What Foreign Diplomats Need to Know about Canada: Personal Reflections


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by Colin Robertson and Maureen Boyd
CGAI Fellows
October 2023


Table of Contents


Originally written in 2019 for Carleton University’s Initiative for Parliamentary and Diplomatic Engagement annual Orientation for Newly-Arrived Diplomats to Canada that is now delivered by the Parliamentary Centre through its EngageParlDiplo program, with the collaboration of my wife and fellow CGAI Fellow,  Maureen Boyd, who is Chair Emerita of the Parliamentary Centre. These notes are revised annually in response to readers’ feedback which I continue to welcome, and this edition includes a section on Canadian foreign policy.

A consolidation of material to brief foreign diplomats on Canada, it is a personal reflection, drawing on my travels across every province and territory, as well as my diplomatic experience, much of which involved working with our provincial governments.

Some will quibble with the generally upbeat and optimistic tone of my reflections. One can point, correctly, to the fact Canada is not immune from populism or polarization and as we approach the next federal election our politics are getting uglier. The barricades blockading our rail and roads by indigenous people in the spring of 2020 and the occupation of downtown Ottawa by those opposing the vaccine mandate in the first months of 2022 underline the discontent of those who feel left out.

While we are proud of our social safety net, especially our health system, its imperfections are evident. There is inequality. While we need and welcome newcomers, the increased pressures on housing, education and social services risk undoing public support for immigration.

Nor is Canada immune from ‘presentism’. We have endured the toppling of statues of those who led us in the past but who do not meet the cultural and moral standards of today.

Climate change is real. We are experiencing unprecedented forest fires, flooding, and storms. It underlines the importance of emergency preparedness. Governments, industry and our research community need to partner drawing on our practical experience and technological innovation.  

We live in a harsh climate and the transition from fossil fuels to renewables is not an on-off switch but a dial. Shouldn’t we be maximizing our natural resources and getting them to markets, especially to allies that need them? Developing and marketing our natural resources will help pay the bills for needed reforms to our public education and health care.

We sail in uncharted waters. The international scene is complicated by the return of great power rivalry, a rising China, a revanchist Russia that has invaded Ukraine, and a United States whose steadfast grip on leadership is less sure, complicated by its unresolved internal divisions. We witness the inadequacy of the United Nations and the rules-based multilateral order to deal with the big challenges of war, economic upheaval, pandemics, and climate change. These afflictions have exacerbated economic inequities and social inequalities and contribute to unregulated migration generating the most displaced persons since World War II.

Canadians worked hard to build and support the rules-based order because it provided peace and security - fundamental conditions for growth and prosperity. It also presented opportunities for helpful fixing by a middle power that strived to build bridges through quietly effective diplomacy.

The world is messier and meaner. In recent years there is a tendency for Canadian leaders to preach and pontificate. Then, in the memorable words of a former foreign ministers, we leave the table when the check arrives. Ambition is not backed up by follow-through or perseverance. We do not meet the NATO pledgee to spend two per cent on defence nor do we come close to the UN 0.7 per cent target for development. Whether the study of diplomacy underway will result in investing more in our foreign service remains to be seen. At home our national institutions seem to have lost their capacity to unite us. Does the current fixation with identity, race, and gender bring us closer together? Sackcloth for sins, real or imagined, does not suit the national spirit.

While we have never been a deferential society, disagreement and defiance was previously expressed through debate in our church basements and community centers or over coffee at Tim Hortons and then expressed at the ballot box. The challenge for Canadian democracy, like others in the West, is to restore faith in our institutions and revive our civic virtues in the new world of rampant social media where misinformation and disinformation thrives. Foreign interference is now a recognized threat both in Canada and elsewhere. Democracies need to work collectively to ensure our institutions are ready to resist it.

Canada remains a nation under construction. We actively recruit newcomers with talent and welcome those with a well-founded fear of persecution. Whatever our faults, I still believe to have been born in Canada or to have migrated to Canada is to have won the global lottery.

Colin Robertson
October 2023



Living in a northern terrain, Canadians, generally, are a socially progressive but economically prudent people. Our vast and formidable geography coupled with weather that covers all four seasons breeds resilience and perseverance against the elements.

We take pride in nature: our mountains, maple trees and maple syrup, and our beavers, polar bears, moose and loons. We think of ourselves as a northern nation, even if most of us live within 150 miles of the U.S. border.

Hockey is our national sport. You can learn a lot about the Canadian character by watching hockey. Lester Pearson, our greatest diplomat (peace-keeping to help resolve Suez in 1956-7) and the prime minister who gave us Medicare (1966) and our red and white Maple Leaf flag (1965), told a British audience in 1939 that hockey “has become almost as much of a national symbol as the maple leaf or the beaver. Most young Canadians, in fact, are born with skates on their feet rather than with silver spoons in their mouths.”

More than 75 years later, the sport still sends Canadians en masse to their screens during the Olympics to watch our men’s and women’s teams go for gold. When we win, God is in heaven and all is right with the world. When we lose, we go into a national funk and questions are asked in our House of Commons about how we can do better.

That said, hockey’s iconic 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series is now a half century behind us and more kids - boys and girls - now play the accessible and ‘beautiful game’ of soccer. Hockey Canada, the institution charged with managing hockey in Canada, is dealing with the aftermath of controversies over sexual assault investigations and cover-ups requiring a necessary make-over to restore public trust.

By necessity, we must be innovative and practical. Canadian inventions include basketball (Go Raptors), the paint roller, the garbage bag, peanut butter, insulin, Pablum, butter tarts and the WonderBra. Yet, we are not as entrepreneurial or as good at marketing as our U.S. neighbours and our productivity lags behind most of the OECD.

Our geography and vast space mean that transportation and communications are critically important to us. Along with our climate, our diversity as a people and as a place to live obliges us to practise tolerance, accommodation and compromise. It is also an incentive to govern by consent. 

Our foreign policy has two main pillars: first, the bilateral relationship with the United States; and second, to balance that preponderant relationship, a commitment to multilateralism.

Economics and cultural pulls tend to be north-south, toward the U.S., rather than east-west, across Canada. This creates an insecurity and, for some, an inferiority, sometimes reflected in anti-Americanism. Reflecting that insecurity, for too long English Canadians would define themselves as “not Americans”. As one humorist put it, “Canada could have enjoyed English government, French culture and American know-how. Instead, it ended up with English know-how, French government and American culture.”

We are officially bilingual – English and French – but proficiency beyond the public service and parts of Montreal and New Brunswick is nowhere near Europeans’ language capacity. Fifty years after former prime minister Pierre Trudeau implemented bilingualism, the percentage of Canadians claiming proficiency in both languages rose from 17 per cent to 18 per cent between 1996-2022. Quebecers are the most bilingual (46 per cent) while the figure for the rest of Canada is 9.5 per cent. French immersion, from kindergarten through grade twelve, is usually the preferred program in English Canada for the middle and upper classes. Successive Quebec governments laws aimed at enhancing the French language and culture are controversial and likely contribute to out-migration and a lower level of immigrants than the rest of Canada.


Proud of its diversity, this vast country is distinguished by its regions. To truly understand Canada, Ottawa-based envoys need to travel to the provinces to meet our premiers and the mayors of our major cities.  

While the federal government sets the framework for trade and investment, it is the premiers and the mayors who are closest to the reality of business and, under the constitution, resources fall under provincial responsibility. Just as all politics is local, so is business and trade.

By temperament, we are helpful fixers and bridge-builders. This usually makes us good at diplomacy, as long as we do not take ourselves too seriously or succumb to preachiness and pontification. We rate high on likeability and as a desirable place to live. The Economist recently ranked three Canadian cities - Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto - in the top 10 of the most livable cities in the world.

