Election 2019: The Canadian foreign policy issues to watch

With less than a year to go before the next federal election, OpenCanada's new election-watch series aims to keep track of the issues that will — or should — be front and centre.

From left: Justin Trudeau (REUTERS/Amr Alfiky); General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ont. (REUTERS/Chris Helgren); member of Canadian forces (REUTERS/Chris Wattie); and Chrystia Freeland (REUTERS/Chris Wattie).

Canada’s minister of democratic institutions officially set the stage Tuesday for the months of election campaigning ahead, by appointing former Governor General David Johnston to serve as an independent commissioner of televised leaders’ debates. 

No dates were set for such debates but it was a clear signal the government is gearing up for the election, now less than a year away. Should it be held as scheduled, the vote will take place October 21, 2019. 

As party leaders start to test out campaign pitches, we’re asking: how will foreign policy factor in? 

In the lead-up to the election, our election-watch columnists will keep tabs on the issues that Canadians will or should hear more about. Here, kicking off our series, Andrew Potter, Stéfanie von Hlatky and Naheed Mustafa preview those that should matter, from electoral integrity and feminist foreign policy to defence missions and migration.

Potter: Curveball is foreign interference

“Because it’s 2015!”

Was it only yesterday that a smirking Justin Trudeau spoke these words, explaining why his newly-formed cabinet had an equal number of men and women?

Not yesterday exactly, just three years. But it feels like a political lifetime ago, a hopscotch back to an era when it seemed like there wasn’t much wrong with Canada or with its place in the world that couldn’t be resolved through sunny ways optimism and a hefty dose of “Canada is back!” sloganeering. The world needed more Canada, and the Trudeau-led Liberals were itching to provide it.

They were going to re-engage with the global effort against climate change, schmooze Canada’s way back onto the UN Security Council, get back into the peacekeeping game. And along the way, they would find a way to “renew and repair our relationships with our North American partners,” as the Liberal campaign platform sharply declared.

All platforms hand a number of hostages to fortune, especially on the foreign policy front; events, dear boy, events and all that. But few have seen the fates turn on them so viciously. When the Liberals came to power, Barack Obama was preparing to hand the keys to the White House over to Hillary Clinton. Brexit, Donald Trump, and the whole global populism thing were a year in the future. By all expectations, it looked like clear sailing for Trudeau’s brand of global liberalism.

"All of this is set against the background of a mainstream media ecosystem that is in increasingly poor health."

Yet as all the parties gear up for what will be, effectively, a year-long campaign, it would be an understatement to say that things haven’t gone quite as the governing party planned.

It won’t be enough this time around to run against Stephen Harper’s supposed Little Canada tendencies. Our international climate change commitments are being sandbagged by the predictable federal/provincial wrangling. Relations with our North American partners are barely civil. Mali is in a frightening state of deterioration, which puts our peacekeeping mission there in a precarious position. Relations with Saudi Arabia are an ongoing economic and political problem. We aren’t likely to get on the UN Security Council any time soon. The military is going to spend the next year consumed by the court case against Vice Admiral Mark Norman, the former vice-chief of defence staff accused of leaking secrets.

And if all that weren’t enough, there’s the whole issue of foreign meddling in elections, the role of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in facilitating such meddling, the security of our democratic IT systems against hacking, and the general role of evolving media technologies in undermining the integrity of the electoral process. All of this is set against the background of a mainstream media ecosystem that is in increasingly poor health. If public statements from their own executives are to be believed, there is a real possibility that either Postmedia or Torstar might be forced to seek bankruptcy protection in the midst of a federal election campaign.

The Liberals are keenly aware of these threats, of course, and are preparing to announce a series of countermeasures aimed at monitoring foreign interference and ensuring the integrity of the election.

This intersection of hard foreign policy issues, the prospect of foreign interference and the security of the electoral system is shaping up as one of the most significant themes of the coming year. By all appearances, 2019 won’t be giving any of our leaders much to smirk about.

von Hlatky: Canada's feminist foreign policy not quite there

Ahead of the opening of the UN General Assembly in September, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland played host to the Women Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and announced a new ambassador position for Women, Peace and Security, which she characterized as “a big step forward for our feminist foreign policy.”

