Canadian foreign policy shifts gears in 2015

Above all else, 2015 proved just how much can change in the course of one year. From a change in government to the royal assent of Bill C-51, 2015 brought a wave of changes to the landscape of Canadian foreign policy (though the status of the latter is up in the air with the aforementioned new government).

Here’s some of the big stories about Canada’s involvement on the global stage.

Bye Bye Bairdie: John Baird steps down as the Minister of Foreign Affairs

As of March 16, 2015, John Baird is no longer the foreign affairs minister. Baird had been an active Canadian politician since his election as an Ontario MP in 2006, and his departure from the cabinet was widely viewed as a substantial loss for the Harper government.

His resignation came two months after a largely unsuccessful visit to the West Bank, where Palestinian protesters threw eggs and shoes at the ministerial convoy — chastising him, and by extension Canada, for siding with Israel. Protesters carried signs which read, “Baird you are not welcome in Palestine.”

Bill C-51 passes

Despite significant public opposition, the controversial Anti-terrorism Act, 2015, or Bill C-51, became law on June 18, 2015.

C-51 was created with the intent of protecting Canadian citizens and values by cracking down on terrorism within the country’s borders. However, these safety measures included the ability of police to enforce “preventative” arrests without warrants, as well as other expansions of power. The bill was criticized for its vague language, which opponents feared could lead to “dangerous and unlawful” interpretations and measures.

Whereas the Conservative government wholly supported the bill, the Liberals chose to vote in favour while simultaneously calling for it to be amended. Upon taking office, Trudeau promised to repeal “problematic elements” of the bill, though the status of this remains uncertain.

Alan Kurdi and Canada’s response to the refugee crisis

On Sept. 2, the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The boy, along with his older brother, Galib, and mother, Rehana, died when a boat carrying refugees sank while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. His father, Abdullah, survived. Photographs of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body quickly spread around the world, shocking and horrifying thousands.

The family hoped to enter Canada through a private “G5” sponsorship — five Canadian families who were willing to financially support the Kurdis and their transition into Canadian life. The family’s application was rejected in June, however, due to complexities in the refugee application screening processes. Kurdi’s father blamed Canada for the death of his wife and two sons.

The publication of the photographs caused a mass outcry among Canadians demanding immediate action to be taken in resettling refugees.

However, Stephen Harper largely resisted calls to expedite the resettlement processes. During his federal campaign, Harper promised to welcome 10 000 refugees by September 2016, as well as an additional 10 000 Syrians over a four-year period. He called Liberal and NDP promises “reckless” in their over-support for resettling refugees.

Harper’s proposition was starkly contrasted by Trudeau’s warm and hopeful stance, which was made most evident when he personally welcomed the first flight of refugees landing in Toronto in December.

The 42nd federal election and subsequent new cabinet

On Oct. 19, Canada voted the Liberal Party into power with a majority government, ending the Conservative reign which lasted nearly a decade. The results of the election have brought a notable shift in Canadian foreign policy, which will likely be felt for years to come.

Of the 30 newly-appointed cabinet members, more than half have attained either substantial professional experience or academic degrees outside of Canada, giving the cabinet an undeniable international lens. Similarly, the addition of “Climate Change” to the Minister of Environment title reflected a shift in priorities; Catherine McKenna was appointed to this position.

Likewise, Stéphane Dion was appointed as the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, while Marie-Claude Bibeau is the new Minister for International Development and La Francophonie.

Goodbye, DFATD; Hello, Global Affairs Canada

Under Trudeau, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development became Global Affairs Canada. While changing the name of a department does not necessarily seem more than nominal, it reflects an ideological shift in the Canadian government; it removes the “otherness” from foreign affairs, thus moving away from an “us vs. them” mentality. The change also incorporates development more fully into Canadian policy, rather than having it tacked on as an afterthought.

Furthermore, the change sparked public interest in the department; not to mention it rolls off the tongue more easily than DFATD.

Canadian Response to the Paris Attacks

The world was shaken on the evening of Nov. 19, when a series of coordinated terrorist attacks were committed in Paris. One hundred and thirty people were killed.

Newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered Canada’s support and solidarity to France, while Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion released the statement, “Canada and France will remain united in the fight against terror.”

Following the attacks, Trudeau conceded to slightly altering his government’s plans to resettle Syrian refugees. Rather than living up to the Liberals’ initial promise of bringing 25 000 refugees to Canada before the new year, the new goal is to welcome them by the end of February.

The additional time will allow for all security screenings to occur overseas, before any refugees arrive in Canada. In doing so, Trudeau hopes to reassure Canadians of their safety, and remove the possibility of “anxiety or division” within the population, he told reporters in November.

The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21)

Perhaps the event which most adequately demonstrated the shift from Harper to Trudeau foreign policy was the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), held in Paris. The talks began on Nov. 30, where Trudeau greeted his fellow delegates, “Canada is back, my good friends.”

Alongside Trudeau, the Canadian delegation was comprised of city mayors, provincial premiers, cabinet ministers, and federal party leaders. Among them was Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who welcomed Trudeau’s invitation; Harper had long since shut opposition leaders out of such talks.

At the Parisian summit, Trudeau and his government vocalized that the fight against climate change was a top priority; as was their desire to rebuild the country’s reputation as an environmental leader on a global scale, which had been tarnished over the past number of years due to short-sightedness and stonewalling negotiations by Canadian delegates (as expressed by David Suzuki).

Newly appointed Liberal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna likewise endorsed an ambitious climate agenda at the conference: keeping rising temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius (as opposed to the two-degree threshold that has been the global goal for years). Moreover, the Canadian delegation advocated for the inclusion of human rights and indigenous knowledge within COP21 discussions. This decision starkly contrasts Canada’s previous stance on environmental issues, best characterized by its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 under the Harper government. However, both Conservative and NDP critics are concerned that the Liberals are over-promising and under-delivering.

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