Canada Foreign Policy
A Story of Us, Them, a Loaf and the Crumbs
We’re not Americans. We’re just not like them, they tell me. The “they” are almost always my fellow Canadians. They usually add that it isn’t very productive to try to explain something, say a concept or identity, in negative terms, giving examples of things that demonstrate what isn’t rather than is. From there, they invariably go on to let me know, in a conversation that can last hours, just why we are unlike the people to the immediate South.
Sometimes, though not as often these days, I hear that we are similar to some groups. It used to be that a favourable comparison with Australia might crop up. The resemblances were and are striking, they’d say. The list could include: historical ties with Great Britain; parliamentary government; lingering relations with the British monarchy; one country being founded on crime and the other having an existing social welfare system unable to claim relevance without rampant lawlessness; agriculture; resource based economies; small populations spread over vast territories with the majorities concentrated in large cities; and even unique flora and fauna, if one recalls that the Queen Charlotte Islands species found in British Columbia are as distinct as those of the Galapagos. With all this, and even more in common, the peoples and cultures just have to be fundamentally alike. Well, here I’m not so sure.
Long before becoming a mainstream Hollywood trademark and international icon, actor Mel Gibson worked in Australia, making Gallipoli
in 1981. That film, perhaps the most important made Down Under, examines the Australian role in one of the seminal campaigns of the First World War. What that picture did was to chronicle Australian support for the British Empire, and that specific showdown in the Ottoman territories. It examined how the British relied not just on Australian resources, but the human effort. The Aussie troops, during the course of the movie, were transformed from young men coming from the colonial outposts they called home into raw resources needed by a war machine. The film made clear, and in very eloquent fashion, that while the Australians were loyal, brave, and lived up to their commitments, above expectations, they came to feel that all was not quite right with their country’s defining major relationship in the world. It was during conflict that Australians either came to learn or came to vocalize that all was not right with their colonial identity. There was, in other words, something inherent in the great military campaign that was not entirely glorious, in fact something which more than degraded the value of Australian nationhood, statehood, self-awareness. That this feeling was not confined to either a few elites or marginalized segments of the public is manifested in the very fact that Gallipoli
Well, all that’s fine, they may say. Canadians have had problems with imperialism, too. All was not right. Back in the 1920s and 1930s leaders attempted to find a greater voice for Ottawa at imperial gatherings. It wasn’t until much later that former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau ‘patriated’ our Constitution. So what’s the point?
It seems to me that the central issue is the wider public reaction to participation in the affairs of the outside world, feelings and sentiments buttressed by popular culture. The Australians, plain and simple, have come to either the conclusion or realization that being passive in the face of accepting a supporting role in foreign affairs may be counterproductive, or, perhaps, not in the national interest. Therein may be where any notion of a profound similarity between our two nations disintegrates. While Canadians have distinguished themselves in numerous conflicts, among them the two World Wars, that sense of resentment has not piqued the masses, perhaps not been felt, at least across English Canada. When history is mentioned, the story is of the laudable accomplishments, with figures, insofar as they have become part of the lore, lionized, and insusceptible to any form of doubt that might impact national identity. Billy Bishop, perhaps Canada’s most famous warrior, and renowned First World War flying ace, may represent, whenever his biography is rendered, the outstanding example of how sacrosanct notions of service to Empire remain.
What this means is, and this is certainly an oversimplification, though not a proposition without merit, that the tradition Canada has of participation in world affairs, and the glorification of that involvement, is confined to uncovering that supporting role. Do Canadian leaders venture into the world, believing they seek to mould international opinion? They do, I suppose, though being aggressive in the search for that supportive niche may not constitute any ability to shape global realities. Take Prime Minister Paul Martin’s recent trip abroad, where he once again advocated broadening out the G7/G8 to include a much wider representation, the idea of a G20. Among the states that need to be brought into the fold are those of Latin America, chiefly Brazil, and so argues Martin. Yet I suppose this is pressing for what already may be a fait accompli
, and arguably as useful as backing recognition that night follow day. But the real question is: does Brazil even need Ottawa-based advocacy, and if so how? According to a recent piece filed by reporter Andrew Hay [see Reuters, 19 October 2004], Brazil is proving adept at handling and presenting its own case: “Brazil hopes to achieve its aspirations through the geopolitical back door by, for example, leading a peacekeeping mission to Haiti, proposing a global war on hunger at the United Nations and trying to maintain regional political stability…[There are dreams of] greater global influence that will strengthen Brazil's hand in trade disputes, boost the self esteem of Brazilians and ultimately help its economy to grow… Brazil hopes such power will be manifested in it gaining a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and invitations to join clubs for powerful nations such as the Group of Eight.”
