Is Canada really back? The Trudeau government promised Canadians “real change” before they were elected in 2015. But has real change been delivered? When it comes to their promises on development, immigration reform, and resettlement processes, and their aspirations for leadership on the world stage, the answer is a resounding, “No.”

These are the findings of our recent report card on Ottawa’s foreign policy agenda. The report card evaluates the government on three criteria: progress in meeting election promises, overall performance, and accountability. It gives the Trudeau government a B- for both development and immigration and refugees. But factor in its weak performance in key areas such as defence and diplomacy, the overall grade for the Liberals is a C+. This performance is disappointing from a political party that promised so much but delivered so little.

On the Trudeau government’s development portfolio, they promised a feminist foreign policy. On paper, they delivered. The Liberals put forward a feminist international assistance policy (FIAP). While it was a step in the right direction it lacked clear benchmarks to judge its performance. They met their campaign promises for development but nothing more. There was originally optimism that our new feminist agenda would make Canada a leader for humanitarian and development in the world, but the Liberals have simultaneously oversold and underperformed.

The crucial problem with the Trudeau government is that they are not spending enough. Spending on official development assistance is at a historic low for the Canadian government and is far below international benchmarks. With the Trump administration slashing funding for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) by almost 24 per cent, it’s time for Canada to step up.

So far, it appears that FIAP is another example of Trudeau promoting a policy intended to galvanize his domestic base, motivated by electoral considerations rather than meaningful change.

While their development portfolio has been disappointing, the Liberal government managed to establish itself as a leader on the global refugee regime, in spite of global anti-immigration tides. But before we move to congratulating them, it is worth noting that the government’s immigration and refugee policies are oriented towards “migration diplomacy,” which masks its diplomatic manoeuvres as humanitarian initiatives. This can be seen through its resettlement and development programs, which form part of larger diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.

The Trudeau government has also been fixated on the rhetoric of Canadian values and inclusiveness rather than effective governance. But there is a clear distinction between how they are perceived globally versus domestically. This discord is reflected in the lack of collective vision between the provincial and federal levels of government. For instance, the Ontario government has challenged immigration Liberal policy. In response, the Trudeau government has been quick to label any divergent opinions as a disgrace to Canadian values. It’s not only provincial-government resistance that bears mentioning, the public clearly is dissatisfied with the Liberal approach.

On diplomacy, the Trudeau government has stated that they want a return to an international rules-based order. With the Liberals seeking a seat at the UN Security Council, there was optimism among Canadians that real change would happen and Canada would be respected on the international stage. Instead, Liberals’ rhetoric on human rights and Canadian “values” have been brought into the spotlight on several fronts. The Liberals, for example, have called out the Saudi government for human rights abuses. Most recently, this rhetoric was exploited through the highly publicized entry of young Saudi Rahaf al-Qunun. While Rahaf’s plight made for some timely photo-ops for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Justin Trudeau, countries such as Australia said they would take her application into consideration but through their formal asylum seeking process. Cue jumpers need not apply. The hypocrisy here is, of course, that the Liberals stand firmly with Saudi Arabia as the government follows through with an “under the radar” arms deal worth an estimated $15-billion.

Our dealings with Venezuela have been no less controversial. This past January, Freeland joined Trump and other Western leaders in recognizing and supporting an unelected president in Venezuela. Freeland, who has been enthusiastic in applying crippling sanctions against the Maduro regime, joined the Lima Group in referring the situation in Venezuela to the International Criminal Court (ICC), with the hopes of deposing the current sitting president, Nicolás Maduro. This power move is in striking contrast to previous actions, where Freeland has mostly ignored the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the ICC. It appears that Canada’s position towards Venezuela represents yet another instrument for the Liberals to gain a Security Council seat while currying favour with the Trump administration.

The Liberal’s biggest problem in trying to be a leader in a rules-based order is that they are failing to maintain these same standards back home. The SNC-Lavalin case, for example, that’s now under review by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, has stirred unease around the world about what Canada really stands for. Unethical backroom dealings or principled positions?

Trudeau’s global reputation is clearly in decline. Promises of transparency, open debates on public policy, and evidence-based policymaking all figured prominently in how this government would conduct its foreign policy. Unfortunately, the reality of their performance is beginning to catch up to their rhetoric. Come election day, voters will be deciding if they want more of the same for the next four years.


David Carment, Emily Robertson, Fatimah Elfeitori, and Brandon Jamieson are with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. 

This article was originally published on the Hill Times

Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.

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