In The Media

What role will the Halifax Security Forum play in a post-Harper Canada?

by Claire Wählen (feat. Featuring Colin Robertson and Stephen Saideman)

November 20, 2015

Canada’s new defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, is hosting the seventh annual Halifax International Security Forum less than a month after being appointed.

In his opening statement he addressed his predecessor Defence Minister Peter MacKay who helped create the Forum, saying “You can be proud that what you started here will continue on as an enduring pillar of Canada’s engagement with the international community.”

Sajjan’s hat tip to McKay seems to settle one question to the event born under the Harper Conservatives: It will endure. But while the Forum isn’t facing the chopping block, what does the future of the Halifax Security Forum look like as Canada’s political landscape lurches to the left?

“It will be up to the new government to decide what to do with it,” says Colin Robertson, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “It [the Forum] has established its credentials as a world class security conference and is, I think, worth continuing.”

Over 1300 people from more than over 60 different countries have attended the event for the past seven years. Robertson, though, is one of only 16 who have participated every year. A core group of 109 have gone four or more times, but the vast majority of attendees, at 67 per cent, are one-timers.

“It has to be a reflection of Canada and serve the Canadian national interests. I think it can adapt and has adapted every year it’s happened,” says Robertson.

“We didn’t talk about Ukraine at the beginning but we have recently. We’ve always discussed the Middle East but there are always new reasons for why. I think the new government, with the funding they provide, need to sit down with the forum organizers and say ‘okay, here is how we’d like to see this adapt a bit’.”

Forum vice president Joe Hall agreed on the issue of the ever evolving agenda, which will shift to focus more on the Islamic State following the attacks last week in Paris. That’s not to say though that the issue wasn’t already on the prepared list.

“We deliberately craft the agenda as late as possible, and we do that because it’s the last major global gathering of the year on security and our relevance and the immediacy of our agenda is of the utmost importance to everybody,” says Hall.

Whether or not the Forum will change in any way as a result of a new government, or if it even needs to or not, is debatable.

The forum is styled as an independent, non-partisan, non-profit event that was launched in part by MacKay, who has since attended every year even as his roles in the Conservative government shifted.

This year, following the announcement he was retiring from politics for the time being, it was announced MacKay would be receiving the Builders Award for his involvement in the Forum’s long term success.

At the launch of the 2013 Forum, MacKay had announced an additional $10 million in funding to ensure the Forum continues until at least 2018, but according to Janice Gross Stein, another seven years in a row attendee in her role as the founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, that shouldn’t be confused for partisanship.

“I don’t think that’s the right way to frame it,” said Gross Stein. “I think it comes out of a desire to put Canada on a global map as one of the hubs for global security conversations. It grew out of the Afghanistan experience where we were learning again that we have to coordinate, at a very granular level, with security and defence experts around the world and that we had to do all of this in a global context. I mean look at the challenges that the new government.”

She further argues that the event should be judged by those who formulate the agenda — herself included — which is a more or less non-partisan group, and by the variety of the attendees each year, including high-ranking Democratic and Republican officials from the United States.

“It started here under one government but has since transcended that. We’re getting the highest level representation from the North Atlantic community regardless of who is in office, despite partisan lines in this country,” says Stein.

One major test for the Forum will come some time in the next three years, as the last round of funding runs out in 2018, near the time when the Liberals have committed to start balancing the federal books. How much, if any at all, funding the Liberals allot will suggest how serious they are in continuing the Forum.

Stephen Saideman is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and to date has never received an invite to the Halifax Security Forum, but he says getting rid of it just because it has conservative roots would be a mistake.

“I think it is a major platform for Canada in International Security circles, so it wouldn’t make sense to dispose of it. It serves as a parallel to Munich, but on this side of the Atlantic. This conference serves to remind everyone that Canada is a key partner in transatlantic efforts, including NATO,” says Saideman.

“But I have no idea about whether the Liberals would seek to erase every Conservative legacy like the Conservatives tried to do for every Liberal one.”

Hall says that he isn’t concerned that the relationship between the Forum and the Canadian government will change, a legitimate concern giving this will be the first change in government the Forum will see and how that could possibly affect attendance by Canadian government officials and possibly further funding in several years time.

According to Hall, the new government has “embraced the Forum enthusiastically, we really couldn’t be more pleased”.

“Obviously events in Paris make the Forum even more necessary and the conversations even more immediate but it’s quite clear that the government values being here in Halifax, and we’re of course delighted,” says Hall. “We’re here to support whatever government of Canada that is trying to make a more peaceful and secure world. That’s our mission. This is really about Canada and Canada’s role in the world.”

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