Is there such thing as a singular Canadian foreign policy?

In this essay, Marie Lamensch explores the ways Quebec and other regions within Canada pursue their own global agenda, undermining the myth of a unified national interest.

By: /
May 7, 2018
Credit: Colin Dewar (Shutterstock)

As a Belgian national, I couldn’t help but notice a few remarkable things about the Belgian royal couple’s recent visit to Canada.

In March, the King and Queen spent five days in the country, including two days in Quebec, where they met Premier Philippe Couillard and various cabinet ministers, discussed trade with the business community, and visited Quebec’s cultural landmarks. It was a visit that will surely strengthen relations between Belgium and the province. 

There were several things surprising about the trip, however. First, while the Belgian monarchy does not have the same international standing as Queen Elizabeth, it was nevertheless notable that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not meet with the royal couple, considering this was the first Belgian state visit to Canada in over 40 years.

Second, their agenda was actually much busier in Quebec — where they embarked on a series of activities that will strengthen the economic and cultural ties between Quebec and Belgium — than in Ottawa. 

The visit serves as proof that Quebec is to a certain extent able to conduct its own foreign policy when it is in its interest to do so. In a federal system, it is unusual for a provincial government to meet with heads of states — this is normally the prerogative of the federal government. But when it comes to the Francophonie, of which Belgium is a member, Quebec is a singular case. The fact that Couillard was able to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron recently (just weeks before Trudeau made his first official visit to France) is also evidence of Quebec’s exceptionalism. With its own permanent delegation in Paris, Quebec simply has a special relationship with France and the rest of the Francophonie. 

Both the Belgian monarchs’ visit to Quebec and Couillard’s meeting with Macron have made me think about the way Quebec conducts and approaches foreign policy.

As someone who has lived in Germany and Canada, I have been curious about the way federal systems work. Like the Belgian system, the Canadian experiment is all the more interesting because two official languages (and many unofficial others) exist within the same national border. 

When I moved to Canada in 2012, I was surprised to hear many Francophone Quebeckers complain about Anglophone Canadians and vice-versa. Some French-Canadian media outlets such as Le Journal de Montreal and Quebec City radio hosts such as Jeff Fillion and André Arthur (no longer with his outlet) almost seem to regard the rest of Canada as a different nation. 

Indeed, the idea of a battle between two cultures in this country — a Francophone minority vs. the Anglophone majority, “Quebec vs. ROC,” “the two solitudes,” etc. — remains prevalent, and I too came to accept it without really calling that dualism into question. 

"If anything, there seems to be not two distinct foreign policy approaches within Canada, but several."

Quebec’s distinctiveness is of course a reality. The province has its own language, culture and history. This distinctive identity is integral to the way the Quebec government conducts foreign policy and regards its place on the international stage. I am not the only one who admires the ways it manages to work within the confines of federalism to conduct its international relations, especially when it comes to its relationship with the Francophonie. Even among other federations, Quebec is considered a leader when it comes to implementing a foreign policy that works in its interest.

However, I have recently revised some of my earlier assumptions. After having conversations with a dozen French and English Canadian journalists and commentators over the past few months, I realized there is a tendency among many to exaggerate differences between Francophone and Anglophone Canadians — including the idea that there are distinct foreign policy priorities between the two identities.

If anything, in fact, there seems to be not two distinct foreign policy approaches within Canada, but several, and they do not fall neatly within language lines. Instead of regarding Anglophone Canada as a monolithic entity, we should consider that all Canadian provinces and territories have and are still developing their own approach to foreign policy, from Alberta’s approach to energy to Quebec’s dedication to development in Africa. We need only look at the current discord between Alberta and British Columbia over the Trans Mountain pipeline to understand that the Canadian federation is a complex system where national and provincial interests can collide. Regarding that case, Trudeau recently said, “We are one country with a federal government that is there to ensure the national interest is upheld.” But, in a federation, how does one define “national interest?”

Quebec’s distinct approach

The Canadian constitution, which establishes the distribution of power between federal and provincial governments, is silent on matters of international relations. This legal loophole has allowed provincial governments to develop strategies to gain more influence abroad in areas under their jurisdiction. More specifically, Quebec has made it one of its core strategies to set itself apart through its foreign policy approach within the murky parameters of Canadian federalism, using its cultural and linguistic distinctiveness to gain more and more autonomy on matter of foreign policy.

The Gérin-Lajoie doctrine, formulated in 1965 and named after former Education Minister Paul Gérin-Lajoie, makes up the corner stone of Quebec’s international identity and engagement. The Quebec Ministry of International Relations, whose mandate is to “promote and defend Quebec’s international interest while ensuring respect for its authority and the consistency of government activities,” refers to it as the “ultimate driving force of Quebec’s evolution on the international stage.” The doctrine became law in 2000 under the name of Loi sur l'exercice des droits fondamentaux et des prérogatives du peuple québécois et de l'État du Québec, and no Quebec political party has ever questioned it. Surprisingly, former Quebec Premier Jean Charest in particular managed to push the limits of autonomy while remaining a staunch federalist attached to Canada and its federalist system. 

