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Canadian Elections and Middle East policy: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

It is election season in Canada. On 19 October Canadians will cast their votes to select representatives for the federal Parliament in Ottawa. According to recent polling it’s going to be extremely close. The campaign, thus far, has mostly focused on Canada’s declining economic fortunes (having recently entered a recession) and a long running corruption scandal surrounding a former Conservative Senator and what the Prime Minister’s Office knew (or did not know) about it.

Until recently, however, Foreign Policy has been a minor issue in the campaign. But what can we expect from Canada’s next government? While we don’t know who will win, we can perhaps, briefly look back on the last decade of conservative rule in order to sketch out an idea of what the ground will be like.

A “Middle Power”

Much of the academic literature on the subject categorises Canada as a ‘Middle Power’. Essentially this term means exactly what it sounds like: Canada is does not qualify as a superpower but is more powerful than most states. Historically Canada has focused on multilateralism – cooperation with other like-minded states – as a means of maximising its influence on the world stage.

Canada’s emphasis on multilateralism is demonstrated by its formal participation in a range of different supra-national institutions including NATO the Commonwealth, La Francophonie and the Organisation of American States. Canada was also founding member of the United Nations and, until five years ago, it had consistently enjoyed an elected seat on the UN Security Council (its failure to be re-elected was a significant embarrassment for the Harper government).

In a 2012 article for the Journal of Canadian Foreign Policy, Costanza Musu suggests that in most of its multilateral endeavors Canada has situated itself somewhere between the US and Europe, though it also maintains strong bi-lateral relationships with many of the states across the region. In recent years, however, while the Conservative government has not totally departed from this position it has adopted a different, more hawkish, line on some issues.

Neo-conservativism and the Middle Power

The current Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, came to power in 2006, bringing to an end 13 years of rule by the Liberal party. For most of that time, Canada was led by Jean Chrétien (prime minister 1993-2003) who kept the country out of the War in Iraq. Canada did, however, participate in the NATO campaign in Afghanistan.

While in opposition the Conservatives had backed both wars. Moreover, in general, the party was espousing a line much closer to the kind of neo-conservative ideology of the Bush administration than the old-style Tories of the past. Largely this was a product of splinters and shifts within the conservative movement at a federal level, which led to a merger between two right wing parties and the ascendency of Stephen Harper to leader in 2003.

Harper’s political roots were in the ‘Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance’, the more populist of the two parties, which had its political stronghold was in the oil-producing province of Alberta. Though his party won only a plurality of seats in both the 2006 and 2008 elections, Harper carried this agenda forward into office. In terms of the effect of this on foreign policy:

What was elitist is now populist; what was multilateral is far more bilateral; what was co-operative has become assertive; what was – you name it: global security, global governance, conflict resolution – is now trade before all.

Canada’s policies toward the broader Middle East were representative of this populist conservatism. Under Harper the government sought to bolster stable regimes, mostly through trade relations. It signed a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, launched a Free Trade Agreement with Jordan and, in 2012, opened an embassy and trade commission service in Qatar.

Harper’s Canada was apparently also quite belligerent. The mission to Afghanistan was extended, Canada joined NATO’s campaign against the Gadhafi Regime in Libya. Ostensibly Canada went even further even than the UK as Canadian forces undertook airstrikes against Daesh in Syria. However, it emerged recently that Harper’s bite hasn’t matched his anti-Daesh bark. In particular, while the US has launched more than 2300, Canadian forces have participated in a meagre four.

Commitment to Israel

None of this, of course, represented a major shift from a ‘Middle Power’ approach that put Canadian Foreign Policy somewhere between the Europeans and Americans. On two interrelated issues, however, Canada stood apart from its traditional allies. These were (a) support for Israel and (b) opposition deal between Iran and the P5+1 (UK, US, China, Russia, France and Germany) of the development of Iran’s nuclear capability.

With respect to both of these issues, the Harper government adopted a rhetorical approach, which aligned, more or less fully, with that of Israel’s Likud government. Harper himself set the tone for this in 2010 when he clarified that he would support Israel internationally even if the outcome of this was detrimental to Canadian interests (he was referring to the loss of the UN Security Council Seat mentioned above).

In 2012 Canada provided proof of this pudding, when it became one of only nine states at the UN General Assembly to vote against the elevation of Palestine to de facto statehood. Moreover, John Baird – then Foreign Minister – delivered a blistering speech strongly in support of Israel.

Canada opposes this resolution in the strongest terms … As a result of this body’s utterly regrettable decision to abandon policy and principle, we will be considering all available next steps.

Other steps taken by the Harper government included a muted response to Israeli settlement building and a fiercely pro-Israeli line during both the 2008-9 and 2013 bombardments of Gaza. The government’s line also conflated support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign with anti-Semitism and terrorism. In his 2014 address to the Knesset, Harper said,

Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state… It is nothing short of sickening.

However, it was on the Iran nuclear deal that the government appeared to disavow the middle course between Europe and the US. While the Europeans backed the deal unanimously, and the Obama administration defended the deal from congressional opponents, Harper promised to maintain Canadian sanctions and continued articulating fiercely anti-Iranian rhetoric.

