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Election 2019: Why China, views on immigration and defence operations matter

We look at the foreign policy issues that have become more urgent in recent weeks, as the six-month countdown to Canada’s federal election begins.

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24 April, 2019
From left: The Huawei logo outside the company’s research facility in Ottawa (REUTERS/Chris Wattie); a Canada-US border crossing in Minnesota, US (REUTERS/Chris Wattie); a Canadian NATO battle group arrives in Riga, Latvia (REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)

In politics, much can happen in a matter of months, especially in a year with a federal election looming. In just a short span, the eruption of criticism over the Trudeau government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin case and the election of United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney in Alberta have changed the game from when we last checked in on the most pressing foreign policy issues ahead of the October vote. But that’s not all: The question of interference — foreign and domestic — in the election itself continues to concern policymakers; China has detained at least two Canadians in response to the arrest of a Huawei executive; Canada confirmed it would not be renewing its part in the Mali peacekeeping mission; and, following the release of a new poll, we now know immigration fears are increasing along political lines.

With just six months to go, our three election-watch columnists break down what these issues mean for the upcoming campaign, and why they are worthy of further reflection by both party leaders and voters.

Potter: China, not Russia, demands a stronger response from Canadian leadership

One of the more enjoyable pieces of psychological research over the past few decades is what is known as the “invisible gorilla” study on selective attention. In their original experiment, researchers Chris Chabris and Daniel Simons created a video in which a half-dozen students, three in white shirts and three in black, pass a basketball back and forth between themselves. They asked viewers to keep track of the number of times the players in white shirts passed the ball to one another; the upshot of the experiment was that about half of the viewers failed to notice the woman in the gorilla suit who wanders into the scene, faces the camera, and thumps her chest a few times.

It’s a classic demonstration of the perils of “inattentional blindness,” where we fail to notice something that is literally staring us in the face because we are focused to the point of obsession on other tasks or concerns. Like, for example, the threat of Russian interference in the upcoming Canadian federal election.

Depending on who you listen to, either the Russians will most likely interfere in the upcoming federal election, they will certainly interfere in the election, or they are already doing so. The most cautious of these warnings came in a report issued in early April from the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), which said it was “very likely” that Canada would experience some sort of cyber meddling during the election, which could range from the hacking of political party databases to social media-driven fake news campaigns to the creation of “deep fake” videos that are nearly impossible to distinguish from authentic footage.

“There is one foreign actor that does have long-standing strategic interest in bending Canadian politics to its will, and that’s China.”

In what is somewhat of a first for the normally circumspect Canadian spooks, the CSE suggested that if anyone was going to do such things it would be the Russians. The general theme of foreign interference was picked up and amplified by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed the CSE report by singling out Russia by name during a news conference in Toronto.

Forewarned is forearmed, of course, and given the scope and scale of Russian interference in western democracies over the past few years we should be vigilant. But what does Russia want, ultimately? The consensus seems to be that it has little in the way of strategic ambition other than to sow division and mistrust.

Except Canadians don’t really need much help on this front. A hostile foreign entity hoping that Canada would have an election marked by division and anger to the point of democratic dysfunction would do well to simply…let us have an election. And whether it’s the conspiracy-mongering or Islamophobia coming out of people like Faith Goldy or outlets like The Rebel, or the bizarro pro-Liberal shamrock campaign that arose on Twitter in response to the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Canadians don’t need foreign instruction in using social media to trade in conspiracy and outrage.

Yet there is one foreign actor that does have long-standing strategic interest in bending Canadian politics to its will and which has spent decades pursuing that objective, and that’s China. But from the joint Royal Canadian Mounted Police/Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) 1999 Sidewinder report on Chinese threats to Canadian national security to the 2010 warnings by then-CSIS director Richard Fadden about foreign influence, Canadian politicians have traditionally treated reports of Chinese meddling as the gorilla in our midst — studiously ignoring its presence while denouncing as a racist anyone who dares suggest there’s a problem.

But it’s starting to look like even the absurdly blinkered pro-China Trudeau government can’t miss the primate on the scene. It’s not just that in recent months Beijing has kidnapped two Canadians, sentenced a third to death, shut our canola exporters out of its markets and actively interfered in Canadian campus politics. No, what the Liberals cannot ignore is the first ever report from the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, which came out in early April and which singled out China as a major threat to Canada’s national security through espionage, influence and cyber interference.

It doesn’t hurt that all of this comes on the heels of the publication of journalist Jonathan Manthorpe’s jaw-dropping book Claws of the Panda, which details the decades-long campaign by Beijing to control and manipulate Canadian institutions.

The Russians might be coming, but the Chinese are already here. It strains credulity to think that China won’t use the upcoming election as an opportunity to beat its chest. As we look around for signs of foreign meddling in our democracy, we’d do best to keep our eye off the ball.

Andrew Potter is an assistant professor at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. He is the former editor of the Ottawa Citizen and was a public affairs columnist for Maclean’s.

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von Hlatky: NATO or the UN? Despite raised expectations, clearly Canada can’t do it all

During the 2015 election campaign, and, indeed, after he took office, Justin Trudeau was adamant that he did not want to see Canadian troops in combat. In February 2016, he followed through and told then United States President Barack Obama that Canada would no longer participate in airstrikes as part of the Global Coalition against Daesh. It was expected that Canada would instead try to revive its peacekeeping reputation.