Quebec’s Francophone identity has allowed the province to fully participate in the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, and to become a full participating member of the Permanent Delegation of Canada to UNESCO. Quebec is also extremely well represented abroad with seven foreign delegations, including in Brussels, New York, Paris and Tokyo, and 20 other smaller bureaus in other countries. The special relationship between France and Quebec has likely worked to the benefit of Canada as a whole since Ottawa can easily rely on the Quebec government to maintain strong bonds between the two countries.

The innovative way and extent to which Quebec has been able to construct an international identity is what makes it rather unique in Canada. Yet, although there is no equivalent of the Guérin-Lajoie doctrine in Canada’s other provinces, they have developed their own strategies to defend their interests abroad

While Quebec’s demands for more decision-making power on foreign policy rely on cultural and linguistic arguments, other provinces have put forward economic and trade arguments based on geographic proximity to the United States. New Brunswick, British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba in particular are part of various bilateral and multi-lateral trade agreements and bodies as well as environmental and cultural agreements.

Alberta, for example, has international offices in Washington, London, New Delhi and Mexico, among other places, that promote trade, investment and tourism. Western provinces are members of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region and benefit from special relationships with several north-western American states. New Brunswick also has a special status within the Organisation de la Francophonie and therefore also enjoys special relationships with Francophone countries. Finally, Canada’s northern territories have special ties to other Artic nations, particularly through the Arctic Council. Climate change, food insecurity and geopolitical tensions with Russia have been the focus of the council for several years. Canada’s many Indigenous communities have also made ties with counterparts abroad.

In a globalized world, as borders become blurrier, Canadian regions are certainly finding ways to gain influence on the international stage in order to strengthen their economies.

Debunking the French-English divide on intervention

Let me now confront some widely held assumptions. On foreign policy matters, one area where differences between Francophone Quebec and Anglophone Canada are exaggerated is military intervention. Francophone Quebeckers have somehow gained a reputation of being pacifist and even anti-militaristic.

This reputation is based on the belief that, historically, Quebeckers have been reluctant to join war. In his book “Pour un pays sans armé” (1993), Quebec thinker Serge Mongeau referred to Quebeckers’ reluctance to participate in the Boer War (1899-1902) and their opposition to conscription during World War I and II to prove his point. More recently, some making a similar argument have pointed to strong opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including among the political class. Indeed, during the 2003 general election in Quebec, candidates wore ribbons in opposition to the intervention in Iraq. 

Quebec’s supposed pacifism has come under criticism by several Anglophone Canadians, in particular those who argue that Quebec exercises too much influence on Ottawa when it comes to foreign affairs. In 2006, for example, National Post columnist Barbara Kay received backlash after writing a column titled “The Rise of Quebecistan” in which she criticized the participation of four Quebec party leaders in an anti-war rally in support of Lebanon during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict.

In 2003, when then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien refused to support the US invasion in Iraq, some argued that he did so not because it did not have the backing of the United Nations but because Quebeckers in particular were largely against it and, 2003 being an election year in Quebec, Chretien needed to stay on their good side.

However, as Quebec academics and journalists such as Jérémie Cornut, Antoine Robitaille,  Stéphane Roussel, Jean-Christophe Boucher and Justin Massie have argued, it would be a mistake to describe Quebeckers as pacifist and the rest of Canada as nationalist “warmongers.” Instead, they urge Canadians to reject “double discourse,” or the application of the notion of Quebec vs. ROC to any issue simply to convince themselves and others that French and Anglophone Canadians are different.

First, these Quebec researchers argue that the province’s refusal to engage in wars such as the Boer War resulted from a belief that these wars were not worth the risk.

Second, as Massie and Boucher have written, approval numbers among Quebeckers for NATO action in Kosovo or for wars in the Persian Gulf in the 1990s were almost as high as those among Anglophone Canadians. Like other Canadians, Quebeckers seem to generally support the idea that Canada should get involved in world affairs, especially as part of peacekeeping missions. Massie and Boucher have shown that Quebeckers, like Anglophone Canadians, were supportive of a military intervention in Iraq mandated by the United Nations. The NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, supported by the United Nations and thus regarded by Canadians as a legitimate mission, also saw similar approval numbers. Finally, when the Trudeau government announced in March that Canada would deploy a peacekeeping mission to Mali, one of the most dangerous places on earth, many of my French-Canadian colleagues were just as disappointed with the less-than-ambitious plan as their Anglophone counterparts in Ottawa. 

Third, there was opposition to the US invasion of Iraq across Canada in 2003, not just in Quebec. According to a 2003 Ipsos-Reid/CTV/Globe and Mail poll, seven in 10 Canadians approved of Chretien’s decision not to get involved, with Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario showing the strongest support for the decision. The exception was actually Alberta, where 47 percent of the population opposed the decision. (Massie and Boucher have shown that similar trends could be seen for Canada’s intervention in Afghanistan.)

