Columnists

Ashifa Kassam
Canadian foreign policy fails its citizens

| September 7, 2009
Oh Canada...what happened? We used to be known as the country of peacekeeping, a shining beacon for others around the world to emulate. Now we're being called racist by the South African government, we hold the distinction of being one of four nations in the world that has refused to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and we've decided that George Galloway is not allowed to speak to us, but George W. Bush is more than welcome.

Frankly, it's embarrassing. In an age where Americans -- rightly or wrongly -- are declaring themselves to be post-racial, Canada's foreign policy has become increasingly insular, inhumane and racialized.

We've become a nation who's foreign service shies away from using terms such as "child soldiers," "gender equality" and "international humanitarian law." According to Embassy, these widely-accepted terms are slowly being replaced with "children in armed conflict," "equality of men and women" and "international law," effectively rendering our foreign officials toothless. Some suggest that the change is motivated by the Harper government's desire to keep Omar Khadr imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, where he has languished for seven years.

Dismissing some of the changes as simply semantics, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon acknowledged that other changes would allow foreign policy to be better aligned in the direction that the government is heading. He didn't elaborate -- but an example might shed some light. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the words "impunity" and "justice" will no longer be used when calling for an end to sexual violence. Instead, there will be calls only for efforts to "prevent" sexual violence.

Here at home, the Harper government has launched a full-out war against those they believe are not worthy of Canadian citizenship, whether it be children born abroad to parents that are Canadian, but not born in Canada, or the visa regulations slapped on the citizens of Mexico and the Czech Republic, to control the spate of "bogus" refugee claims. They recently ended the suspension of deportations to Burundi, Liberia and Rwanda, citing "improved conditions" in those countries. This justification contradicts Amnesty International, who report ongoing abuses in Burundi and Liberia, and to a lesser extent Rwanda.

Yet Canada granted refugee status to Brandon Huntley, a 31-year-old white South African, ruling among other things that Huntley's skin colour made him stand out "like a sore thumb" and adding that affirmative action in favour of blacks would render Huntley unable to get a job in South Africa. The ruling flew in the face of statistics showing the unemployment rate for black South Africans hovers around 28 per cent, compared to just over four per cent for white South Africans. The decision is being mocked on the world stage, for ignoring the privileges that the white, mostly affluent class wields in South Africa. At its core, the ruling suggests victimization by reverse racism, a notion long dismissed by many who grasp how power works in our world. As anti-racist activist Tim Wise argues, "without the power to enforce one's racism, or expect it to be enforced or enforceable by others, that racism is largely sterile." This lack of understanding of the relationship between power and racism has made this ruling -- and Canada's refugee policy -- an international joke.

So why, in 2009, as other countries shift away from racialized policies, is Canada embracing them? Columnist Rick Salutin might be onto something when he suggests foreign policy might be the last bastion where Harper can exercise his own ideologies. Strong-armed into recognizing Quebeckers as a "nation" and releasing a budget that relied heavily on deficits to fuel stimulus spending, foreign policy is one place, Salutin writes, "where Stephen can try to be Stephen." The consequence may be foreign policy that is moving more backwards than forwards.

In 2001, Harper expressed strongly partisan views that revealed his feelings on immigrants, telling the now-defunct Report Newsmagazine,"You have to remember that west of Winnipeg the ridings the Liberals hold are dominated by people who are either recent Asian immigrants or recent migrants from Eastern Canada; people who live in ghettos and are not integrated into Western Canadian society."

It's not a far step to see why he and his government maybe comfortable leaving certain Canadians to fight for themselves abroad, effectively creating a two-tiered citizenship that discriminates against racialized Canadians. Examples abound: from Abousfian Abdelrazik, stranded for six years in Sudan, to Bashir Makhtal who was picked up in Kenya and sent to his native Ethiopia where he faces life in prison for allegedly belonging to a separatist group, to Huseyin Celil, a Uyghur Canadian human rights activist serving a life sentence in China after being convicted of political dissidence. While these three Canadians were abandoned by Ottawa, the case of Suaad Hagi Mohamud captivated headlines for the fact that Ottawa first created her problem -- then abandoned her.

It evidently wasn't these Canadians Harper was thinking of when he told the National Post in 2004 that "the highest duty of government is the protection of its citizens. Canada must ensure consequences when foreign governments torture or kill our people."

Now an election might be on the horizon. If called, it's a chance for Canadians to reclaim our foreign policy -- with no less than our international reputation at stake.

Comments

This is bang-on. When I think of the mess the Harper government has made of our international reputation, while ruining individuals' lives while they are abroad, it makes me furious. This election can't come soon enough.

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