There is broad support for our education system and publicly-funded universal health care. In cost and coverage, the provincially-managed systems resemble more those of western Europe than the more expensive U.S. system. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information Canada spends slightly more (10.8 per cent of GDP) than the OECD average (8.7 per cent of GDP) with the U.S. system the most expensive (16.8 per cent of GDP). COVID has underlined the value of the health system but also the need for its reform and reinvigoration.

Unlike our southern neighbour, we have no visceral allergy to taxation to pay for these public goods, although the promise of lowered taxes is usually a plank in the platforms of opposition parties with the left promising to tax the rich and the right promising to lower taxes. Right or left, they agree on curtailing ‘profligate spending’ although they rarely agree on the same definition of what constitutes ‘profligacy’. 

While our social safety net and public education systems compare favourably, when contrasted against those of the U.S., we know little about how the services other national governments offer their citizens compare to ours. With funding for these programs consuming most of what governments spends, foreign envoys can share with us their best practices. 

While it is not without challenges, we integrate newcomers better than most other nations. Even as the country is now annually taking in almost 500,000 newcomers - based on their skills and adaptability - seven in ten Canadians support our current immigration levels although recent polling also tells us there is concern about its effect on housing and healthcare.  

Events in the U.S. and the Black Lives Matter movement echoed around the world, including in Canada, putting the spotlight on our disadvantaged: our indigenous peoples, racial minorities and the LGBTQ.  

Indigenous people is the collective name for the original peoples of Canada - Inuit, Metis and 634 First Nations. Indigenous people represent 4.9 per cent of the population and speak more than 50 languages. They are the fastest growing part of the population and account for 15 per cent of those living in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and well over half of those living in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Sadly, they are also subject to poverty and ill health and account for over 1/3 of those incarcerated in our prisons. Remedial work is underway when it comes to treatment of and reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples starting with basics like the provision of clean drinking water on reserves. Reconciliation is not happening as fast as most would like but Canadians are increasingly conscious of the requirement. And take inspiration from role models including Governor General Mary Simon, Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew, and Commander of the Army Lt. General Joe Paul as well as the many who bring lustre to our arts, music and culture.



Colony to Nation

Canada. The name comes from the Huron-Iroquoian word kanata, meaning a village or settlement. Jacques Cartier sailed up the “rivière du Canada” – the St. Lawrence River – in 1534 to claim the land for France. Samuel de Champlain would later use both Canada and New France to refer to the French colony. But Canada stuck.

At various times, the Vikings, the French and the British colonized us. The Spanish had temporary fishing camps. The American idea of “manifest destiny” would encompass Canada and there was provision for the 14th colony in the U.S. Articles of Confederation. The Americans invaded us during their Revolution and during the War of 1812-14. There were Fenian raids across the border after the American Civil War and plans for a Canadian invasion into the early 20th century.

After the British beat the French in their Louisbourg and Quebec City strongholds (1758-9), France retained two small islands – St. Pierre and Miquelon – under the Treaty of Paris (1763). The British divided their new territory (1791) into Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec), joining their colonies in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

Confederation under the British North America Act (1867) created “One Dominion under the name of Canada”. Confederation was motivated in part by the fear that the Union Army, victorious after the American Civil War, would turn its sights north. Raids into Canada by Fenians - Irish Catholics who had migrated to the United States with many of them former Union army veterans - took place between 1866-71.   

As a Dominion we relied on Britain for defence and oversight of our foreign policy until 1931 when the Statute of Westminster gave the dominions legislative equality with Britain. Canadians would fight under the Red Ensign flag until we adopted our now ubiquitous and trade-mark maple leaf flag in 1965. Our anthem, ‘O Canada’, only received legislative endorsement in 1980. We still fiddle with the words.


O Canada

What is a Canadian? A bit bilingual, but certainly multicultural. Unlike the American melting pot, Canadians are more of a kilt or tapestry of ethnicities. Over 200 ethnic groups make up the Canadian mosaic, giving us different accents, as well as regional, ethnic and cultural variations.

While we constantly debate our national identity, we do have a distinctive culture.


One way to experience this is to walk through the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries in the splendid National Gallery of Canada, designed by Canadian architects Moshe Safdie and Cornelia Oberlander. The Canada collection is world class. There are also the Canadian history galleries in the equally stunning Douglas Cardinal-designed Canadian Museum of History across the Ottawa river. The Grand Hall’s totem poles and Pacific coast Indigenous village constitute a spectacular and popular venue for national day celebrations.

We have other museums in the National Capital region: the Canadian War Museum, the Aviation and Space Museum, Agriculture and Food, the Museum of Nature (which hosted Parliament for four years after the Great Fire of 1916 destroyed our original Parliament Buildings) and the Museum of Science and Technology. There are also two superb national museums outside the Ottawa region: the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights at the Forks in Winnipeg. While it’s not a national museum the Hockey Hall of Fame at the corner of Yonge and Front in downtown Toronto is also worth a visit.


Our iconic national artists are the Group of Seven. They are found in our national and provincial galleries, and a visit to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection along the Humber River in Vaughan, Ontario is well worth it. But there is more: the photography of the Karsh brothers; the sculptures of Bill Reid and Joe Fafard; and paintings by Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jack Bush, William Kurelek and Emily Carr.

Literary greats range from authors such as Susanna Moodie, Stephen Leacock, Robertson Davies, Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro, to popular historians such as Pierre Berton and Charlotte Gray. Almost all of them incorporate the North in their stories. A range of annual awards including the Giller Prize, the Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Awards celebrate emerging and contemporary authors. The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing is awarded every year in Ottawa at the Politics and the Pen gala – a sought-after invitation for diplomats because of who is there -  benefitting Writers’ Trust of Canada.

Canadians make music in both official languages and then some. Our troubadours include the English language poet Leonard Cohen, Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and French Canadian chansonniers Robert Charlebois, Monique Leyrac, Gilles Vigneault, Félix Leclerc, Ginette Reno, Beau Dommage and Édith Butler to name just a few. The Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, an annual gala affair at our National Arts Centre, is an evening celebrating Canadian cultural excellence.

We have classical icons like Maureen Forrester, Glenn Gould, and Julie Nesrallah who hosts a popular CBC classical music program every week-day morning. There are jazz artists like Oscar Peterson and Diana Krall; and crooners like Paul Anka, Michael Bublé, Rufus Wainwright and k.d. lang. We also have Academy Award winning composers including Howard Shore and Mychael Danna; world-renowned producers David Foster and Daniel Lanois; and rock stars including Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Alanis Morissette, Feist, the Guess Who, Tragically Hip, Arcade Fire, Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies and prog-rock giants Rush. Country and western has long had an attachment for Canadians from Nova Scotia’s own Hank Snow, to Don Messer’s Jubilee, Anne Murray and superstar Shania Twain. Then there are the pop stars like Celine Dion the ‘Queen of Power Ballads’, Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes; R&B/Hip artists Drake and the Weeknd, Bachman Turner Overdrive and indigenous artists Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tanya Tagaq and Susan Aglukark. 

We also think we are good at film and television, especially programs for children beginning with the Friendly Giant and Chez Hélène at the advent of television to the Elephant Show and Fred Penner to Degrassi Street, Road to Avonlea and Anne of Green Gables. Roch Demers’ 24 feature-length Contes pour tous were translated into many languages.

The Quebec cultural scene is particularly rich in talent and imagination whether on canvas or paper as well as on stage, screen and digital media as exemplified by artists including Michel Tremblay, Marie-Claire Blais, Robert Charlebois, Hubert Lenoir, Robert Lepage, Louis Lortie, Angèle Dubeau, les Violons du Roy, and Denys Arcand whose Les Invasions barbares (2004) won Canada’s only foreign language film Oscar. The global giant Cirque du Soleil originated in Montreal where it has its school. For an insight into what Quebecois and Quebec think watch Radio Canada's Tout le Monde en Parle on Sunday nights. 