So, instead of viewing the rest of Canada as a monolithic entity, we must consider the provinces individually and see that reaction to Chretien’s decision seems to have been more closely based on provinces’ national political leanings. While the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois supported the decision, the Canadian Alliance (one half of what is now the Conservative Party of Canada), overwhelmingly popular in Alberta, deeply opposed it.

In a conversation for this article, Jocelyn Coulon, the former adviser to former politician Stephane Dion and author of the recently published Un selfie avec Justin Trudeau, said that Alberta, not Quebec, may be a more distinct province, and that Quebec may look much more similar to Canada overall, particularly on foreign policy matters. “Quebeckers are looking more and more like Canada,” he said, “and we need to deconstruct the double discourse.”

"As borders become blurrier, Canadian regions are certainly finding ways to gain influence on the international stage in order to strengthen their economies."

The link between media coverage and public interest in foreign affairs

To understand interest in foreign affairs among the average Canadian, my initial strategy was to reach out to a dozen French and English Canadian journalists, political scientists and commentators. The majority said that they were under the impression Quebeckers are more insular and inward-looking than Anglophone Canadians, and that this is reflected in the way Quebec media cover international affairs. Indeed, while the lack of financial resources is certainly a factor, those interviewed observed that international events are covered mostly when they relate to Quebec’s self-interest. In an era where there is a loss of interest (and of budget) in international affairs coverage, things are getting worse as coverage of Donald Trump seems to take precedence.  

Looking at Influence Communication’s annual study of the most popular news in Quebec and Canadian media, international affairs subjects directly or indirectly related to Quebec were widely covered in 2017.

Due to the geographical proximity to and strong trade agreements with the United States (as well as Trump’s headline-grabbing rhetoric), the 2016 US elections and Trump’s inauguration were widely covered in Quebec as well. The French presidential election also drew a lot of attention, likely as a result of the special relationship between France and Quebec.

Comparatively, Francophone Africa gets little coverage. The terrorist attack in Ouagadougou in 2016 was widely covered in Quebec because six Quebeckers died. But the terrorist attack in Ouagadougou this past January barely made the headlines — there were no Canadian casualties — while terrorist attacks in France attracted widespread attention. 

Finally, topics related to separatism and national identity are, unsurprisingly, of interest to media consumers in Quebec. This explains ample coverage in Quebec media of the Scottish referendum, the Catalan crisis, and the Sikh separatist controversy surrounding Trudeau’s recent trip to India. The idea that Quebeckers are mostly interested in foreign affairs when the issues relate to them, therefore, appears to hold weight. Not one Canadian journalist I spoke to who reports on foreign affairs was not frustrated by Quebeckers’ navel-gazing. 

But we would be mistaken to think that Anglophone Canadian media are much more outward-looking. According to Boucher, assistant professor of political science at MacEwan University, the regionalization of foreign affairs politics is a widespread phenomenon across Canada, and only a limited number of English Canadian media cover international affairs regularly. Local newspapers in Vancouver, for example, tend to focus on China and trade with Asia, while Calgary newspapers have an interest in the Middle East and energy issues, Boucher says.

According to a Vividata study of print and digital media readership across the country, readership for local daily newspapers, where local news and interests are most often featured, is higher than for national newspapers such as The Globe and Mail and The National Post. From this Boucher infers a greater interest from readers in local news than in international news. 

We must also look at the link between political divisions and media coverage, says Boucher. Quebec, Ottawa and British Columbia are some of the most politically liberal provinces in Canada. These values are reflected in local newspapers, he said, citing the example of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when Quebec and Ontario newspapers showed opposition for the war while Albertan newspapers lamented Chretien’s decision not to support the United States. The Montreal Gazette and The Toronto Star may therefore be much more in line with La Presse than we assume.

I do not pretend to provide a definitive analysis of Quebec’s foreign policy approach. There is considerable research to be done — Boucher likewise points to a lack of studies within this area. But it is a mistake to approach the subject with a dichotomous vision of Canada. This is particularly interesting for those of us who want to understand the Canadian federal experiment. Most importantly, we live in a globalized world where the local is global, where climate change and international security issues can have very local impacts. States and provinces in a federal system will increasingly seek to play a bigger role on the international stage in order to protect their interests.      

Finally, it is interesting to note that Quebec has just seen the creation of two research centres on federalism, the Centre d'excellence sur la fédération canadienne and the Centre d'analyse politique sur la constitution et le fédéralisme de l'Université du Québec à Montréal. This may be a sign Quebeckers are questioning the pertinence of independence, but I see it as a desire to understand Canadian federalism and identity. As the world currently faces new global challenges, I believe that Anglophone and Francophone Canadians alike have an interest in better understanding the country’s differences — and where they might seek to work together.