But if that paints an overly optimistic picture, the response from the leader of the new People’s Party of Canada (PPC), Maxime Bernier, might be an indication of what is to come during the electoral campaign: “More crazy identity politics from Liberals and millions wasted on international chitchat,” he tweeted, asking, “Are peace and security gender issues now?”

Regardless of how you might feel about the question, if you look for Canada’s feminist foreign policy online for an answer, you will not find it. Instead, you will discover that Canada’s feminist foreign policy is an amalgamation of Canada’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, the Feminist International Assistance Policy and a defence policy which grapples with the lack of diversity in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). What these policy guidelines attempt to do is to increase the participation and visibility of women on the global stage and to incorporate a gender perspective in the delivery of international programing.

"The government will have to work harder to showcase its feminist foreign policy’s achievements."

Opposition parties will not hold back on criticism. Parties on the right, like Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives and Bernier’s PPC, are likely to disparage Trudeau’s foreign policy as one that is hijacked by international organizations, such as the UN. On the left, the New Democratic Party and Green Party are sympathetic to promoting feminist principles and gender equality goals as part of Canada’s foreign policy, but point out what they see as inconsistencies in its implementation, like selling armoured vehicles to a repressive Saudi regime and Canada’s decision to withhold support (along with its NATO allies) from the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Regardless of critiques from the opposition, the government will have to work harder to showcase its feminist foreign policy’s achievements. Trudeau’s Liberals have played it safe when it comes to defining Canada’s role abroad, by making high-visibility but low-risk commitments to NATO, UN and US-led missions and activities in places like Latvia, Mali and Iraq, respectively. The bigger challenge in the lead-up to the election will be explaining to a skeptical audience what a feminist foreign policy actually is and what it has delivered beyond photo ops with Angelina Jolie.

Mustafa: Global issues closer to home than ever

Conflict and crisis in various forms surround us but, on a global level, direct and open discussion of foreign policy seems to be harder to come by. We are decades past the time when complexity “over there” — whether coming from political change, social turmoil or outright war — didn’t affect Canada “over here” unless Canada chose to get involved. Now, conflict and its consequences have a way of touching shores far away from their epicentre. Foreign policy was never some abstract consideration but it seems even more difficult to make the claim that we need not be concerned with what’s happening in the world.

There are a dizzying number of issues Canadians should be concerned with in the Middle East and South Asia, for example. The war and famine in Yemen; the ongoing war in Afghanistan; religious and political persecution in Pakistan; the now-mostly ignored turmoil in Syria; Saudi Arabia’s persecution and killing of dissidents — that’s just one day’s worth of headlines and still the list goes on and on.

"Canadians can navigate all of this in a smart and thoughtful way, in a way that can lead to meaningful discourse."

These issues are complex and complicated, often with multiple factions and fuzzy distinctions and an ever-changing roster of players. It no longer seems jarring when human rights take a back seat to business interests or trade. The war in Yemen, for example, has spawned a famine that the UN says has put 14 million people at risk of starvation. Canada has pledged $12 million to aid frontline organizations but, at the same time, benefits from selling vehicles to the key driver of the conflict in Yemen, Saudi Arabia. Canada seeks to grow its trade relations with China while that country openly — and some say, proudly — keeps up to one million people of the Uighur minority in re-education camps where they are indoctrinated to give up their religion.

Given how quickly political realities shift, foreign engagement is perhaps more high stakes than ever. Long after Canada leaves, the repercussions of that engagement — whether it’s participating in a bombing campaign in Libya, a limited commitment in Syria or a longer-term effort in Afghanistan (where, by the way, Canadians still haven’t got a full accounting of our participation in the war) — persist. Afghanistan certainly hasn’t stabilized, with the war generating over 10,000 civilian casualties in 2017 alone.

Instability, conflict, war, tyranny, refugees, IDPs, starvation, migration, death and destruction. It’s a deluge of bad news and worse news replete with stories of heartbreak and rage. But Canadians can navigate all of this in a smart and thoughtful way, in a way that, instead of leading to divisiveness and anger, can lead to meaningful discourse. Canadians need to ask the tough questions of their leaders, not only about where money is being sent or active interventions are being tabled, but about the long-term consequences of this country’s actions beyond our borders and what moral obligations we have to follow through on the promises we make. For that, especially over the next year, we need open and clear conversation about Canada and its place in the world.