Arguably, the success of our musicians is partly the result of government regulations that require a percentage of Canadian content to be broadcast, which gives vital exposure to new artists, and financial support that subsidizes their recorded and live music-making. Watch the Junos, our annual awards for Canadian music artists, or attend the East Coast Music Awards or Breakout West, to see new talent. If you are in Calgary, visit the National Music Centre to experience the breadth and depth of our national music making and see one of the most important keyboard instrument collections in the world.

Canadians have to have a sense of humour. Living in the Great White North, with Uncle Sam as our next-door neighbour, requires an appreciation for the comic and the capacity to laugh at ourselves as This Hour Has 22 Minutes has for 30 years on CBC. Stephen Leacock’s sketches of small-town life in the first part of the 20th century are still worth reading. Most of our humourists find a place on the stage or screen. They include Lorne Michaels, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara and David Steinberg many of whom contributed to the still running Saturday Night Live. And watch this sketch of the McKenzie Brothers on SCTV for an insight into our cultural identity.


A Compromise with Geography, Climate and Diversity

In contrast to the rambunctious republic to the south we often like to think of ourselves as the counter-revolutionary ‘peaceable kingdom’ with compromise, gradualism and deference to authority included in our basic values. Pierre Trudeau would describe us in 1969 as “the product of understanding, not conflict; trustees of reasonableness, not violence”. All nations enjoy their mythologies but, as a former U.S. ambassador once remarked, if the national temperament in the U.S. goes from A to Z, in Canada it hovers between F to M. We compromise because we have had to deal with the land, our weather and the diversity in our peoples.

The structural challenges in Canada are geography and climate – huge, cold and difficult. As a result, we put a premium on communications and transportation to keep the country together.

Our Fathers of Confederation purposely created a decentralized federation – the provinces control their resources and administer health care and education. You must get out of Ottawa to appreciate the land and the people. You need to get to know the premiers. They recognize the importance of international trade and economics, more so than their national brethren.

Canada is a geographically big country spanning 5 1/2 time zones (Newfoundland, Atlantic, Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific); Saskatchewan does not use Daylight Saving Time. Second only to Russia in size, Germany would fit into Alberta while neighbouring Saskatchewan could take in the UK and Ireland. It takes longer to fly to the North Pole from Toronto than to the Equator. With over 40 million people, we are the world’s 38th most populated country, falling between Poland and Morocco.

In terms of GDP, while we enjoy a place in the G7 thanks to the U.S., we rank 9th behind the U.S., China, Japan, Germany, UK, France and Russia just ahead of Italy, Brazil and Australia. We were instrumental in creating the G20.

Protected by the U.S. defence shield, we spend 1.27 per cent of our GDP on defence which falls short of the NATO allies commitment of 2 per cent.

Canada is one of the most diverse nations with one in five a visible minority. There is no majority group, although the 30 per cent with descent from the United Kingdom – Scots, Irish, English and Welsh – are the largest group. France follows with 19 per cent, and then Germany. Since 1980, the majority of our new immigrants have come from Asia. Nearly three in four Canadians live in cities, and those cities are almost all located within a couple of hundred miles of the U.S. border.




The Great White North

Canadians like to think of themselves as a northern people. The North is our frontier.  With hockey our national game, there is some frustration that the last time a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup was in 1993 (by the Montreal Canadiens, once the most winning team in sports). While American-based teams have held the Cup since then, 43 per cent of the players in the National Hockey League are Canadian with the rest mostly a mix of Americans and Europeans.

Our attachment to the North is more romantic than real. Few Canadians have actually travelled to our Far North and 90 per cent of Canadians live within 150 miles of the U.S. border. Travelling to the North is difficult and expensive. But if you get the opportunity, take it. Most ambassadors consider the tour of the North organized every two years by Global Affairs Canada the highlight of their Canadian posting.

While successive governments have all paid lip service to northern development, the reality is that there is not much to show for all the talk and our Arctic framework strategy is derisory when compared to other Arctic Council members, as well as the Russians and Chinese. The U.S. regularly reminds us that if we claim sovereignty in the Arctic, we should exercise it. Former prime minister Stephen Harper went north every summer to participate in the annual Operation Nanook military exercises that still continue to take place throughout the year across Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Labrador.

Northern and Indigenous youth are the most prone to disease (tuberculosis and diabetes), alcohol and drug addiction, and suicide. Following the release of Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced “We accept the finding that this was genocide, and we will move forward to end this ongoing national tragedy.” During his 2022 visit to Canada Pope Francis described what took place at residential schools as ‘genocide’ and issued a long-awaited apology which many believed did not fully hold the Catholic Church responsible for its role as an institution.


In most countries, it would be inconceivable for a national police force to be a revered national symbol, but the Mounties evoke our nation-building myth. The Mounties – the common name given to members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) – were originally created in 1873 as the North West Mounted Police, to provide law and order in the western and northern territories of Canada.

Sadly, their reputation has taken hits over behaviour towards women members and in revelations over their handling of a mass shooting in Nova Scotia. Through contracts with provincial governments, the RCMP continues to be the primary police force in all provinces but Quebec and Ontario and in approximately 200 municipalities and 600 Aboriginal communities.


Settling Canada

We are good at integrating newcomers. We are still nation-building, and we resettle with little resistance over 400,000 immigrants and refugees, a number equivalent to one per cent of our population.

To some extent, Canada was settled by the dispossessed or, as one historian acerbically put it, ‘the losers’. The Indigenous First Nations lost land first to the short-staying Vikings, and then to French and English colonization. After the French were defeated at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the ruling elite went back to France while the “habitants” stayed. Having lost the other 13 colonies to the American revolutionaries in 1783, the British had learned something about compromise. So they guaranteed French language rights, as well as the preservation of the civil code and religious freedom for the predominately Catholic French-Canadians. 

The American War of Independence also brought the next wave of settlers. The losing British Loyalists - ‘Liberty’s Exiles’ - fled north and more than doubled the population in the process, settling along the St. Lawrence in Ontario and Quebec, as well as in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. 

Then came the poorest from the British Isles – Scots displaced by foreclosure and Irish fleeing famine. Canada was the cheapest fare for those who could not afford Boston or New York, so they came to Quebec, Montreal or Halifax. Grosse Ile on the St. Lawrence, upriver from Quebec City, is the largest graveyard outside of Ireland for those thousands who fled the 1840s Great Famine and died of typhoid and other diseases. 

We built our national railway with Chinese (whom we then sent home) and Scots-Irish immigrants. We settled the West with “stalwart peasants” in sheepskin coats with large families from Eastern Europe, including Ukrainians, Germans, Poles and Russians. Those who claim Ukrainian descent form 3.9 per cent of the population, which helps to explain our strong interest in what happens to Ukraine.

But open migration only went so far. We once applied a head tax on Chinese migrants and discouraged Asian migration until the mid-20th century. Today, Asian migrants – Chinese, Indians, Filipinos – make up almost half of our annual intake. And they integrate themselves well into Canadian society. At one point there were more Sikhs in the cabinets of prime ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau than in their Indian counterpart.

After both world wars, we welcomed many from Eastern and Southern Europe, including Italians and Greeks, as well as Jews (belatedly) and other displaced persons. Poles, Hungarians and Czechs followed after their failed insurrections. Later came Ismaili Asians who had been thrown out of Idi Amin’s Uganda, over 100,000 Vietnamese boat people, and then refugees from Chile and Central America, Haiti, and more recently Somalia, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Canadians of African descent date back to colonial times with freed slaves coming to Nova Scotia and Quebec after the American Revolution, then migrants from the Caribbean after the Second World War and now immigrants from Africa. There is a vibrant Black Canadian culture with the annual Caribana festival in Toronto drawing thousands for food, dance and music.