What all of this suggests is that in Canada foreign affairs are dealt with only insofar as paying attention to such details allows for the freeing up of resources and effort to dwell on what may be the defining aspect of our national identity: brokering internal differences that threaten the fabric of the Confederation. There remains much in the world that impacts Canada: a recent submarine tragedy stemming from the purchase of equipment from the United Kingdom cost a sailor his life; some British sources claim now their government may have known about the subs’ serious defects some eleven years ago; and, some reports are now hinting that Ottawa caved to pressure from Washington, bought the vessels, and agreed to do so because they were needed in training exercises.
With much going on, the focus in Ottawa seems to have clearly shifted to the domestic. The press is concentrating coverage on news of Paul Martin’s plans for asserting control over his Liberals. While he may have gained the upper hand over his legislative caucus, there are questions about a leadership review and his standing in the Party. Days ago one report revealed that “An experiment in Liberal party democracy that degenerated into vicious internal battles has now been cancelled, Prime Minister Paul Martin told his troops Wednesday. Martin did an about-face Wednesday and told his caucus he was ending the policy of allowing newcomers to challenge incumbent MPs for their ridings…Martin's nomination experiment led to divisive and unseemly feuds marked by threats of libel lawsuits, accusations of ballot-stuffing, and party stalwarts being turfed or simply quitting politics” [quoted in “Martin shuts down nomination battles to avoid repeat of bitter Liberal fights,” by Alexander Panetta, CP, 27 October 2004]. Meanwhile, news has surfaced that Quebec Premier Jean Charest will in just a few weeks participate in meetings with world leaders and heads of state, events that may cause some to charge that the lowly premier is in fact taking it upon himself to act as a representative of a country. Yet in the Canada of October 2004 it is not Charest who is the anti-federalist. The separatist du jour
may just turn out to be Danny Williams, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, who recently bowed out of a First Ministers meeting in Ottawa over a dispute with the Federal government and its claim of royalty revenues from that province’s offshore oil resources. Williams told a St. John’s press conference: “We are not prepared to have Ottawa keep the loaf and give us the crumbs” [cited in “Newfoundland Premier Invokes Historic Grievance Amid Fight with Ottawa,” Canadian Press, 27 October 2004].
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From Russia With, Well, Could it be Love?
What comes to mind if somebody mentions a legislature where party ties really don’t matter all that much? How about an assembly where issues of substance meet up with symbolic votes? Under such circumstances would you reminisce about totalitarianism? Would you think maybe that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin woke up this morning, overcome by nostalgia for the bad old Soviet days? Well, none of the above, if you can follow where I’m going. I’m thinking of Canada in October 2004.
The past four weeks have been busy for Prime Minister Paul Martin. He spent some time on the road, visiting with leaders in France and Russia. As is customary, most of the domestic media either underreported the trip, or mentioned it only in passing. No sooner had Martin returned to the Great White North than headlines exploded with what many got confused over, assuming the whole thing amounted to some foreign policy issue of much gravitas. On 18 October 2004 news broke that the Prime Minister had agreed to hold a Commons vote on the prospect of Canada’s role in the missile defense project [and all citations that follow are from various Canadian Press, CP, reports of 18 October 2004]. Immediately there was speculation that this might constitute some milestone in Canadian foreign affairs. Few seemed, at least at first, to take Martin at his word when he said any such vote would be symbolic in nature, and not really of much importance. To his credit, Martin did say, very clearly, “I think if you look at my own speech in the House on that issue [missile defense], I essentially said that we're very open to a debate.” Observant reporters also did acknowledge that any such vote in the legislature could not bind Cabinet, which has the exclusive right to accede to treaties.
