Has Trudeau changed Canada’s international image?

Can one man change a country’s image? With one year to go until the 2019 federal election, Madelaine Drohan examines Justin Trudeau’s impact on Canada’s global reputation. 

By: /
October 19, 2018
Trudeau illustration
Illustration of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by Sami Chouhdary / OpenCanada

“Canada is back!” So said Justin Trudeau after his 2015 election. Implicit in that declaration was that Liberal foreign policy would transform Canada’s standing on the world stage. Yet three years on there is little evidence perceptions have changed, at least in global rankings that track country brands.

Under both Conservative and Liberal governments, Canada has maintained a good but not great reputation in the nation brands index put out by Anholt-GfK. Global polling by IPSOS over the last eight years shows much the same thing. “Trudeau or not Trudeau, for Canada it doesn’t really make any difference,” says Vadim Volos, global director of the Anholt-GfK index.

That seems counterintuitive given all the positive media coverage Trudeau has received (the trip to India this past February a glaring exception). Especially early on in his tenure, the glossy magazine covers, the fashion articles about his socks and the crowds of young women in Asia wanting to pose for selfies suggested an extreme makeover was in the works. If Donald Trump could single-handedly drag the American brand down, with favourable opinion at an historic low among former friends and allies, why has Trudeau not succeeded in adding extra gloss to the Canada brand?

It starts with Canada not being the United States, an obvious point but an important one. The world waits with bated breath to see what Trump will do next and adjusts its view of the US accordingly. Few outside Canada are hanging on Trudeau’s every word. This means any changes in Canadian policy take much longer to permeate the global consciousness. (We have yet to see how long a reach this week’s legalization of cannabis will have.)

A related reason is that differences that loom large in Canada between political parties and their policies lose their sharpness or disappear completely when viewed from abroad. Canadians might see a huge distinction between Trudeau’s feminist development policy and Stephen Harper’s maternal and child health initiative at the 2010 G8 summit. Viewed from afar it looks like two successive Canadian prime ministers paying attention to the interests of women and girls. Distance erases nuance. And there are many areas where Liberal foreign policy resembles that of the Conservatives. A Conservative foreign minister would have been comfortable citing the three aims outlined by Chrystia Freeland, the Liberal foreign minister, in her key 2017 speech — supporting the international, rules-based order, making the necessary investments in the military, and upholding global trade.

The third and perhaps most important reason why Trudeau has so far failed to change Canada’s image is that actions matter more than intentions or the personal attraction of any one leader. When The Economist declared “Canada is rather cool” in a 2003 cover piece, illustrating it with a moose in sunglasses, it did not point to Jean Chretien, then prime minister. It pointed to the government’s plans to legalize gay marriage and decriminalize marijuana, and its success in erasing the deficit and slashing debt (this was The Economist after all). Some of the Liberals’ key foreign policy plans, such as fighting climate change, boosting the military and increasing involvement in peace operations, are still works in progress. If Trudeau hopes to enhance Canada’s reputation, he must implement policies that are seen as markedly different and better than the ones they replace.

Trudeau is not starting from scratch. And he and his government do not have to carry the burden alone. Business and the education and tourism sectors all help shape foreign perceptions of a country. Not all are doing a good job.

Canada has a generally positive image. When IPSOS asked people in 25 countries last year which country was a force for good in the world, Canada came out on top. Yet this image is often dated and a bit fuzzy. When I travelled around Europe as a foreign correspondent in the 1990s, people often asked about Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, even though he had left office at least a decade earlier. Kasi Rao, head of the Canada-India Business Council, says Indians are aware that Canada has natural resources and commodities. Less well known, he says, is that Canada is a place “where ideas and innovation matters.” That is a serious shortcoming for a country that wants to be a global player in artificial intelligence and other technology.

In a study done a few years ago, researchers asked 6,000 people around the world to list four products or companies they associated with a country. Respondents had no trouble with countries like the US, Japan and even Sweden (naming, for example, Coca-Cola, Toyota, IKEA, Ericsson, etc.). But only a few could come up with even two products from Canada, and they tended to be generic, like lumber, wheat and fish.

Business bears some of the blame for this lack of awareness. Some of the country’s biggest firms and best-known brands travel the world cloaked in anonymity, as if they were a little bit ashamed of their Canadian roots. Try figuring out the home base of companies like Lululemon, Manulife and Magna International or tech firms like Blackberry and Shopify by looking at the home page on their websites. There is nary a maple leaf in sight. Lululemon sounds downright dismissive on its page about its history when it says: “While Vancouver, Canada is where you can trace our beginnings, our global community is where you’ll find our soul.” Canada Goose is an exception to this rule, boasting of its Canadian roots and location. It helps that its product, luxury parkas, fits neatly with the image of the Great White North. Dani Reiss, its president, says other companies could and should be capitalizing on Canada’s positive image. He speculates that some of them “would rather people thought they were American, because from a business point of view they think that sounds bigger or more serious.”

"Less well known is that Canada is a place 'where ideas and innovation matters.' That is a serious shortcoming."

Flying under the radar internationally can be a dangerous thing, as Canada found out when Trump declared he planned to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was Mexico, not Canada, that consumed most of Washington’s attention through the painful renegotiation of the trilateral trade deal. Canadian governments and firms expended a huge amount of effort just to persuade Americans that Canada is an important trading partner. For a while it was touch and go whether the US would proceed with Mexico alone, leaving Canada on the sidelines. A little more boastfulness by companies in advance of the negotiations might have narrowed this knowledge gap.