Justin Trudeau promised a home to 25,000 Syrians during the 2015 election. Canada has since taken in more than 44,000, many of them under private sponsorship from communities, churches and other groups. Refugees arriving via private sponsorship integrate more quickly because of the sponsors’ personal involvement. Since the fall of Kabul (2021), Canada has taken in more than 15,000 Afghan refugees.

The Aga Khan looked over the world and established the Global Centre for Pluralism in Canada. And we must make pluralism work. Half the population of Toronto was born outside of Canada and Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal have populations with about 40 per cent born outside of Canada. There are the inevitable challenges of integration but we seem to do it better than anyone else.




Resources: “Quelques arpents de neige”


Our natural resources are our national patrimony, vital to our economy and our inheritance to the next generation. The French philosopher Voltaire dismissed Canada as “quelques arpents de neige” – a few acres of snow. In the horse-trading of the colonial war, France chose Martinique and Guadeloupe for their sugar over Canada’s fur and fish.

Today, Canada has global weight in energy and minerals. More than half of the world’s publicly listed mining and mineral-exploration companies, with a presence in almost 100 countries, are based in Canada and they make up over 40 per cent of the listing value of the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Energy, including mining and quarrying, accounts for over nine per cent of our GDP. The Parliamentary Budget Office pegs the contribution of oil and gas to the Canadian economy at between 2.7 per cent and 4.0 per cent between 2015 and 2018.  Canada is the fourth largest energy producer and the ninth largest consumer of oil.

Given global food insecurity and the shift from abundance to scarcity, Canada’s agri-food industry should be part of the solution if we can develop a strategy to improve our infrastructure and make our regulatory system more nimble.

The Prairie provinces, our traditional breadbasket, now produce as much pulse and lentils for overseas markets as wheat and barley. We are the world’s largest producer of lentils and peas, and of high-protein milling wheat as well as number one when it comes to canola production and export. Canola oil is a wonder product used for salad dressing, marinades, margarine, biofuel, printer ink, adhesives and cosmetics. There are enough apples produced in Canada for every Canadian to consume 10 kilograms per year - almost 100 apples per person. We produce more blueberries than anyone else.

Canada is one of the largest global exporters of beef and cattle. The industry embraces sustainability: it takes 29 per cent fewer cattle in the breeding herd and 24 per cent less land to produce the same amount of beef in 2011 compared to 1981. As the world’s third largest pork exporter, Canada exports to more than 90 countries. Seafood is also a major export although the cod fishery in the Atlantic is still recovering from over-fishing.

Our energy and minerals resources are significant.

Canada is the fourth largest producer of crude oil with 97 per cent of Canada’s proven oil reserves located in the Alberta oil sands where, thanks to innovation, GHG emissions per barrel of oil produced in the oil sands have fallen 33 per cent since 2000. Canadian refineries can process nearly 2 million barrels of crude oil per day. Canada is the fifth largest producer of natural gas – almost forty per cent of what we produce is exported. Natural gas provides almost 2/5 of Canadian energy requirements. Coal is abundant in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. Canada's coal production is mostly metallurgical coal used for steel manufacturing. Northern Saskatchewan has the largest high-grade uranium deposits in the world, sourcing almost a quarter of the world's uranium supply for electrical generation

Canada has some of the largest known rare-earths reserves in the world but producing rare earth elements requires complex separation and refining processes that China dominates. Reshoring this capacity is under discussion with the U.S. but it will require investment, innovation and a recognition that it will compete with carbon reduction goals. Canada already produces 60 minerals and metals that are in high global demand and it is also home to an estimated 15.1 million tonnes of rare-earth oxides.

Waterpower provides more than 60 per cent of Canada’s total electricity today, with an installed capacity soon exceeding 85,000 MW making Canada the fourth largest generator of hydroelectricity in the world. Most hydropower generated in Canada comes from run-of-river or reservoir generating stations. Hydro is produced for export in British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec with Newfoundland and Labrador aiming to join them.

The regional distribution of Canadian resources is unequal. Overlay politics and the original design of Confederation and you have the resource politics of the country laid out. Overlay population and you have the power balances and power conflicts within Canada. 




A Trading Nation but Not Yet a Nation of Traders

We must trade to ensure prosperity. While we are a trading nation, we still do not have free trade within Canada. This is the unfinished business of Confederation. With a few notable exceptions – our banks, insurance companies, resource and agri-food corporations - we are not yet a nation of global corporations. Some have run into financial or product trouble – SNC Lavalin and Bombardier – or were taken over – Nortel, BlackBerry, Inco, Falconbridge and Barrick. Between 2012 and 2021, one-in-twenty-five Canadian head offices closed or merged with other companies. There was also a decline in the average size of the remaining corporate headquarters, with a one-in-twenty decline in head office staff. The C.D. Howe Institute estimates that private-sector investment per worker has been running at just 55 to 65 per cent of the U.S. level since the mid-2010s. Canada is also lagging well behind the average for advanced economies. Our relative competitiveness is declining, despite government efforts, including the creating of superclusters

The sense that we go for bronze when we should go for gold is a source of concern especially when it comes to government procurement, regulatory overload and our overall tax burden as identified in the annual reports of the World Economic Forum. It's the subject of continuing focus by our leading business associations, the Business Council of Canada and Canadian Chamber of Commerce, as well as think tanks like the Public Policy Forum, CD Howe Institute and Fraser Institute.

Getting our goods to market is a problem - we need both more and improved infrastructure - rail, road, pipelines, grids, and ports. That said, in recent years improvements have been made to the Port of Vancouver, Canada’s largest port, and the most diversified port in North America. Our other major ports are in Montreal, Prince Rupert, Halifax and St. John. And our rail carriers CPKC and CN, that date to the 19th century, now service continental freight traffic from the Atlantic to the Pacific and to the Gulf of Mexico. 

The U.S. is our biggest market and the renegotiation (2020) of the NAFTA – now called CUSMA or USMCA – has re-established the terms of continental trade. This dependence comes at a price, especially for our oil and gas which are both sold at a discounted price. We need to diversify our trade and increase the number of Canadian companies that export. We need to make better use of the people-to-people relationships including Canadians living, working and studying abroad. Immigration adds about one per cent to our population each year, adding to our people-to-people ties.


Source: State of Canadian  Trade 2022



The Constitution

The confederation of 10 provinces and three territories began in 1867, with the union of what is now Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and continues through to the creation of Nunavut in 1999.

Jurisdiction over responsibility for trade (shared), immigration (shared), education (provincial), natural resources (provincial), and defence and foreign policy (federal) is divided between the national and provincial governments and set out in the Constitution with the judiciary – ultimately the nine judges of the Supreme Court – arbitrating on differences.

A key feature of the federation, embedded in the Constitution, is equalization, “the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services and reasonably comparable levels of taxation.” The transfers from rich to poor and the formula and criteria that determines these transfer amounts is inevitably controversial and there is constant squabbling with the provincial governments arguing the federal government should give them more money, especially for health-care and education. Cities are now getting into the fray, arguing that this third level of government is without an adequate tax base yet they are home to three in four Canadians.


Charles III is King of Canada. We have had a monarch (or two until the French withdrew in 1763) as head of state since Cartier claimed Canada for France in 1534. In the parliamentary restaurant in Centre Block (now under renovation) hang portraits of all Canada’s monarchs from François I to Charles III. Our longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who reigned from 1953-2022, was the first to be crowned as Queen of Canada.