For a short time, it appeared to do so. However, in late March of this year, Canada announced its withdrawal from the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, stating that it would stick to its initial one-year commitment, no more, no less. Canadian security experts were somewhat baffled, given that the UN was urging Canada to stay on for a few more months, until Romanian troops could safely take over. The Canadian contribution itself was meaningful — eight helicopters and 250 military personnel — but not to the point of being unsustainable for the Canadian Armed Forces’s operational tempo.

“Perhaps unwittingly, Trudeau has privileged transatlanticism over internationalism.”

With Operation Presence, Canada’s contribution to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the CAF provided much needed emergency medical evacuations to UN peacekeepers and staff. And it was about time, too, as Trudeau had made big announcements on peacekeeping at the very beginning of his mandate. Once Trudeau proclaimed that Canada was “back” and that UN peacekeeping would be a main line of effort, expectations were high. Greater UN engagement also held the promise of a competitive bid for a coveted non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council (UNSC). Norway, who is also competing for a seat, has perhaps already outshone Canada by playing a role in brokering peace in Colombia, being more generous with its international assistance and, though not faring better in terms of overall troop contributions to UN missions, announcing that it would extend its own commitment in Mali for two more years, until 2022.

Trudeau, for his part, raised everyone’s expectations at the UN and then failed to meet them. Canada has instead invested more heavily in NATO, with more sizeable and longer-term contributions. Canada will continue to lead a battlegroup in Latvia until 2023, as part of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), the alliance’s deterrence mission against Russia, and has assumed command of the new NATO training mission in Iraq. Perhaps unwittingly, Trudeau has privileged transatlanticism over internationalism. Indeed, Canada is more “back” at NATO than it is at the UN, and that does have certain advantages, like influence and visibility within a rather exclusive club of 29 allied countries.

What Trudeau’s first mandate has shown is that Canada no longer seems able to shine at the UN and NATO simultaneously. To the extent that the upcoming election plays up foreign policy themes, Trudeau’s stop-and-go campaign for a UNSC seat will be scrutinized, but in turn, the Liberals could point to Canada’s legitimate leadership within NATO.

Stéfanie von Hlatky is an associate professor in the department of political studies at Queen’s University, research fellow with the Centre for International and Defence Policy and founder of Women in International Security (WIIS) Canada.

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Mustafa: Time for a check-in on growing support for authoritarian views

Last week, a poll from EKOS hit the headlines like a hammer. One finding that received a good deal of attention was the fact that a significant minority of Canadians — 40 percent — think there are too many non-white immigrants coming to Canada. But looking back at EKOS’s own long-term data, that’s not really new. That number has fluctuated a little, sometimes a lot, over the years and, in fact, was substantially higher 25 years ago, sitting at more than 50 percent.

The poll, conducted between April 3 and 11, is part of a larger project to track the rise of authoritarian populism. We’ve seen the rise of strongmen from Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Viktor Orban in Hungary to, arguably, Donald Trump in America. We know there is a link between the rise of authoritarianism and the breakdown of democratic institutions and culture. Keeping an eye on the political climate in Canada isn’t only wise, it’s urgent. The question of immigration often sits at the heart of today’s populist rhetoric, hence the focus on the question specifically about particular concerns around the race of new arrivals.

There are some actual surprising breakdowns of the polling data, which show large disparities in views regionally and politically. In Quebec, for example, 30 percent of people polled felt there were too many visible minority immigrants. That’s 10 percent lower than the overall national figure. I’ll admit it felt a tad counterintuitive to me, given Quebec’s anti-religious symbols legislation and ongoing preoccupation about Muslims not fitting in. But the data speaks and it seems to be saying that, maybe, Quebec has a marginally better attitude than the rest of Canada.

The data was also broken down by party affiliation. That insight proved to be both contentious and distressing: of Liberal supporters, some 15 percent of people polled felt there were too many visible minority immigrants, down by more than half from 2013 when it was 34 percent. On the Conservative side, the number was a whopping 69 percent, up from 47 percent in 2013. So, while national numbers haven’t changed much and the general resistance to immigrants, including those of colour, is declining overall, what’s new is this massive gap between how the question was answered based on who Canadians support politically.

“The desire to keep people of colour out says something about the unwillingness to have Canada engage in a meaningful way with nations that don’t look like us.”

The question of whether people responding to the polling questions are actually racists or preoccupied with some other concern that manifests as a negative attitude toward visible minority immigrants is, I think, a separate consideration. The concern here, for me, is what this thinking says about Canadians’ desire — based on party affiliation — to be engaged in the world.

Attitudes toward immigration aren’t simply a problem of domestic policy. To be clear, anti-immigrant attitudes don’t just hurt some abstract future immigrant, they hurt Canadians and others inside these borders and create a climate of fear and intimidation. But such attitudes also signal a rejection of the outside world. The desire to keep people of colour out says something about the unwillingness to have Canada engage in a robust and meaningful way with nations that don’t look like us or, in our view, don’t have the kind of values we can respect.

Over the last decade we’ve seen a growth in populist authoritarianism throughout the world, with anti-immigrant agendas at the heart of the rhetoric that comes with that sort of populism. That same kind of rhetoric has gained traction in Canada as well. If Conservative voters are saying we don’t want “those” people here and it’s a position that both fuels and is fuelled by the growing exclusionary rhetoric of the Conservative Party, that is worrisome for the hope that a possible future Conservative government could come up with a foreign policy framework that engages deeply on questions about the world that Canada, or at least much of it, cares about.

Naheed Mustafa is an award-winning writer and broadcaster based in Toronto. She has been reporting from and about Afghanistan since 2008 for a variety of print and broadcast outlets in Canada and abroad.

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