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What kind of foreign policy do Canadians want?

The Canadian International Council brought more than 400 strangers together to talk about this country’s foreign policy. Here’s what they came up with.

By: /
15 July, 2021
Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Getty Images

When 444 Canadians convened virtually to deliberate on what kind of foreign policy they want their country to have, many concluded Canada must demonstrate ethical consistency between its domestic and international policies.

Participants wanted their country to be engaged in the world but — on topics ranging from social justice to gender equality, Indigenous rights and the environment — wanted Canada to look inward, too.

“We need to lead by example and let others see what we really are instead of preaching to other countries,” one participant said.

These results emerged from a deliberative democracy exercise called “Foreign Policy by Canadians” that took place in March and April of this year. It was run by the Canadian International Council (CIC), in collaboration with the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH), and Global Canada, a not-for-profit organization that aims to increase Canada’s international influence.

Organizers partnered with Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy, which designed the exercise — the first of its kind ever held in Canada.

Participants included Canadians from all walks of life, representing the country both demographically and geographically. They were polled beforehand, briefed by experts on foreign policy topics and then convened in small groups for eight to 12 hours of moderated discussion. Afterwards, they were polled again to see if their opinions had changed. Qualitative data were collected from the discussion’s transcripts. These results were then compared with those from a control group of 300 people who did not take part in the briefings or moderated discussions.

Increased faith in Canada’s democracy

Exercise results also suggest that Canadians grow more optimistic about Canada’s democracy when they engage with those they may not agree with. Before the deliberative sessions, under 70 per cent of Canadians said they had faith in Canada’s system of democracy. After, this increased to 80 per cent.

“[Deliberative polling] goes together to create a context in which people are respectful and they seek compromise, because they see the value of working with each other. And they actually end up, even in these relatively small exercises, caring about each other,” said Anne McLellan, a former Liberal cabinet minister and deputy prime minister of Canada, who co-chaired the exercise’s advisory group of former politicians and civil society practitioners.

“Over the course of the deliberation, trust in citizens with opposing views, tolerance of disagreement and openness to compromise all increased.”

Over the course of the deliberation, trust in citizens with opposing views, tolerance of disagreement and openness to compromise all increased.

“Perhaps people were surprised that the reality of discussing an issue isn’t what it’s like on social media. It’s not that instantaneous attack where somebody finally retreats and doesn’t continue to engage. This allowed them to — and, in fact, kind of made them — stay in the room to have the conversation,” said Lisa Raitt, a former Conservative cabinet minister and deputy leader of the opposition, who also co-chaired the exercise’s advisory group.

James Fishkin, the director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University and the political scientist who first developed “Deliberative Polling,” said it’s the engagement among participants that sets deliberative polling apart from regular opinion polls.

“When people think their voice matters and they open up and learn to listen to each other, the whole process takes on legitimacy. People go beyond soundbites and they find out that there are real people with human concerns on the other side of those issues.”

What were the results?

Participants deliberated on four foreign policy areas: global public health, dignity, security and prosperity. In each of the areas, they said Canada should maintain consistency between its foreign and domestic policy.

Health

Deliberations took place during the third wave of COVID-19. Participants discussed international travel restrictions and vaccine sharing. Eighty-four per cent wanted to maintain international travel bans from high-risk countries until most Canadians were vaccinated. Pre-deliberation, 53 per cent supported sharing COVID-19 vaccines with developing nations while distributing them in Canada, a figure which rose slightly to 56 per cent after the issue was discussed.

Post deliberations, seventy per cent supported a proposal to allow the World Health Organization (WHO) to inspect countries when an outbreak is suspected. Sixty-four per cent supported increased mandatory contributions to the WHO, with a demand that the organization demonstrate stewardship and accountability to ensure that the funds are suitably used.

In 2019, the WHO collected approximately $429 million in assessed, or mandatory, contributions from member states. Canada’s assessed contributions in 2019 totalled approximately $18 million.  

While 68 per cent supported an increase in funding for global health initiatives post deliberation, participants worried that Canada isn’t doing enough to improve women’s and children’s health within Canada, especially among Indigenous people.

According to Julia Anderson, CEO of CanWaCH, this doesn’t reflect a lack of care among Canadians for the health of women and children abroad, but rather a sense of humility and an understanding that Canada has work to do at home, too.

Dignity

Participants were generally supportive of the ideas that Canada should promote human rights and dignity around the world, but several emphasized that Canada must focus on tackling inequality and injustice in Canada before pursuing social change overseas.

Post-deliberation, 89 per cent of Canadians supported the idea that Canadian companies overseas should abide by the same human rights standards as they do in Canada. Eighty-eight per cent also believed these companies should meet the same environmental standards abroad as in Canada.

Security

Participants were keen for Canada to invest in its security, including digital security. Participants recognized that cyberattacks can compromise Canada’s democratic system, which must be defended. However, they were also cautious about too much government intervention, fearing surveillance and state censorship.

There was also strong consensus to increase Canada’s security presence in the Arctic — to defend Canada’s sovereignty from encroachment by foreign actors such as Russia and China, but also to defend the human security of Indigenous populations in the region.

Post deliberation, for example, 88 per cent of participants supported that Canada should improve economic and food security in the Arctic region for the Indigenous populations.

Prosperity

Participants wanted Canada to maintain its ability to trade freely, especially with the United States, but they also supported greater diversification in trading partners, including in Asia where participants expressed wariness about China and its growing economic clout.

There was a strong endorsement of the ideas that Canada should embrace digital innovation to grow its economy and to transition to clean energy sources as soon as it is practical to do so. In the meantime, participants thought Canada should partner with oil and gas companies because profits might be used to help finance a transition to green energy, and because the industry’s insights into how the energy sector might evolve is valuable.

Indigenous issues

Although it wasn’t a thematic area of discussion, participants brought up topics related to Indigenous peoples throughout the exercise.

“In reviewing the transcripts, Indigenous issues — poverty, inequality and resilience — were organically raised in group after group after group,” Anderson said. This desire to prioritize Indigenous rights was often layered on top of the belief that Canada’s domestic policies must reflect its international rhetoric.

“It’s this idea that we need to walk the talk in Canada,” said Anderson. “And that desire for consistency was across political stripes. It was across all the jurisdictions within Canada.”

Read James Fishkin, the pioneer of deliberative polling, on Foreign Policy by Canadians, a unique experiment in deliberative democracy.

A full report on the results of Foreign Policy by Canadians can be read here.

July 19, 2021: This article has been updated to correct figures concerning assessed contributions to the WHO in 2019. 

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