Our constitution declares that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law” and that our governments will provide “peace, order and good government.  It’s a surprise to most Canadians that ‘peace, order and good government is not a uniquely Canadian phrase but rather boilerplate prose lifted from British-drafted colonial governance documents.

Nevertheless, we like to contrast this approach to the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” celebrated in the American Declaration of Independence. Indeed, we like to contrast ourselves to the U.S. whenever we can, even if to outsiders we look and sound a lot like our American neighbours, eh!

Once a parliamentary democracy, we became a constitutional democracy with the patriation of our Constitution and adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, thereby subjecting the will of Parliament and the legislatures to judicial scrutiny.



National Unity in a diverse and decentralized federation

Prime ministers have three permanent files on their desk. Like every other leader they have over-all responsibility for national security, both economic and defence. Their other files are more particular to Canada: preserving national unity and managing Uncle Sam.

In what is still considered to be the definitive speech on Canadian foreign policy, then External Affairs Minister (and later prime minister) Louis St. Laurent identified national unity as the first principle of foreign policy in his 1947 Gray Lecture: “…our external policies shall not destroy our unity …The role of this country in world affairs will prosper only as we maintain this principle, for a disunited Canada will be a powerless one.”

Canada is one of the more decentralized federations with the provincial governments having more constitutional authorities than, for example, American states. In practise, this has allowed the provinces to play a role in international affairs, including the negotiation of agreements, especially in trade and immigration, reflecting the shared constitutional responsibilities.

Provincial governments have had representatives abroad since Confederation. Quebec has developed a small, sophisticated and effective foreign service that focuses on trade and investment but also includes immigration and cultural outreach. Arguably, this is part of the dynamic, evergreen compromise that keeps together the geographic, linguistic and cultural diversity that is Canada.

Just as American states are the laboratories for democratic innovation so are Canada’s provinces. Medicare was born in Saskatchewan and then adopted, with adaptations, across Canada. Quebec brought in subsidized childcare. British Columbia legislated the first carbon tax and is currently experimenting with decriminalization of hard drugs.

Concern over Quebec’s attachment to Canada has been a permanent feature of Canadian history since we were a British colony. The conscription crises in both world wars divided French and English Canada. Violence flared during the 1960s, most notably with the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) and the 1970 October Crisis leading to the imposition of the War Measures Act, the latter being considered either Pierre Trudeau’s finest hour or a black moment for civil liberties.

The election of the Parti Québécois in 1976 and the adoption of French language-only laws in Quebec pushed the separatist movement from terrorism to a democratic party that governed from the left. There were two referenda on Quebec separation – in 1980 and 1995. Since the 1990s, the federal Bloc Québécois has elected members of parliament, enjoying Official Opposition status from 1993 to 1997 while the conservative parties were divided. 

For now, Quebec separatism is quiescent but it is never dead although for now surveys say most Quebeckers, including francophones, don’t want separation from Canada.

Rumblings on the national unity front now also come from the West, especially oil and gas rich Alberta, with its discontent over resource and climate policies. All provinces and territories are subject to a carbon pricing mechanism, either by an in-province program or by one of two federal programs. As of April 2023, the federal minimum tax is set at CA$65 per tonne of CO 2 equivalent, set to increase to CA$170 in 2030. It is not without controversy nor critics who would “axe the tax”


There is also a conviction that, as  western premiers, especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan have complained, the West is victimized by what an Alberta minister described as ‘Laurentian elites’ skewing privileges to favour Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.   

Pierre Trudeau thought immigration would take care of the separatist sentiment in Quebec but, aside from Montreal, most immigrants now choose to settle outside of Quebec. After the Second World War, Quebec accounted for almost 1/3 of the Canadian population, but today it is closer to 1/5. Toronto is our premier city and Calgary has more head offices than Montreal. 

Population has expanded in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia and while our next House of Commons will increase to 343 seats from the current 338‘grandfathering’ protects the number of seats allocated in the House of Commons to Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Atlantic provinces. Editorialists grumble but it is part of long-standing compromise that also sees rural citizens in each province over-represented in terms of seats in each provincial legislatures.

Canadian populism was initially farmer- and worker-based, with their intellectuals drawing from the U.S. and UK. experiences (and in Quebec from France). Later, populist discontent generated both the left-wing NDP (and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party) and, on the right, the current Conservative Party. The latter was born out of the Reform and then Canadian Alliance parties, in reaction to the more centrist Progressive Conservative Party of former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

As provinces asserted their constitutional powers after the Second World War, differences would be addressed at meetings of the first ministers – the prime minister in the chair with the premiers and sometimes First Nations leaders.

These conferences became a feature of Canadian federalism, especially in the years before and after the 1982 patriation of the Constitution from the UK and subsequent efforts at constitutional reform, known as Meech Lake and Charlottetown. After initial meetings, both Harper and Trudeau have preferred to deal with premiers one-on-one rather than as a collective although during COVID the premiers and prime minister spoke regularly in virtual conferences.

The thirteen premiers meet annually in the Council of the Federation to look at shared interests. Indigenous leaders also have their own forum (Assembly of First Nations). This usually involves pressing the federal government for more money and more authorities for independent action.



Warriors when necessary

If we are not war-like, we certainly bred warriors. Historians argue persuasively that Canada came of age during the First World War. Vimy Ridge, popularized by historian Pierre Berton, and its iconic Memorial is a tribute to the 61,000 who died during that conflict. During the final two years, the Canadians never lost a battle. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George called them the ‘shock troops’ of the Empire. They are immortalized in a splendid volume that is part of military historian Tim Cook's accounts of Canada at war. During the Second World War, if the U.S. was the ‘arsenal of democracy’, Canada was the aerodrome, with its extensive Commonwealth air training program managed by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Canadian sailors - merchant marine and Royal Canadian Navy - helped win the Battle of the Atlantic. By war’s end, the Royal Canadian Navy possessed the third largest navy after the U.S. and the UK.


Given Canada’s geography and wealth, our Armed Forces are relatively modest: approximately 68,000 active personnel and 27,000 reserve personnel, with approximately 5,000 Canadian Rangers based in the Arctic.

As to service strength: the Army has 22,500 active personnel and 16,200 reservists; Royal Canadian Air Force has 12,074 regular force members and 1,969 Reservists; Royal Canadian Navy has 8,400 regular force personnel and 4,100 Reservists.

Our three oceans give Canada the world’s longest coastline but we need more navy and coast guard capabilities to exercise sovereignty in our waters. An ambitious shipbuilding initiative is underway at shipyards in Halifax, Montreal and Vancouver to both refit the current fleet and launch a new vessel every year for the next 20 years. This will give Canada a new fleet of warships and patrol ships and eventually, we hope, new submarines. After too much procrastination, a similar exercise is underway to provide the Royal Canadian Air Force with transport planes and 88 new fighter jets.

Strong, Secure, Engaged, the defence policy (an update is overdue), promised to increase our Armed Forces and Reserves numbers to 71,500 and 30,000 respectively. In recent years, the Canadian Armed Forces has been plagued with procurement problems. Forces readiness is also complicated by recruitment and retention challenges and a commitment to cultural change. Nor do we come close to meeting the NATO commitment of spending two per cent of GDP on defence (we are currently around 1.3 per cent).

Given the calls on our Forces at home to deal with natural disasters, our commitments to NORAD modernization and defence of the North, our pledge to support Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’, our promise to increase our NATO contingent in Latvia, and our ambitions to an increased presence in the Indo-Pacific, a major shift in attitude and spending by the national government is both required and necessary.


