Foreign Policy Implications of The Big Shift

The distribution of power among Canada's provinces is changing. Darrell Bricker on what this means for Canadian foreign policy.
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May 16, 2013
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Canada's political geography is shifting. The locus of power is moving from east to west, away from the elite neighbourhoods of Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and other cities along the St. Lawrence river, toward cities where the priorities of immigrant voters define the political agenda. Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Global Public Affairs, and John Ibbitson, chief political correspondent for The Globe and Mail, explore these trends in their book The Big Shift. Below, Darrell Bricker answers questions from OpenCanada about the foreign policy implications of the domestic trends reshaping Canada's political landscape.

The Big Shift argues that the “keystone economic and political drivers of this country are now Western Canada, and the immigrants from China, India, and other Asian countries who increasingly are turning Ontario into a Pacific-oriented province.” What are the foreign policy impacts of this shift?

The biggest foreign policy implications relate to Canada’s trade arrangements with other countries. World economic growth continues to be led by Asia. That’s also the largest source of our most recent immigrants. As a result, Canada is pivoting from being an Atlantic nation to becoming a Pacific nation. This should give us some advantage in relating to these countries as we expand our trading relationships in the future.

The book also details how newcomers to Canada are more right-leaning than might be anticipated. Can we see this in Canada's foreign policy toward a particular country, or on a specific issue?

Canada’s immigration policy used to be driven by compassion, it’s increasingly being driven by economic necessity. This is due to our low population growth rate and on-going need for population replenishment. These new economic immigrants are strivers – they have come to Canada mostly to improve their economic opportunities. Being on the “right” in Canada is not about having a specific social agenda. It’s really driven by a focus on the economy; seeing government intervention in the economy as problematic; and having a harder edge on law and order issues. Foreign policy isn’t a big part of this new left-right divide.

What foreign policy issues should candidates focus on in the next federal election if they hope to appeal to the rising demographic groups that you profile?

The biggest foreign policy issues from a domestic political perspective are the ones that relate to Canada’s economic growth. That means finding a way to expand our trade with Asia. When Stephen Harper first came to power he had almost a Cold War mentality toward China. That’s now changed and the importance of China to our economic success has been allowed to grow. This includes expanded trade (China has now passed the UK as our secound largest trading partner), and allowing domestic investment by Chinese companies in Canada.  

The Big Shift details the demise of the "Laurentian Consensus." Are there other developed countries that have gone through or are currently facing a similar transition in domestic concentrations of political power? If so, are there any lessons Canada and Canadian policymakers should take from their experiences?

The other country that is having an interesting political transition due to immigration is the United States. Hispanic immigration has had a profound impact on U.S. voting patterns and they have mostly advantaged the Democrats. In contrast, it is the Conservatives in Canada that have figured out how to use changing immigration patterns to their political advantage.

Will the Big Shift ultimately empower Canada in the international arena? Will it change our national identity in a way that allows our government to pursue Canada's political, economic, and security interests more effectively at the global level?

It’s really too soon to say how the Big Shift will change Canada’s place in the world. Ultimately, it was the Laurentian Elites who made all of this possible due to their liberal immigration policy and multiculturalism. But, it is the Conservatives who are now taking political advantage of Canada’s changes. As for our identity, Canada’s position as a helpful fixer and peacekeeper in the world is definitely under threat. The new Canada is marked by an assertive patriotism that would have made the old Laurentian Elite uncomfortable.