2015 in Review: Canadian foreign policy moments to remember

With a change of government and a wave of global events, this was a significant year for Canada. Here are 10 moments you won’t want to forget.

By: /
December 24, 2015
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair take part in the Munk leaders' debate on Canada's foreign policy, September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

1. Feb. 3: John Baird steps down as Stephen Harper’s minister for foreign affairs

In a surprise move and after 20 years in politics, John Baird, Canada’s foreign minister since 2011, announced on February 3 that he would be stepping down from his post. Only eight months ahead of the October 2015 federal election, Baird’s decision was quite a blow to Harper, who had lost two powerful cabinet figures in just a year (Finance Minister Jim Flaherty resigned in April 2014, one month before his death.)

As foreign minister, Baird oversaw Canada’s diplomatic involvement in the war in Libya, was outspoken against Russia during the crisis in Ukraine, managed Canada’s participation in Operation Impact in Iraq and worked behind the scenes on the case of jailed Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy. Baird has since taken on a number of corporate appointments in the private sector.

2. June 18: Bill C-51 is approved

Following the October 2014 terror attacks in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the Conservative party introduced their controversial Anti-terrorism Act, known as Bill C-51. The bill expands the powers of the police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, giving them the ability to investigate threats outside of Canada and engage in joint operations with foreign partners.

Despite voting for the bill, upon taking office Justin Trudeau promised to repeal “problematic elements” of C-51. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has been tasked with creating a parliamentary committee that will have access to classified information needed to properly review government departments and agencies with responsibilities related to national security. Canadians will have to wait for 2016 to hear more specific details about which elements of the bill the Liberals will eliminate or change. 

3. July 26: Canada mourns Flora MacDonald, Canada’s first female foreign minister

Veteran Conservative politician Flora MacDonald’s death at 89 on July 26 was confirmed in a tweet by former Prime Minister Joe Clark, who wrote: “I mourn the passing of Flora MacDonald, whose compassion, leadership & example changed lives across our country & around the world.”

“If Flora MacDonald had been born 20 years later,” wrote Patrick Martin in The Globe and Mail, “she might well have been Canada’s first female prime minister. As it was, the Cape Breton-born politician…broke down the invisible door that barred women from high office in Canada.”

MacDonald was the first woman to run for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Despite losing to Joe Clark, who went on to be elected prime minister, she achieved another historical first, becoming the first female secretary of state for external affairs. She later received the Order of Canada and is remembered for her work as a great humanitarian

4. Sept. 2: Photo of Aylan Kurdi puts the refugee crisis — and Canada’s response — in the global spotlight

Proving that “page one” still retains some power in an era of dwindling newspaper sales, the photo of a Syrian toddler’s dead body washed up on a Turkish beach ignited a public conversation across Canada and across the world. In the throes of the federal election campaign, Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair were not only forced to comment on the photo but to put greater focus on what they would do in response to the refugee crisis if elected.

The current Liberal government remains committed to bringing at least 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by 2016, despite missing out on a December 31 deadline – though the number could be almost double. And Canadians’ support for incoming refugees has been lauded in the media around the world. 

5. Oct. 5: Historic Trans-Pacific Partnership agreed upon

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between Canada and 11 other Pacific Rim countries, was announced on October 5. On the campaign trail, Stephen Harper touted its virtues and considered it a legacy achievement, but the TPP failed to give the Conservative Party a needed boost on election day. With a new Liberal government, the future of the deal isn’t set in stone.

Here, Josh Scheinert breaks down the 6,000-page text. An initial signing between countries is set for February, but Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland doesn’t seem keen to rush towards ratification. 

6. Oct. 15: Death of Ken Taylor, ambassador to Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis

Former Canadian diplomat Ken Taylor was arguably Canada’s most internationally renowned ambassador. As the Iranian hostage crisis kicked off in 1979, Taylor made the decision to shelter six Americans who had escaped the takeover of their embassy in Tehran. He worked closely with Secretary Flora MacDonald and Prime Minister Joe Clark to engineer the Americans’ return home, and was awarded both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Order of Canada for his efforts. 

Following Taylor’s death on October 15 at the age of 81, Stephen Harper said in a statement: “Ken Taylor represented the very best that Canada’s foreign service has to offer.”

7. Oct. 19: Canada gets a new prime minister

Many Canadians hoped a new Liberal government headed by Justin Trudeau would repair and restore their country’s image on the world stage, after the alternatingly bellicose and withdrawn foreign policy of Stephen Harper. High on the list of the Liberals’ foreign policy agenda is re-engaging with the United Nations, taking climate change seriously and improving Canada’s relationship with the Obama administration. 

A whirlwind tour of international engagements proved successful in both style and substance, though Trudeau will face a world full of global challenges in 2016.

With regards to Operation Impact, Canada’s contribution to the coalition fighting against ISIS militants, on the campaign trail Trudeau promised: "We'd move away from the CF-18 [bombing] mission. [The Harper government] has failed miserably to demonstrate why the best mission for Canada is to participate in a bombing mission.” Within 24 hours of being elected, Trudeau had told President Barack Obama that Canada would be ending its participation in airstrikes.

Despite this early show of determination, Canada CF-18s remain in the region, with no solid recall date given. While Canadians wait for details, the debate over what Canada should be doing in the fight against ISIS continues. 

8. Nov. 4: The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development gets a new name and minister

With Justin Trudeau’s announcement of a new cabinet on November 4 came a few name changes for ministries, including the former (garbled) “DFATD” to “Global Affairs Canada.”

More than just a switch in acronym, this change can be taken to symbolize the greater aim of Trudeau and the Liberals: to differentiate themselves from the previous government, and to take on a more multilateralist foreign policy, in Pearsonian tradition.  

The name change itself has received some pretty positive feedback so far.

With the appointment of Stéphane Dion as Trudeau’s foreign minister, Canadians can expect changes in foreign policy, such as the recall of Canadian fighter jets from Iraq and more engagement in the United Nations.

The difference in décor taste between John Baird and Dion has also manifested itself in the lobby of the headquarters of Global Affairs.

9. Nov. 6: The Obama administration rejects TransCanada’s application to build Keystone XL

This summer, former Prime Minister Harper was vocal in his criticism of the Obama administration’s failure to approve the Keystone pipeline project, in the works for seven years. Despite Harper’s opinion that approval was “inevitable,” the U.S. president announced on November 6 that the State Department had rejected the proposed pipeline.

Justin Trudeau expressed disappointment in the decision, though many commentators see it as both a blessing and a curse. The new prime minister will have to figure out a way to export oil sands-derived petroleum that jives with his government’s green agenda.

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion said: “We believe in development but it must be sustainable, including for the oil sands. It’s a challenge but we’ll do it with the industry, with the province of Alberta, we’ll do it altogether, we have no choice.”

10. Nov. 30 – Dec. 12: Canada sends unprecedented delegation to Paris for COP21

Even before attending this year’s climate conference, Justin Trudeau’s approach to COP21 was decidedly different than his predecessor’s – announcing that not only he himself would attend, but that he was extending the invitation to Canada’s first ministers.

Though it was too late to change the targets set by the Harper government before arriving in Paris, Trudeau told delegates that Canada “will take on a new leadership role internationally.” He has promised to host a meeting of first ministers within 90 days of the end of COP21, to create a strategy for combatting climate change in the wake of the historic Paris agreement