Canada’s newly-minted Liberal government of Justin Trudeau took office November 4 and already the signs indicate we are about to see a new era in Canadian international politics.
With Prime Minister Trudeau promising a kinder, more compassionate, and more forward-looking foreign policy, Africa could be a beneficiary of what may as well shape up to be a progressive turn in Africa-Canada diplomatic, political, economic ties after nearly a decade of lukewarm attitude towards the continent by the defeated conservative government of Stephen Harper.
During the election campaign, the Liberals announced they were going to chart a new foreign policy direction to reverse the hawkish, bellicose and militarist one under the Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
In his first press conference October 20, 2015 in Ottawa, Mr. Trudeau proclaimed to his compatriots and the world: “I want to say this to this country’s friends around the world: Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years. Well, I have a simple message for you on behalf of 35 million Canadians. We’re back.”
And Africa is back in Canadian foreign policy focus. The Liberal foreign-affairs critic, Marc Garneau, told the Canadian Press: “There will be a focus on Africa. That is a continent that, back in the Chrétien years, we focused on a lot,” echoing his party’s election platform.
While Trudeau’s Liberals are not promising to meet the UN goal of spending 0.7 per cent of Canada’s gross national income on foreign aid, they pledge to “reverse the decline under the Conservatives of the amount of money for international development.”
While he is likely to stick to some of the policies of the Harper government in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan, Africa should expect a fundamental shift in Ottawa’s attitude towards the tri-continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
This would mean less money spent on military adventures, such as the Harper government’s expensive military campaign in Libya to oust the Colonel Gadhafi regime and the airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State of the Levant ( ISL) in Syria as part of the US-led Coalition.
Promising to reverse what it described as the Harper government’s “shifting away from the world’s poorest countries, particularly in Africa,” the Liberal Party election platform promised to “refocus our development assistance on helping the poorest and most vulnerable.”
Again, Africa stands to harvest the dividends.
The platform said, among other things, it would refocus Canada’s aid priorities on poverty reduction to ensure that Canada’s valuable aid initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) “is driven by evidence and outcomes, not ideology.” The Harper government has earned praise internationally for the MNCH.
Mr. Trudeau, whose father Pierre Trudeau, was a popular Canadian prime minister, and his Liberal Party won comfortable majority, taking 184 of the 338 seats in parliament. The surprising victory by the Liberal Party which was nearly decimated and pushed down third party status, was seen by many as a telling defeat of the former prime minister Stephen Harper whose domestic and foreign policies came under sharp attack from his detractors locally and internationally. His foreign policy was faulted for being hawkish and domestic policies as too austere and anti-immigrant.
Canada’s global reputation as a peacemaker took a hit under Stephen Harper, as his Progressive Conservative government scaled back its peacekeeping operations and slashed foreign aid. Harper’s government instead mounted a shrill anti-global terrorism a la Bush campaign and participated in US-led military operations in Libya and Syria and other interventions in Eastern Europe.
As Mark Mackinnon writes, Harper “carved a muscular new identity for Canada: military aid over peacekeeping, unilateralism over teamwork, free trade over foreign aid.”
For example, Lauren Crothers reports in The Globe And Mail that Canadian funding for land-mine clearance worldwide has dropped from a high of $49.2-million in 2007-08 to just $7.9-million in 2013-14.
A clear indication that Canada has lost its allure on the global scene was when in 2010 formerly friendly Arab and African countries voted against her, losing a vote to Portugal for a seat on the UN Security Council.
The Harper government was criticised for reintroducing the old "trade" versus "aid" argument and for cutting the funding of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) .CIDA has been the agency through which the bulk of Canada’s development assistance aid has been channeled to Africa. It yanked seven African countries from Canada’s aid priority list, turned his government’s trade sights on the Americas and the Asian tigers, China and India.
The Liberal Party has pledged to restore Canada’s global reputation by renewing the country’s commitment to peacekeeping operations.
