10 foreign policy questions for Canada’s leaders

Some necessary, some inevitable, others often ignored — these are the foreign policy questions we hope make it into the 2015 election campaign.

By: /
September 28, 2015
The Centennial Flame is pictured with Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 21, 2011 REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Earlier this month, OpenCanada.org published a report looking at Canada’s global engagement. By measuring spending on development assistance and defence, authors Robert Greenhill and Meg McQuillan showed that Canada’s engagement, among its international peer group, ranks last and is the lowest “in modern Canadian history.”

Since the report, and increasingly as Monday’s Munk Debate on Foreign Policy approached, a similar consensus has emerged — Canada’s foreign policy has changed over the last nine years under the leadership of Stephen Harper.

“Gone is the almost serially neutral Canada that defined itself as a peacemaker and mediator,”wrote The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon this past weekend.

Former head of CBC News Tony Burman went further, calling present-day Canada “inward and self-absorbed” but rightly questioned the assumption that Canadians don’t care about global issues, and that voters are preoccupied most with policies affecting their personal finances.

Will Canada’s foreign policy influence voters on Oct. 19? If so, what kind of global engagement do Canadians want to see their country take part in or lead?

Some recent commentaries have attempted to answer that. Derek Burney and Fen Hampsonargued it is not simply a question of “more” engagement. A group of academics, including pioneering researcher on Canadian foreign policy, Kim Richard Nossal, co-authored a call for a way forward that did not simply try to mimic “past glories” (think Canada as a nation of peacekeepers).

Undoubtedly, Canada’s current and prospective Prime Ministers need to address some serious questions on the Canada they want to build going forward.

With that in mind, here are the questions we hope make it into Monday’s debate, and into the overall dialogue between now and Election Day. (Watch the debate live here.)

  1. Should Canada be selling arms to Saudi Arabia?
    The $14.8-billion deal was the largest military exports contract in Canadian history. Was it ethical? Read 10 facts to know about the deal here.
  2. Is Bill C-51 justified?
    In his essay earlier this year, Ron Deibert wrote that terrorism bill C-51 will take Canada in a “dramatically different direction than we need to go.” Justin Trudeau supported the legislation but then called his position “naïve.” Do supposed security threats justify such measures? As it falls somewhere between domestic and foreign policy, debate over this bill cannot be left out of this campaign.
  3. What is Canada’s role at COP21?
    We are ignoring the biggest threat,” Green Party leader Elizabeth May said, referring to climate change, at a foreign policy panel in Ottawa in June. Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in late 2011, and its leadership on environmental issues has since been far from ideal. As a show of priorities, do our leaders envision Canada having a role at the December climate conference in Paris?
  4. What impact — positive and negative — has Operation Impact had?
    Earlier this month CBC’s Fifth Estate reported that an airstrike in Iraq in January may have had civilian causalities, but the Department of National Defence said there “were no substantive grounds to believe that civilians had been killed.” Still, it raised questions around oversight of the mission, and, further, what Canadians know of its success or possible failure. Even further, should Canada cease its involvement, as the NDP proposes, how would that transition be made?
  5. What is preventing Canada from accepting more Syrian refugees?
    While the government has announced it will scale up immigration personnel, there is still much more it can do. This will no doubt be part of Monday’s debate. (Valerie Percival offers a three-pronged approach, and numerous policies options, here).
  6. How do we explain Canada’s 2013 withdrawal from the UN drought convention, and UN disengagement in general?
    As 50 countries gather in New York to emphasize the importance of peacekeeping this week, Canada’s involvement with the United Nations remains a shadow of its former self. Omer Aziz called this a “strategic failure.”
  7. Should Canada’s maternal, newborn and child health initiatives continue? If so, in what form?
    Last year, Stephen Harper pledged an additional $3.5 billion over five years for his maternal, newborn and child health programs. Would a Liberal and NDP government continue the program?
  8. Will Canada revoke the visa requirement for Mexico?
    The visa requirement placed on Mexicans by the Harper government in 2009 has been criticized both at home and in Mexico. Criticism largely focuses on the visa’s negative impact on trade and politics, but it has avoided questioning that the visa is based on the premise there are very few “legitimate” refugees coming out of Mexico. Canada’s link to migration out of Mexico and Central America is often ignored but should be addressed (as I argued previously here).
  9. Is Canada’s lack of diplomacy with Iran related to its ties to Israel?
    Barack Obama’s legacy was cemented with foreign policy victories with both Cuba and Iran. On the latter, many asked why Canada did not follow suit and whether keeping its distance from Iran makes us a “global outlier.” Is it based on an alliance with Israel, as has been suggested, and if so, does that justify our current policy?
  10. What are the costs, as well as benefits, to Canada joining the Trans Pacific Partnership?
    Much of Stephen Harper’s foreign policy approach has been deemed “trade diplomacy” — a preference for partnerships through trade, rather than assistance. Discussions around the TPP have divided Canadians but also symbolize Canada’s Asia pivot. Will leaders openly discuss its pros and cons?