So what was the whole issue with the missile defense vote all about? On the surface, it may appear an effort to salvage the minority government in the face of opposition pressure and reluctance to accept the recent Throne Speech. There were threats that an early election would be forced if concessions weren’t made to the opposition parties. The Tories demanded five key points, and seemingly won. They required that:
“The Commons human resources committee propose ways to ensure that all future use of the employment insurance program be for the benefit of workers and not for any other purpose;
Further reduction of the tax burden on low and modest income families, consistent with the government's commitment to balanced budgets and sound fiscal management;
The Commons finance committee propose independent fiscal forecasting for parliamentarians and that any resulting advice be considered;
The Commons House affairs committee recommend a process for citizens and parliamentarians to examine and review options to the current electoral system;
Parliament consider all public information and then vote on a proposed ballistic missile defence agreement with the United States.”
So after meeting with officials from the New Democrats, the Bloc, and the Conservatives, did the Liberals just cave in whenever the Tories expressed their desires? No, that’s far from the case, though perhaps first appearances suggest that did occur. First, Martin is not unsympathetic to Canadian participation when it comes to missile defense, and even suggesting there is a chance that a Commons vote may take place sends the signal to Washington that the United States need not worry about political isolation when the discussion is about projectiles in space. Second, and perhaps key, this whole affair is of great importance for what did not happen. That is, disaffected Liberal Member of Parliament Carolyn Parrish failed to grab media attention. Does this, then, suggest that the PM is now closer to isolating if not eliminating the cadre of pro-Chretien holdovers that continues to dog him? This is very likely. If you are Parrish, and at this point have not formed an alliance with, say, more than a few dozen or so like-minded MPs, why raise your voice? Your ability to destabilize an accord with the Tories is, at least at present, nonexistent. Martin, with maybe a hundred loyalists and the tacit support of most if not all the members of the Conservative caucus, can govern, and for some time. Periodic concessions in the form of funding social policy initiatives may have to be made to placate critics and public opinion, but as long as the Bloc can be soothed with promises of autonomy for the provinces, spending can be restrained.
In short, seeming to collapse in the face of the Tories’ five-point plan was all about domestic politics, though missile defense got the attention. Martin was able to consolidate his influence over the current Liberal caucus, and his ability to work with Stephen Harper showed there are far fewer, if any, differences between Paul Martin and the Tories than may have existed between ideological conservatives and Liberals when Jean Chretien was PM.
Does what happened in October mean that voters should inform themselves of how the ideological dynamic in this country has shifted under Martin’s guidance of national affairs? Will a vote for the Liberals in any upcoming election be a symbolic ballot for Stephen Harper? If most of the public divides its interest between the Liberals and Conservatives, will the very act of voting become symbolic?
So in closing, I’m grateful that when Martin and Putin met, there were no toasts to Beria, and for the fact the leaders resisted any possible temptation to pay homage to Matt Monro. While the legacy bequeathed by former PM Brian Mulroney, US President Ronald Reagan, and their smiling Irish eyes is safe, for now, the same cannot be said for Canada’s relevance on the world stage. How Martin’s trip abroad exposed Canada’s weakness shall be explored within the next few weeks.
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Rafe Mair, a former provincial cabinet minister and now British Columbia’s preeminent broadcaster, has much to say about Canada. With his permission, I’m posting the text of one of his recent and most important, no-nonsense commentaries. Rafe’s editorial aired first on Vancouver’s Radio 600am on 14 October.
If you’re in or near British Columbia, you can hear Rafe weekdays from 0830-1030hrs. He can also be heard on the web at http://www.600am.com/
and his writings can be found at http://www.rafeonline.com/
“A few days ago I said, jokingly, one of the things British Columbians are angry at is that none of the Federal slush comes into our hands. For example, how come our ad executives don’t get payola as they do in Quebec? Maybe it’s no joke!
