An evaluation of the country’s foreign policy performance last year demonstrates the Trudeau government’s growing gap between rhetoric and reality, a challenge that only pushes Canada further away from its former status as a strong middle power.
From residual impacts of COVID-19 to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the last year has included both sustained and novel international challenges. The November 2021 re-election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once again solidified the Liberal party’s place as a minority federal government, which also reinforced a lethargic Liberal foreign policy that continues to fall short.
Although the last year has seen progress in certain foreign policy files, this year’s 74-page Foreign Policy Report Card reveals the Trudeau Government’s pervasive shortcomings in delivering on foreign policy promises. Considering government actions from April 2021 until April 2022, the 2022 Report Card critically analyzes the federal government across seven key files based on three criteria: Rhetoric versus reality; openness, transparency, and accountability; and overall performance. Now in its seventh year, this research aims to engage the public in thoughtful and informed discussions of Canadian foreign policy.
This year’s review downgraded all files other than security and defence, which remained consistent with last year’s findings. With an overall grade of C-, this year fares slightly worse than the 2021 overall grade of a C. The worsening grade for Trudeau’s Liberals, as well as the chronic underperformance of Canada’s diplomatic promises – notably Canada’s exclusion from Oslo talks regarding the fall of Afghanistan’s government – reflects a declining reputation on the world stage.
Furthermore, Canada’s relationship with China has been turbulent this last year, which included the long-procrastinated choice to ban Huawei and the decision to shut down the Special Committee on Canada-China relations. A slow pandemic response and rising ideologically motivated violent extremism rounds out the government’s failures to update a national security strategy lacking foresight and efficiency. This lack of urgency was also prominent in Canada’s defence file. The government was sluggish in addressing the toxic culture and sexual abuse allegations in the Canadian Armed Forces, while also failing to make significant improvements to radar systems in the Arctic.
Over the last year, the immigration and refugee front produced a mixed bag of results. Canada achieved a record-breaking immigration rate last year, with 401,000 new permanent residents in 2021. However, unprecedented immigration was joined by a significant – and still growing – application backlog, while double standards in migration pathways for Afghan and Ukrainian asylum seekers challenge Canada’s global “poster-child status” for migration.
The widening gap between rhetoric and reality in Canada’s foreign policy is apparent in the environment and climate change file, which includes plans for a deep-water oil project along with ambitious emissions reduction and climate commitments. Canada’s development file continues to face similar challenges from previous years, including limited feminist programs and funding limitations, while the pandemic continued to add obstacles to international development efforts.
Lastly, Canada’s trade file reflects a clear opposition to Trudeau’s proclamation of a Canada that upholds a strong international rules-based system, with trade negotiations and engagement with countries boasting non-democratic governments and clear human rights violations.
Certain ministerial changes following Trudeau’s re-election could see the improvement of certain files. On the defence front, for example, the appointment of Minister Anand has shown promise in addressing the long-standing sexual misconduct culture in the CAF while encouraging more women to join the military. Certain optimism about stronger climate action can also be seen with the newly appointed Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Steven Guilbeault.
As Canada and the world have better learned how to manage COVID-19, the pandemic can no longer be used as an excuse to delay foresight and action to realize Canada’s foreign policy priorities. Although ministerial changes offer new leadership and perspective for Canadian foreign policy, it will take more than a few cabinet shake-ups for Trudeau and his government to truly reclaim Canada’s place as a strong middle power.