The Perpetual Debate: Can Canada ever be ‘back’?

Antony Anderson interviewed prominent Canadians more than a decade ago on Canada’s role on the global stage. Revisiting his resulting film shows how views then and now of our international engagement are not that different. 

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May 26, 2016
1998: Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy at a news conference on the ratification of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty at the United Nations in New York on October 1. Reuters/JC/ELD/CLH/

Let me take you back to the early 2000s.

Canada had vanished from the world stage – or so the prevailing wisdom had concluded. Yes, foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy had been impressive with his land mines initiative, but he was gone from Cabinet by then. Even his successor, John Manley, made waves when he noted, "you can't just sit at the G8 table and then, when the bill comes, go to the washroom."

Hard, undeniable numbers were reinforcing a sobering impression, especially in an arena that we once dominated. From a highpoint under Brian Mulroney’s time in office, Jean Chretien’s tenure had seen Canada plummet down the list of contributing nations to UN peacekeeping missions. By June 2003, we ranked a once unthinkable 31st  on the UN list, with just 255 personnel. The number one spot went to Pakistan’s 4,218 troops.  Of course Pakistan’s population was much larger than Canada’s but that offered little consolation.

Even the much-touted cliché of “punching above our weight” seemed threadbare. In the spring of 2003, Canada offered a modest proposal at the UN to blunt the American march to war in Iraq. Delegates listened politely if briefly and the proposal, having made headlines at home but barely a ripple overseas, withered from indifference.

Witnessing that very public rebuff, it was impossible not to think back to 1956, when the UN, the Commonwealth, NATO was again divided because two Permanent Members of the Security Council had insisted on invading a country in the Middle East to impose regime change. Our foreign minister then, Lester Pearson intervened with a proposal that relieved and rallied the General Assembly, which voted to establish and dispatch its first peacekeeping force to Egypt.

The chasm between 1956 and 2003 inspired me to make a documentary on Canada’s perceived fading into irrelevance. I interviewed Lloyd Axworthy, James Baker, David Bercuson, Margaret Catley-Carlson, Romeo Dallaire, Alan Gotlieb, Michael Ignatieff, Stephen Lewis, Carolyn McAskie, Barbara McDougall, and Kim Nossal. They all echoed the sense of our international diminishment.

I’ve posted some highlights from my documentary, Foreign Fields, which I know doesn’t capture the whole story of our presence in the world in 2003 but the interviews serve as a useful time capsule of prevailing currents.

I’m struck by the fact that in 2016, we seem to find ourselves on such familiar ground once again — aware that we’re falling short, but wondering if we’re willing to pay the hard dollars for the kind of ramped up global presence we claim we want.

Canada is back on the diplomatic front from the last “decade of darkness,” but are we willing to increase defence spending to reach for NATO’s desired 2 percent of GDP and do the same with development spending to attempt to reach .07 percent?

There is a good chance this will remain a permanent debate in which we remain suspended between our dreams of making a difference again and the cold reality of unforgiving deficits.