Right after Justin Trudeau led the Liberals to a strong victory in the 2015 federal election, he declared that he would also guide Canada back to its rightful place on the global stage in the aftermath of a decade under the Conservatives.
“To this country’s friends all around the world, many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world,” Trudeau told an ecstatic crowd in Ottawa that October.
“Well, I have a simple message for you. On behalf of 35 million Canadians: We’re back.”
With that, Trudeau laid the groundwork for his ambitious “sunny ways” agenda at home and abroad, likely not anticipating the seismic geopolitical shifts over the next couple of years that would put it through the ringer.
Four years later and just days until the 2019 federal election, political scientists and international relations experts are taking stock of Trudeau’s record on foreign policy and the unprecedented challenges that await whoever forms the next government.
“The changes have been so drastic and so wrenching that probably no government can fully keep up with them,” said Ben Rowswell, president of the Canadian International Council, a non-partisan think tank dedicated to Canada’s foreign relations. “We are into some pretty dangerous territory.”
“It’s the first time in 70 years that the international order has been under this kind of pressure.”
Trudeau made a number of bold moves in short order, among them promising to resettle 25,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq by the end of 2015. The multi-million dollar effort was met with some skepticism for its tight timeline and concerns over whether the system could handle the influx.
The prime minister personally met some of the first people to arrive at Toronto’s Pearson airport where they received toys and coats and boots to prepare for the cold winter months.
“You are home,” Trudeau said at the time. “Welcome home.”
The effort catapulted Trudeau into international headlines, alongside images of him with Syrian children in his arms, and stood in contrast to the anti-refugee sentiment seen in places like the U.S. One Jordanian news outlet dubbed Trudeau “Superman” and he received glowing praise from former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“Canada is not used to having a prime minister who’s a household name around the world. And he was, and he is,” said Drew Fagan, a public policy professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs who has worked on foreign policy for the previous federal Conservative government.
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“The values that he showed, and the country showed, early on in his mandate with regard to the resettlement of Syrian refugees did play a significant part to highlight a real success in Canada, which is immigrant resettlement and integration.”
Nearly 40,000 Syrians were resettled by the federal government by 2016. Though a recent report found that more than half of the refugees in this cohort have found employment and feel comfortable in their day-to-day living, many still struggle with feelings of isolation and challenges with a new language.
Last year, Canada had welcomed more refugees than any other country, taking in 28,100 of the 92,400 refugees resettled in 25 countries. This is just a fraction of the estimated 1.4 million refugees who were waiting for resettlement that year.
Trump vs. Trudeau
The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 marked the start of tense and sometimes volatile relations between Canada and the U.S., usually considered a formidable duo. It was the complete opposite of Trudeau’s brief “bromance” with former president Barack Obama.
“Everyone had to scramble after Donald Trump happened. That shuffled the cards for Canada,” Fagan said. “Trump has no sentimental view whatsoever with regard to Canada.”
It may not have helped that Trudeau appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 2017 with the headline “Why can’t he be our president?” and a rave feature story.
Trump eventually slapped tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum and threatened to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement, something that sent many exporters and diplomats into a frenzy.
The ensuing renegotiation of the trade pact reached a low point when, in the fall of 2018, Trump warned that any auto tariffs imposed by the U.S. would lead to “the ruination” of Canada.
Trump also told reporters at the UN General Assembly in New York that his administration was “very unhappy with the negotiations and the negotiating style of Canada. We don’t like their representative very much.”
He was referring to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was spearheading the trade delegation, and one of Trudeau’s star cabinet ministers.
Trump’s remarks followed insults he tweeted at Trudeau that summer at the end of the G7 Summit in Quebec. Trump left the summit early for Singapore to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and accused Trudeau of lying in a press conference.
“Justin Trudeau of Canada acted so meek and mild during our G7 meetings,” he wrote. “Very dishonest & weak.”
In the end, a new pact was agreed upon and renamed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA in the U.S. and CUSMA in Canada), referred to by Trump as “the most modern, cutting-edge trade agreement in history.”
In the midst of those hectic trade negotiations, Freeland got into a spat via Twitter with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in August 2018.
Until then, Canadian critique of Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record had generally been rebuffed without major flare ups, and Canada’s arms agreement with Saudi continues, though Trudeau has said it would be reviewed.
Saudi is Canada’s second-largest trade ally in the Middle East.
But Ottawa crossed the line in Riyadh’s eyes when Freeland sent a tweet that demanded the release of Saudi civil rights activists who had been detained. A second tweet in Arabic from Canada’s foreign affairs department reiterated this demand and called on the kingdom to “immediately” free other activists.
Within hours, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Canada, and put forward new trading bans, and accused Canada of meddling in its domestic matters. Flights between Toronto and Saudi Arabia were halted and scholarships for thousands of Saudi students in Canada were cancelled by the Saudi regime.
This incident is just one that points to the complex challenges faced by Canada and its allies.
“We’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do,” said Rowswell of the Canadian International Council. “You’ve got an increasingly aggressive and hostile China. You’ve got countries that are very openly flaunting longstanding norms of international affairs, like Saudi Arabia openly challenging Canada’s defence of human rights and trying to make an example of us.”
