September 20, 2017 6:36 pm
Updated: September 21, 2017 6:55 pm

ANALYSIS: With second United Nations speech, Justin Trudeau goes where no Liberal PM has gone before

Trudeau explains why he devoted UN speech to First Nations issues

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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will address the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York City Thursday morning, and, in doing so, will be a perfect two-for-two at the UN.

That is to say, Trudeau has been Canada’s prime minister for the opening ‘leaders week’ for two United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) sessions and he has given a speech to the UNGA each time.

This, for Trudeau’s supporters, is a signal of Liberal virtue and, to hear Liberals tell it, a direct rebuke to the Harper Conservatives who preceded them in office and who, Liberals claim, disdained multilateral fora like the United Nations


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When Trudeau made his UN debut last year,  he and other Liberals were fond of telling anyone who would listen that “Canada was back” and, as evidence of that,  the prime minister was here in person, at the UNGA podium, to endorse the values of a multilateralist world order.

 

And yet, if you were to take the Liberals at their word that back-to-back prime ministerial speeches to the United Nations was evidence that ‘Canada is back’, the record would show that, well, Canada could not be ‘back’ because a Canadian prime minister was hardly ever there.

In the 72 United Nations General Assemblies since the organization’s creation in 1946, a Canadian prime minister has shown up to speak just twelve times. In almost all the other cases, it was the Canadian foreign minister, not the prime minister, who took the speaking slot at the UNGA assigned to Canada.

And the prime minister who has shown up most often to speak at a UNGA? That’s right: Stephen J. Harper, the Conservative that Liberals accuse of hating the United Nations more than anyone.

Harper spoke to the UNGA three times, in 2006, 2010, and 2014. (He also spoke in 2010, at a special session on the UN’s Millenium development goals but special sessions are different from general assembly sessions and are not necessarily held every year.)

Harper, like other prime ministers,  showed up at UN headquarters for a few days of the opening ‘leaders’ week’ of each year’s new General Assembly, usually held in mid to late September, every year he was prime minister but, like most prime ministers before him, would let his foreign affairs minister deliver Canada’s speech to the UNGA. (Harper missed ‘leaders week’ in 2008 and 2015 as he was busy fighting general elections in the fall of each of those years.)

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Trudeau Liberals who believe their approach to ‘leaders week’ at the United Nations is a return to Liberal traditions of the past will be disappointed to learn that, of the 12 speeches by Canadian prime ministers at the UNGA, seven of them were by conservatives. In fact, Harper, with three speeches, and Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker, with two UNGA speeches, are the only two prime ministers to speak more than once at UNGA.

Justin Trudeau, on Wednesday, will become the first Liberal prime minister in history to have made more than one UNGA speech.

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Delivering a UNGA speech, in which Canada typically lays out its broad view of the world, diagnosing pressing problems and recommending solutions, was something Justin Trudeau’s dad, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, never once bothered to do during his long time in office.

 

Trudeau, Sr. did speak to UN special assemblies on disarmament twice, in 1978 and again in 1982, but would always send his foreign affairs minister for the general assembly openings.

Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau speaks to a United Nations special assembly on disarmament on June 18, 1982.

UN Photo/Saw Lwin

Jean Chretien also had a long reign as prime minister. But Chretien would not deliver a UNGA speech until ten years into his run, in 2003.  Chretien, like P.E. Trudeau, did speak to some special assemblies such as one in 1995 marking the UN’s 50th anniversary and a UN Millenium Summit in 2000.

William Lyon Mackenzie King was the first Canadian prime minister to speak to a UNGA but he waited until the organization’s third general assembly in 1948.

King’s successor, Louis St. Laurent never delivered a speech to the UNGA as prime minister but St. Laurent did deliver two speeches as King’s minister for external affairs, at the first-ever general assembly in 1946 and again in 1947.

The record for most speeches to a United Nations General Assembly is six but that is a record that three men have reached.

Lester Pearson was the first to notch six when he spoke to the UNGA in 1963 but that was his one and only UNGA address as prime minister. The other five speeches Pearson delivered at the UNGA were while he was serving as the external affairs minister for Prime Minister St. Laurent.

P.E. Trudeau’s absence on the UNGA podium was filled by his external affairs minister Mitchell Sharp, who also delivered six speeches.

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Joe Clark had one chance, in 1979, to make a UNGA speech but he, too, sent his external affairs minister, Flora Macdonald instead. But Clark would end up tieing the mark set by Sharp and Pearson with six UNGA speeches of his own, all made while serving as Brian Mulroney’s external affairs minister.

Macdonald’s UNGA speech was the first speech by a Canadian woman to that assembly, one more on a long list of ‘firsts’ in Macdonald’s ground-breaking political career. In fact, the only other women to speak on Canada’s behalf at the UNGA are Barbara McDougall — serving as Mulroney’s external affairs ministers — and Kim Campbell.

Campbell also appears to be the only prime minister to address the UNGA in the midst of a general election campaign. She had called the election on Sept. 8, 1993, spoke at the UNGA on Sept. 29, and then took the Progressive Conservatives into electoral oblivion on Oct. 25.

Justin Trudeau is slotted to be the 12th of 39 speakers Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly and should begin sometime between 1 pm and 2 pm ET.

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