Education is another way of raising a country’s profile abroad. Canada once used education as a form of public diplomacy, funding Canadian studies at foreign universities through a program called Understanding Canada. It helped sustain foreign academics, who passed on their knowledge and interest in Canada to students and the broader public. In countries like Argentina, where Canadian mining companies were shaping the national image, informed academics could at least put this in a broader context. The program was cut in 2012 as a cost-saving measure, much to the angst of multiple associations of Canadian studies abroad. These days the emphasis is on persuading foreign students to study in Canada and making it easier for the brightest ones to stay. It is not clear whether this approach has the same broad influence. Universities, which generally charge higher fees to foreign students, are all in favour of the estimated 200,000 that study in Canada each year. Foreign researchers and scholars connect Canada into global academic networks.

Government tourism promotion also plays a role in brand building. It still relies heavily on the traditional three-Ms — mountains, moose and Mounties — which is fine as far as it goes. But most Canadians live in cities close to the US border. Portraying the country as a vast wilderness is not an accurate reflection of who Canadians are. And this is where Canada runs into trouble. It has no clear cultural identity, says Volos of Anholt-GfK. It lacks a unique differentiation from other countries that is immediately apparent to outsiders.

There is no harm in the familiar refrain that Canadians are not Americans. They live in a country that would not exist today had the people in what was then the British colony of Quebec declined the invitation of the Continental Congress, delivered personally by Benjamin Franklin, to join in their rebellion against Britain. Canadians are the descendants or beneficiaries of the war fought in 1812 by settlers and First Nations to ensure Canada remained a separate country. Yet appealing as it is to assert they are not Americans at a time when that conjures up images of a lunatic in the White House and a supine Congress allowing him to run wild, it is not enough. Most of the world is not American. It is hardly a differentiating factor.

Trudeau has taken a crack at this problem with his oft-repeated mantra that “diversity is our strength.” The problem is, the mantra is not quite accurate. “It’s not diversity that’s our strength,” says Darrell Bricker of IPSOS. “It’s our ability to deal with diversity.” It is not easy to capture that idea in a simple manner that will appeal to tourists or foreign investors, another important target audience. Bricker favours a strategy like that of the Toronto Raptors, who tried to project a broad idea with their original slogan “We the North.”

Invest in Canada, a new agency the government set up to attract foreign investors and smooth their way into the country, is working on a new foreign investment brand. Surely clever marketing brains could resolve this problem. One tip from Volos: “Maple syrup is not enough.”

Still, even if someone produces a killer idea that Trudeau, Canada’s charismatic frontman, can use, he still needs something to front. This is where we get to a country’s deeds, which form the bedrock of its international image and can make a difference when it comes to attracting tourists and investments or getting a seat at the table. Middle powers like Canada should not be asking “what can we say to make ourselves more famous,” advised Simon Anholt in a 2009 analysis of nation branding. They should be asking “what can we do to make ourselves more relevant?” he wrote.

Canada’s relevance is at stake in the government’s campaign for one of the rotating seats at the UN Security Council. Canada is up against Norway and Ireland for one of two vacant seats. It is not looking good.

"Middle powers like Canada should be asking what can we do to make ourselves more relevant."

The Irish government boasts of being the only nation that has had a continuous presence on UN and UN-mandated peace operations since 1958. That used to be Canada’s line. But Canada’s international peace operations dwindled following failed missions in Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s. The Liberal government has pledged to add 750 personnel (600 military and 150 police) to UN operations and has made a start with the 250 personnel in Mali as of mid-September. While that is a start, Ireland has demonstrated consistency.

Norway outshines Canada in development aid, another UN priority. Canada had its knuckles rapped in September by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a rich countries’ club, for allowing development aid as a percentage of the total economy to decline to 0.26 percent in 2017 from 0.31 percent in 2012. This is well below the internationally agreed target of 0.7 percent. Norway is one of a handful of countries that consistently exceed the 0.7 percent level. Its contribution was 0.99 percent of its economy in 2017. Canada talks about punching above its weight. Norway actually does. This will be part of the calculus when UN members vote on whether Canada should get a seat at the table.

Progress on tackling climate change is another area where Canada is vulnerable to unfavourable comparison with some of its global peers. It is not on track to meet even the readjusted targets for greenhouse gas emissions set by the Harper government of bringing emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The Trudeau government says it is committed to meeting those targets, but a report by provincial auditors general earlier this year said emissions are likely to be 20 percent higher. Government reaction to the latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provided little comfort to those already worried about its commitment after its purchase of the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline and approval of a massive liquefied natural gas project in BC. Catherine McKenna, the environment minister, said the government was sticking with its 2016 plan. More ambitious targets would have to wait until that plan was fully implemented.

Canada has made a name for itself under Trudeau for standing up for the liberal order, supporting immigration, the rule of law and global trade. Another Economist cover, this one in late 2016 after Trump was elected, noted this with a cover image of the Statue of Liberty wearing a Canadian maple leaf as a headdress and the headline “Liberty Moves North.” (Full disclosure: I had a hand in writing the accompanying story.) For Canada, retaining these principles was not a departure but a continuation of existing policies, which may be part of the reason there was no upward movement in its global brand.

It is often said that voters do not care about foreign policy and that domestic concerns like taxes, jobs and health care dominate election campaigns. Yet the two cannot easily be separated in a globalized world. Immigration was a central theme in the recent Quebec election. Carbon pricing was a key issue in Ontario’s vote in June and will likely surface in the spring election in Alberta next year. Voters care about foreign policy when it touches their lives. This presents Trudeau and the Liberals with a dilemma going into the 2019 campaign. In at least one area of foreign policy, climate change, what is good for the globe will not be popular at home. The Conservatives are already hammering hard on the federal carbon tax that will be imposed on reluctant provinces January 1. If Trudeau cannot persuade enough Canadians that fighting climate change is the right thing to do, he may have to choose between sticking to his principles or staying in office. The question then becomes not whether one man can change a country but whether the country will change him.