When newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that “Canada is back” in 2015, it was met with great fanfare by both the Canadian electorate and our international partners. Trudeau’s predecessor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, had a tenure marked by a series of actions (or lack-thereof) that were seen as a departure from Canada’s traditional role in international affairs. Harper’s legacy included eliminating our development and peacekeeping organizations, reducing cooperation with the UN, and the closure of various embassies, In keeping with his promise to bring Canada back, Trudeau formally announced Canada’s bid in March 2016 for a seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), competing with Norway and Ireland for one of two seats beginning in 2021.

Winning Canada a seat on the UNSC would not only provide Trudeau with a tangible achievement that he can present to the Canadian electorate (or at least those who pay attention), but it would also give Canada a voice at the UN’s most powerful body. A seat on the UNSC comes with international prestige and sway, but also with the power to chair meetings and help set the agenda on many of the UN’s most important security and economic related matters. While it is true that Canada would not be a permanent member – and therefore unable to veto resolutions – our presence would still ensure that Canada’s voice is heard by the world’s most dominant military powers, thus helping shape security discourse in a manner consistent with our own values.

From an electoral point of view, a successful bid for Canada would be a win-win for Trudeau and his team.  It would mark a pointed departure from Harper’s failure to secure a seat in 2010, allowing Trudeau to allay at least some of the criticisms that his foreign policy has been too “Harper-esque”.  Voters who value Canada’s participation in multilateral institutions, peacekeeping missions, and foreign aid projects, are traditionally found in the centre-left or Quebec, and are likely to perceive this as a concrete achievement for Canada.  Additionally, voters on the right-of-centre, who tend to favour military engagement over increased foreign aid, would also have an interest in seeing Canada participate in the UN’s highest decision making body with regards to security. Emerging from an election which saw both the Liberal’s share of the national vote and seat count drop, Trudeau would be wise to pursue a bid that would regain him popularity across regions and party lines.

With a considerable amount of both domestic political considerations as well as real international influence at stake, one might question why Trudeau and his team haven’t done more to help our bid? Canada has spent a paltry $1.5 million since 2016 in our efforts to influence other UNGA members to vote for us, far below the $10 million spent on our last successful bid in 1998. While we do not have exact figures on the Irish or Norwegian bid expenditures, their campaigns are on all fronts older, more focused, and better organized. Given that both Prime Minister Trudeau and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland missed last October’s UNGA due to the Canadian federal election, we have some catching up to do.  In their stead, Global Affairs Canada sent a team of 1990s political heavyweights: former Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Joe Clark, former Ontario Premier Bob Rae and Quebec Premier Jean Charest, as well as GAC Deputy Minister Marta Morgan. Skilled diplomats surely, but is it too little, too late? The vote is to be held June 7th, 2020, and Canada has more ground to make up for.  Our bid may have received a boost in the form of a new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Francois-Philippe Champagne, but his ability to smooth talk and convince other UNGA member nations to back Canada is yet to be tested.  Should Canada lose the vote in June, Champagne will have the unfortunate duty of falling on his sword just a few months into his new position.

Trudeau has a lot riding on this bid, yet he has so far failed to put Canada’s money where his mouth is. If Canada is genuine about its desire of “rejoining” the international community and playing a major role in development and security circles, then it ought to take the UNSC bid seriously. Canada needs a clearer message, more lobbying of member states, and a concerted effort by GAC and our new minister to sell the bid both at home and abroad. If Trudeau and his team are unable to generate a strong and purposeful strategy – quickly – then I’m afraid Canada will once again be “back”… back to the days of sitting on the sidelines.


Christopher MacDonald is a first-year M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, Ottawa.  His research focuses on the role domestic politics play in understanding Canadian foreign policy and cybersecurity.

Featured image courtesy of flickr.

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

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