Allison Pytlak

“What happened to Canada?” is a question I’ve heard often over the last several years, and one I’ve typically answered with either a shrug or embarrassed cringe. As a Canadian who lives abroad and works internationally, I interact daily with diplomats and civil society representatives who often wonder where the progressive-minded middle power of yesteryear has gone.  Canada largely disappeared down a foreign policy rabbit hole during Stephen Harper’s nine year stint as prime minister. But with the return of the Liberal party to power after Monday’s election, hopes are high that change is near at hand.

There was a time when the country was known for more than maple syrup and ice hockey. Canada spearheaded the idea and practice of peacekeeping, and once acted as a moral compass in the area of disarmament and arms control, in particular through its leadership in banning landmines. In the 1990’s the country advanced the concepts of human security and humanitarianism in human rights, while acting as a global human rights champion on all fronts. It was a strong proponent of the International Criminal Court, for example, and leveraged its role as a middle power to diffuse politically tense situations and crises.  All this gave rise to a national identity premised on being a helpful and liberally-minded fixer of the world’s problems, a benefactor and a strong believer in the importance of multilateral institutions. 

Most of this has come to a grinding halt in the last decade, during which Canada retreated from multilateral affairs in many significant ways.  Twenty years ago, the country ranked as a world leader in troop contributions to UN peacekeeping operations. Today, it is 65th among the 193 UN member states. Official development aid as a percentage of gross national income has been cut by 27 percent since 2008, far behind other G7 donor countries. Overall engagement with the United Nations has drifted, notably following Canada’s failed bid for a Security Council seat in 2010. Following the defeat—Canada’s first ever in the history of the UN—Harper did not attend the opening week of the General Assembly until 2014. This is doubly shocking as the annual GA is a time when government leaders from around the world turn out en masse, a further signal of the shift in Canada’s new approach to an institution it once strongly supported, and to international affairs in general. 

Yet what really signaled that something had changed came with the death of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose body washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach. The family had been trying to immigrate to Canada through a family member there. The Harper government was hard-pressed to explain why they had been denied entry or how many Syrian refugees had been admitted following a public pledge to take in 10,000. It was a rude awakening from many Canadians that their country could be at the center of such a tragedy, and in a negative way. 

The new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has promised that “We’re back”. The young leader has big shoes and big expectations to fill. His father was Pierre Elliot Trudeau, one of the country’s most beloved prime ministers and a charismatic figure. And, not unlike Barack Obama taking the reins after years of George W. Bush’s conservative leadership in the United States, Trudeau has made a series of campaign pledges that now need to be translated into policy. Having a majority in Parliament should help this along. Within two days since winning the election, he has taken bold steps in cancelling Canada’s involvement in the F-35 fighter jet program and the combat missions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which were campaign promises. 

The real challenge for Trudeau, though, will be to restore Canada to something more like itself while also adapting to and navigating the current international landscape. We may be out of the dark, but not quite yet in the light.  

Allison Pytlak is a graduate of the Master’s Program in International Relations at The City College of New York, and is Policy & Advocacy Specialist at Control Arms.