“We will recommit to supporting international peace operations with the United Nations, and will make our specialised capabilities – from mobile medical teams to engineering support to aircraft that can carry supplies and personnel – available on a case-by-case basis,” the Liberal Party campaign platform says.
The platform also speaks of Canada leading “an international effort to improve and expand the training of military and civilian personnel deployed on peace operations.” It emphasises Canada’s commitment to contribute more to the United Nations’ mediation, conflict-prevention, and post-conflict reconstruction efforts and helping victims and war and other violent conflicts.
With this commitment, the Liberals will increase the number of Syrian refugees repatriated to Canada from 10,000 under the Harper government to 25,000. Already, Mr. Trudeau has informed US President Barack Obama Canada is ending its combat efforts in the US-led coalition strikes against Isis in Syria.
Trudeau will use the upcoming G20 meeting in Turkey, and an Asian Pacific Economic (APEC) summit in the Philippines, the Commonwealth meeting in Malta, and the upcoming climate change summit in Paris to announce bold new initiatives in an effort to rebrand Canada’s foreign policy and to restore the country’s bruised image.
The Globe and Mail citing OECD sources reports that Canada’s global foreign-aid spending has declined steadily since 2011, the year Harper’s Conservatives won their first majority government, but adds that foreign-aid started to take a nose-dive since “the 1980s – particularly dramatically during the period when Jean Chrétien was prime minister in the deficit-cutting 1990s.”
On the economic front, changes proposed by the Liberal Party are likely to be a boon to Canadian workers to send money overseas. It promises to better regulate the remittance industry, so that residents of Canada who send money overseas to help family members are not gouged by high fees.
It says this “will include working with Canada’s banks to ensure low-cost access to transfer services, exploring ways for Canada Post to offer remittance services, and imposing tough new penalties on those who abuse the system and take advantage of vulnerable newcomers to Canada.”
In addition, the Liberals pledge to “restore Canada’s reputation and help more people in need through a program that is safe, secure, and humane.” To this end, the Trudeau government will fully restore the Interim Federal Health Program that provides limited and temporary health benefits to refugees and refugee claimants, which was gutted by the Harper government.
Under the Liberals, says Mr. Garneau, international development would no longer be tied to economic opportunity.
The 1990s saw a decline in Canadian aid to Africa as the Chretien government slashed foreign aid in order to balance its budget. But while aid to Africa suffered during this period, Canada’s role in championing the New Partnership Development Agreement was seen as a stellar achievement of the Chretien government. And Liberals reversed the cut during the short-lived government of Paul Martin from 2003-2006, catapulting Canada to the third largest foreign aid donor in Africa..
Successive Liberal governments—from Pierre Trudeau to Chretien and Paul Martin—have by and large adopted a more compassionate and benign attitude towards Africa than their conservative counterparts, although conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney increased aid to Africa during the Ethiopian famine crisis in the 1980s.
But it is still too early to say if Mr. Trudeau’s Africa policy will be any different from his Liberal predecessors.
Charles Quist-Adade, PhD is currently on sabbatical at the Sociology and Anthropology Department, University of Cape Coast, Ghana. He is a faculty member and immediate past chair of the Sociology Department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His research and teaching interests are: Social justice, Globalization, Racialization and Anti-racism, Media and Society, and Social Theory. His other areas of teaching and research interest revolve around Global South issues and Sociology of Religion.
He is the author and co-author of several books— ‘In the Shadows of the Kremlin and the White House: Africa’s Media Image from Communism to Post-Communism’, and ‘Social Justice in Local and Global Contexts, From Colonization to Globalization: The Intellectual and Political Legacies of Kwame Nkrumah’ (Co-editor), ‘Introduction to Critical Sociology: From Modernity to Postmodernity (Co-author)’, ‘Africa's Many Divides and Africa's Future Pursuing Nkrumah`s Vision of Pan-Africanism’ (co-author) in an Era of Globalization—several chapters in books, and scores of scholarly and hundreds of popular press articles and blog posts.
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