between Canada and Türkiye was $4.5 billion, with Canadian exports to Türkiye of $1.3 billion and imports from Türkiye at $3.2 billion. Canada’s top exports included lentils, iron, steel waste and scrap, plus coal. The main imports from Türkiye were iron, steel and aluminum products, carpets and motor vehicle parts. And while Canada and Türkiye did engage in exploratory discussions towards creating a free trade agreement from 2010 to 2013, formal negotiations did not follow. Instead, and to improve two-way trade and investment opportunities, in June 2019 Canada and Türkiye signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing a Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO). The first JETCO meeting was held in November 2019 in Istanbul with plans to hold a second meeting in Toronto in the next year or two.

From a cultural and historical perspective, and after many years of discussion, an almost 2.5 meters tall bronze caribou monument, dedicated to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, that fought against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, was unveiled at Gallipoli in September 2022. The unveiling was attended by representatives of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and other officials from Canada and Türkiye, including the Speaker of the Senate of Canada, The Honourable George J. Furey. K.C., a native of Newfoundland and Labrador. 

As is the case between most countries though, bi-lateral relations are not always picture-perfect. In 2004, for example, Canada’s parliament recognized the events of 1915 to 1923 in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide levelled against its Armenian citizens. The Turkish government was not pleased at all with Canada’s decision and today the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs website still notes that Ottawa’s stand adversely impacts Turkish-Canadian relations.

There are also other areas of disagreement between the two governments. Yet to be resolved, for example, is Canada’s ongoing arms embargo on Türkiye. In October 2019, when Ankara launched a cross-border military operation in northeastern Syria, the Canadian government restricted arms sales to Türkiye. And more restrictions were on the way after major clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia began in September 2020. Over a 44-day period, in what would become known as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan claimed a resounding victory after recapturing previously lost territory. 

The use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, equipped with Canadian-made L3Harris MX-15 Wescam sensor pods played a major role in Azerbaijan’s victory.  In Canada, the reaction was swift, with Canada’s Armenian community calling on Ottawa to ban the export of Canadian drone technology to Türkiye. In early October 2020, the Minister of Foreign Affairs followed through, suspending all relevant arms export permits to Türkiye and in April 2021, halting all drone technology exports noting that the use of the technology “was not consistent with Canadian foreign policy, nor end-use assurances given by Türkiye.” This decision proved tricky when Russia invaded Ukraine last year as Kyiv was relying on Turkish support for their fleet of Bayraktar TB2 drones. To bypass the embargo, Canada shipped the L3Harris sensor pods directly to Ukraine

Since then, several European countries have lifted their arms embargoes on Türkiye. And there was some speculation that in order to gain Türkiye’s support for Sweden’s accession to NATO, Ottawa would do the same, but this did not happen. And as far as the Turkish government was concerned, Canada’s embargo was unjustified given Azerbaijan had only sought to end three decades of Armenian occupation of their territory.

Preventing the embargo from being lifted, however, are likely concerns in Ottawa that Azerbaijan will, at some point, attempt to occupy all of Nagorno-Karabakh, forcing the local Armenian population to leave. And so the embargo remains for now, with Canada recently announcing that it will also establish an embassy in Yerevan very soon and send up to 2 experts to the EU monitoring mission in Armenia. 

The way the embargo has played out is unfortunate because the Canadian Armed Forces could have benefited from having its own fleet of Bayraktar TB2 drones. Not only was a Canadian company providing the Bayraktar’s eyes and ears, so to speak, the drones were powered by a Rotax engine produced in Austria by the Austrian subsidiary of Quebec-based Bombardier Recreational Products. Purchasing the battle-tested Bayraktar TB2 could have been a win for the Canadian military and industry, but that outcome seems highly unlikely now. Indeed, and in response to the embargo, Turkish defence company Aselsan developed the Common Aperture Targeting System (CATS) to replace the L3Harris MX-15 sensor pods. 

In addition to the embargo issue, the number of Turkish citizens claiming political refugee status in Canada continues. Before 2016, Turks seldom claimed refugee status in Canada. However, after a failed military coup attempt in July 2016, which the Turkish government blamed on followers of Turkish Islamic cleric Fetullah Gülen, matters changed significantly. Between January 2017 to May 2023, for example, 8,608 Turkish citizens were granted refugee status in Canada. And as of 30 June 2023, another 9,232 Turkish citizens in Canada are still awaiting a decision by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada regarding their asylum claims.

