One August, more than 10 years ago, back when I was in secondary school, I sat on a stage in an auditorium in Kyoto, Japan, as a representative of Canada, at the closing ceremony of the international Ban Landmines! conference.
After delivering his speech, the mayor of Shin-Asahi asked the Canadian delegation to come to the front of the stage. I thought it peculiar that he was singling us out, as there were representatives from many countries present.
We walked to the front and he presented us with the conference monument, announcing to a crowd of several thousand, “I would like to present this to the Canadians, without whom there never would have been a treaty to ban landmines, without whom the treaty never would have become international law, thousands of landmines would not have been cleared and thousands of lives would not have been saved.”
On the way back to my seat, campaigners from around the world and survivors with missing limbs tossed smiles at me, uttering thank-you’s. Attendees wanted pictures with me and asked for my signature.
I have always been patriotic, but the proudest I have been to be Canadian was at that moment, when I realized the immense impact Canada can have in safeguarding vulnerable people around the globe, regardless of not being a principle world power or on the United Nations Security Council.
In the 1990s, Canada decided to ban the use of anti-personnel landmines and we asked other nations to meet us in Ottawa in 1997 to follow our lead. 122 nations did. The world’s major superpowers did not.
Regardless, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction – known today as the Ottawa Treaty, in honour of the ground that gave birth to it – became one of the fastest growing treaties in history. By 1999, 40 of the world’s nations had ratified the treaty and it automatically became binding international law. Eventually, countries who hadn't signed on decided to abide by it as it universally became unacceptable to use landmines. In June 2014, President Barack Obama announced that the United States too will abide by the Treaty.
Today, there are a countless number of weapons that continue to kill and maim innocent civilians. Efforts to reduce inconceivable suffering caused by some of these weapons, like small arms, are being made world-wide. But Canada’s recent Conservative government refused to sign onto the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which opened for signing in 2013 in an attempt to curb the flow of illicit small arms. Why? According to then-minister of foreign affairs, John Baird, the treaty could limit the freedom of gun users in Canada, despite a lack of evidence to this effect.
As the treaty came into effect in December 2014, Canada consciously decided to disengage itself from global efforts to prevent small arms from falling into the hands of warlords, whose continued use of easily accessible arms has led to the recruitment of child soldiers, mass atrocities and the destabilization of peace building efforts. Our neighbours to the south, whose right to bear arms is firmly etched in their DNA and who have an all-powerful gun lobby, took the opposite approach. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signed onto the treaty, saying, “This treaty will not diminish anyone's freedom.”
Today we have a new minister responsible for foreign affairs, whose mandate letter includes the directive to “reenergize Canadian diplomacy and leadership on key international issues,” including acceding to the Arms Trade Treaty.
So despite the arguments for why Canada’s Saudi arms deal will go ahead – including that the new government cannot go back on a deal made by the previous government as it will face penalties – we cannot lose sight of this goal set out months ago. Ratifying the ATT still presents an opportunity to Canada to redefine how it is perceived by the world and treated at international conferences. It could also help reinforce the government’s oratory that ethics do indeed play a role in policy.
Thinking back to that last day of the Japanese landmine conference, I remember hugging my new friend, Rosemary from Rwanda, whose country was stricken with mines that continued to maim and kill. I promised her, “I’ll do whatever I can to bring mine-risk education to your country.” My promise was short-lived – five years later, Rwanda announced that it was landmine free, removing the need for mine-risk education. Upon hearing the news and realizing that I now had one less life goal, I smiled thinking about how Canada, a middle power, had moved mountains in the 1990s.
The Liberal government now has the opportunity to do the same and help restore our rightful place in the world. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signaled his intention to show the world that “Canada is back.” Six months on, let’s show that it is.