Canada has come down in the world

All politics is local. Dooley was right when he said that.

When we look at the leaders of the parties in an election we ask ourselves, even unconsciously, would we want them as neighbours. Would they borrow my lawnmower and bring it back? Would they pitch in and help if the neighbourhood needed cleaning up or would they take off to Timmy’s for the afternoon? Are they going to help me or fight me when it comes time to trim the hedge between us? It’s no accident, all those photo ops of the leaders in someone’s backyard, flipping burgers.

So, it’s not surprising that foreign policy drops off the radar during an election, as it has in this election, but it’s a shame. Because the things that make a good neighbour are the same things that made Canada a world-class citizen.

One of our Prime Ministers, Lester Pearson, won a Nobel Peace prize for organizing the first United Nations Peacekeeping Force to resolve the Suez Canal Crisis by working through the UN. In the 60 years since then, the world came to know us as an honest broker. Our ability to talk to everyone, see all sides of a matter and suggest practical compromises – qualities that seem so scorned now – were the very things the world needed, and still needs.

Those very Canadian qualities gave us influence far beyond the size of our military. Hey, belligerents would say, shut up for a moment, Canada’s talking.

What’s the proof of that? We were not a permanent member of the Security Council of the UN, but we were elected to it time and again. Per capita, we put up more money than most countries for relief and aid and we attached no ideological strings. We attracted top notch people to the foreign service and dispatched them around the world. My American buddies in Europe sewed Canadian flags onto their backpacks.

But we also had the gumption to disagree with our friends when we thought they were wrong – the US in Vietnam for example, or Israel in Gaza. We were usually right. Our NGOs (our non-government organizations) spoke truth to power here and abroad, and were a respected and welcomed presence even in some of the most troubled countries.

Civil society, as the NGO community is called, plays an important role in how Canada works, both domestically and abroad. Internationally, non-government organizations provide important on-the-ground research about what’s going on in other countries. They can move into an area and do things that a government cannot, often paving the way for official action. In fact, many NGOs are established by government.

It is vital, if you are a middle power and want to exert any kind of influence on your neighbours, to inject a calm, well-informed, non-partisan, and rational voice into the international conversation. Business is done differently in the world than it is in the House of Commons.

In 1988, Brian Mulroney created the well-respected NGO, Rights and Democracy. For 20 years, that organization played an internationally valued role, working on human rights around the world, including the Middle East. As its first director, Mulroney appointed Ed Broadbent.

In 2009, in accordance with their mandate and practice, Rights and Democracy made small contributions to two Palestinian human rights groups and one Israeli. All of these groups had been critical of Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories. The Israeli government complained to Canada and the Harper Government pounced.

Within a year, Rights and Democracy was taken over by Conservative Party men. The NGO imploded from in-fighting, its mandate crippled to the point of dysfunction. In December 2009, the Executive Director, Rémy Beauregard (a man with a stellar international reputation) died of a heart attack, killed, his wife is convinced, by the stress of the coup and the smear tactics used to discredit him and the organization he loved.

Other NGOs found their funding from the federal government disappeared or severely cut, largely because they were thought to be critical of Israel. KAIROS, a respected, main-stream church-based NGO was approved for funding by Bev Oda’s Department of International Cooperation and then it was “not.” Most NGOs have been warned that their charitable status is in jeopardy. Nearly 30 NGOs, with a voice on the international scene, have seen their funding cut or yanked.

Suddenly the world saw a Canada it did not recognize. Foreign aid started coming with ideological strings attached. Our funding priorities shifted to other areas of the world – from Africa to Latin America – apparently for the sole reason they weren’t Liberal priorities.

We were the laughing stock of the world at Copenhagen for promising the smallest decrease of carbon emissions even though we are one of the largest per capita emitters. In 2010 the Harper Government revised that to an increase of 2.5% above 1990 levels.

Our Prime Minister chose to have a double-double at Timmy’s new franchise in New York rather than meet the world at the United Nations. Our voice in the corridors of the UN became ideological and uncompromising. Our stance in the Middle East shifted to support for Israel, right or wrong.

In less than five years Canada fell from the major leagues to the Bush league.

So we need not wonder why the world no longer wants us on the Security Council. It has nothing to do with our “principled” stance on Israel, as Mr Harper explained it at the time. Just how “principled” is it to pick sides in an area that’s like a telephone booth packed with dynamite? No, it has everything to do with becoming the neighbour no one can abide – a kind of Machiavellian Ned Flanders.

April 26, 2011
© David McLaren


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About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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