How Canada can lead on the global stage



by Bob Rae

The Star
March 5, 2016

President Trump’s speech to Congress this past week has received praise because it seemed less off kilter than his recent Twitter pronouncements and spontaneous performances. True, he didn’t throw up on stage or physically assault anyone. He even had a couple of “shout outs” for Canada and Justin Trudeau.

But, in substance, it is the same recipe for policy both foreign and domestic: the answers lie in quick fixes, trade protectionism, and emotional appeals to nationalism. It was heavy on more policing, more enforcement, “rounding people up,” “winning wars” by “eradicating the enemy,” and, of course massive increases in military spending, and budget cuts everywhere else, including the State Department and other agencies.

Our own Prime Minister has made a point of not arguing publicly about the wisdom of these moves, but this week signalled that Canada’s support for planned parenthood will stand in stark contrast to the slashing of any support for women that included abortion services.

This should be part of a broader re-framing of Canadian public policy, both at home and abroad. This involves new actions as well as new words. The government has made reconciliation a central theme in its domestic agenda. The “new relationship” with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples needs to be matched by deeper institutional change on the ground. The close to $1 billion that is spend on administrative costs at the federal Department of Indigenous Affairs needs to be transferred to self governing institutions that are controlled by indigenous people themselves.

No treaty should force indigenous people to abandon their historic claim to a shared sovereignty of the land and resources, and budgets that accompany self government have to do more than reallocate the poverty and discrimination that has been a hallmark of Canadian public policy for literally hundreds of years.

Reconciliation needs to be given real meaning, and lead to a genuine capacity for sovereignty. Federal institutions themselves need to show they can change, and work differently with both the provinces and indigenous governments.

If we can make these changes, it will enhance our vision for Canada’s role in the world. The struggle against extremist violence will require more than bombs and bullets. It also demands an understanding about creating stronger institutions, better education and social conditions, and the stability and security in which businesses can thrive and create jobs. “Aid,” “Emergency Humanitarian Assistance,” “Defence,” “Diplomacy,” are not separate silos but have to be made to fit together.

We learned these lessons after much trial and error in Afghanistan, but the sheer bureaucratic inertia of vested interest mean we have to re-learn them over and over again. It will take ministerial leadership and co-ordination to give us the ability to perform at maximum capability on the ground.

Trump’s “America firstism” actually gives Canada the obligation to show that it is human values that come first, the hunger for stability, education, and opportunity that are truly universal, and that Canada’s motivation is not to export ourselves but rather to facilitate other countries’ efforts to find the means for a better future.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently gave a powerful speech about the links between Brexit and Trumpism and the challenge they both pose to the world. As a sitting prime minister, Trudeau has to tread carefully. But this does not mean he should confine himself to bromides and the power of positive thinking. The world is in as dangerous and risky a period as we have ever experienced, and wise voices will be needed.

Every era of blustering nationalism has brought with it trade wars, short-sighted thinking, and conflicts that make things worse, not better. We need to find a voice that is matched by our commitment to deeds on the ground, and a willingness to engage with like-minded countries to make it less likely that mistakes will be made as the rhetoric heats up.

Canada at 150 celebrates our national achievements — it also is a moment to assess where we have unfinished business, where we have fallen short. Globally, it means understanding that what we want for ourselves — security, respect, dignity, opportunity, and prosperity — we want for others as well. And that we are prepared to take risks to do just that.

In a world where many countries are mired in poverty and conflict, it’s time for Canada to makes ourselves whole and practice reconciliation in our own lives as we share these skills and gifts with others.

Bob Rae served as Ontario’s 21st Premier, the Liberal MP for Toronto Centre, and interim Leader of the Liberal Party from 2011 to 2013.

Image: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

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