What is the rationale for this move? According to Christian Emory, a lecturer at Plymouth University, suggests that it may be understood from a realist perspective:

Canada can afford to take whatever position it likes without it having a decisive impact. The difference between this government and previous ones is that it sees Canada’s lack of leverage as an opportunity to pursue ‘principled policies’ that play well to its domestic base.

In other words, Harper’s Government would pursue short-term populism whenever the opportunity arises.

Politics of fear

Another area where the government has pursued a similar ideological line – and with much greater conviction – is in the domestic sphere. Given that this agenda has framed a large proportion of Canadian political discourse over recent years, it stands to reason that these policies will have a significant impact on what the country will be like after the elections, no matter who wins.

In particular two controversial laws – C-13 ‘The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act’ and C-51 the ‘Anti-terrorism Act’ – vastly increased the ability of the security forces to act against whatever it saw as ‘threats’. According to some interpretations these bills grant Canada’s already formidable spy agencies “incredibly expansive powers, including water boarding, inflicting pain (torture) or causing psychological harm to an individual”.

C-51 has been roundly criticised in the media. But most relevant to this discussion is what C-51 means for activists that oppose the Canadian government or its particular stance on the issue of support of Israel. According to CBC news:

The Harper government is signalling its intention to use hate crime laws against Canadian advocacy groups that encourage boycotts of Israel … Such a move could target a range of civil society organizations, from the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Quakers to campus protest groups and labour unions.

These are ominous signs of how “free expression is tribalistically manipulated and exploited” by this government and how this overall strategy of fear mongering frames Canada’s responses to a range of issues.

Refugee Crisis

Until recently the staggering and on-going humanitarian catastrophe in Syria – had not featured much in the campaign. However, the heart-breaking image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body – and the accompanying rumour that his family had been denied asylum in Canada – changed all that.

While Tom Mulcair, the leader of the NDP, nearly broke into tears when speaking in response to the image and the Liberal Party leader, Justin Trudeau, called for his rivals to set aside party politics in order to address the crisis the government’s response was very different. Harper answered with some misleading figures that exaggerated Canada’s role and, very quickly, he to moved the discussion back to the territory of fear:

When we are dealing with people who, in many cases, a terrorist warzone then we are going to make sure that we screen people properly and the security of this country is fully protected.

This is despite the fact that security experts, including a former Ambassador and Director General of Consular Affairs, suggests efforts to screen refugees (beyond the level that is already undertaken as standard) is useless in such cases where the numbers are so high.

[The Government of Canada] blowing smoke at us when they’re using the security issue to keep going very, very slow … if we talk about the Syrians alone, can you imagine going to the government in Damascus and asking them for information about the people who want to leave? Any information is highly suspect … basically you don’t [do security checks] when you’re dealing with such large numbers. That’s how we’ve dealt with it in the past and how we should deal with it in this case.

What to comes next?

If the conservatives win, we can obviously expect continuity on all/most of these issues, with the odd exception that might be driven by shifting circumstances (for example: perhaps a back down on Iran sanctions as the deal becomes mainstream and possibly a more aggressive tone designed to protect the domestic oil industry in the wake of the current downturn).

Under the Liberals, Trudeau has vaguely suggested that a government that he led would repeal some parts of Bill C-51. He also promised to end the military mission against Daesh and restore Canadian relations with Iran. As a result the Liberals have come under fire from some right wing groups, including advocates for Israel. This comes in spite of the fact that Trudeau lined up behind the Harper government and Israel during the last bombardment of Gaza.

Another, fairly predictable blind spot comes in the form of policy towards the Gulf States. The Liberals have also spoken out on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but given the broad international consensus that lets the Saudis get away with murder (literally, both in Yemen and at home), it is likely that a Trudeau-led government would not challenge this.

The NDP have adopted a similar approach to the Liberals – and in opposition to the government – on most issues, albeit usually with slightly stronger rhetoric. This is, to some extent, a departure from the party’s traditional position, to the left of its opponents. Its shift rightward, particularly on issues of human rights and advocacy for the Palestinians, has been of great disappointment to many activists. Indeed last year some of the party’s offices were the target of an occupation in protest.

Many ascribe this shift to two factors: a change of leadership, brought about by the death of its charismatic talisman, Jack Layton, and the opportunity for potentially attaining real power which has encouraged the party to ape the behaviour of Britain’s Liberal Democrats in 2010. Indeed, according to some reports the party has effectively purged candidates that are supportive or sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Thus if either of these two parties win, or if they form a coalition (which may be a real possibility) we can certainly expect some changes – on the nature of the campaign against Daesh and on the relationship with Iran – but viewed in the broader context of Canada’s foreign policy towards the Middle East and North Africa it is likely that there will be a return to its more traditional role as a Middle Power. As one great critic once put it: “The more things change, the more they say the same.”

The author is a visiting research fellow at the Council for British Research in the Levant. He is on Twitter and his academic profile is available at academia.edu

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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