Middle Power: Balancing Realism and Romanticism, Self-interest and Internationalism

Partly in reaction to the preponderance of the U.S. relationship and its influence on our daily lives, Canadians are, by nature and habit, multilateralists. For security and because our economy depends on trade, we need rules to ensure peace and stability.

For a middle power like Canada to have impact, a rules-based order is essential. With 2/3 of our economy generated by trade, we must trade to ensure our prosperity. We enjoy membership in just about every multilateral organization going, notably the G7 and the G20; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD); the United Nations (UN) and its alphabet soup of agencies; the Commonwealth and la Francophonie; the World Trade Organization (WTO); the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC); the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA); Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA); the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Pacific Alliance, among others – although we were not invited to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States (Quad) or the Australia, United Kingdom, United States security pact (AUKUS).

Canadians were engineers to the American architects during the post-World War II reconstruction, admitted to the G7 (1976), and then a godparent to creating the G20 (1999).

In helping to create the rules-based order, Canada introduced the principle of ‘functionalism’. This is the abiding legacy of prime ministers Louis St. Laurent, Lester Pearson and others - internationalists by conviction, they were realists by experience. They sought to balance the national interest with a pragmatic, constructive internationalism. Describing this approach. Pearson said: “I’m a great internationalist, but I am also a strong Canadian nationalist and I, myself, have no difficulty in reconciling these two things. If we cannot have strong national societies at the focus of our immediate loyalty, then we’re not going to be able to build up an international cooperative society.”

In practical terms this meant achieving the goals of sustaining influence in Washington while maintaining independence in foreign policy.

They understood that a world that was peaceful and prosperous would best service Canadian interests. Their modus operandi: strive for consensus and conciliation through quiet diplomacy, recognizing that success is measured in incremental steps. In short, pursuing the art of the possible by focusing our inevitably limited attention and resources on areas where Canadian involvement could make a difference.

In practise this meant being a loyal but not subservient ally to the United States, while contributing to global security and stability through collective security in NATO and active multilateralism at the UN and other organizations. It is never an equal balance – the relationship with the U.S. is preponderant – and therein lies the challenge for Canadian diplomacy.

Canada is not a great world power, but in certain sectors – food and energy - we have vital interests and capacity. This merits a place at the table.

With competence, investment and artful diplomacy we earned our seat in the UN’s functional agencies and, albeit temporarily, joined the great powers on the Security Council. Canada’s contribution reflected an astute blend of realism and internationalism. As Louis St. Laurent put it in his 1947 Gray Lecture: “No foreign policy is consistent nor coherent over a period of years unless it is based on some conception of human values” adding that “at best the practise of any policy is a poor approximation of ideals upon which it may be based.” In short, and especially for a middle power, foreign policy is the art of the possible.

For St. Laurent and his successors as prime minister, Canada sought to be an international citizen, not as a great power, but as a middle power playing a constructive role in the international system. Sometimes we can be a catalyst as in the creation of the modern Commonwealth, Francophonie and G-20, sometimes a convenor hosting conferences and informal dialogues, but at a minimum a reliable interpreter and liaison, especially between the U.S. and the rest.

Arguably, when opportunity meets capability we are useful at ‘helpful fixing’: from participating in the Indo-Chinese International Control Commission in the fifties, peacekeeping into the nineties, the end of apartheid in the eighties, reunification of German and the Land Mines Treaty in the nineties and the International Criminal Court and ‘Responsibility to Protect’ in first decade of this century, through to the Lima Group that is still trying to find solutions in Venezuela and the Ottawa Group working to reform dispute settlement at the World Trade Organization.  

Peacekeeping has long occupied a privileged place in Canadian foreign policy. It earned Lester Pearson a Nobel Prize for his work over the Suez crisis. Canadians like to think of it as the personification of Canadian constructive internationalism. There is a monument to our peacekeepers across from our National Gallery. More than 125,000 Canadians have served in peace operations and 130 have died in service. We trained thousands in peace operations but then closed these operations for budgetary reasons. Today the 50+ Canadians participating in peacekeeping would just fill a school bus and our contribution is mostly money.

The Trudeau government originally wanted to make it a theme of ‘Canada is back’ and hosted an international conference in Vancouver (2017). It netted the Vancouver Principles on child protection. But interest quickly evaporated when faced with the realities of what is now involved. Critics are not wrong when they argue the reality of peacemaking was often eclipsed by a self-induced mythology. Still, Canadians continue to pride ourselves on our multilateralism.

Canadian foreign policy, like those of other nations, is also a reflection of domestic policy. For Mackenzie King foreign policy goals were “extensions of domestic policy”. Lester Pearson called foreign policy “domestic policy with its hat on”. Pierre Trudeau described it as “the extension abroad of national policies”.

But for Canada, foreign policy-making is also complicated and susceptible to the pressures of diaspora politics. This makes us more vulnerable to foreign interference not just from China and Russia but also erstwhile partners like India.

This is hardly a surprise in a nation where one in five citizens is born outside the country and current immigration policy expects us to welcome over half a million newcomers each year. Cultivating and collaring ethnic groups for nomination meetings is a well-practised exercise by all political parties.

The 2020 defeat to Norway and Ireland in our quest for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council was a wake-up call. Fatuously proclaiming ‘Canada is back’ does not make it so.

Allan Gotlieb, who served as both deputy minister and as our ambassador to Washington in the 1980s, spoke to the ‘romantic’ and the ‘realist’ poles of our foreign policy observing that “In place of sovereignty and independence, national security and economic growth, the leading advocates of Canada’s international vocation seem to be establishing a new trinity in the goals of Canadian foreign policy — value-projection, peace-building and norm-creation. The national interest is barely visible on their horizon.”

A group of historians recently assessed our prime ministers and their foreign policies. Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper fit into the bottom tranche. While the Trudeau government was elected in part on the promise that ‘Canada is back’ the pledge rings hollow when you look at the record: our defeat for a seat on the UN Security Council, no action on the promise to revitalize peace operations and no action on the promise to promote ‘peace, order and good government’ through a democracy initiative.

Restoring a constructive Canadian global presence will mean investments in collective security and defence as well as development assistance. Foreign Minister Melanie Joly has undertaken a study of diplomacy while the Senate Foreign Affairs committee is examining our Foreign Service. Prioritization of attention and resources in our international relationships is overdue.


The U.S....

The U.S. is more than a country, it is a civilization. As Pierre Trudeau once observed: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Margaret Atwood put it this way: “If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia”. American cultural influence, especially in English Canada, is arguably greater than any other country.

We were the 14th colony in British North America and the U.S. Articles of Confederation provide for Canada’s accession to the Union. From the American Revolution until the turn of the 20th century, there was always a fear that the U.S. would absorb Canada, either through manifest destiny or by invasion, as occurred during the U.S. War of Independence, the War of 1812 when the U.S. troops burned York (now Toronto), and then after the Civil War when Fenians made unsuccessful incursions.

Prime ministers have three permanent files on their desks: ensuring the nation’s political and economic security; preserving national unity; and managing the U.S. relationship.

Our relationship with the U.S. is always tricky, but the one relationship that a prime minister must get right is that with the president of the United States. Donald Trump, with his penchant for tweets and tariffs, presented a special challenge but most American presidents would endorse the sentiments expressed by John F. Kennedy when he spoke to Parliament in 1961: "Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder."

Protected first by Britain and the Royal Navy, since 1938 we have a series of understandings and formal alliances with the U.S., including the Permanent Joint Board on Defense (PJBD), the Five Eyes, NATO and NORAD.