There can surely be no better argument for proportional representation – something Jean Chretien promised in the 1991 election, and was never heard of again – that the central Canada thievery of public funds that is a chronic epidemic. We know now, as if we didn’t know all along, that Chretien himself got Sponsorship money and it now appears that the truth will be soon out that Paul Martin knew full well about the scandal despite his plaintive wails to the contrary. It’s not just the Liberals of course. Stevie Cameron’s book on the Mulroney years, On The Take
, still makes good reading and it is worthy of note that notwithstanding the hard accusations, no one sued. No one sued over the Last Amigo
which all but directly accused Brian Mulroney of taking bribes from Karl Heinz Schreiber. We now know that Mulroney, just after leaving office, got $300 thousand from Schreiber, tried to get the story spiked and, except for a few lines in the Toronto Globe and Mail
and the National Post
What would it take to shed some light on the filth in Ottawa? No one suggests that it can be stopped but it can at least be exposed.
Exposure will never prevail as long as the Liberals and Tories exchange governments with the Liberals having most of them. It won’t change with the NDP, remote as their election is, as we learned last week from Jack Layton’s reluctance to accept that equalization to Quebec was little short of bribery to keep the separatists at bay.
What PR, or some variation of it, will provide is minority governments most of the time. This will ease off party discipline so that Western Canadian MPs will be able to ask questions that have hitherto been shut down by Party whips.
It’s true that coalitions could provide governments that are also whipped because they want to stay in government but coalitions have not been a Canadian tradition and I suspect that any coalition that inflicted hard line party discipline would be harshly dealt with by the electorate.
I’m going to talk more about this as days pass because a pretty good guess is that the Electoral Commission will recommend some form of PR so that we’ll be voting on it next May.
What this country needs is strong regional representation, something it’s never had. We must break up the prime ministerial dictatorship, the power of which is wielded by faceless, unelected political hacks in the Prime Minister’s office. It’s from the PMO that the corruption comes, or, to put the best face on it, the PMO is where information about government slush is stopped.
PR will develop a very different parliamentary culture … especially if while PR is implemented a proper, democratic system of selecting party lists is also introduced.
I don’t think that most Canadians realize just how entrenched the Liberals are in Ottawa. It is so deeply entrenched that many of the terrible goings-on never see the light of day, often because the Opposition, hoping to be in government themselves, doesn’t want to give the Liberals ammunition whilst in opposition.
What this country must have is a giant enema. We must go back to zero and start from scratch. There is nothing worth preserving in our system whether it be appointment of judges, appointment of directors of Federal Boards, commissions and Crown Corporations, appointment of Senators, power in the PMO, and it goes … it’s a very long list indeed.
There must be a federal electoral commission much like the one our premier had the guts to implement. The danger, of course, is that federal parties will so inhibit the free wheeling debate that must take place within that commission, that they will pull their punches.
I believe the Canadian public is ready for reform … and I close today with a warning I have issued many times before – don’t expect perfection or anything like it. The closest to a perfect constitution you will find in this world is that of the United States and because it is run by greedy people, it has been subverted by bribery.
We cannot permit perfection to be the enemy of improvement … and it’s improvement, and plenty of it, that this country needs.”
-Rafe Mair [editorial broadcast 14 October 2004].
Blogger Links Update
Just before I sign off for about a week or so, I’d like to add a few links that really ought to be consulted by anyone with a serious interest in global affairs. Some of my fellow bloggers offer up excellence with:
And after you’ve visited NathanHale, take a look at that think tank/society’s main webpage at
It’s the kind of thing that’s missing, and really needed in Canada.
seems to have struck a nerve with some readers. On 1 October 2004, Mr. John Lowe of northern British Columbia, wrote:
I just finished reading "Stupidy Rules!". Bravo and Thank You! This is a wonderful essay, and must rank among the best I've read in recent times.
With tongue in cheek and far greater precision than a smart bomb you target and illuminate what I can only describe as an increasingly significant feature of some nations' modern foreign policy. That is, as you point out, the tendency towards personalizing issues in macro social interaction. And to me, it is also about couching complexity and nuance in simple but stupid characterizations that play to emotions, make full and unabashed use of Stupidity and are easily associated with social "buttons". Powerful psychology! Which makes me wonder, is Mr. Bush stupid or is he sinister? Perhaps Chretien's aid got it wrong by characterizing Bush as a moron. Or maybe I'm just too stupid.
It is clear that much further study and analysis of stupidity has a high priority. This is a powerful force. I'm sure that those who master stupidity will wield great power.