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2023: The year Canada bumbled

2023 has become an annus horribilis for Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, and his government. Unfortunately for Canada and Trudeau, such difficulties will likely endure for the foreseeable future.

Inflation is a stubborn problem, as government measures aimed at reducing it seem not to have had much impact. Interest rate hikes may have ironically contributed to the problem, with many homeowners facing rising mortgage payments in what is already one of the tightest housing markets among OECD countries. Canadian household debt is also now the highest in all of the G7, and inner cities have seen a surge in vagrancy amid a profound opioid crisis wracking the country.

These domestic challenges have already hobbled the ruling Liberal Party of Canada in the polls, but a series of foreign policy missteps this year has publicly exposed the federal government to international embarrassment. Its seeming inability to tackle problems internally has metastasized into foreign policy, as Canada – a country often and rightly associated with stability, cosmopolitanism, and prosperity – now makes global news for the wrong reasons regularly.

The year began with several Canadian news outlets making serious allegations that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) interfered in the 2019 and 2021 federal parliamentary elections. Further complicating matters were news reports that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) might not have taken seriously warnings from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that Beijing had been interfering actively in Canada’s democratic institutions. Trudeau tried to minimise the issue, asserting at one point that accusations about Chinese interference were racist

Trudeau eventually appointed David Johnston, former Canadian Governor-General, as special rapporteur to investigate the matter. Johnston would go on to issue a report which concluded that the PMO did not knowingly ignore intelligence warnings and that no special public inquiry was therefore necessary. However, rather than quelling opposition party concerns, the report aggravated them, not least because Johnston had a personal conflict-of-interest given his longtime friendship with Trudeau. Johnston resigned less than a month after the report’s release as every major political party besides the Liberal Party questioned his integrity.

This particular controversy did quiet down. But in recent weeks, the Canadian federal government found itself embroiled in two other major foreign policy controversies.

The picture which emerges is that of a government uniquely ill-prepared to conduct foreign policy at a time when the return of state-based competition has raised the stakes for everyone.

The first began when Trudeau alerted the House of Commons that there were ‘credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India’ and the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil. A Canadian citizen, Nijjar was involved in the Khalistani independence movement. New Delhi had accused him of participating in various criminal activities aimed at destabilising the Indian state, and had criticised Canada for sheltering him.

That India might be behind an extrajudicial killing of someone associated with Sikh secessionism is plausible. Unfortunately, for such an extraordinary accusation, the federal government has offered very limited evidence to corroborate it, citing the need to preserve intelligence sources for the time being and effectively asking for the public’s trust despite causing a major diplomatic row with a country of over a billion people. 

Allies and partners have reacted cautiously, leaving Canada largely on its own. The United States has kept its distance despite some token statements of support for Canada. The United Kingdom (UK) has taken a similar approach. Both appear reluctant to heap much criticism on India absent clear public evidence, a hesitancy increased by India’s rising economic and geopolitical importance.

And then there was the Yaroslav Hunka fiasco. Anthony Rota, the Speaker of the House and Liberal Member of Parliament, had invited Hunka, an elderly Canadian-Ukrainian war veteran, from his constituency to attend a session of the House of Commons. In the presence of Volodymr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, who would give a speech on the occasion, Hunka received a standing ovation. The problem was that Hunka had fought in the 14th Waffen-SS ‘Galizien’ division – this military unit had pledged allegiance to Adolf Hitler and, at the very least, participated in the ethnic cleansing of Poles and Slovaks. Jewish and Polish community groups were justifiably outraged, and the affair overshadowed completely Ottawa’s laudable commitment to maintaining its military and economic support for Ukraine. Rota subsequently resigned, and Trudeau conceded that the episode was ‘deeply embarrassing.’ 

The picture which emerges is that of a government uniquely ill-prepared to conduct foreign policy at a time when the return of state-based competition has raised the stakes for everyone. The federal government acted slowly and dubiously to warnings of Chinese political interference. In a possible over-correction to that mistake, it later escalated a dispute with India beyond what it could handle internationally. Then Canadian politicians displayed ignorance of Europe’s historical sensitivities, subsequently putting a wartime leader in an unnecessarily compromising situation which has provided fodder to his critics. The Canadian government has gone from blunder to blunder.

And the problem for Canada is that there is no forthcoming end to this incompetence. The next parliamentary election will probably take place in 2025. Though a hung parliament, the ruling Liberal Party enjoys the confidence of the New Democratic Party, which probably cannot do much better than it is currently, especially since the Conservative Party might take majority control.

For allies like the UK, regular functional cooperation will continue through various formats, be they the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Five Eyes, or whatever else. Yet two years is a long time in politics, and frustration with Canada has already been mounting over its persistent unwillingness to take defence as seriously as its allies would like. Indeed, moving in the opposite direction from almost all of NATO, Canada looks to be cutting its defence budget. Frankly, Canada is becoming a weak point in the alliance, a fact which Ottawa’s reluctance to clamp-down on Chinese interference exacerbates.

Whether out of clumsiness or an unwillingness to confront threats appropriately, Canada is making choices which are at odds with the foreign policy goals of its allies and partners around the world. They are, after all, choosing to challenge Chinese interference, to build strong relations with India, and to sustain support for Ukraine and NATO. And so Canada is at risk of isolation if those allies and partners decide that they can no longer be patient with its actions.

Dr Alexander Lanoszka is the Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy and Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo. His most recent book is Military Alliances in the Twenty-First Century.

Embedded image credit: European Parliament  (CC BY 4.0 cropped and overlaid)

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