In terms of foreign policy, for Canada it is ‘America First’ – in trade, security and people-to-people relations. Pre-pandemic, more than 400,000 people crossed daily in both directions over the border. We trade over $2 million a minute with the U.S. The U.S. takes about 75 per cent of Canada’s exports (we provide about 13 per cent of U.S. imports) and provides over half of our imports. The U.S. enjoys a positive balance of trade with Canada on the back of its services and we are currently their largest trading partner taking 15 per cent of U.S. exports which is about the same as Mexico. Americans hold nearly half the stock of foreign investment in Canada. The renegotiation of the NAFTA (1994) and implementation (July 2020) of the Canada-US-Mexico agreement (CUSMA or USMCA) restores investor confidence although attention now needs to be put to the mandated 2026 review of the agreement and the pressures for ‘rebalancing’ that will come inevitably from the US interests. Renewal of the NAFTA despite the threat of its termination by the Trump administration ranks as the most significant foreign policy accomplishment of the Trudeau government. The promise of the North American platform with  an educated labour force, resources including energy and critical minerals, infrastructure and market, is still to be realized although the arguments for closer collaboration and the requirement for supply chain resilience have only been underlined in the wake of COVID and now de-risking from China.


Source: State of Canadian Trade 2022

Canadians too often define themselves by what we are not – ‘Americans’ even though we occupy the upper half of the North American condominium that we share with the U.S. and Mexico. This attitude reflects the natural insecurity of living next to the U.S. Mexicans share a similar insecurity and with greater reason – the U.S. absorbed 1/3 of Mexico’s original territory while Canada only lost bits and pieces along the Alaska panhandle, the lower mainland of British Columbia, and between Maine and New Brunswick.

Periodically, this leads to an identity crisis that afflicts and engages our cultural elite, especially in English Canada. French Canada takes comfort in the shield of its language and distinct culture. Ironically, the mark of making it in Canada is usually having made it in the U.S. This is especially true for our film, television and music stars, from Paul Anka to Céline Dion, Michael Bublé and Justin Bieber, and, of course, Drake.

The relationship with the U.S. will always be complicated. "The Americans are our best friends whether we like it or not", one party leader once told the House of Commons, to which our former Ambassador to the U.S., Derek Burney, added the caveat that “Canadians are Americans’ best friend, whether they know it or not”.



... And the Rest

There are long and historic links with Europe and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is capstone to continuing efforts at closer economic relations. The Harper and Trudeau governments successively negotiated the Strategic Partnership and Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement that took effect in 2017. 

With the rise of Asia, Canada’s transpacific trade and security interests now matter as much as the traditional orientation across the Atlantic. A member of APEC since its inception, the Trudeau government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (2022) is designed to increase broad cooperation  on security, trade, people-to-people  ties, and climate.

The 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership or CPTPP opened  freer trade, most notably with  Japan, a goal sought since Pierre Trudeau’s days.   The relationship with Japan and Korea is deep both in trade and security. There is much work to be done with ASEAN, especially Indonesia. Some ASEAN nations (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam) are CPTPP members.

The relationship with India, the source of the greatest number of our foreign students as well as a major source of new immigrants has hit rock bottom over Indian unhappiness about what they see as Canadian indifference on Khalistan terrorists based out of Canada, while the assassination of a Canadian of Sikh origin led PM Trudeau to accuse the Indian government of involvement. Diplomats were expelled in both nations and India stopped issuing visas to Canadian visitors. Diplomacy has its work cut out for it.

The relationship with China is glacial: a combination of the thousand day ‘Two Michaels and Meng Wanzhou” affair (2018-2021) and recent evidence of Chinese foreign interference in our elections. Canadians also have abiding concerns about human rights in China – the Uyghurs and China’s treatment of Hong Kong. Hong Kong occupies a special place for Canadians with long ties of trade and family. Canadians died in defence of the colony in December 1941. Hong Kong today hosts one of the biggest offshore Canadian diasporas with a commensurately large resident Canadian population claiming Hong Kong descent.

For too long, Canadian relations in the Americas stopped at the Rio Grande. Beginning with Brian Mulroney and the decision to join the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1990, successive governments have episodically tangoed with Latin America and then settled back for a siesta although there are significant Canadian mining and banking interests. There have long been trading and banking interests in the Caribbean, largely because of the British Commonwealth ties. We have membership in the Pacific Alliance and we are now negotiating with Mercosur. Canada has taken a sustained interest in helping Haiti, and the country hosts a considerable Haitian diaspora, especially in Montreal. Mexico, our too oft ignored amigo, is now a major trading partner. Two million Canadians traveled there for holidays annually in the years before COVID.

If Latin America get episodic attention, Africa, by comparison, is mostly ignored. It deserves more. We can build on our ties through la Francophonie and Commonwealth as well as trade, investment and immigration links. Promises are made and we are opening an embassy in Kigali and are a permanent observer to the African Union in Addis Ababa, but will we follow through with more meaningful engagement?



Canada: A Work in Progress

Managing this diverse, often fissiparous, federation is no easy task. In his Arduous Destiny, historian Peter Waite observed that “Canada is a hard country, a hard country to live in, a hard country to govern.” 

We manage through accommodation, first with our climate and geography and then between political parties, between different interests, between the regions, between rural and urban, between English Canada and French Canada, with the indigenous peoples and with newcomers. We are notorious hedgers when it comes to voting and scholars have long observed that many Canadian voters hold different partisan loyalties at the federal and provincial level.

We depend on immigrants who bring new skills and ideas with them. The challenge is to weave these many constantly evolving threads into a kilt for every place and every season.

Canada continues to be a country ‘in development’ and an experiment in pluralism. We don’t have a lot of history in comparison to Europe or Asia. Some would argue that this is a good thing.

In a politically incorrect age, the humourist Will Ferguson remarked that the great themes of Canadian history were ‘keeping the Americans out, the French in and the natives out of sight’. We’ve managed the Americans and the French fact. Today we focus on reconciliation with our indigenous peoples.

To say governing Canada requires the capacity to listen and the capacity to balance would be an understatement. The poet F. R. Scott sarcastically described the modus operandi of our longest serving prime minister, Mackenzie King, a pudgy bachelor who engaged in seances so he could speak to his dead mother:

We had no shape
Because he never took sides;
And no sides
Because he never allowed them to take shape…

Do nothing by halves
Which can be done by quarters.

While it was not meant as a compliment, Scott unwittingly captured the Canadian formula of accommodation with our geography, climate and cultural diversity.



Further Reading

One of my assignments involved leading Historica Canada, dedicated to building awareness of Canadian history and citizenship. The Canadian Encyclopedia is part of its stable and I encourage readers who want more information on Canada to go to this dependable source.

The best weekly summary of Canadian policy-related news is prepared by Lisa Van Dusen for Policy Magazine, itself an excellent source of informed analysis on topical issues.

The major news outlets: CBC-Radio Canada, CTV, Global, Globe and Mail, National Post, La Presse, Toronto Star and Maclean’s all provide daily electronic updates as does National Newswatch, Politico Ottawa Playbook, iPolitics, and The Hill Times.

The journalists I regularly read and trust for reportage and insights are Paul Wells who writes for Substack, Susan Delacourt, Althea Raj, Tonda MacCharles and Chantal Hébert in the Toronto Star; John Ibbitson and Andrew Coyne in the Globe and Mail; and John Ivison in the National Post. Hébert, Coyne, and Raj appear regularly on CBC’s Thursday night At Issue panel hosted by Rosemary Barton. David Cochrane hosts CBC’s Power and Politics on CBC every weeknight, while Vassy Kapelos hosts CTV’s Power Play. CPAC’s daily newscast focuses on Parliament and during the parliamentary season CPAC produces a morning digest of news and events in a podcast. The House on CBC Radio hosted by Catherine Cullen is required listening on Saturday mornings. On Sunday morning Global’s Mercedes Stephenson hosts West Block and Vassy Kapelos hosts CTV’s Question Period. 

