What is Canada for?

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 Intent for a Nation: A Relentlessly Optimistic Manifesto for Canadaâe(TM)s Role in the World
Examining what it takes to lead -- and if Canada has it

Dr. Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law, describes his recent book as a challenge to George Grant's Lament for a Nation which paints Canada as a country already lost to the forces of Americanization. Am Johal interviews Byers in Vancouver about his thoughts on what Canada's role on the global stage.

Am Johal: I just read your book over the weekend. How did you come up with the idea to write a contemporary response to George Grant's iconic Lament for a Nation?

Michael Byers: The motivation was intensely personal. Like many Canadians, I had internalized George Grant's message: Canada as an independent country had ceased to exist.

Grant based that conclusion on what he called “continental capitalism” — the increased integration of the Canadian economy into the U.S. economy — and “global modernism” — the overwhelming cultural hegemony of things like Hollywood and Motown. For people of my generation, that thesis and explanation seemed pretty compelling.

When I left Canada in 1992, there was no reason to think Grant was wrong. We did a couple of significantly independent things — for instance, we stayed out of the Vietnam War — but the fear of being subsumed by the American project was always prevalent and widely accepted, and certainly felt in the 1988 Free Trade debate.

In your book, you said that you voted for Brian Mulroney in 1984. But you were disenchanted with Canada by 1988 and certainly by the time you left the country in 1992. Was it Prime Minister Mulroney's When Irish Eyes are Smiling song-and-dance routine with Ronald Reagan, or what was it?

It wasn't just that. It was the end of the Cold War, the seeming triumph of the American model, American economic hegemony. The sense that the future was very much centered around the US. People of my generation were looking to the U.S. When I finished law school at McGill, the best students were destined for New York and Washington.

But then, something happened that made me rethink my assumptions. Prime Minister Jean Chretien's decision to stay out of the Iraq War was a direct contradiction of Grant's thesis. At that time, in 2003, George W. Bush was a remarkably popular and powerful president. It seemed inconceivable that Canada could have said no to the U.S. But we did.

There was also the realization that I wanted my kids to grow up somewhere other than Durham, North Carolina, U.S.A.

Trudeau was more independent and Mulroney moved closer to the U.S. In terms of how Canada has engaged as a player in the international system, what do you see as the broad trend which reflects how Canada has misdirected its foreign policy?

Let's look at climate change, the number one challenge facing humanity today. Brian Mulroney did very little, though he recognized it as an issue. Chretien used Kyoto to burnish his image, but, in fact, did very little. Now Stephen Harper is doing very little and engaging in smoke-and-mirrors with his emissions intensity policy.

With climate change, Canada has consistently refused to lead. We are just coasting along in the slipstream of the United States and the Bush Administration. This issue, that lends itself to Canada's multilateral and compassionate place in the world, this opportunity to be a leader, is being lost.

We have been flaunting our legal obligations under the Kyoto Protocol and done very little to develop policies that differ from those of the United States.

The Rwandan mission in the nineties and other peacekeeping missions have had challenges for Canada. Has Canada rethought their role and lessened their international contributions due to the controversy of some of these missions in the nineties? How would you explain other areas of activity related Canadian foreign policy including actively attempting to sabotage the Universal Declaration on Indigenous Peoples?

I actually did some work on the draft declaration on indigenous peoples in 1991 as a summer student in the Department of Justice. I sat in on meetings of a working group with government bureaucrats. The work we were doing was essentially to steer the document so it did not cause serious problems for the Canadian government.

Canada was remarkably effective at driving that agenda — the end result was that, although the Canadian government did not achieve a 100 per cent victory, the final document was significantly altered as a result of a decade and a half of active Canadian diplomacy.

At the end of the day, I don't see anything objectionable in the document. It also has no legally binding force. Canada should have supported the Declaration because the vast majority of countries were comfortable ratifying it and did not view it as a threat. In the end, it is an aspirational document which sets out general principles. The countries that have voted for it are doing something important — in that they are acknowledging that they are conscious of the predicament of aboriginal peoples.

Canada's current stance is a slap in the face for indigenous people in Canada. The government is doing a number of things which are seriously contrary to the interests of indigenous peoples in this country. The most striking is the refusal of the Harper Government to even meet with Tom Berger regarding his conciliatorâe(TM)s agreement concerning the implementation of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. And the Inuit are now suing the government over that.

The government is basically saying that they don't really give a damn. One sees that in the international policy just as one sees it at home.

I interviewed Stephen Lewis recently, Canada's former Ambassador to the UN, and he mentioned that peace and security, which he viewed as very important, was getting too much attention under the international system — in other words, that other UN areas such as human rights and development were underdeveloped financially and organizationally. What do you think about that?

He's absolutely right. It is one of the scandals of Canadian foreign policy. We are not even half way towards the goal that Lester Pearson set of directing 0.7 per cent of GDP to overseas development assistance. Our economy has grown enormously since the 1970s. We certainly have the capacity — we have the eighth largest economy in the world, with a population of only 32 million people.

Anyone who studies these issues knows that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Putting money into overseas development assistance is an important responsibility for a country like Canada. And not doing so constitutes a moral failure on the part of successive Canadian governments.

It's even happening with regards to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the largest beneficiary of Canadian aid. But we are spending much, much more on the Kandahar counter-insurgency mission. Though we claim to be stepping up to the plate, the investment in overseas development assistance is relatively minor compared to the cost of the counter-insurgency.

There is immense power and strategic advantage of being a middle power, while not having the same burden as a more powerful state. Could this mean the possibility of carving out a role in the international system that is rooted in international law and human rights — could we then, perhaps, have the space to take moral leadership in the international context? Why is it that Canada is not taking a leadership role today?

Well, we've stopped believing in ourselves — because we're in the shadow of the most powerful country in the world. Canada is one of the ten most influential countries in the world, if you look at all the indices of power: the size of the economy; our immense natural resources; the fact that we've no sworn enemies; our incredibly large immigrant population living in remarkable harmony.

We have an impressive country, but donâe(TM)t seem to realize that ourselves. It is the great limiting factor. If you don't believe in yourself, you have no reason to try as a nation, especially when it comes to foreign affairs.

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