Rowswell added that Canada is still a “long way from being out of hot water when it comes to the threats to the international order.”
The brick wall of China
For Lynette Ong, a political science professor at the University of Toronto whose current research focuses on China’s state repression and the resistance among its citizens, Canada’s relationship with China has “transformed” over the last four years.
“I saw the relationship go from one extreme, which was very limited engagement under Harper and the Conservatives, to embracing China,” Ong said.
Shortly after Stephen Harper became prime minister in 2006, he said that his government would not compromise on Canadian values by shying away from criticizing China’s human rights record in order to improve trade.
Harper’s remarks came after former Chinese President Hu Jintao reportedly declined to meet with the Conservative leader during an economic summit in Vietnam.
“Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values,” Harper said.
“They don’t want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar.”
Ong said the shift under Trudeau has been especially noticeable on the economic front when it comes to pursuing stronger trade relations. Toward the end of 2018, Trudeau outlined his intention to seal a free-trade deal with China, in spite of a clause in the USMCA that allows partners to exit the agreement if one partner forms a free-trade deal with a “non-market” nation like China.
“The pendulum swung from one end to the other,” she said. “And then we had the Huawei incident. And I think we’ve really hit a brick wall.”
Last December, RCMP officers detained Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of China’s giant telecom company Huawei, while she was travelling through the Vancouver airport. They were responding to a request from the U.S. to extradite Meng, who is currently released on bail pending extradition proceedings in court. The U.S. has accused her of violating sanctions against Iran.
She has vehemently denied the accusations. China subsequently detained two Canadians in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. The arrests of the two Michaels are seen as retaliatory measures and have been denounced by Canada and other allies as arbitrary and cruel. China also blocked certain trade imports from Canada.
“The world has paused to think about how to deal with China. Canada is also doing the same,” Ong said. “Before Huawei, the Liberals were a little bit naive on China.”
Ong likened China to a “very big elephant” with many sides to it.
“Trudeau was either intentionally or unintentionally willing to pay attention to only one side of China, which is that it’s a growing economic power, with huge markets to offer Canadian businesses,” she said. “But there’s another side of China that is increasingly authoritarian … that side of China, Canada under Trudeau has not paid enough attention to.”
Stephanie Carvin, a professor in international relations at Carleton University, said that China-Canada relations from the outset of the Trudeau-era to present, have done a 180.
“On the foreign policy side, I think there have been a lot of missteps. I always thought the trade deal with China would be a terrible idea,” she said.
In terms of how Canada should proceed with navigating the soured relations, that requires care and caution. “People say we need to hit back and make our point. No, China is 100 times bigger than we are. It would just not make any sense for us to overreact in such a way that aggravated the situation further.”
At a fundraiser last month for Etobicoke-Lakeshore Conservative candidate Barry O’Brien, Conservative MP and the party’s shadow foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole warned that Canada’s place in the world has deteriorated over the last four years.
“The ‘Canada is back’ tagline is probably the biggest failure of Justin Trudeau’s time as prime minister,” said O’Toole, who was O’Brien’s special guest that evening, in an interview.
“We have never actually had more diplomatic disputes and declining relationship with countries ever in our history.”
He pointed to the months that had gone by in which Canada did not have a permanent ambassador in China, following the firing of John McCallum. He also pointed to the 1,500 tonnes of Canadian garbage that had been sitting in a Philippines port for years. President Rodrigo Duterte alleged that it had been shipped there illegally. In May, the garbage was eventually shipped back to Canada.
O’Toole quoted former Canadian foreign minister John Manley, who served under Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien, who said in 2018 in the wake of the Meng extradition affair that he didn’t think “Canada has ever been more alone in the world than it is today.”
Leah Sarson, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, said that the Trudeau government has developed a strong reputation internationally for its support of gender-related initiatives around the world.
Former U.S. president Barrack Obama this week tweeted out his support for Trudeau, saying the world needs his “progressive leadership.”
However, Canada’s overall spending on development assistance under the Liberals has declined to below what is was under Harper, and the lowest it has been in 50 years, she said.
“The benchmark for official development assistance is 0.7 per cent of gross national income, but Canada is sitting at about 0.27 per cent,” she said. “And when you compare that to other countries that are vying for a seat on the UN Security Council, like Norway which is sitting at 0.94 per cent, it’s pretty easy to see the ways in which Canada has not lived up to those claims.”
Under Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s foreign policy proposal, the percentage of Canada’s gross national income that would go towards official development assistance would be slashed to around 0.21 per cent.
“An abysmal number,” Sarson said.
For Rowswell, any government will have to contend with whether it wants to put up the funds to support Canada’s presence internationally. “Any government of Canada is going to have to increase spending if they want to respond to the increasing threats to international order.”
“And that means increasing international assistance, increasing defence spending, and increasing spending on diplomacy,” he said.
“We know that Canadians are worried about international affairs and are looking for ambition from their parties, and they just have not received that in this campaign.”