Turkish citizens granted, or seeking political asylum in Canada, are not necessarily followers or even associated with the Gülen movement. Many were simply caught-up in widespread government purges and arrests following the attempted coup and, if they could, fled the country. Indeed, the Turkish government removed some 130,000 civil servants, 31,000 police officers, 26,000 military personnel and 6,000 academics from their positions after the coup attempt on the grounds of their alleged links to the Gülen movement. And once removed there was little to no recourse available for them. Clearly, though, some arriving in Canada were raising their association or perceived association with the Gülen movement as grounds for their refugee claims, prompting IRB decision-​makers in 2019 to request an extensive Responses to Information Request research report about the organization.

While Türkiye considers the Gülen movement to be a terrorist organization (FETÖ), few countries, including Canada, agree. This prompted Türkiye’s former ambassador to Canada to say in 2019 that the Gülen movement was successfully exploiting Canada’s asylum system. In addition, the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah recently added that in their view “Canada now has the largest FETÖ network after its southern neighbor, where Fetullah Gülen, leader of the group, resides without restrictions in Pennsylvania.” Undoubtedly, then, the granting of political refugee status to so many Turks is an issue in Ankara but not for Ottawa. 

On a more positive note, high-level phone calls and meetings are a regular occurrence between the two countries and recently Prime Minister Trudeau met with President Erdoğan during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Summit in Lithuania. It was also an opportunity for the Prime Minister to thank Türkiye for its ongoing leadership regarding the on-again, off-again Black Sea Grain Initiative. Canada also provided $50 million in humanitarian support and introduced new immigration measures to allow temporary Turkish and Syrian residents in Canada to extend their stay after the devastating February 2023 earthquakes in south-eastern Türkiye.

In addition, in 2022, almost 5,000 Turkish students were studying in Canada for 6 months or more, a significant increase compared to a few years ago. And the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – Radio-Canada will officially open a new bureau in Istanbul, led by journalist Marie-Eve Bédard, later this year.

Overall, Canada-Türkiye bi-lateral relations remain on a positive track with Canada’s arms embargo on Türkiye the main sticking point. 

Looking further down the road, the spotlight will mostly be on what lies ahead for Türkiye. Can the Turkish government turn the economy around? Türkiye’s official annual inflation rate rose to almost 60% in August and it was much higher last year, rising to 85.5% in October 2022. To restore financial discipline the benchmark interest rate recently climbed to 25% from 8.5% in May 2023. And to boost foreign investor confidence, Mehmet Şimşek, Türkiye’s treasury and finance minister, will be making the global rounds in the fall. So far though, the Turkish Lira has not responded. In September 2013, a Canadian dollar was worth 1.9 Turkish Lira. Today, the same Canadian dollar is worth 19.6 Turkish Lira.

Other important questions revolve around regional security. Will Türkiye finally normalize relations with Syria and will the majority of the 4 million Syrian refugees currently in Türkiye return home? Can Ankara keep the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist group, as well as Daesh, in-check? As Turkish Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya noted in July 2023, Turkish security forces were currently carrying out hundreds of domestic counter-terrorism operations. And while Türkiye’s counter-terrorist operations have been successful, the often-publically announced numbers must, one would think, also serve to undermine foreign investor confidence. 

Still, Türkiye has a young and well-educated population and if the economy can be turned around, it has great potential for economic growth. The same can also be said of Canada’s population, which through increasing immigration climbed past 40 million people this year. And people-to-people ties between the two countries are growing, with increasing Canadian tourism to Türkiye being just one indication. And not to be missed in any discussion when it comes to Türkiye is football and Brampton-born, Atiba Hutchinson, who played his last match for Istanbul’s Beşiktaş JK football club in June 2023. In his 10 seasons with the club, he rose to become the team captain, a club legend, and a de facto ambassador for Canada-Turkish relations. In 2021, the Turkish news agency, Anadolu Agency simply referred to him as “Besiktas’ old but reliable engine.”

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