Foreign Policy Debate Ignores Diaspora Nation

by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto

Rightly or wrongly, foreign policy is not high on the list of issues that Canadians would like to know about during a federal election campaign. 

That said, this week’s Munk Debate, while holding a mirror to Canada’s role in the world, tended to reflect Canadian values and how we choose to see ourselves on the global stage.

While Canadian voters’ perceived lack of interest in foreign affairs can be questioned, there need be no such ambivalence when it comes to immigrant voters. With ties to countries of birth or origin still strong, they are likely keen to know policy directions the next government in Ottawa plans to take in their spheres of interest.

Currently, one in five – or 6.8 million – Canadians are foreign-born. This is the highest share of any G7 country and the Harper government has encouraged social, cultural and economic ties between new Canadians and their birth countries as part of its trade agenda.

The government has said that if re-elected, it will establish a new “Maple Leaf” designation to recognize new Canadians who work to build cultural, economic and social links between Canada and their birth country. The Minister of Foreign Affairs would be among those making the decision to award five to seven designations per year.

Scant mention of China and India

This enthusiasm for trade with countries that have big diaspora populations in Canada did not come through during the debate.

China and India, two of the world’s largest economies that also happen to be two of the largest immigrant source countries, were hardly mentioned during the bilingual debate.

To be precise, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau mentioned both once.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″][W]hile China may soon pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, Canada might have already missed its opportunity for greater trade with the Asian giant.[/quote]

Trudeau said the Harper government did not seem to understand how important it is to be engaged in global trade particularly with the growing economies of Asia.

“That’s why we applauded the Canada-Europe agreement. But Mr. Harper is yet to deliver on [many other agreements],” Trudeau said. “He is nowhere with China, even though Australia has just signed [an agreement with China]. We made a beginning with India after the rapprochement Mr. Harper tried to do recently with the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi).”

Despite being called a “diaspora nation” because of the diverse nature of immigration to Canada, it seems the country is still not ready to diversify trade and cut its umbilical cord to the United States.

Our share of Asia’s trade has fallen by half over the past decade. And while China may soon pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, Canada might have already missed its opportunity for greater trade with the Asian giant.

Missed opportunity

The voters too have missed an opportunity to know from the party leaders their foreign trade policy.

As Daniel Muzyka, CEO, and Glen Hodgson, senior vice-president and chief economist, of the Conference Board of Canada, said in a recent article, if Canadians and Canadian firms are to succeed in the global marketplace, there are several questions they should ask.

Questions include what the leaders would do to build and mobilize interest in our global opportunities, what practical alternative would they support if they did not favour free trade, and what they would do differently to capture a fair share of trade with China.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″][T]he repeated reference to our glorious UN peacekeeping past would have come as a surprise for many new Canadians whose countries of birth now carry much of that burden.[/quote]

While the reluctance to diversify our trade due to the advantage of having the world’s largest economy south of our border was obvious during the debate, there was another theme that wasn’t.

Call it a collective denial or a national consensus to perpetuate a myth, the repeated reference to our glorious UN peacekeeping past would have come as a surprise for many new Canadians whose countries of birth now carry much of that burden.

Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Rwanda, Nepal, Senegal, Ghana, China and Nigeria are currently the top 10 contributors. Canada ranks 62 out of 126 countries with 88 personnel.

Cold War soldiers

It is true that Canada was often the single biggest contributor to peacekeeping missions between 1956 and 1992, sending about 80,000 soldiers by the time the Blue Berets won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.

But, after these relatively benign observer missions, and two taxing tour of duties in Somalia and the Balkans in the 1990s, Canada seemed to lose its appetite for peacekeeping.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]By design or not, the issue of Israel and Palestine was ignored amid the predictable sound and fury on the havoc caused by the Islamic State.[/quote]

It is also important to understand that what motivated Canada all those years ago was the Cold War. It was to primarily defend western interests and our own strategic ones. Far from being peacekeepers, we were dedicated Cold War soldiers fighting the Soviets.

Fast-forward to the Munk Debate and it seemed the Cold War still looms over us.

Trudeau was asked how he would handle Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It elicited a nervous titter from the audience and a banal answer.

This obviously was not about foreign policy, but about paying lip service to the large Ukrainian diaspora in the same way as Trudeau said Harper had turned Canada’s support for Israel into a “domestic political football.”

By design or not, the issue of Israel and Palestine was ignored amid the predictable sound and fury on the havoc caused by the Islamic State. Several other topics of deep interest to Canadian voters, new and old, were overlooked.

But as the pundits have unanimously ruled that this debate was the best so far, so be it. The freeze is still on and we like to keep our myths alive.

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