To get a sense from francophone Canada read Joël-Denis Bellavance and Paul Journet of La Presse, Nicolas Van Praet of the Globe and Mail, Daniel Leblanc and Hélène Buzzetti of SRC/CBC, and Michel David of Le Devoir. 

Western Standard has become a harsh but professional reporting organization with a very Alberta/Saskatchewan sensibility. Gary Mason of the Globe and Mail also gives a western perspective. There is also The Line, a substack. For deep insight look to the work of the Canada West Foundation.

For news on indigenous Canadians the Raven provides a curated aggregation and CBC has an indigenous section.

The journalists who write regularly on Canadian foreign policy include David Ljunggren from Reuters, Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail, Murray Brewster who covers defence for CBC, and for national security read Wesley Wark in Substack. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Economist have Canadian correspondents.

Pollsters of note include Abacus’s David Coletto’s regular surveys, Frank Graves of EKOS, Darrell Bricker of IPSOS, Dan Arnold of Pollara, Nik Nanos of Nanos Research, Mainstreet and Angus Reid and, for Quebec, Leger.

For an easy and fun insight into Canadian history, watch the Heritage Minutes produced by the Historica Foundation. There is also the online Canadian Encyclopedia, Dictionary of Canadian Biography and the on-line history A Country By Consent.  The Canadian Government has also produced Discover Canada, a study guide on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Read Charlotte Gray’s Promise of Canada and Andrew Cohen’s Lester B. Pearson, the story of our greatest diplomat who became prime minister. The Pearson book is part of the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians short biography series, another good way to get to know Canada. Richard Gwyn has penned a superb two volume biography of our first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, John A: The Man who Made us and Nation Maker. If you go to a used bookstore look for my favourite trio of past Canadian chroniclers: Pierre Berton, Peter C. Newman and Peter Gzowski.

On prime ministers and their foreign policies go to Patrice Dutil’s Statesmen, Strategists and Diplomats’: Ranking Canada’s PMs on Foreign Policy.

For single histories, look at Conrad Black’s rambunctious Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present or Robert Bothwell’s Penguin History of Canada, Desmond Morton’s A Short History of Canada, or Will Ferguson’s Canadian History for Dummies. W. L Morton’s The Kingdom of Canada is old but venerable as are any of the volumes in the Canadian centenary series,  a nineteen-volume history of Canada published between 1963 and 1987 that Morton edited.

For histories of the provinces see the series by Ed Whitcomb.

On hockey find a copy of Ken Dryden’s The Game (1983) and Home Game (1990) that he co-wrote with Roy MacGregor based on a popular series Dryden had hosted. Former diplomat Gary Smith has written Ice War Diplomat, a superb account of the 1972 Canada-Soviet hockey series.

For Canadian military history, look to the works of historians Tim Cook, David Bercuson, Jack Granatstein and Des Morton.

The best single-volume history of Canada and the U.S. is Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada, by historian Robert Bothwell but look also to Jack Granatstein and Norman Hillmer in Empire to Umpire and For Better or For Worse.

On contemporary politics:  Read National Post columnist John Ivison’s Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister and Aaron Wherry’s Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power. Nik Nanos looks at populism in his Age of Voter Rage: Trump, Trudeau, Farage, Corbyn & Macron – The Tyranny of Small Numbers. Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson wrote in The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture and What It Means for Our Future that Canadian politics, once dominated by the liberal Laurentian elite, is shifting to a conservative western base. Their analysis is good, although I’m not convinced of their conclusion.

On the role of the provinces and their relationship with the national government, read Ed Whitcomb’s Rivals for Power: Ottawa and the Provinces: The Contentious History of the Canadian Federation and on Canada’s relations with its First Nations, Understanding First Nations: The Legacy of Canadian Colonialism.

To get a good sense of the politics of energy, environment and First Nations, read the late Jim Prentice and J.S. Rioux’s Triple Crown: Winning Canada’s Energy Future and David Yager’s From Miracle to Menace: Alberta, a Carbon Story.

To understand our government, read Glenn Milne’s Making Policy: A Guide to How the Federal Government Works. The best guide to the constitutional system remains Eugene Forsey’s classic How Canadians Govern Themselves although there is also a Library of Parliament’s Our Country, Our Constitution (2021).

On Canadian foreign policy, subscribe to the weekly newsletter or listen to the weekly podcasts of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Look also to the Canadian International Council and to Carleton University’s annual Canada Among Nations and its Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.

The wise former governor general David Johnston – legal scholar, university president, hockey player – has written three books that will enlarge your understanding of Canada. They are The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation; Trust: Twenty Ways to Build a Better Country; and co-written with Tom Jenkins, Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier and Happier.


About the Authors

A former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson is Senior Advisor and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and hosts its regular Global Exchange podcast.  He is an Executive Fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.  A member of the Department of National Defence’s Defence Advisory Board, Robertson sits on the advisory councils of  the Johnson-Shoyama School of Public PolicyThe Winston Churchill Society of Ottawa  and the North American Forum. He is an Honorary Captain (Royal Canadian Navy) assigned to the Strategic Communications Directorate. During his foreign service career, he served as first Head of the Advocacy Secretariat and Minister at the Canadian Embassy in Washington and Consul General in Los Angeles, as Consul and Counsellor in Hong Kong and in New York at the UN and Consulate General. A member of the teams that negotiated the Canada-U.S. FTA and then the NAFTA, he is a member of the Deputy Minister of International Trade’s Trade Advisory Council. He is a contributor to Policy Magazine and a commentator in the media. The Hill Times regularly names him as one of those that influence Canadian foreign policy. 

Maureen Boyd is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. She is chair emerita of the Parliamentary Centre, a non-partisan, non-governmental organization that has worked for more than 50 years in Canada and in more than 70 countries to support inclusive and accountable democratic institutions. She founded Carleton University’s Initiative for Parliamentary and Diplomatic Engagement, now EngageParlDiplo, to provide outreach and policy orientation to parliamentarians and diplomats, including orientation for newly elected Members of Parliament and annually for newly arrived diplomats to Canada. Having lived in Vancouver, New York, Hong Kong, Ottawa, Los Angeles and Washington, Maureen has previously worked in politics, the media, at Rideau Hall and in government, including as a senior political staffer, national political and current affairs reporter and host for television news, communications advisor and public policy analyst. Maureen is a member of the International Women's Forum and of Politics and the Pen. She was founding chair of the Mothers Matter Centre and past chair of HIPPY Canada. She has a Master of Science in Journalism from Columbia University in New York and an Honours B.A. in Political Science from the University of British Columbia. Maureen is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal and she is banned from Russia.


Canadian Global Affairs Institute 

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

The Institute was created to bridge the gap between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically Canadians have tended to look abroad out of a search for markets because Canada depends heavily on foreign trade. In the modern post-Cold War world, however, global security and stability have become the bedrocks of global commerce and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across international boundaries. Canada has striven to open the world since the 1930s and was a driving factor behind the adoption of the main structures which underpin globalization such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and emerging free trade networks connecting dozens of international economies. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute recognizes Canada’s contribution to a globalized world and aims to inform Canadians about Canada’s role in that process and the connection between globalization and security.

In all its activities the Institute is a charitable, non-partisan, non-advocacy organization that provides a platform for a variety of viewpoints. It is supported financially by the contributions of individuals, foundations, and corporations. Conclusions or opinions expressed in Institute publications and programs are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Institute staff, fellows, directors, advisors or any individuals or organizations that provide financial support to, or collaborate with, the Institute.


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  • Cgai Staff
    published this page in Primers 2023-10-11 23:45:23 -0400

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